So, Wolves Are Back in the Sierra de Guadarrama?

Allow me to tell you a tale of childhood, a tale of conservation. When I was growing up in the 90’s — old as dirt, I know — I remember distinctly being offered the opportunity to adopt a wide range of things. We could adopt highways, or we could adopt wolves and whales. Strangely, the ability to adopt human children was never offered.

Now, if memory serves, we ended up adopting a few humpback whales and a few gray wolves. At the time, I was flummoxed to find that we had paid good, hard American dollars — or at least my mom had — for the adoption of these creatures, yet they never once made an appearance at my house. Imagine!

Of course, now I understand that we were meant to be more like beneficiaries from afar, helping to rescue increasingly endangered species from their fate. Interestingly enough, as gray wolves were being painted as scapegoats in the American mid-west, the same thing was happening throughout the Iberian Peninsula. For the last half of the 20th century, Spain’s Iberian wolf was marked as a pest, a creature that only lived to destroy livestock and ruin human financial potential. Subsequently, the population in the peninsula dropped to no more than 500 individuals.

Luckily, They’re on the Rebound

Fortunately for these incredible creatures, the Spanish government granted them protected status. Despite the continuation of poaching and the vilification of the animals, a strange sort of parallel to their cousins across the pond, the Iberian wolf now numbers in the thousands, at least according to most estimates.

For my upcoming trip to Spain, the return of the species from the brink of extinction has interesting implications. Some 50 miles into the trek north from Madrid, I’ll be heading into the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, a prospect that has been extremely exciting to me since I started this mad dream — something about peeks and crags and dwarves. With at least one full pack of wolves living in the Guadarrama foothills, and with as many as six packs thought to be roaming in a 60-mile radius around Madrid, the stakes are considerably different.

I Won’t Say I’m Scared, but…

No, I lied; I’m terrified. See, I used to have these dreams as a kid — remember, this is a tale of childhood and conservation — whereby packs of wolves would chase me through the woods behind my house. My dog would eventually save me with her fierce yip, but there’s a problem: my dog is dead, and even if she weren’t, she wouldn’t be coming with me to Spain. (Woah, that got morbid fast.)

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t expect to have to go all Liam Neeson in “The Grey,” but I have definite concerns. I’m a chubby Western New Yorker with a propensity for petting animals that I know I shouldn’t. The chances of me at least losing a finger after getting a little too curious are pretty grand.

As is often the case, I’m a bundle of contradiction. Having seen way too many documentaries on wolves, I’m well aware that they could pick me off and eat me like a chunky rotisserie chicken. Likewise, those same documentaries drive me to find them and see them up close. I guess I should mention that the Iberian wolf isn’t known for eating humans, even if they are especially plump and juicy.

One thing is certain: if the numbers are to be believed, my chances of running into los lobos are pretty good. I only hope to savor the image before they get too curious about what McDonald’s tastes like.

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Ticket Bought, Bags (Almost) Packed

 

Imagine my surprise yesterday to find that the Indiegogo campaign funding this trip has reached the 66% mark. At the beginning, many people close to me said this was impossible, that I’d never get anywhere. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t buy into their pessimism, at least temporarily.

I’m proud to say that I’ve officially bought my round-trip ticket from Buffalo to Spain. In other words, there’s not a thing to stop me from seeing this through, though I certainly need to get this campaign through to completion if I want to do it comfortably. This is where I knew I had to be if I wanted Words from the Road: Madrid to Barcelona to have a chance of success, but the truth is that this marks only the tiniest fraction of what this journey really needs to be called a success.

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Photo property of DavidHT

Now Comes the Real Work

The next few weeks are going to be crucial for raising the last few hundred dollars in the campaign, but, in truth, I’m not worried about that — it will either happen or it won’t. Now begins the vigorous preparation. I’ve got a tent, I’ve got my sleeping bag, and most of the gear I need. The next two months before I leave will be about learning how to carry that gear properly and learning to care for it on the road. This is the time I need to be really diligent about hiking on my off-time with a full pack, unless, of course, I want to experience the strain of carrying 40 lbs. day in and day out for the first time as I leave Madrid. Oh, and I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned my fear of making anatomy related Spanish mistakes before, so it’d probably be best if I work harder to sharpen up the ol’ Español. 

Oh, There’s Also That List of Little Things

There are the big issues, like the aforementioned Spanish, fitness, etc., but there’s also this seemingly endless little list of things I feel I need to accomplish before my exodus. Here’s an idea of the sporadic insanity flowing through my head at any given point during the day: How many more knots should I learn? Shouldn’t I laminate a topographic map? Am I really going to need cold weather gear? I need to memorize the appearance of Lateste’s vipers and Montpellier snakes. How much weight will a bottle of altitude sickness medicine weigh?

In other words, there are a ton of details I’m worried about, whether they deserve to be considered or not. I think, perhaps, if I had been down this road — figuratively, not the actual el Camino connections — that I’d know exactly what to do. As for now, I think the best plan is simply to try and satisfy each of my paranoid questions, finding out how big of a mistake doing so will be once I’m actually marching through the Spanish countryside.

That being said, if you have any recommendations — don’t drink the water, avoid outdoors on the full moon, beware the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword when looting ruins — they would be well appreciated.

Meanwhile, you can keep up on Words from the Road by following us on Twitter, or by following my writer page on Facebook.

Quelling the Fear Before the Journey

Every journey brings with it an array of emotions. The stronger of these are the positives — the excitement, the sense of adventure, the feeling of seizing your own fate. Even as you churn ever forward, shoveling more coal into the engine, toward the goal you’ve planned your life to meet, well, naturally enough there are fears ever pecking at you, hoping to pull out the good bits. I have no doubt that my fears are not unlike those who set out on similar journeys before me, but that doesn’t make them any less nagging.

The Unknown

Fear of the unknown is undoubtedly the most common of all travel fears. Am I going to meet my fate by sleeping too close to a den of Iberian wolves? Will I be abducted by a vicious pack of non-existent female slavers looking to make me their man-servant for the rest of time? Well, the latter certainly seems unlikely, but you get the point. Every time you take even the tiniest step outside away from what’s comfortable, you necessarily risk something. Of course, without that risk, there is absolutely no hope of reward.

Offending the Locals

As a general rule, I hate going anywhere without being intimate with the native language; I find it disrespectful, and I have no interest in being that American travel who, in a lowland accident, demands of everyone he meets, “Hey, boy. Why don’t you speak ‘Merican?” Needless to say I won’t be “that guy.”

Now, this personal rule didn’t keep me from spending months at a time in Japan, but I remember full well the sting of making a hippopotamus-sized ass of myself during those days. The particular example of telling my host-parents that I thought nipple was delicious — it was really a simple mix up of the word for nipple with the word for a tubular fish cake — springs embarrassingly to mind.

Considering my Spanish proficiency, the chances of my not offending someone, or at the very least saying something painfully stupid, are virtually non-existent. Whether or not a slip of the tongue will land me in a cell, a newspaper, or on “Spain’s Most Wanted,” the fictitiously famous spin-off of “America’s Most Wanted,” remains to be seen.

basilica familia barcelona

Photo of Barcelona’s Basilicia Familia courtesy of Ivan McClellan Photography

Failing to Lose My Preconceived Notions

The very worst thing you can do when travelling to a new place is refusing to let everything you think you know about a place fall to the wayside. For example, I know that many areas in Spain take a siesta from their working hours in the mid-afternoon during the hotter parts of the year. In the States, we’re taught that European countries, namely Spain and France, take breaks because their socialist governments let them slack off. Carrying these preconceived notions, these stereotypes, with me is surely the best way to miss out on fully experiencing and understanding everything I find along the road from Madrid to Barcelona as it truly is.

I feel my departure date coming fast now. The pack is starting to feel a little lighter, the money is coming together,  and I’m feeling all the support I need for a safe, memorable trip. These natural fears, perhaps only the worries of a tiny traveler in an infinite world, need only the smell of the Mediterranean and the taste of paella to abate.

Why You Need to Travel as Far as You Can

Inexorably, when you explain your plans to travel, especially if you’re going for longer than a week-long vacation, you face one question: “why?” While the need to travel varies from person to person, I’m of the belief that travel is an essential part of the human experience. 

The Anecdotal Subjective

Anecdotally speaking, I travel to understand. I have the gift/curse of curiosity, and it’s for this reason that most people who know me think I know far too much about nothing. “You’re the master of the inane,” they say, or “you’re an encyclopedia of useless knowledge.” While one or both sentiments may be true, I firmly believe that knowledge and understanding are intrinsically important things, possessing their own challenges and rewards. 

As defined by the good folks at Merriam-Webster, travel is the act of moving from one place to another, but I would say that travel is the act of moving from one place to another for the purpose of understanding the world. It is this definition that drives Words from the Road, not to mention the ongoing campaign over on Indiegogo.

Travel’s Value Extends Beyond the Individual

That being said, travel isn’t, can’t be, about the individual any longer. Every single day brings with it another story of cultural misunderstanding. The United States is running a war on terror, which, frankly, too often translates to a war on Arabs and Muslims who have the misfortune of being tied to a few bad apples — that’s speaking relatively. The Ukraine is balanced on a knife’s edge, uncertain whether or not the powers in Russia will decide they have the right to run their own country. Generally, the citizenry forms its opinions of other people across the world based on the perceptions and actions of their governments. That’s why, for example, such a large percentage of Americans have developed especially strong xenophobia in the last decade.

Therein lies the importance of travel on the grand scale: as we travel and interact with one another, we see the world the way it is for real people. It means seeing the real world, not the world those organizations with financial, social, and imperial designs shape for us.

Perhaps Aldous Huxley put it best:

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

 

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