Sunday, 7 August 2011

MADRID SNAPSHOTS: The route without a trail

I was stood on the doorstep of Cercedilla train station, peering up and down the road bemusedly and hoping to spot the waymarked trail. According to the internet blog I had read over breakfast that morning, there was a clear off-road route from the station to the mountains. Predictably, the supposed stone archway meant to mark the start of said route was notable only by its absence, and I soon resigned to chance my luck just walking up the road in the general direction of the mountains. However, on spotting a slender figure waiting at the bus stop while looking thoughtfully at a map, I paused.

Wearing a latex sports T-shirt, Gore-Tex walking boots and a chunky, digital stopwatch, he looked every ounce the proficient, professional hiker. From first impressions, his appearance wasn´t deceiving: on asking him directions, he nodded authoritatively and traced an elaborate route with his finger. Unfortunately, the muddled patchwork of greens, browns, thin blue stripes and swirly contours, and the squiggly line he drew with his finger across it, left me none the wiser. I set off apprehensively in the general direction of his gestures, and was already 30m away when I heard him call me back. Running to catch up with me, he explained that the bus wasn´t for another two hours and so he too would be starting out from the train station. He drew another maze of invisible lines across the map to indicate his plans, a route equally confused as the one he had initially shown me, and asked if I wanted to follow him. A quick glance at the altitude counter attached to his belt and the walking poles fastened in a cross on his backpack washed away my doubts: I promptly decided to abandon my hazy, blog-led explorations and follow the expert.

As it turned out, he was something of a professional - a mountain guide preparing a route for a group of tourists he was to take out the following day - and for the next 6 or so hours I felt like I was on some kind of freebie guided excursion. He described the trails through the national park, named every hillock on the mountain crest and identified just about every tree we passed. In fact, as we walked it soon became clear that he nursed a passion for trees. He was bilingual in tree types – trilingual in some cases – and would stop sporadically to tenderly embrace the knarled trunk of a pathside Pine or Beech. At other times, he would fall dramatically to the floor and seize a stone to carve a small trench at the edge of a puddle, allowing the water to trickle away from the path and “feed” the trees lower down. We occasionally passed knotted tangles of branches, where trees had collapsed into each other and grown intertwining. On passing them, he would marvel at their form and stroke the branches lovingly with his fingers. “It looks so peaceful, but there´s a f**ing battle going on here. It´s a brutal fight - they´re locked in nature´s battle.”

I have to confess that after the third or fourth tree-hug I was starting to doubt his sanity and question whether my snap decision to follow him was perhaps somewhat foolhardy. My apprehensions were not eased when, on pausing for a snack, he rolled up a fat, herby spliff to puff on while I ate a banana. Unfortunately, being half-way up a mountain with little idea of how to return, I had little choice but to quash my misgivings and plough hopelessly after him in blind faith. Whether a result of this herby roll-up or not, I couldn´t help but notice that he stumbled with worrying regularity. Though exuberantly enthusiastic, bounding along with bouncy strides, he tripped clumsily over his own feet even on the best laid paths. Similarly, though reassured by his regular authoritative glances at the altitude counter and map, it soon became apparent that despite his orienteering equipment and credentials, he had little idea of where his pre-planned route lay and was simply inventing his own. “No problem, its a route without a trail,” he reassured me, amid the head-scratching and doubling back.

To be just, we did eventually reach the crest we were aiming for - albeit after wading through endless expanses of scratchy knee-high heather, scrambling over rocks and boulders wedged into the curve of the mountainside and sinking into swampy marshes and bogs. Similarly, though he tripped dopily with alarming frequency, he proved surprisingly footsure over difficult terrain and more than once he had to grab me to stop me slipping off one of the sharply sloping slabs of rock, or offer a hand to pull me across the widely spaced stones in a mountain stream. He even gave me a quick tutorial on the best technique to descend steep gradients.

Eccentricities and unplanned diversions aside, he was undoubtedly mountain savvy, and I´m certainly pleased I ran into him. Even so, if I had paid for an excursion that turned out to be an improvised “route without a trail”, led by a passionate, partially stoned tree-hugger, I´m not sure I´d be too happy.

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