Conquering El Chorro
halcyon n. Denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful
I don’t know how it happens but somehow when my mother and I are together we always end up breaking the law. Sometimes it’s trespassing, sometimes it’s petty theft, sometimes it’s both. It’s a strange fact to consider because growing up I always saw my mother as quite strict and rule oriented, but suddenly I graduated and it’s, “Yeah let’s break into that abandoned building and see what antiques are in there!” Thinking back, however, my mother never did make much sense. While unreasonably strict in some senses, like anything that involved me driving anywhere, she was oddly lax in others. “You want a tattoo? Sure! I’ll even get one with you!” but “You want to drive twenty minutes to a friend’s house? It’s after dark, no way.” While these restrictions once caused bouts of tension between us, we have long since outgrown them. However, I try never to fail to recognize how incredibly cool my mother is as there are not many moms out there who would be willing to backpacking with their daughters across Europe, hostels and all. She’s holding in there like a trooper, even with all the rain and extra seashell weight.
Which are two things we faced right off the bat as we pulled into the remote mountain village of El Chorro. Were it not for the sign and the restaurant across the street, one might think the stop was merely a pointless train station nestled at the base of a towering red rock cliff. It also became clear that not many people tend to get off at that stop as the train came to a halt for all for 30 seconds in which we almost missed our opportunity to get off due to a struggle to get our packs on (as per usual- I don’t even want to know how we look to other people doing this) and confusion as to how the train doors worked. We hurled out the door just as the train began to pull away and were greeted with more rain. Shocking, I know. At least getting lost was not a possibility. From the station, we basically only had to follow the Finca la Campana signs to our bunk/campsite/cabin. We really weren’t sure which yet as I had originally reserved a campsite but now desperately hoped here would space in anything that would give us shelter from the rain. Thirty minutes, two kilometers, and any sense of dry dignity later, we dragged ourselves up the last hill to the Finca la Campana and into the dry reception office, where we were greeted by the cutest little puppy I may have ever seen. And just like that, my day was good again. To make things better, there were both villas and bunks available and having felt we suffered enough the past few days, we decided to spurge a little on a private villa.
It ended up being the best decision we have made thus far on this trip, which may or not be saying very much. Up a cobblestone path, right next to a swimming pool, we entered our white stone villa, to be greeted with a little kitchen decorated in clay pots and a terra cotta sink. The kitchen table was adorned with a bright colored cloth and outlined by a clay tile bench that ran along the wall. Sliding glass doors hidden by blue curtains opened into a little patio that would be perfect for morning coffee if the sun ever decided to show itself. Beyond the kitchen was the bathroom and bedroom, complete with a bunk bed and a full size bed in which my mom would share after stealing all the blankets off the bunk bed. The best part: we had it all to ourselves for the next three nights, for only 45€ a night I might add. I’ve paid more for grungy Super 8 motels. After immediately taking everything out of my pack to let it air out ( a decision I always regret when it comes time to repack), I set to work washing the sand and sulphurous smell from my seashells collected the previous day. Opening up the wooden shuttered windows from the bedroom onto a little ledge, I dutifully scrubbed and laid out each shell, attracting the attention of several passing guests. Unfortunately, keeping my hands in water in the cold air did not to much to help warm me up and we soon found the propane heater in our room was out of propane. The lodge had warned us that might happen and that we could simply let them know if it ran out. The problem was, the reception office was closed for the next six hours. These afternoon siesta periods are so hard to get used to.
In desperate search of warmth until the time came when the reception office opened and we could get our heater going, we sought out the wood burning stove in the bunkhouse common room. Much to our dismay, it wasn’t burning despite the fact that a bunch of other people sat huddled in the room looking rather cold themselves. Being Montana girls and slight pyromaniacs, we instantly set to work starting the fire, soon finding out why no one else had done so. The air was so humid and damp, that any paper we attempted to use as tinder would not even burn. It lit, fizzled, and went out. It soon became a guessing game: how many Americans and Germans does it take to light a fire? The answer is two Americans, one German, 45 minutes, an entire roll of paper towels, half a book (I about screamed when the German girl started ripping out pages- What does she think this is, Fahrenheit 451?), a lot of breath, patience, and a large helping of desperation.
Basking in the slight heat put out by the tiny stove that probably wasn’t worth the amount of effort (and literature) that went into it, my mother passed the next bit of time playing Scrabble until we could finally go get our propane. Just in time too, considering we ran out of logs to put on the fire just as 6pm rolled around. While the propane heater began warming up the cottage, I set to work cooking a potato and onion stew on the propane stove from ingredients we had bought down at the store in the reception building. As I cooked to the backtrack of folk music drifting from my iPod, I couldn’t help but see myself living in a place like that, sitting on the tile bench typing away at my novels in the rays of the morning of sun peering in through the window, a large cup of coffee steaming next to me. The simple lifestyle of the Spanish countryside is appealing to me and considering how up in the air my life really is after my Triple Crown goals, it is not out of the realm of possibility. But one thing at a time.
With soup in our stomachs and heat in the hut, we relished in the feeling of true warmth for the first time in what felt like ages. We capped off the relaxing evening by playing another game of Scrabble, from which we decided to borrow from the common room for the duration of our stay, and attempting to catch up on some of our journaling and blogging. Considering this post is a couple days late, I failed miserably in regard to the latter. We finally settled down into bed for the night after migrating the heater into the bedroom and drifted immediately into a dead sleep.
The next morning I awoke ready and rearing to go. While the previous day was nice and relaxing, relaxing was not the reason I came to El Chorro. I was eager to get out on the mountains and, even more, the Caminito del Rey. But we had hit a slight road bump in regard to the latter. Upon arriving the previous day, I asked the reception worker about the status of the trail and he informed us it still was not open after renovation even though it was estimated to be completed in February. This was not about to stop me, nor does it sound like it has stopped others. He told me it was easy enough to sneak onto the beginning of the path by walking through the railroad tunnels. Breaking one law to break another? Now that sounds like an adventure to me! And it is isn’t as though my mom is opposed to breaking trespassing laws. When it comes to things like this, we are the Thelma and Louise of hiking. Yet when morning came, my mother was slow getting ready as usual, a constant source of frustration while growing up. I knew the rain was predicted to hold off until the afternoon so I didn’t want to waste a second of the morning. After practically dragging my mom out the door early that morning, we set off in the direction of the Caminito, following the vague instructions given to us by the camp caretaker.
We soon found that not only were his instructions vague but vastly oversimplifying. After we had hiked up to the where the train tracks ran into the mountains, we found the tracks blockaded by a 12 ft fence plastered with signs that all said things like “Prohibito” and “Muerte”… You know, inviting phrases. The caretaker hadn’t mentioned anything about climbing a fence to get onto the tracks so either we had missed something or he was on my level when it came to giving directions. After messing around with several different potential ways to get over the fence, we eventually settled on continuing over the mountain to see what the next break looked like. Up the steep scree slopes and bouldered ridges we went until we found where the tracks once again emerged from the mountains, this time over an ancient stone bridge quite accurately titled on our crude map, “Huge Bridge”. Clever with titles, the Spanish are. Daunting though the entire scene seemed, it also presented us with the perfect way of breaching the tracks. Where the ground dropped off into the gorge spanned by the bridge, the large fence met a concrete wall easy enough to climb over. Once over, all you had to do was shimmy along a concrete platform walling the drop, step onto fence, and lower yourself down onto solid ground. Easy peasy.
Having finally made it onto the railroad tracks, we set off down them, stepping carefully, onto the wooden slats as the tracks crossed over large bridges and stepping even more carefully over the loose stone as they passed through the mountains via dark tunnels. These tunnels were incredibly trippy. Before entering them, they always looked short, maybe a couple hundred meters long at most, but walking through them seemed multiply that distance infinitely. Combining the weird eye tricks resulting from the bright pinpoint of light at the end amid the darkness, the difficult steps that almost always seemed to fall into a rhythm, and the slight fear of actually meeting a train in the tunnels (even though there was a relatively safe amount of room on the sides of the track) I was always glad to step into the daylight once again. It wasn’t far into our trek that the Caminito came into view, scrawling along the side of the steep cliff above. Unfortunately, workers also came into view and knowing they would prevent us from entering the trail on this side, we kept going down the tracks. Just as we were were about the give up on an alternate entrance and turn back, we found it: an unguarded concrete bridge across the gorge only three feet in width with no side walls spanning the gap between the tracks and the trail. If a strong wind would have come up, we would have gone tumbling 150ft into the narrow rock laden river raging below us. Now, I like jumping off high things but maybe not so much in this case.
I was finally standing on the Caminito del Rey, the King’s Walk, the trial I had dreamed about. While the adrenaline junkie in me would have much preferred to hike it in its old decrepit state prior to renovation, the sheer height of the trail (and the fact that I was not legally supposed to be there yet) was exhilarating. We followed it right into the heart of the gorge, past red rock cliff walls that starkly contrasted the swirling turquoise waters below. At one point, I even climbed over the side bar down onto the old Caminito and descended down toward the water along the narrow, crumbling cement stairs. When we reached the end (or technically the beginning as we had entered the trail midway through) we turned back.
It wasn’t until the way back that we started running into people, workers leaving the trail for their afternoon siesta. This was absolutely terrifying to me. You see, I am made of contradictions. While I love doing illegal things for the thrill of it, I am equally as terrified of getting in trouble, which usually work together just fine as I never seem to get caught. Interestingly enough, we found that none of the workers actually cared that we were there, but only seemed concerned that we weren’t sporting the white helmets all of them seemed to be wearing. We weren’t “protecting our beans” as one of them put, and after the fact had been pointed out to us, we did realize how easily we could have been struck by falling rocks from the cliff side above. Oops. But then again, we had already spent the greater part of the day walking down active railroad tracks and crossing platforms over gorges so what was one more life threatening thing added to the list. Yet I was still shocked by the utter disregard they had for our presence on the trail. Either they knew we were trespassing and just didn’t care, or thought we were workers that didn’t have our helmets. Were these helmets the only thing that separated us from being able to entirely pass as belonging on the trail? I feel there are some flaws in that type of worker identification system. Having found new confidence in the fact that no one seemed interested in getting us in trouble, we continued down the trail past where the bridge met it, but turned back before reaching the end, not wanting to push our luck too much with the workers at the incomplete end.
As we wound our back along the railroad tracks, we ran into more rain and even awild boar, which thankfully retreated into the bushes, but still no trains. Then, just as we climbed back over the cement wall by which we had entered the tracks, a train whizzed by. How’s that for timing? Back on the legal side of the mountain, the rain must have decided we needed to be punished in some way for the fact that we escaped our escapes scott free because it picked up into torrents that made rock climbing our way back to the village difficult and dangerous. Soaking wet and not really wanting to walk through the downpour another half hour from the village to our villa, we stopped at a restaurant near the train station for an early dinner. Halfway through, a nearby lightning strike cut power to the entire restaurant. Unplanned candlelit dinner for two, anyone? While we attempted to sit there and wait out the rain, the tempting call of our heater drew us back into the rain, which we endured for the last time and rewarded ourselves with relatively hot showers, tea, and Scrabble in bed (rounding out a 3-0 winning streak for me).
Having conquered the Caminito, our final full day in El Chorro was open for whatever we wanted to do, and nothing is so inviting on such a day than sun pouring into your window upon first waking. Falling back into our usual morning ritual of coffee and cereal, we took our time getting ready, giving the sun time to dry the earth and warm the air before setting off down the road to explore the area. Sometime on our journey, we stumbled across a horse field and as we went up to let the horses, triggered three very large dogs from a nearby house to run barking up to us. Hesitant of the intentions of these dogs, we immediately moved away and started back down the road we had come. Much to our dismay, one of the slightly fierce looking dogs started following us. Now don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and I instantly want to assume the best of all dogs but considering I was at that moment with someone who had experienced the very cliche thing of being bitten on the butt during her days as a mail carrier by a seemingly friendly dog, I also know to be a bit cautious around strange animals. But then again, if I were in their paws I guess wouldn’t like strange humans running up to be yelling “Baby!” in a high pitched voice either. It didn’t take long for us to discover that this dog was not some vicious guard dog but rather the sweetest little marshmallow on the planet and he attached with himself to us rather quickly. For the next miles we wandered, he stayed with us, running ahead no more than 100 ft before stopping and waiting for us. We began to grow a bit concerned when he followed us all the way back to Finca la Campana with no intention of leaving us. How were we going to get this dog back home? As willing as I was to just claim him as my own, I knew his owners would miss (I mean, how could you not). We did the only thing we could do; we waited until he was temporarily out of sight before darting into our villa. When he came racing back, we observed quietly out the window as he searched for us, and for a moment, he stopped right outside our hut, overlooking the ground, looking rather panicked that we were gone. It was heartbreaking and I was ready to rush out the door to assure him we were still there, but knew it was for the best. Before long, he sure enough took off in the direction of his home and I bid farewell to what could have so easily become my dog.
After we were sure he had gone, we ventured outside again, this time to relax by the pool next door. While it wasn’t nearly hot enough to swim (much to my dismay considering there was a tightrope stretched across the pool I was dying to try but knew for a fact I wouldn’t be able to do so without falling in) it was a perfect day to sit and soak up the sun we had so desperately been missing. But before long, I began feeling stagnant. The sharp rock crags shadowing the hillside on which we were located called to me. My mother was simply not interested in hiking that day and so I strapped on my hiking boots and camera and set up the mountain alone.
Despite the rather lush appearance of the land, the soil itself in southern Spain is very claylike and littered with loose rock, which makes steep hiking very difficult. Combine that with the unforgiving thorny plant life that appropriately thrives in such harsh terrain and you have a recipe for some beaten up legs, not that it’s anything I’m not used to (seriously have you ever hike thorough huckleberry bushes?). At the end of my steep ascent, I stood at the base of a steep rock not quite cliff, the top of which was my goal. I threw my camera around my back, dug my hands into some crevasses, and began my free climb. I’ll take a quick second to define what I mean by free climbing because it’s one of those terms that can be taken a multitude of ways and I don’t want to convey that I’m any more athletic or physically fit than I actually am. By free climbing I don’t mean sheer rock faces in which I’m pulling myself up by fingers and toes alone, a single joint away from falling to my death. I mean extremely steep rock hillsides that generally consist of large boulders that require careful and vertical climbing. It’s incredibly difficult and fun but nothing so extreme as I would ever need gear for it.
Reaching the peak of such a climb is exhilarating. I’ve mentioned before how nothing beats the feeling of submitting a mountain after a long hike but coming to the top of even a short rock climb comes close. It’s thrilling: the unveiling of the mystery of what lies on the other side, the 360 degree panorama, the gust of wind that takes your breath away, and the feeling of being on top of the world when at any second you could misstep and plummet to the rocks below. To one side lay the valley of olive and orange trees and the tiny Finca la Campana just barely visible in the distance, to the other the knife-like gorge coiled by the Caminito del Rey and dam below it. And then there was me, taking shameless selfies of myself using a timer function (something I’ve gotten quite good at necessarily since I do so much travel on my own) and photos of my feet.
I take a lot of photos of my feet and here’s why: the ground below our feet (or lack of in this instance) is beautiful. Feet in general are important. Any serious hiker will tell you that. Wreck your feet and you’re in trouble. But think about it, they take the brunt of everything our entire lives. We sprain them, stub them, bruise them, drop things on them, and yet they still hold us up, still carry us endless miles. They tell us where we’ve been and dictate where we’re going. For that reason, I feel the need to appreciate my feet and the ground they endure. Such ground can be just as beautiful as the horizons ahead of me.
After deciding I had probably lingered long enough, I took in a few last views, and started the downward descent. Whenever I climb up, I always try to memorize my path, so I know which way to take going down. Needless to say, it rarely ever looks the same from the opposite angle and up is always easier than down. While fighting gravity on the way up is not always fun, it’s even less so when gravity controls you going down, especially when you can’t see where you’re going. A route might look easy enough then suddenly open into a sheer drop at the point of being too late to turn back. Here’s a tip to keep in mind in such situations: when rock climbing, you will always regret your decision. No matter what. So when you decide on a way to climb up or (especially) down, it’s basically a choice between which bad decision you want to risk your life on. I was eventually able to ease myself off the face, then took to the only slightly less challenging hike back down the steep dirt and shrub covered hillside. Upon finally returning to the villa, I was all too happy to reassure my mom I hadn’t done anything exceedingly dangerous then soak my cut and battered legs and hot feet in the cool swimming pool. The rest of our night flowed like idle tides on moonlit shores and we settled down to sleep in the comfortable bed for the last time.
Saying goodbye to El Chorro the next morning was not easy, at least not for me. I love Spain in general, but I especially love the small villages and countryside towns. It is host to a simple and charming life not easily found in the world today. Maybe it’s the Montana in me that drives me toward such a lifestyle. I spent so many years spurning that simple small town life and now I want nothing more than to have it back. But at the same time, I know how I do not thrive when tied down for too long. A house is a cage, a place where one is bound, no matter how charming it is. At this point in my life, I am far too restless to even consider or conceptualize settling down, no matter how appealing it might seem at the moment. So as much as I love this lifestyle, I have far too many roads to walk and far too much living to do first.