My French roommate and I embarked south on a Sunday afternoon to Monte Gorbea, just outside of Vittoria, Spain. Monte Gorbea is the highest elevation (1400 m) in our immediate area. After Monte Pagasarri and the Pyrenees, I expected this hike to be fairly easily. Another hiking friend from my university had told me that it was an easy hike, but that the last kilometer to the top was pretty steep. We joked about how crazy the Spanish drivers were, as were leaving our apartment. That back home (for both of us) people drove a lot better. However, within the first ten minutes of our drive out of Bilbao — I got to see just how ironic that conversation was.
I’ve never seen someone so mad in my life. Not at me, not at the government, and most definitely not at a minor delay in traffic.
He cursed endlessly in french out the window, and I spent a good while just thinking “Is he going to physically attack the driver in front of us?” He kept the car within inches of any vehicle determined to delay our hiking endeavor. I decided that it must have been a cultural difference between us. In places like Chicago, everyone is an aggressive driver; nobody stands out as an ostentatious lunatic. But here we are at a standstill in Indauxtu, and he’s the only screaming frenchman in the bunch. What a sight it must have been to see this quiet American reading a book next to this pugnacious frenchman. Out of fear of getting punched in the face, I kept quiet and repeated “está bien, está bien” whenever my reassurance seemed necessary.
It wasn’t until we were driving at 80km/hour, swerving through the monte out of Bilbao that I felt I should say something.
His GPS kept pointing us in the wrong direction, and it was making him crazier every second. I took over the driving instructions as if I knew exactly where we were, which wasn’t true. He trusted me long enough to not kill me, or the perfectly happy drivers around us. We left Bilbao in the direction of Vittoria, and I just couldn’t have predicted a stranger or riskier start to a fairly short trip. We drove through a small down just thirty minutes later, and we followed the signs that pointed us towards Monte Gorbea. We parked, grabbed our bags, and headed towards the trail.
I don’t think there is a more efficient set of hikers than two young men. We asked each other constantly, “Do you need a break?” When really we were asking “Am I better than you?” That prideful bit of banter in a couple of semi-experienced hikers is always somewhat of a dangerous thing. We aimed to hike to the top within two hours; and with our passive competition between us, we did just that. We passed horses and cows, but the higher you hike in the Basque country, the more likely you are to find a herd of sheep. They are the symbol of the region, and a symbol of the altitude. We hiked past a herd of sheep after hiking for an hour or so.
The hike is shaped in a way that makes it impossible to really know where the top is exactly. There were many moments where I felt like I knew where the peak was, but it always ended up being just a small step in the ladder. The competition between us died out as the mountain was obviously beginning to affect both of us. We took short breaks to drink water and look down below, but nothing more than thirty seconds at a time. We took pleasure in the brief plateaus and cursed the moments where we realized there was far more ahead of us. Eventually we came across a higher peak where fog rolled over the mountain. For a second I thought that we had finally made it to the last kilometer, but after all of the disappointing realizations now below us, I had my doubts.
Following the markers across the otherwise pathless incline, we weaved through the silky, wet terrain. The fog hugged us tight, and there was nowhere below us to look anymore. It was a real peaceful thing that moment, to be cut off from all sorts of things. We pointed to a stone marker ahead of us. And with the waning solace of daylight, we promised to head back after reaching it. Luckily for us, the cross signifying the top of Monte Gorbea was visible from our final marker. With delight and awe, we hiked with a newfound motivation in our step to reach the top.
Neither one of us wanted to hike back without reaching the top, but I knew that my roommate was scared of losing daylight. While he was crazy when it came to driving, I was just as maniacal about downhill hiking in the pitch dark: something that probably will never phase me as much as it should. I sauntered up the last 100 meters, while my roommate tried to herd me like a lost sheep to the overlooking cross. Now that we were reaching the top, he was finally starting to realize that only half of the hike was over — and that a good portion of what remained would be in the dark.
I handed him my hiking headlamp, which I brought for him to use in case it got dark quickly. He turned the light on immediately, even though it wasn’t necessary. It was at this point that he decided to tell me that his dad competes professionally in running down mountains like the one we were on. This was only my third time ever hiking, but I didn’t want to look inexperienced, so I sprinted after him over the black, tumbling rocks. We weaved; we jumped; and we flew, to each passing plateau until the light of the world was no longer with us. Our pace slowed and we hiked closer together, but within a few minutes of darkness the headlamp’s battery died. I could’ve cared less. I was excited to open my pupils to the wild, rocky madness in front of us. We spent a good five minutes trying to get the light to come back on, until I offered my iPhone as a flashlight. He seemed content with the idea, and we hiked cautiously towards the tree-line.
We warned each other when we found unstable patches of rocks and paid little attention to anything that existed outside of the 10 foot radius of the pale iPhone light. The path evened out and we eventually were able to hike normally again. At one point my roommate stopped in his tracks and whispered to me anxiously, to listen to a sound coming from my right. I heard nothing out of the normal, really. All I knew was that whatever the sound was, it was scaring the shit out of my roommate. What could it be? The famous serial-killer of the Basque country? Was it a legendary french hiking myth? There are no bears in this region, or mountain lions, or anything ferocious for that matter. He tried to explain it to me in hushed and frightened Spanish, but I was failing to understand the imminent danger. He switched to english for the brief warning of, “It sound of like wild hog, boar, and if you hear it, you climb to the tree immediately.”
That made a whole lot more sense to me. I was still incredulous to the idea that some husky 80 pound beast was about to charge us. I wasn’t risking it, though. I’ve never claimed to be a hog expert or anything. I picked up a couple of rocks from the path and held them in both of my hands. I felt like it was probably just the fear of hiking in the dark. It’s not that I’m more courageous; I just sort of tune out the situation and go to a happy place. And while we’re hiking through a dark forest, I’m just thinking about how badly I need to do laundry. Laundry isn’t scary. It’s warm and smells nice.
Interestingly enough, the only thing I was afraid would happen, happened in the worst way possible. A horse was blocking the majority of the path ahead of us, and the only part of the path remaining was the five feet at the tail end of the horse. Which if you know anything about horses, that’s the most dangerous place to stand. At that moment, I was content with hopping barb wire fences and getting my arms all cut up, rather than walking by the tail end of a horse in the middle of the night. My roommate assured me that it would be fine, and for some reason I listened. We walked past the horse without any problems, and walked back to his car for the ride home. I happily ate my ham sandwich and drank a bottle of water as I watched the headlights flicker through a small Spanish town. The highway unraveled in front of me, and another mountain in the Basque country was below my feet. While I only stood on the foggy, uproar of beauty for a short while — a thing that profound stays with you. Even when you drive into the city lights. Even when you pay attention to things that exist beyond the tumbling rocks in front of you: where the sound of your deliberate footsteps can’t be discerned from the roar of life.
So be it, I’ll hear the sound forever.