Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Same Road - Two Seasons, Two Worlds

If ever their was evidence of the efficacy of retreating or repeating a route, then our two journeys over the Cuesta de Miranda must be given as proof positive.

It’s early December, and we had left Chiliceto in the dry and the hot, climbed up a green verdant Miranda valley with the novelty of a running river, cactus flowering, to a pass that led us down into red rock country and a series of stupid errors. We had pushed on past several possible camping places and water supplies, down to a nor’wester gale that desiccated mind and body, rendering us insensible to rational decisions. We then attempted to sit out the heat and the windstorm in a dry gully under the road. But the furnace would not switch off. We fought and suffered our way to town, arriving in the dark, to the crowds of post siesta activity, and a guzzling of soda water in the local petrol station.

Few memories remain of that afternoon. One is the lack of any detail, a vague recollection of the low dry, grey shrubbery, the bare verges, the sluggish passage of the telegraph poles, all tainted by an overwhelming thirst for sustenance from our empty water bottles. The other is of the clash of indecision. To keep plugging away, or to forsake a drafting leader and stop to take a look behind me. The latter won out, more because I had fallen behind and I couldn’t be bothered fighting my way back onto that rear wheel. My reward was a momentary sunset reflecting of the five lenticular clouds that had been in permanent station over Cerro Famatina all day. It only takes one of these precious moments to make up for an afternoon of hair dyers and wind tunnels.

Now it’s February, it’s the same route, in reverse, the season likewise. The road is a sheen of water, the shoulders flourishing seeding grasses, flowering thorn and mushrooming fungi. Our mountain is lost somewhere, even the metronomic poles are faint intrusions on this our world.

There’s a persistent drizzle that evolves into mountain rain. Nobody has passed us since we dodged the un-manned police cones back at the road junction. Now we’re wondering if the route is actually open. Then this type of reasoning starts, doubts and indecision multiply. Do we return and seek advice? An alternative way is possible, but we rode it the other day and we know that it’s lacking in supplies. Offering three days of wind driven soakings, damp tent and tuna pasta. Then a pick-up rushes past; it doesn’t stop to question our decision to be heading this way. Is that a positive sign? Still we resolve to flag down the next descending car.

Eventually a heavily leaden, rusting Ford Falcon comes freewheeling towards us, “is the cuesta open?” we ask. Instead of a straightforward ‘yes or no’, we get a prevarication on the merits of cycling on wet ripio. Not what we asked. We push on and stop the next vehicle. “yes the way was open this morning”. It’s that cyclists’ dilemma: sorting fact from opinion.

In spite of the weather, our progress is three times faster than our dry season crossing, we have the advantage of knowledge, we know that just around the corner there’s an hostel with a comedor. Dry room and hot food. It just doesn’t matter how wet we get, we won’t have to retreat to a mud patch and a damp tent.

SeƱor does have a room, only he’s concerned: there’s a few drips coming in, maybe we should come in and see. Of course we take the room; we’re getting used to dripping ceilings, streaming walls and negotiating our way in the dark around strategically placed, halved soda bottles. ‘Hot food?’, we’d better go and ask mother. Yes, she can cook something for us. Her Spanish is fast and we catch that it might contain garlic, but it doesn’t matter: it’s all ’gasolina para cyclistas’. I love these places, where a menu is a foreigner concept and vegetarianism a peculiar aberration. The bread will be butterless and dry, the meat leftovers from last night’s parrilla. But it will always taste great. Anything cooked for you on, as wet a day as today, is going to taste great, even if the cholesterol score goes catatonic and reaches 'mucho extremo'.

We spend that afternoon drying out, what with hindsight we shouldn’t have washed the previous day. We’re still drying several days later, as humidity climbs with this aberration of inclement weather. We keep asking, 'is this rain normal?', and we get the same answer: an emphatic "no", that comes with that characteristic flick of the wrist. Will the road be open tomorrow? That comes with a shrug, ‘The Lord knows’, It’s the answer that we were expecting, as the rain outside intensifies and the tortured drips plopping into the cropped green bottle steadily increase.

Next morning, the red sandstone cliffs are ribboned in dark gory streaks, a glutinous bloody clotted river has hacked deep gutters across the road. A turbulence of washed out, water worn boulders are discarded, scattered high and wet, littering our path, around which we negotiate a soft, slithering, sucking route. The blanched white granite, against the lead red earth, are a detritus of discordant, atonal notes, sitting uneasily together. One, rotunds of impregnably solid rock, the other, a soft momentary mush. An incongruous conjunction of metamorphic and sedimentary, an inconsistent dichotomy of durable and transient. It’s as if a giant has emptied his pocket of crumbs and boules on the way home from the pub last night.

We climb higher through the cactus belt, around the cliff discards and over the incised ruts. The very occasional approaching car gives us a degree of hope and reassurance: we should now manage to avoid what would be a disagreeable, multi-day detour.

Evidence of just how close we came to being
stranded or forced into a retreat comes on the final corner, right before we breakout from the gorge, out into a wide strath of an open plain. The road has just been cleared, a mass of giant rock slabs and a slurry of silted soil, has been dozed over the embankment. The contorted, twisted remains of a crash barrier, a mash of steel, lies part buried, a vivid testament to the violence and potency of gravity and nature. Fantails of debris are still slithering down gullies and rivulets of turbid mud ooze along the ditches beside the road.

How different from the innocence and indifference of our earlier passage over this side of the mountain. One road, many moods.

Sobering Postscript: A family of five were crushed in their car by a falling boulder in Chiliceto. We passed that way earlier the same day.