I am back in a hostel, with internet, after three days. I cannot believe I am in Porto, for starters. Initially I thought it would be a stretch to get here some time tomorrow! The last two days I have been camping, which has helped immensely with my budget, but I am spoiling it again at a restaurant; I’ve earned it. Thankfully I have a lot of writing to do, because as usual, I have to wait for dinner, this time for an hour and a half! Absurd. Always at seven, never before. Ever. Oh, they may be open, but not for dinner.
Michiel- whose name I initially misspelled, imagine that- mentioned that there was a road called “Estrada Atlantica” that runs along the coast and has a bikepath. It passes through forest, some farmed for timber, some that is sort of a national park. I thought this sounded nice, so that morning I set off West from Leiria to find it. It was lovely. I hit a point headed West and suddenly I had my own road, and I was passing through a pine forest. Michiel had also mentioned, however, that a significant portion of the forest had burned the year before. He described it as eerie, like a moonscape, really strange. I was undismayed. I am from the Northwestern United States, whose great forests frequently burn in great swaths. To take a break and convene with the natural sounded like a nice change of pace. It was not long before I ran into the burn area. I snapped a few pictures for Michiel:
The trees are smaller, and they had been planted in rows, so you could see far into the depths of the “forest.” Not a speck of undergrowth had yet capitalized on the new solar real estate. Oh, here and there I saw some brachen ferns or yellow flowers, but very rarely. As I turned North, I passed a small stretch of beautiful coast before veering back into the burn. I stayed on this road, which is dead straight, through a dead forest. It was ever so slightly inclined, so I had to work. Being able to see so far ahead, with the uniform scenery, prompted a brisk pace. So quiet, the land… so empty.
The miles rolled on. For a few kilometers I could see a strange tower in the distance. I am not sure what it was, certainly an observation post of some sort, for it surly commanded a view of the ocean for some distance out. I chuckled to myself as I conjectured that it may be a firewatch tower. What was peculiar about it was a spiral staircase running around the outside. It sat there, perched on a distant hill, and before it a moonscape, as Michiel put it so well. It seemed nothing less than a wizard’s tower. It looked precisely like a giant laser aimed out into the heavens, the stairway like the charging coil for the beam. Was it anti-aircraft, or was it sending a message, crying out to the greater cosmos, bespeaking of aloneness, a whisper likely lost in the scheme of a much greater picture, feeble, belying the frail hope of our lonely little planet for an answer, a friend, a guide?
I was becoming cloaked in a strange mood, to say the least. The silence began to be filled with the echoes of a forest past, the charred spines silent as wind washed through them hollowly, without a leaf or needle to play through. Eventually great wind-farms appeared; there are never many of them, as you might find in Texas or California, but only three or four gargantuan propellers. They fit well in a land once littered with Don Quixote giants, of which I have seen many! One wind-mill for another. Old technology. It all seemed like a scene from another world, perhaps a future world.
At last I crested a hill and entered a small town. Ahead I saw a man sprint around a round-about and jet off ahead of me. I was probably going ten miles an hour or so, maybe more. This man stayed ahead of me for a few kilometers! He eventually slackened his pace and I finally passed him, but as soon as I did, I heard the pattering of feet behind me. I turn, and there he is, running alongside me… Yes, he is doing intervals, and he is fast! We travel side by side for a few moments, before I begin to feel strange and put out some power, leaving him behind.
As I marvelled over who this man might be, what he may be training for, I passed out of town and angled back inland after a brief view of the coast. I am passing a large abandoned building, thinking about how many of these there are, of camping, of the possibility of some roshi hiding out in one of these buildings, when a gigantic noise erupts behind me: I could feel a ripple pass through my entire body, very slowly, in an instant. I was keyed up, absolutely flush with adrenaline and at a loss to identify the sound. It was so loud the only sources I could think of were a grenade or artillery fire. It was no rifle or gun… I sat there, intelligent creature that I am, in flight or fight mode, unable to make up my mind. I am an animal, a deer in the headlights. I wait for something else to happen. There is nothing else to do. A car drives up. All this happens in a moment, and I wait to see whether any holes appear in my body. The car drives by. Another comes and goes. Okay… I begin to ride, swiftly, away. Surely that could not have been a car backfire? I could not tell if there had been a vibration or pulse accompanying the sound, all I recall was the intense wave coursing through me. I had been seeing fighter jets that day… I do not know. I rode on, slowly adjusting, creating an explanation for an irreconcilable phenomenon in my world. I wondered what the runner thought of it…
The impression skewed the rest of the day, however. I kept riding through a great sea of dead trees as the sun began to fade, keeping an eye out for a place to camp. All of the discomfort began to build up. My ego began to make assumptions, to create meaning out of disparate pieces of data. This is a funny thing. Every time you inconvenience a car, your mind creates the illusion that each car over the course of the day is becoming increasingly irritated. Not so, each incident is singular for all those who encounter me. Likewise, it is natural to feel unwelcome in a land in which one cannot communicate well. Further factors, like my inability to sync up with the schedule in this country- I always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, either too early or right at closing- contribute to a sense of unfriendliness. The notion, however fleeting, that someone might be trying to blow you up certainly exacerbates any self-doubt one might be harboring as well.
In a word or two, I am far more sensitive than usual. This is natural, for I am out of my element. However, these notions are all issuing from within me, me only. They are not observations, but reactions to my subjective impressions of the environment. Aesthetics play a huge part. I was thinking about all this as I rode into a blackened eucalyptus grove. Here the forest was littered with leaves and branches, with intermittent buildings in various stages of decay just within the trees. The sun fading, the air getting cooler, and I feeling somewhat alienated. I kept riding. I had made a wrong turn recently, but I looked ahead and saw green trees, alive and well! Yes, I choose life and the living. I ride down until I see a good spot and ferry my bags and bike up a steep little hill just off the road, but out of sight. An island of life, a blessing.
I set up camp. It is funny, as soon as you pitch your tent and get your sleeping bag set out, wherever you are is now home. I felt very good. It was nice to get off the bike; my legs were very sore from the hills into Leiria. I settled down outside my tent and read my book… I had purchased a large beer at the store as well:
This did me a heap of good. It calmed my nerves and allowed me to appreciate where I was, who I was. I realized what an undertaking this trip is. One of many, I am sure. I already feel as if I have been gone a long time. Another day.
I woke up the next morning, quite cold. It had not rained the day before, which I still can’t believe. Thus, the temperature dropped. Geez, my sleeping bag is rated down to 15 degrees fahrenheit! Well, sleeping bags tend to be rated more with mortality in mind- “this bag will keep you alive down to…” No matter. It is not raining! I leisurely pack up and hit the road about 9:00.
I am not far from Figuera da Foz, a big town. It was fortunate that I had taken a wrong turn, for there was not a good place to camp beyond it. On the way in I see another tourist coming the other direction: he is loaded to the gills, wearing a backpack too, a solar panel draped over his back rack. He has a shock of dreadlocks wrapped in a ponytail in lieu of a helmet and a well-trained dog in a high-vis vest. We smile deeply at each other, neither inclined to stop, for momentum is important. Our paths are crossing, but we are headed our separate ways. We both know. We see the serenity in the other’s face. A pleasant exchange. I cross a big bridge and skirt the town on a pleasant coastal road, with a bikepath. I still have yet to find fuel for my camp stove, so no coffee or tea this morning. I left my coffee pour-over at home, a last-minute decision that I am questioning. However, I am none the worse without it, no emotional or physical symptoms of withdrawal, which is good. I am nonplussed by cold fare, I am a simple man. I do not stop at any cafés, intent on leaving the big buildings behind. I reach the end of the path and begin climbing into a national park of sorts, very verdant and peaceful. I miss my turn, but realize quickly; my instinct is getting much better. It is difficult to navigate these old human places with their medeival and/or unmarked roads. The reason I miss my turn this time is because it is very worn. It looks more like a driveway, and it rides worse.
I will take dirt or gravel any day over degraded pavement. Very rough riding, and I am left to it, no cars. I wonder why? I am jouncing so bad I get off and push for a little while. It is also steep, strange coincidence. At least it’s green!
I am surprisingly fatigued, and low on water. I reach a couple of benches and stop for a fine little lunch. It feels as if humanity has been wiped from the earth. Of course, lunch wrapped up, I continue on and hit a nicely paved road and some parks, probably closed for the season, within 200 feet. I ride this road for perhaps another 200 and am back on rough road. I have been climbing a lot and am making little progress. I see a zig-zag ahead on the map, which indicates elevation. I thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if that were downhill? Oh, it was. That would have been a great GoPro video, hairpin turns all the way down. Beautiful view from the top:
Green. Where the forest meets the sea.
I find a market and stock up for the night. I am looking for a forest road, a “rua florestal,” that leads long and straight into the woods. I find it. I make my way past a lake or two, more jungle-esque than alpine, my bike and myself being shaken apart. Soon I am back in a burn. My, there is nothing out here. It seems that green patch outside of Fig da Foz was only another island. What a great set of fires this must have been! I wonder why these areas are unsettling. Perhaps it is because we see something of ourselves in everything; these husks of forest may be an allegory for our own hearts, once fertile and idyllic, like Eden, but now only a vestige of what they once were. A dark reflection of some part of ourselves, a place where few of us go willingly. How, then, will we nurture it back to health? Maybe your heart is healthy and full. It could just be the stillness, the silence, the emptiness. It is as if every tree were the inverse pin of a star, and the listless space inbetween is the inky blackness that holds so much mystery, a dark sea withholding great things, greater than we can comprehend, so beyond us as to be inhuman and thus reviled. Or maybe you are only scared of ghosts.
I was told at the market- where I think I postponed a kind lady from closing shop, of course- that it would rain around 5:00, so I tell myself I will set-up camp at three to give myself a few hours to cook and read outside before I am driven in by the rain. Well, it’s all burned, but oh well. I find a spot.
Spooky, eh? I was actually rather fond of it. With a few cervecitas, how can I have any cares in the world? This time a few little guys:
My reading, which was finely selected, though perhaps not well enough for my only book, prompted some very healthy thought. I am determined to quit wasting time on paranoia, i.e.- any hypothetical uncertainties. Many things could happen on this trip. Aside from preparation and street wisdom, I am at the mercy of the universe. Is there anything worrying will do? Particularly concerning things that have never happened to me, my whole life long? No. We are short-lived beings. Why waste the little time we have worrying?
There is an old Arab proverb related by Paul Coelho in his book, The Alchemist: “If something happens once, there is no reason to expect it to happen again. If it happens twice, it will probably happen a third time.”
How many things do you worry about that have never happened? The news is highly culpable for how much we worry. Based on my own experience, humanity is very nonviolent, each individual intent on going about their business, too lazy to connive and plan for the destruction of others. There are extremes, however, and different regularities within different regions of the globe, and I have been lucky so far. In Portugal, of all places, where everyone (except that one guy) is patient and kind to me, where bags of bread are simply hung on the doors of shops in the morning, people hang their clothes on the street-front to dry, bikes are left unlocked (unless it is mine, usually), what have I to worry about?
“You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the ocean in a drop.” – Jalal Uddin Rumi.
Without worry, there may be a taste of paradise here. I am in this form, the universe has manifested me; I intend to make the best of it. I have started looking at people, not as individuals at a particular moment, but as lives. I see them, as a product of the past, as a snapshot of a life, an ephemeral creature. How frail, how lovely, how scarred by joy and sorrow! It seems a necessary perspective for the present: by seeing them in regards to totality, I see them truer than before. We are here, and we are driven to be, in various ways. If we work, if we see the miraculous in our everyday lives, the world will change with our perception of it, and I think other people are changed by a life lived genuinely, graciously, compassionately. I do not want this paranoia anymore. There is a time and a place, and my instincts and knowledge will let me know. I must learn to filter out the fear. Myself in the world: within and without.
Alright, there is your dose of reflection. I am not sure, but I think I have done between 50 and 60 kilometers the last two days, somewhere in the ballpark of 35 miles. Today, I woke up feeling fantastic, in high spirits and strong of leg. I set off. All of the negativity is gone. Two people in five minutes honk, yell, give me the thumbs up. People stare stoicly at me from the street until I say “Bom dia,” dissolving their faces into enthusiastic smiles. The terrain is pretty flat, and I just cruise. At around 11:30 I stop for lunch. I check the map, and realize I have already gone something like 60 kilometers! No wonder I was tired, I have been hauling! Goodness. “Wow, I could almost make it to Porto…” I thought. Well, the terrain held, and there was a lot of daylight ahead of me. At one point I saw a couple of white storks, gigantic birds! I was excited by their sheer size; they build nests that look cozy enough for me to sleep in.
These storks have been protected for years, but they are so numerous in this area as to seem almost an infestation, there were nests everywhere! I probably saw forty of them. No good pictures, of course, but pretty cool.
I made it to Porto, which is bigger than I expected.
Ooh, foggy lense!
I had no internet, but I knew there was a Hostel International somewhere in the city… my what a big place! I crossed the river and immediately pulled in to inquire. A very kind tour guide looked it up on his phone and went above and beyond to help me find it. I got close and then asked a police officer, who pointed to it across the street! Ah, I almost had it! Funny, I love seeing police officers here, they are people I can readily direct my questions to, although this man did not speak English, they are a great help… so here I am. I checked the route, and I cycled around 115 kilometers, or about 70 miles today! Wow, I can’t believe it. My body needs a rest day, and it shall have it.
I tried to ride a day without taking an anti-inflammatory, and popped one within an hour. My knee is not bad, but I think it needs some help to heal. My lower back feels tired as well, probably from excess rocking in the saddle out of Leiria because my legs were tired. Three days ago, I was considering throwing my schedule out completely- I think I neglected to provide enough buffer to account for rest and complications- but after today, I wonder…