A tale of stubborn proportions
“I recommend a cab,” the curly-haired hotel receptionist had suggested. “At this time of year there aren’t many buses that go to Picos, so that’s really your only option”. Maria handed me a number for a local taxi company. I smiled and thanked her, taking care to conceal that her advice had fallen on deaf ears.
I already had a route, one imparted onto me by Google Maps. A bus could take me directly from Cangas de Onis, the charming Spanish countryside town where I was staying, to the entrance of the province’s fame and glory, a national park known as Picos de Europa. A hiker’s dream and a lazy man’s nightmare, Picos covers an impressive 650 km², filled with mountains, forests, lakes and paths of varying difficulties and altitudes. The fact that I’d gone during low season didn’t influence transportation in the area, according to Google Maps. The buses still covered the route every 20–30 minutes. Maria, who was probably born and bred in the area, had no idea what she was talking about.
When I observe my own behaviour, I have to acknowledge that I can be stubborn. I constantly follow Google Maps and its advice, when time after time it has landed me in dire circumstances. And while I should take responsibility for landing myself in dire circumstances, I don’t. That’s how stubborn I am. Google Maps and I are actually in a relationship. A love-hate, fiercely loyal relationship. At least from my side.
In 2015, Google Maps showed me a big island floating in the middle of the Tablas Strait in the Philippines. It was the beginning of an epic journey where I shared a cargo boat with livestock (on two different occasions), stayed in the creepiest hotel in the world and eventually, got to the most remote place I’ve ever been to. It was an island with about six people, who all started praying for me when I told them I’d arrived alone.
In 2016, I followed Google Maps’ instructions to a costume shop in London which turned out to be an empty warehouse with satanic inscriptions. And in 2017, when I had a meeting at Google’s London office — Google Maps ironically took me to the wrong place. That’s the thing about relationships. Your partner always surprises you!
And yet my faith never waned. Google Maps was right, Maria was wrong. In my head that is. Obviously you know that Maria was right and I had to walk 15 kilometres to my destination. You know why? Because when Maria’s not around, you can’t call a cab and ask it to come pick you up on a random sidewalk miles away from Maria’s hotel. And Uber? Not so much in mountainous, quiet Spanish towns. Maria had also kindly warned me of rain. But you know what? Google Weather (Maps’ reserved cousin) had predicted only a few drops. What did the locals know, anyway?
If your eyes haven’t rolled into the back of your head yet, please have compassion. I’m sure you have concluded that this is my first solo trip, that I am simply naive and will learn in due time. A logical, yet incorrect conclusion. I am relatively well-travelled, but I just never learn. Maybe I choose not to learn. But hey, that’s why Google Maps and I get along so well. Two stubborn peas in a pod, refusing to respond to human experience.
My first foe appeared when I thought I’d made a breakthrough. I found a beautiful hiking trail entitled ‘Walking path to Covadonga’, (Camín a Covadonga). Lake Covadonga is, I assume, a stunning lake within Picos. It wasn’t showing up on Google Maps, but Maps and I were having a fight after our little morning fiasco. So, I took a leap and followed the physical sign that said it would lead me to my destination. Risky.
The walking path was splendid. I shared nods of solidarity with other locals ‘in the know’. Walkers, joggers, other people who had Seen the Sign (queue music? Hey Google?), and nature enthusiasts revelling in the surrounding scenery. Mountains, rivers, fields, trees, all against the musical score of the flowing streams and cowbells and bird songs (and occasional moos). Maria’s instructions, Google Maps, going off the contingency route… these were all things that led me to this ephemeral moment. I was blessed.
That is, until I tried to pass a house where a growling German Shepherd had a very clear message for me: you shall not pass! We stared each other for some time, the dog and I. Can I walk along the side of the path, I thought? I puffed my chest and took a confident, alpha step towards it, and the dog jumped forward in my direction. I would not pass.
So I did the only thing I could. I cowered and turned around, hoping I could find someone not a million miles off who could help me. After about ten minutes of backtracking, I met an older lady named Rosa, who I’d previously nodded at earlier as she sat on a bench. I thought Rosa was in her late fifties, but she turned out to be in her late seventies. Blonde and tan, she was (somehow) shorter than me, and looked like a strong lady. Although — if I was a big German Shepherd, would I be scared of her? I don’t know.
In my rusty Spanish, which I hadn’t used since my university exams in 2011, I explained my conundrum. Rosa understood. “I walk six miles along this path every day,” she said wisely. “I know that dog and if you cross the path with me, he won’t harm you. My house is in that direction, I’ll accompany you”. Rosa linked arms with me and we turned back, the third time for me to cover that stretch of path. “You’re not alone, are you?” she asked me. I nodded, and she made the sign of the cross, murmuring to herself in Spanish.
When we passed the German Shepherd, it didn’t get up. It slightly tilted his head sideways, as if to say, “Sup Rosa?”. Maybe Rosa nodded back, or maybe that’s just what I wanted. In my head, she signalled back, “she’s with me. She’s cool”.
Rosa told me about her granddaughter and her love of horses and Cangas, the area we were in. She asked me if I had a boyfriend. When I said no, she told me that sometimes it’s good not to have a boyfriend, but that right now wasn’t one of those times. As we chatted, it turned out that Maria’s colleague is Rosa’s nephew. I made a mental note to drop off a present for her.
Rosa and I walked for about 45 minutes — she took me to the final stretch that would lead me to the park entrance and gave me instructions so precise that even even I couldn’t muddle them. I thanked her profusely, before ensuring that Google Maps agreed. Joking! I followed her advice, the first smart decision of the day, although sadly, it would also be the last.
After around 30 minutes, I arrived to entrance of the park. I stared up at the mountains that towered over me. After nearly three hours, I’d arrived to my hike’s starting point. And I was really, really tired.
As luck would have it, this particular entrance to Picos was close to a big Sanctuary (Sanctuario de Covadonga), with a few cafes and a bar nearby to accommodate tourists. I popped into a cafe for an espresso, a glass of water and a quick peek at Google Maps. The lake I wanted to get to was another 13 kilometres away and uphill.
One great thing about being stubborn is that you can be optimistic when the odds are against you. I smiled, imagining how great I’d feel when I got to the lake. I’d take a deep breath of fresh, mountain air and treasure the stunning view. Flying overhead in the clear, blue sky (the forecast would be wrong), birds would sing cheerfully, chirping charming, congratulatory tweets. Perhaps a park ranger would come over and shake my hand and give me… some sort of certificate? No, I couldn’t accept it — I wouldn’t! Save it for somebody else, I’d tell him. He’d smile at my humility and we’d gaze out together, comforted by the serenity of the scene, the still surface of the lake mirroring the now blaring sun (we’d laugh about how wrong Google Weather was), and he’d murmur a simple Spanish sentence which was only mildly relevant, but in the moment felt deeper (El que lee mucho y anda mucho, ve mucho y sabe mucho). We’d acknowledge our tiny place in the immense universe. And after enough staring at the lake and sighing happily (already nostalgic for the fleeting moment), the park ranger would call me a cab to bring me back to Maria. In the cab, I’d pass by the 30 kilometres I’d done by foot. And I’d think to myself: what a great day!
Fully delusional, I started the hike. I decided not to take any chances and asked three different people whether they thought the lakes were walking distance. Their answers were all of a similar nature: sure, but it’ll take a while.
I started by visiting Santa Cueva de Covadonga (the Holy Cave of Covadonga) a little sanctuary built within a mountain cave en route. My picture doesn’t do it justice, but it is very pretty. Santa Cueva is part of the Sanctuario de Covadonga site, an impressive Marian shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A statue of the Virgin Mary hidden in one of the caves is said to be the reason for the unlikely Spanish victory in the Battle of Covadon (722).
If you’re interested in learning more, Santuario de Covadonga’s official website features videos of the shrine and its surrounding areas (alongside a selection of soothing music). It’s all in Spanish, I should mention.
Aside from the occasional car that zigzagged past, the road was pretty lonely. Once in a while I wandered off the main road into one of the thousands of hiking trails, but none of them led to the lakes. The trails were fun, but some quite hazardous, with plenty of tall, looming trees, ragged, slippery paths occasionally obstructed by large rocks, and no railings to prevent a high fall. Given my lack of company and cell phone reception, I never stayed on one for long — luck had been generous, but even I knew that it would run out at some point. The odd dead rodent I stumbled across didn’t help the ominous mood that was settling into the hazy, humid day.
I’d reached 11 of the 13 or so kilometers when the road took a literal and figurative strange turn. The turn revealed a vertical wall of rock on my left, and a slope on my right, which led down into an open pasture full of grazing cattle. The majority were big, brown cows with tags on their ears. Within the group were also a number of bulls, slightly bigger than the cows and with small horns.
The closest to me were about 5 metres to my right and seemed more interested in leisure than in me. I still felt slightly apprehensive walking past them, onto the next 90 degree turn.
Around the bend, I immediately stopped in my footsteps. A few meters ahead of me, in the middle of the road, was a stocky, untagged, dark brown bull. Its horns were much larger than any of its comrades down below, and they stuck out of his head, sharp and threatening, as he slowly turned to look at the newcomer on the road.
There was no way I could scale the wall on the left, which left me with three options: somehow go forward, somehow go into the crowded field of cows and bulls, or admit defeat and return down the mountain. Going right seemed like the only thing worse than going ahead, so I took a soft step forward. The road was narrow, but if the bull didn’t seem aggressive, perhaps I could politely skirt around him. Perhaps he’d get bored and descend into the field to join his friends.
Unfortunately, my new buddy didn’t take well to my testing step, huffing and turning to face me fully. That was enough for me to quickly retreat to the other side of the bend.
I came up with a fourth option: wait and see if anything changed. I took to surreptitiously poking my head around the turn every ten minutes to see if the bull was still on the road. To my slight amusement, but greater disappointment, he always was.
After 35 minutes, I was the one to get bored. I decided to have one last look around the bend to see if anything had changed. There were now two massive, dark brown, untagged bulls.
That was it — game over. The time had come to accept my defeat and turn back.
The 11 kilometres downhill were difficult for my ego. Plus, the weather forecast caught up with me, and a heavy rain made the muddy road downhill even more slippery. At least I have a good story!, I told myself optimistically.
But the rain made the road slippery, and I soon fell forward In the mud. My glasses fell off into a puddle. It felt like the scene from Jurassic Park when Dennis Nedry tries to sneak off the island and meets his fatal, reptilian fate. Except in my case a dinosaur didn’t eat me as I tried to polish off my glasses — a win, maybe?
Eventually I got back to the sanctuary, and I went into one of the tourist bars (luckily it was open). I ordered a Mahou beer and asked the bartender if he could call me a cab to take me to my hotel.
I still maintain (because I have to) that I had a great day, however there is one clear antagonist in my story. Who should wholly take the blame for my not making it to the lakes, for persevering, stubbornly and fiercely, in the opposite direction to facts and common sense. And I’m sure by now you’ve figured out who it is.