“I think that was the train,” I said to my girlfriend, as the train accelerated away from the station and into the distance.
“Maybe we should have ran for it.”
“Oh well,” she said. “I bet there’ll be another one soon.”
“Do you see anything on the board?”
“Uh,” I said, squinting my eyes. “Nope.”
The two of us were standing on a platform in the Chamartin train station in Madrid, trying to get to Cercedilla. A friend of ours, a local, had told us that we could see mountains there. But unfortunately for us—and all too typically—we hadn’t checked any sort of schedule before attempting the journey.
“I guess we just gotta wait,” I said, and pulled out my Kindle to read.
We sat on a bench and I began distractedly reading, glancing up at the sign board every few minutes. Ten minutes passed; then twenty. Finally, the name “Cercedilla” appeared on the glowing sign board: the next train wouldn’t arrive here in the next hour.
“We really should have ran for it,” I said, and began to sulk.
“Wanna wait?” my girlfriend asked.
“So what else should we do?”
I pulled out my phone to check my email; another friend from Madrid had sent us a couple of recommendations for stuff to do in the city. One was for a retrospective expedition on the works of Kandinsky—but I wasn’t in the mood for modern art. The other was for a free event at the Museo del Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum), which sounded interesting—at least, interesting enough to help me stop sulking about missing the train. So we got on another train, this one towards town.
Although this post is about the mountains, I must say that Museo del Ferrocarril was quite pleasant. The exhibition consisted of a dozen or so trains, most of them antique, sitting in a big warehouse which, I think, used to be a railway station. There were steam engines, with their impressive boilers and muscular gears; old luxury trans-continental dinning cars, with finely decorated furniture for the erstwhile aristocracy; quaint aluminum trains, looking like tuna cans, from the ‘50s and ‘60s; and much more.
But especially memorable was the chance to look into the engines of these old behemoths, thanks to several trains which had their sides cut away, giving us a schematic view of their innards.
Whenever I look at complex machinery—and I suspect I’m not alone in this—I get a kind of sickening sense of overwhelming complexity. I realize, with a twist in my stomach, that I have only the faintest and vaguest idea of how these things work; and despite being the beneficiary of thousands of years of technological progress, I am completely unable to sew a button back on a jacket, not to mention build an engine that runs on pressurized steam.
This is one of the ways in which I feel most disconnected from the modern world. Take this very computer. How does it work? I haven’t a clue; and yet I use it every day. And this problem isn’t confined to Luddites such as myself: even the most skilled engineer couldn’t learn how every piece of technology works; there’s just too much of it.
And not only can no person learn everything, I’m willing to bet that no single person even knows how to build just one typical product of the modern world—an automobile, let’s say. I mean everything: the materials, the engine, the insides—the whole she-bang. How do you take raw aluminum and iron ore from the earth and refine it into workable metal? How to you make rubber tires from rubber trees? How do you construct and install power steering, gears that won’t jam, dependable brakes? How do you skillfully arrange all the levers, switches, and buttons so the driver doesn’t have to take his eyes off the road? Each of these tasks is a world unto itself, and could be divided into a dozen subtasks.
My point—admittedly a banal one—is that technology is extremely complicated. And in times like this, when the comforting veneer of a machine is peeled away, revealing the jungle of gears, pipes, wires, circuitry, cylinders, valves, tubes, pistons, pumps, rods, crankshafts, coils, spring—when all this, normally tucked safely out of sight, thrusts itself into my awareness, I feel that all of my effort to learn about the world, all of my travels and reading and thinking, are absolutely futile, since I can’t understand how a train from the 1800s works, much less the whole world.
But my girlfriend, unaware of the quiet existential crisis surging inside me, had a lovely time climbing in and out of trains, sitting in the old seats of a trans-Iberian express, and pressing buttons on an antique control panel. Really, it is a lovely museum—just don’t look into the engines.
The next day; round-two.
This time we looked up the schedule beforehand, and had gotten to the station with half-an-hour to spare. Nothing could stop us now.
But there was a problem. Although trains that were scheduled to depart an hour from now—after our train—were on the information board, our particular train wasn’t. Where was it? What track did we need to go to? We sat down, once again, on the platform and waited, once more, for the board to tell us where and when the train would arrive. Time ticked away; the sun kept shining; people shuffled back and forth; a train arrived, opened its doors, and then departed. Still nothing.
“Maybe we should ask someone?” I suggested.
We went up the escalator and into the station building above. It looked like an airport terminal, but smaller. After some aimless walking around, we found the information desk, where two Spanish men were lounging and chatting. They didn’t stop or look up as we approached.
“Perdona,” I said, interrupting them.
“¿Cuando es la próximo tren a Cercedilla?”
“No lo sé.”
Well, good. The train was coming in ten minutes, just like we thought. But even the guy at the information booth didn’t know the crucial question: where? I began to panic.
“It’ll be here in ten minutes!” I said to my girlfriend.
“We can’t miss it again!”
“This is awful!”
More aimless wandering. Then, looking up, I noticed a monitor with all the information for incoming and outcoming trains. At least this one had the train to Cercedilla on it; but it still didn’t display what track.
“We’re screwed,” I said. “Nobody knows where this train is coming. We’ll never get there.”
My girlfriend merely grunted—she’s used to this sort of thing—and we both stood there, somewhat pathetically looking up towards the screen, with the same expectant, reverent, apprehensive expression that some people wear when they look up at the altar. Just one number, one little digital twitch on the screen, and we would be delivered.
And we were. With three minutes to spare, we were informed that the train would be arriving on track 10. So we rushed through the station, down the escalator, and onto the train to Cercedilla.
The ride was roughly an hour. This was one of my first times seeing the countryside around Madrid, and I savored the experience. Most striking, for me, was how dry is the environment. The soil is tan and sandy; the trees are short and shrubby; and rolling brown fields stretch out towards the horizon, with a sierra beyond. A few towns dot the landscape, and here and there the fields are divided into plots. To a New Yorker accustomed to towering trees and even taller skyscrapers, the easy visibility across so many miles is startling.
Stop after stop swept by, until eventually we reached our destination: Cercedilla. But I didn’t have much time to look around, for soon I felt my girlfriend tugging on my arm.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing to small train nearby.
“The sign says Los Cotos,” she said. “I think those are the trains to the mountains.”
“But I thought that was the train to the mountains,” I said, pointing to the train we just exited.
“I’m pretty sure this is right,” she said.
Three minutes later, we were sitting on a quaint old train, much smaller than the one that took us here, with plush red seats which faced each other. In fact, I felt vaguely like I was sitting in a booth in an old-fashioned diner.
“Cute train!” my girlfriend said, as the thing creaked into motion.
Immediately, we were heading steeply uphill; and we remained slanted this way the whole trip, as the train crept up the mountainside. We went by the backyards of houses, passing pools and patios, and kept climbing until we left all signs of the town behind. We were in a pine forest now, a uniform sea of green thorns and pine cones and grey bark.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a movie; the trip was so dreamy and picturesque. As the train wound its way up, making wide, concentric circles—each successive circle decreasing in radius—we were given a more expansive view of the mountains nearby, their sides covered in the same uniform sea of pine trees that surrounded us. The air started to have that fresh, wintry, pine smell I normally associate with New Brunswick, except here the air was thinner, less rich. Maybe this is all in my head, but for somebody who has lived at sea level his whole life, even the air in Madrid, at an altitude of 2,100 feet (670 meters), seems a bit deficient in oxygen. Here this feeling was especially noticeable.
Even the train seemed a bit exhausted as it slowly crept its way up, passing a town (which I gather is very inconvenient to live in, at least regarding public transportation), through a tunnel, and then another sea of pine.
By the time we arrived, I was fairly intoxicated with the sight. Have you had this feeling? For me, after I spend some time looking at something extremely beautiful—a sunset, a cathedral, a mountain—I eventually get sort of high, a bit lightheaded, as if I’m slightly drunk. Well, I felt this way when we arrived, dizzy and grinning like a fool.
Neither of us had any idea what to expect when we got out. There was an old, derelict station building, and a road leading away from the station and up a hill. But whatever curiosity I had for my surroundings evaporated when I walked out of the train and into the cold.
“Man!” I said to my girlfriend. “It’s freezing here!”
“You didn’t bring a jacket or something?”
“You only brought your t-shirt?”
“What were you thinking?!”
“But it was warm in Madrid!”
She just sighed—as I said, she’s used to this sort of thing. Poor woman. Meanwhile, desperate not to spend too much time here, I said to the conductor:
“¿Cuando es el próximo tren?”
“Quarto menos vente.”
I looked at my phone; it was 3:15: Twenty-five minutes to go.
“I guess we might as well look around,” I said to my girlfriend, and we headed up the road.
We were soon greeted with a sign; it said: Sierra de Guadarrama, Parque Nacional. We had wandered into a national park. Before us was a parking lot, several buildings—a restaurant, some bathrooms, an information center—and beyond a stunning view of the mountains. The bulbous and almost monstrous form of a cloud, grayish-white, was sitting on top of one of these peaks, seeming to be trying to devour it. It was stunning.
But I had goosebumps by now, and although I vainly tried warming myself by rubbing my arms and bouncing on my toes, I was too distracted to appreciate much of anything.
“We really have to go,” I said to my girlfriend. “Sorry.”
“Are you kidding? We got up early and spent two hours in the train, on a Sunday, and we’ve gotta go back?”
“I can’t stay here. I’m so cold.”
And so, thanks to a small but stupid choice (as I left my apartment, I actually considered whether it would be cold enough on the mountain to merit bringing a jacket, but decided against it), we made the long trip down the mountain, back to Cercedilla, and then back to Madrid. We had been defeated a second time.
Two months later; our third attempt.
We’d figured out the public transportation; I’d bought sneakers, a winter jacket, a scarf, and a hat from Primark (the new big one on Gran Vía). In short, we were ready for our third attempt to scale the mountain.
Once again, we took the train from Chamartin; once more, we went through the countryside to Cercedilla; again I was treated to the beautiful sights of the nearby mountains and pine forest as the train wound its way up, climbing to Los Cotos. And I breathed a sigh of relief in the cold air when, looking out towards the mountain, I saw another cloud gnawing on the same mountain. We were back; and this time I wasn’t shivering.
But before we began to hike, we decided to eat in the café near the station. We both ordered tortillas—a word which, if you don’t know, means something different here. Essentially, a Spanish tortilla is an omelet with potatoes. They’re quite tasty. But we both found it so absurd, and so typically Spanish, when our generous slices of tortilla were served on top of generous portions of bread. Potatoes on bread, carbs on carbs. I really have no idea how the Spanish stay so thin.
This done, we began. We followed a dirt path up into the forest, towards what I gathered was the top of the mountain. But almost immediately I felt winded, as if somebody had hit me in the stomach.
“I can’t breathe,” I said, loosening my scarf around my neck. “The air here—it’s so thin!”
“Really? I feel fine,” my girlfriend said.
“What?” I said between gasps. “How?”
I was heaving by now; every breath I took, although it filled my lungs, left me unsatisfied, needing more. Just walking at a gentle pace left me as winded as if I’d been sprinting. It’s quite an odd feeling, breathing air at a high altitude; it was like was drowning on dry land.
But I’m a stubborn person, and occasionally my stubbornness is a virtue—like when I’m trying to force my weak, flabby body up a mountain. So we pressed on. The path zigzagged its way up, from left to right, from right to left, gently leading us up and up.
We were on Peñalara, the tallest mountain of the Guadarrama range. The mountain rises about 3,600 feet (1,100 m) from its surroundings, and at its peak is 8,000 feet (2,500 m) above sea-level. Coincidentally, according to Wikipedia, 8,000 feet is also the altitude at which people begin to be susceptible to acute mountain sickness (AMS). But I knew exactly none of this at the time.
It wasn’t long before I noticed the trees getting smaller and stumpier. We were nearing the tree-line. By now the restaurant below looked like a toy house, and I was getting used to the air; soon I was comfortable enough to start walking at a good pace. (I know, by the way, that experienced trekkers, or even amateur ones, will likely laugh at my breathing difficulties; but I’m a writer, not a climber.)
Every foot we advanced made the view that much more stunning. I’d never seen anything like it. The mountainous horizon seemed to roll, like an undulating sea; and the head of every mountain was buried in a cloud, which sat like fluffy top-hats over a crowd of heads.
Soon the trees had all but disappeared; the only vegetation left was dry tufts of grass, forcing its way up through the rocky soil, and a few shrubs here and there. The rocks had interesting patches of neon-green on them, which I took to be lichen. Now we were ourselves just a few hundred feet away from a cloud. We took a break on a big rock to eat some snacks, and noticed a strange little round hut in the distance with a blue door. What was it?
We pressed on. I was tired now, too tired for conversation, too tired even for my usual complaining. But as my mind wandered, I found myself thinking of a documentary I’d once seen about Nietzsche. In one part, an actor portrayed the thinker, a mustachioed man in a dark jacket wandering around a snowy mountain, obviously deep in thought, as the voice-over recited lines from Nietzsche’s works. This, in turn, reminded me of my copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which has a picture of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog on it, an iconic painting of the Romantic period. A brilliant idea struck me.
“Hey hold on,” I said to my girlfriend. “I want to take a picture.”
“Take my phone. I’m gonna go stand on that rock over there.”
So I clambered over a pile of jagged rocks off the path, and carefully positioned myself to recreate, as best I could, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, one leg raised, one hand on my hip, looking out towards the mountains. I felt somehow both extremely cool and unbelievably lame as I did this. But it came out pretty good.
We kept going. There wasn’t much distance now between the clouds and us. By this time I was under the influence of that same intoxicated feeling. The view was so grand it was almost painful to look at. I didn’t feel tired any more, not cold, not winded. It was as if I was being pulled up, propelled by a force I couldn’t see or understand. All of my senses felt supernaturally acute; the sun seemed nearer, the air clearer, the light more vivid. There was hardly any sound except my own breathing, the crunching of rocky soil beneath my feet, and the breeze going by my ears. I felt incredibly alive; my whole body was a tingling, twitching mass of sensation. The feeling was so intense that I couldn’t believe I’d ever been alive before this; everything leading up to this mountain was some sort of sleepy dream, not life. Or maybe this was the dream?
Finally we were there. The view disappeared behind a veil of gray clouds; we were standing in the sky. I could see my breath now; some patches of snow were laying here and there on the bare ground. A couple of hikers passed us, going the other direction, obviously much better prepared than we were, with poles and those futuristic-looking synthetic jackets. Meanwhile, I was wearing a cheap coat and a hat with a little fluffy bun on the top. But it didn’t matter; we made it.
We walked around a bit, though there wasn’t much to see. In fact, there wasn’t anything to see; we were completely surrounded by fog, which was so thick that the sun was dim enough to look at directly. We walked perhaps three hundred feet before deciding to turn around.
But as we began to head back, a strange feeling started to take hold of me. I looked in the direction which, I was sure, we had come from; but it looked completely unfamiliar. Suddenly I felt lost; I began to feel dizzy. What was going on? Why didn’t I recognize the path? Was I suffering altitude sickness or something? Was I disoriented? Was it safe for me to try to navigate back?
My thoughts jumped to a scene from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, when Bryson himself was climbing a mountain. Being the nervous man that he is, he’d read up about altitude sickness beforehand, learning about how the lack of oxygen had made some climbers hallucinate and act erratically, sometimes making stupid decisions that got themselves killed. So when Bryson got up in a mountain himself, he began doubting his own mental state, suspecting that he may have come unwound without noticing.
Then I thought of a story I’d heard while studying archeology in Kenya. Many years before I arrived, a man, a graduate student who was on his own searching for fossils, suffered heat stroke and eventually died because of it. The desert sun just got to him. He took off his clothes—a terrible thing to do in a desert—and ran in a random direction until the combination of sun and dehydration killed him.
Was something like this happening to me? It’s an interesting paradox, when you think about it, trying to determine your own sanity. If I was losing my judgment, how could I judge whether I had lost my judgment? If my hold on reality was compromised, how could I tell?
Terrible scenarios began to pop in and out of my consciousness, wherein we get ourselves totally, hopelessly lost and are eventually eaten by a bear—if there are bears around here—or simply starve or freeze in the vast national park. Nobody knew we were here; nobody would notice if we got lost. Oh God! What was I thinking?
“Want a carrot?” my girlfriend asked. She’d brought a plastic bag full of carrots in her backpack, and was holding out an orange stick for me to take.
I took a bite of the carrot; and the crunch, crunch, crunching in my skull snapped me out of it. I took a deep breath; I was completely fine. The path began to be recognizable, and in just five minutes we were stumbling and slipping down the mountain.
As soon as we left the cloud, and the sunny sky and the view beyond reappeared, I noticed something. Below us, an eagle was drifting silently in the breeze, getting gently nudged around by the flowing air. An eagle, below us! It was incredible. Nothing, not even the cloud and the view, had so brought home how high up we were.
But we couldn’t stay; we had a train to catch. So, exhausted and hungry, we both made our way past the rocks with the bright lichen, past the dry grass and the stumpy shrubs, until we were again surrounded by tall pines. It took us three tries, but we had conquered the mountain.