Like the mountainous Alpujarran region carpeting the coastal mountains between the Mediterranean and the high Sierra Nevada, the San Luis Valley of Colorado is home to poor, skeptical Castillan-speaking farmers and is a magnate to all kinds of "alternative lifestyles" including Buddhists, Democrats, artists and sculptors, modern versions of hippies, new-agers, UFO seekers, professors and students of various ilk and interests, Shirley Maclain, and even Christian monks. The topography of the regions are dramatically similar, as well: the Sangre de Cristo mountains of the San Luis Valley rise majestically like a garden wall from the high, arid valley floor to over 14,000 feet, while the high Sierras gradually build from the Mediterranean, through the more arid lower ranges that make up the Alpujarras, to an elevation of about 11,500 feet.
In fact, however, the Sierra Nevada range--the second highest range of mountains in Europe--is tremendously taller than the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains. The reason for this is that the Sierra rise from sea level--literally, from the Mediterranean Sea--whereas the Sangre de Cristo get a nice leg up as they start from a valley floor already perched at a lofty 8,000 feet: the nearest "sea" is the Pacific Ocean which is one-third of the continent to the west. The vertical of the Sierra Nevada, then, is a true 11,500 feet, whereas the vertical of the Sangre de Cristo is on the order of 6,000 feet. In terms of sheer vertical, the Sierra Nevada are nearly twice as high as the Rocky Mountains.
As you head north, away from the coastline, and into the Alpujarras you encounter several lower, but impossibly steep ranges including the Sierra Lujar, and the Sierra de la Contraviesa. The small villages of the Alpujarras are thriving vestiges from the region's Moorish and Berber past, where Muslim sultans ruled until 1492. The last of these Sultans, Boabdil Naziri, surrendered the city of Granada and his palace of Alhambra and, in an uncustomary generous act by Ferdinand and Isabelle, was allotted domain over the Alpujarras from the small mountain town of Orgiva, what today is the center of trade for the western Alpujarras. That act of kindness was short-lived; about as long as it takes to ride your bike through the sparsely populated village.
The obvious impact of the Moors on this area is constantly reinforced through visual cues, some subtle some not. The less subtle cues are the magnificent and impossibly ubiquitous terraces on which almond trees, lemon and orange trees, olive trees, and numerous other fruit bearing species thrive. These terraces were part of a vast, ingeniously engineered water transportation system out of which a network of complex water sharing canals moved the precious liquid from the snow-rich Sierra Nevada to the bleached, water-starved lower elevations. The less obvious cues, perhaps, are in the colorful geometric tiles that adorn nearly everything in the gleaming, white-washed towns clinging impossibly to the steep mountainsides of the ranges demarcating the region.
The Muslims, forbidden by the Quran to recreate the hand of Allah's work through realistic paintings of animate objects, nevertheless celebrated the order of God's impeccable universe through their understanding of algebra and geometry. This celebration is evident in the ridiculously proportionate yet insanely complex symmetrical knots and designs adorning so much of Spain's tile and plasterwork, doors and river stone walkway--and, by long historical extension, that style so often denoted "Santa Fe" or "southwestern." These complex designs are the result of a deep understanding of mathematics and geometry and were seen as profound insight into the universal order of things, as intended by Allah. It's not so different, really, from physicists today who use numbers to untangle the mysteries of the universe, and to point to the existence of things never to be seen by the human eye on both the micro and macro levels.
Another perhaps more subtle reminder of the influence the Moors had on this area is the woeful wail of the region's singers. Even in Spanish, the sorrowful music sounds to me like the haunting call of the caliphate from the highest minaret.
If the Moors had applied their same geometrical fervor to the entirely unreasonable and disorganized roadway system adorning the Spanish mountains we, as cyclists, we be much worse off. Clearly, the Romans had no hand in building the goat paths that are today called paved mountain roads and connect the network of villages that spreads vertically rather than horizontally. But as an old riding partner of mine used to say, "I like a road with character," and in the Alpujarras there are an abundance of characters.
Whereas some riders look upon a 45 or 60 minute mountain ascent as a descent through the seven rings of hell, I relish the idea. 60 minutes of a slow grind at sub-lactate effort is precisely what I require to build the leg muscle my genetics failed to provide. After a very quick 2 km descent from our precipitous perch on Monte los Almendros (the mountain of almonds) where we've rented a villa, I'm on a farm lane gliding effortlessly through lemon, orange and almond groves, smelling mimosa, and forced only occasionally to stop for the herd of strong smelling goats being shepherded from one field to another. Dodging a mine field of remnant goat turds and odiferous splotches of urine, I catch up with a main artery for a bit, trundle through the town of Velez de Benaudalla, am soon at the base of a climb headed for Orgiva, and then well above that, up to the spa town of Lanjaron.
From Lanjaron you stay on the main road, needle your way through a winding field of eco-friendly windmills fed pertually by the relentless wind--a cheerful, modern day salute to Don Quixote as I whisper by--drop slightly down and over the Autovia de Sierra Nevada Motril-Granada, and then plunge down to the reservoir in the valley floor, just below Beznar. Here begins another near hour-long climb first up to Pinos del Valle, and then to a crest in a lush, pine laden valley in the Sierra de las Guajaras called the Valle Lecrin. This unspeakably gorgeous spot is sheltered by the wind and is fed with sparkling streams where tall grasses grow green and thick, bees hum joyously as they go about their business, an array of birds chirps and chases insects, lemons and oranges sun themselves, fig trees are springing to life, mimosa and scotch broom flagrantly showcase their canary yellows, and olives and almonds ripen on their branches. The Arabs called the Lecrin the "Valley of Smiles," and if you visit you'll know why. And you'll smile.
Heading out of the Lecrin Valley the road pitches abruptly upward and you are quickly above the forests. For me, there is a queer and disquieting sense of forlornness when riding in mountains without trees: above timberline in Colorado gives me spooky shivers, and it’s no different in these various, wind-swept and sun-bleached sierras. The sound of unprotected altitude is haunting: it is a disturbing void, a near auditory lifeless world aside from the rustling of the wind. This uneasy feeling is made all the more poignant when riding alone…a creative mind is not a particularly terrific asset at these moments especially as you start to question the sensibility of riding tubulars with no spare tucked neatly away. "Ah, let's see now, when did I last see a car?" "How many kilometers would it be back to Pinos?" "Are there mountain lions in the Sierras?" "Naive American Cyclist Found Dead in Harsh Spanish Mountains." I can just read the story now, people shaking their heads in incredulity that anyone could be so stupid to ride alone out there.
Now, it used to be that I loved descents. Dropping down Molas Pass at 11,000 feet into the town of Silverton, CO in the Iron Horse race from Durango to Silverton was the pleasure that made that damnable sufferfest all worthwhile. The road, closed to traffic, allowed you to cut the corners with no risk of winding up as the hood ornament on some Texas tourist's Cadillac. And at speeds at times well in excess of 50 mph, the sheer exhilaration was--as I can only imagine it--the nearest thing to free falling from an airplane. No. It was, in fact, even better than I can imagine that as the effortless inter-working of body and bike, the harmonious unison, whilst fluidly carving so effortlessly a high-speed turn takes mindless concentration (an oxymoron, I know) that I cannot imagine of any other physical endeavor. To over-think the speed with a singular focus on the apogee and exit strategy of each turn--all the while hoping like hell that you properly glued your tubulars--would be tantamount to slamming on your brakes, pulling over, climbing off your bike, and watching the end of the race as a spectator. Instead, you let your wheels roll, you feather the brake--keep the braking surfaces cool, don't melt the glue--lean, tuck down, back on the brake hoods, squeeze gently, arrrrrrrrrrrrch through the turn, watch that gravel patch, tuck, accelerate, pedal like hell...
That was 22 years ago. I was 20. I was immortal. 22 years later and morality seems to be wagging a finger in my face telling me I better behave. I'd like to tell him to f--- off but the fact his he gave me a gentle reminder of my ephemeral and tenuous presence on this planet about a year ago. It was a distinct and much needed reminder that we are very fragile creatures and that we best learn to appreciate the few fleeting seconds we have in the universal scheme of things. That's what I'm doing in Spain.