A little over two years ago my plane touched down in Barajas Airport in Madrid, and I knew just as much about the country as I did when I was 18 and first dreamed of going to the country: nothing. I knew Madrid was there. I knew of the Freddie Mercury tune about Barcelona, I knew what information I’d gleaned from reading a few Hemingway books, but that was about it. I heard tales from my friend (and host while in Spain) Miguel about bullfights he attended in his youth and the medieval cities he adored, but I knew nothing of Spain. I barely knew any Spanish. I was the ugly American traveling to a foreign land. Yo soy el Americano feo indeed.
I arrived tired terrified. A long night’s flight that took me across an ocean was spent trying to sleep, trying to imagine what I was about to see, trying to soak up every detail to explain later to those that weren’t with me; people like my wife and my niece and nephews. I was ragged stepping off the plane through customs and passport control, and I felt my tired, burning eyes opening wider upon the exciting and terrifying realization that hearing the English language will be a luxury for a few days.
I found my friends in the baggage claim and we went to our rental car and we left Madrid. First we headed east; through the dusty hills that I’d always pictured Spain having towards Zaragoza. There were sites to see along the way, roadside castles, giant wind farms that dotted hillsides, the future and the past across the street from each other. There were cities that Hemingway wrote about that had been bombed into oblivion during the Spanish Civil War, and there were Roman arches dated back to one hundred and fifty years before Christ’s birth that we sat and ate lunch under. The wind that blew was cold, and it bit into my skin and kept me from succumbing to the inevitable I-just-flew-all-night-and-my-body-needs-rest moments. I stayed awake through it all; through a night out for tapas, through an alcohol daze and through laughter with friends. I went to bed at a decent hour and explored the city more the next day.
A day after that we left Zaragoza and headed west, then north. We ate lunch in the ruins of a nine hundred year old castle and drove through the Pyrenees mountains. I saw the brown and tan rocky soil give way to rich and fertile farmlands that were fed by the melting of snow on the still-covered mountaintops. I saw clean and pure water that was tinted green from the limestone underneath. I saw shepherds tending their flocks and living a life in the valleys and on the hills that felt old, still old and older than those days in 2014. I saw forests and trees, I saw my avid outdoorsman friends yearning to backpack up to one of the white peaks, planning on where to camp above the timber and which way to assault the top of the mountain on a hiking trip that may never happen.
We crossed peaks and headed towards valleys towards Jaca, each twist and turn of the mountain road showing another gorgeous view. It was on one of those overlooks that we stopped and I took the best photograph I’ve ever taken of my friends Cody and Nikki staring off at the gorgeous valley.
There was a night in Jaca, there was a day spent driving deeper into the Pyrenees up and over the mountains and into France. There was a night in Bayonne. There was a drive back up and over the mountains as we entered Spain again. Our Fiat took us through the heart of Basque country and over the site where Roland fell at the Roncevaux Pass, and it placed up back into Pamplona, home of the bulls, toreadors and statues of Hemingway.
We drank wine in the city square and watched tapas bars morph into discos after midnight. We ate doner kebab in futile attempts to soak up the booze for the next day’s travels.
Today I’m nostalgic for that trip. Not for the cities or the towns, but for the air outside. For being brave enough to take the risk of going. For friends who were hospitable enough to put up with me when I was homesick. For the soft and light grape-y taste of that French wine. I’m missing the feeling of that cold wind biting my skin and the sound of that Fiat as it climbed those mountains that were so much higher than the ones I live in today. My young eyes and brain misses that old way of life. There’s something ancient in those rocky hills and that rich soil. There’s a beauty in those valleys that I may never see anywhere else. There’s something permanent about that place, something that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before.