The Digital Adventures

Chapter 4C

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

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More Delays


But not everything has survived the generations unchanged; for it seemed to us that Catholicism, the official state religion, powerful as it still is in Spain, was losing its hold on the younger people, especially the college students. Spain’s Catholicism has been, with Italy’s, the most conservative in the Old World, stiff and unchanging for centuries, even opposed to the much-needed reforms of Vatican II, and we saw signs everywhere that the young people were determined to live in the 20th century even if their clerics weren’t. Even Holy Week is not so holy any more, having become as much a festival as a reverent or penitential occasion. The people underneath the pointed hoods are often not the ones who should be doing penance; they have paid gypsies to take their places so they can slip out of their duties undetected, to go carousing and drinking in the cafes. Young girls, who all year long are under watchful eyes in the closely chaperoned society, are at liberty for Semana Santa, and they meet boys, stay out late, and get into trouble. There’s a saying among the young Spaniards that Semana Santa is when the virgins lose their virginity, but this didn’t quite correlate with the findings of our own independent research.

As part of our adjustment to life on the road, we began to fall into distinct personal habits. Woodrow’s habit was sleep. We were getting seven hours a night at this stage of the trip, but it wasn’t enough for Woodrow, who’d grumble when we’d wake him, take forever to get dressed, and fall asleep in the car soon after breakfast. Willy’s fault was taking pictures to excess, shooting every bird or bush or cloud that caught his fancy, wasting time and film, taking pictures even as he was talking or eating or driving. My fault was daydreaming. The slightest thing would set me off and I’d be centuries away-marching beside El Cid as he drove out the Moors; kneeling with Columbus as he petitioned Queen Isabella for ships with which to sail to India; trudging the dusty roads behind Don Quixote’s faithful steed, Rosinante-only to snap back to the present and find out I’d nearly run over somebody’s ass.

But Al’s habit was the worst: he couldn’t sit still. When he wasn’t driving, he’d fidget and fuss, check the cameras, wipe the lenses, count the filters, reorganize our glove box, and exhaust the guidebooks. His favorite diversion was poring over the maps and mileage charts and our daily log, during which he’d infallibly rouse Woodrow from his slumber and me from my reverie to involve us in his endless calculations. “How many miles were we when we left Seville this morning?” he’d begin, nudging me to check the speedometer. “Now let’s see,” he’d go on, “if gas here is nine and a half pesetas a litre and if there are sixty pesetas in a dollar-what was the last rate of exchange we got? Fifty-nine?-and 3.875 litres in a gallon, and we’re getting 14.7 miles to a gallon, that means …. “

We set up our tents and limping trailer at Camp Pinar, south of Jerez. Thick rows of man-high flowering cactus ran the boundary, a cool breeze swept in from the Gulf of Cadiz, and a grove of tall pines gave the camp shade and its name. The location was ideal: we were close to Cadiz where our sponsors had shipped the rest of our heavy equipment by boat from New York, close to the welding shops at Puerto where we could work on our shattered camper, close to Jerez de la Frontera, the wine capital of Spain, where my old Jeep was stored and where we could eat, drink, and make merry before moving on to the deprivations of Africa. And close to Arcos de Frontera where we went for the running of the bulls.

Easter Sunday dawned in glory, sunny but cool, as we headed north toward Arcos for the once-a-year-day when the Spanish aficionado can demonstrate his own manliness and courage. Great puffs of cloud rolled over the land of Don Quixote in a blue, blue sky, each cloud its separate shape, but all of them heading for the hill of Arcos. Nor did they lack for company, for the road was filled with cars, bikes, scooters, carts, and pedestrians.

Arcos grabs your breath at first sight. It clings to a cliff high above a sleepy river that winds through an otherwise flat and repetitious countryside. A medieval castle and a spiring church look down upon the whitewashed houses that clutch the thousand-foot cliff. Hundreds of birds, who nest in the cliff face, form a living halo about the town.

The first bull was scheduled to be turned loose at 11: 00, but it was nearly noon before we heard the shouting down below. We had found ourselves a perch out of harm’s way, atop a wall bordering the main street, and I was still undecided whether to join or just watch until a quick review of the other wallflowers made my decision for me: they were all women, children, and very old men, and even the last seemed to long to run again before the bull. That did it! I’d be damned if I’d sit and watch with the women and children. I didn’t know the twists and turns of Arcos, and I didn’t even know the Spanish word for HELP, but I was going to join the running of the bulls.

The noise from below grew louder and closer until a surging mob of shouting, sweating, happy, hysterical, frightened men charged past, with a black bull snorting in hot pursuit. From the broad main street they turned down a side street too narrow to hold them all. Jammed against the walls, squeezed against the houses, pushed and elbowed against each other, some were bound to get caught. It was a young boy, about twenty, in the back of the pack, scrambling madly to get through the human impasse, who got it. I could hear him scream in agony as the bull dug a horn in his thigh, then flung him high overhead like a broken old doll. He crashed to the cobblestones and lay crumpled there, blood spreading around him, while the bull mercifully forgot him and took off after the running crowd, with the sweet smell of flesh in his nostrils, and a fresh crimson banner on his horns.

I leaped from the wall, ran past the bleeding boy, and took off in pursuit of the bull. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I was doing it. I thought I’d come just to watch these crazy people, but I found myself running along with the craziest of them, swept along with the infectious spirit of the mob, ducking down side streets, climbing over walls, racing through alleys.

  • Photo caption on page 46 of the printed publication:
    Caught in the festive spirit of Arcos,  Steve cheated a bit and was running  behind the bull-until the bull turned around and almost ended our expedition on the spot.

As I mused on this, the bull turned, and the crowd with him. I was caught unaware. A frenzied fat man crashed into me and I tripped over a boy’s foot, taking three Spaniards down with me.

When I looked up, it was into the face of the biggest, maddest, meanest, horniest bull I’d ever seen in my life. The four of us were so inextricably jumbled together on the ground that the bull had time to pick his victim; I just hoped he had no preference for Americanos. I was wrong: his decision made, he lowered his head toward mine. His horns caught the gleam of the high noon sun and I felt his hot, stinking breath inches from my face. What kind of way was this to go, this ignoble finish, my guts gored out by a bull while playing a stupid game with a bunch of half-stewed village idiots?

As a final act of defiance, I spit at the bull, a rather feeble salvo of saliva, my throat was so dry, but as satisfactory a final comment as I could think of at the moment. And the bull turned away. Ole! It was neither the spit nor a magic charm so much as a drunken teenager who had seized the chance to show his bravery by yanking el toro’s tail. The bull snorted off after the upstart, and my companions of the cobblestones and I stumbled to our feet, the cheers of the crowd ringing in our ears. Ole! Ole! A shopkeeper ran out with a bottle of good aguardiente that I held to my lips and gulped until my throat burned and tears came to my eyes. Ole!

The taste of the bull and near disaster was still strong in my mouth as we left Arcos for Jerez to check on my Jeep which, after my Russian trip, I’d left with Blackie McManus, a big ex-Marine fighter pilot, expatriate and old friend. He and his wife and five children live on the outskirts of Jerez in an old Spanish house. The walls are cracked, the plaster is peeling, the roof leaks. Everything smells of a glorious past and an uncertain future.

Blackie had promised to treat my equipment as if it were his own. He meant it literally, and judging by the condition of his house and grounds, I had cause for concern. When I didn’t see the Jeep I hesitantly asked Blackie where it was. “It’s in the shop at Puerto. I took it there after I got your telegram last Wednesday. Nothing much wrong. I heard a slight knock in the engine and turned it in.” A slight knock, I thought, and went to use the bathroom where none of the plumbing worked.

The next morning Al and Woodrow went to Cadiz to claim our shipment, Willy and I to Puerto to weld the camper and pick up the Jeep. When we met back at camp that evening, Al reported that our equipment, including our vital tires and engine oil, were all safe in the Cadiz customs shed and we could get them whenever we wanted-after we paid $750 customs duty. It was Madrid all over again. My day was no less discouraging. I’d had the camper welded, but the breaks were severe, the cost high, and there was no guarantee the welds would hold. The Jeep looked terrible when I found it behind the big workshop in Puerto, covered with dust and dirt, the spare wheel missing, the tires worn, the engine in pieces on the Boor. During the four days of Semana Santa, no work had been done at the shop, whose normal work day resembled a six-hour siesta sandwiched between two hours of desultory labor at a pace which, with the Jeep’s crankshaft scored, pistons pitted, a rod broken, and spare parts needed from Seville, meant it might be weeks before the job was terminado. The date was April 19th, and the deserts of North Africa were getting hotter every day.

We were a dispirited group at the camp that night, faces long, tempers short. A few of us were even beginning to believe that our globe-girdling expedition was going to end then and there, at Camp Pinar, Spain, with all the world still to see.

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