I hope I never lose the eye-opening wonder of waking up in a new place. It feels like the Wizard of Oz scene when black-and-white turns to color (minus the house crashing on a witch)—a sense that everything is new and different and Technicolor. In Spain, as in Ecuador, I noticed that feeling right away.
When we awoke the morning after arriving in Gijon, dazed and jetlagged, we looked out our apartment window onto a sunny, stone courtyard ringed by yellow and white stucco walls, red curved-tile rooftops, and small tables for coffee or drinks. We walked past a stone fortification on the point of the peninsula that is home to the old part of town, dating back to Roman times. We passed a two-towered stone church that sits atop Roman baths and overlooks a curved sandy beach, then walked along the beachside malecon and saw people walking, swimming, and surfing. In mid-October. Clearly we were not in Maine any more.
As our explorations have expanded in Gijon and beyond, the feeling has stayed with me. One day we visited a pre-Roman encampment on a picturesque green bluff overlooking the ocean (but also flanked by an industrial seaport, a grimy coal shipping site, and a cluster of spherical propane storage tanks). The next day we walked tall cliffs dropping into the sea as waves roll in from Ireland far to our north. Then our horizons widened—we drove southeast to a small village in the hills, where we were given a personalized tour by the ebullient mother of a friend who lives there—including a stop at the mercado for fresh local cheeses and chocolate (of course). Then on to a fishing community known for its 15th-century town center, jaw-dropping coastline, and a grassy walkway along a bluff overlooking the ocean. And finally, winding up, up, up through a river valley lined by jagged cliffs into the Picos de Europa national park, where we stopped at the end of the road, deep in the mountains in a village called Cucayo.
There the feeling of being over the rainbow came true quite literally, as you can see in the photo at the top of this post. On our first hike, we climbed past tumble-down stone farmhouses and up rocky paths into ravines and over ridges. We saw more cows, horses, and sheep walking on the paths than people, and at one point we were herded by two large friendly sheepdogs, who had just rounded up a few stray sheep using their spiked collars but were gentle and quiet and licked our hands. We climbed up through a forest of gnarled beech trees with yellowing leaves, then emerged into a clearing. Each bend revealed new breathtaking views – stone towers, rolling green hills, jagged mountains.
The sun winked out at us, clouds whipped across the sky, and then sideways sprinkles sprayed us lightly. At times the wind was so strong it pushed us backward or sideways. At one point we both thought we heard a truck coming behind us, then turned and saw that it was just the swirling wind pushing through the trees up the valley. We knew rain was coming; it was just a question of when. The sky was no help, as clouds whipping over the ridges above us would soon dissipate and the sun would come back out. We started to head back down, and came to a fork. At that moment the sky looked grim.
I have two strong urges that compete for control in moments like this. The explorer-of-life wants me to “say yes” to new opportunities. The Boy Scout that prefers to be prepared implores, “don’t be stupid.” Here’s what their internal dialog went like in that moment:
SY: What’s up around that bend? Looks like a ridge with another amazing view.
DBS: You mean the ridge with the black clouds swirling above it and trees rocking in fierce winds?
SY: Yeah, that one! Could be awesome!
DBS: What’s around every bend in the road is just another bend. Only this one has a rain storm.
SY: Yeah but we will probably never be here again in our life. Never have a chance to find out.
DBS: It’s a long way down already. Could be slick and miserable if the rain settles in.
SY: You made us bring rain pants and jackets! What else are they for if not for this?
During this inner argument, I climbed up to the next bend for a peek and then looked back at Rachel who had waited at the fork for a verdict. I was like a dog turning and wagging excitedly up ahead on a trail. She saw the look in my eyes and gamely climbed aboard the “say yes” train. “Say yes” won the day, and so did we.
After rounding a couple of bends, the sun poked back out briefly, the road was protected from the howling winds by a grove of trees, and a massive, end-to-end rainbow appeared. We could see across the entire valley through the arc of the rainbow, which seemed to be below where we stood. After a moment appreciating the incredible good fortune that had brought us to this place at this moment, we continued on just a bit until the sky turned darker and the wind knocked us sideways again. We finally turned around, having seen what we came to see: the unexpected.
Four more days of hiking in and around the Picos followed, with each day bringing new sights and experiences, and the feeling of “what could possibly be around the next bend?” never left us. We saw a Medieval chapel carved into a cliffside cave and stone farm sheds built into steep mountain walls. We saw mountain goats colored like cows, golden cows that clambered among the rocks like goats, and we walked with black horses, white cattle, and braying donkeys along mountain roads until they scattered off into the woods like deer. We capped off the week on the Ruta Cares (Cah-ress), a 22 km trail that was carved into (and through) steep cliffs that form a V into a magnificent gorge carved by the Rio (river) Cares. Aside from the stunning, end-to-end views of this gorge, we found caves, tunnels, limestone towers, crystal clear water, and the “good tired” that comes from pushing your limits of exertion in nature.
(For more photos of our time in Asturias and the Picos, click here.)
That was only the first ten days—and it doesn’t even get into learning to find our way in a new culture and language. Each day was like landing in a different Oz. And then we arrived in Madrid. On Halloween.
Halloween is a recent import to Spain, on the eve of All Saints Day, a national holiday. It’s not a hallucinogenic vision like Día de los Muertos in Mexico, but to us it was like arriving at the Emerald City. We popped up from the Metro into a chaotic flow of people crowding sidewalks and pedestrian malls, big flashing signs, buskers, and the added freak show of people in costume. The dead bride. The superhero. The sexy devil. After being in tiny mountain hamlets, alone on trails, and in rural towns since we got here, this put our heads on a different kind of swivel.
For the next week, instead of seeing mountains, we would be surrounded by huge baroque cathedrals and palaces, massive halls of famous art works from across the ages, and urban parks (home to flocks of parakeets of all things!). A half hour on a train brought us to the ancient former Spanish capital, Toledo, with its twisting lanes barely an arms-length wide, its castles and cathedrals, its blending of Judaic, Islamic, and Catholic history and cultures. It’s been just over two weeks now, we are only beginning the Spain adventure. We are still encountering what I love most about travel: when every moment is fresh and new and fascinating. Joy lives here, in these experiences, just waiting for us to knock on the door.
It’s true there is no place like home. But isn’t that the point? These places are nothing like home, and our experiences of them shape and accompany us wherever we go. Dorothy had only part of it right: She should have stayed longer in Oz.