This is the moment when we were still happy.
We were in Malaga, Spain, at the Alcazaba, which is essentially a fortified palace built in the eleventh century, and then modified for several successive centuries. (Because that’s what people did back then. Somebody would build a building, then somebody would complain about whatever, and somebody else would head to Home Depot for new supplies.) We had just purchased our tickets, which allowed us to cavort about this palace as well as the Castillo de Gibralfaro further up the hill.
It was the “further up the hill” part that would destroy my soul.
But the pending destruction was unknown at this point. We darted about the lovely grounds of the palace, marveling at this and that and wondering why so many tourists are such asshats, throwing crap on the ground when they are done with it. We took lots of pictures, naturally, because doing so is an instinctual thing, building up mounds of photos that no one will ever care about except you.
And as you can see in the above photo, I was in the midst of posing for another glamour shot to update my modeling portfolio that doesn’t exist when my partner decided that what we really needed right at that moment was a good photo-bomb. You can also see that I was amused by his antics. This was before he became The Bastard That Made Me Walk Up That Mountain.
Now, before we proceed to the desecration of my spirit, you should be aware of two things. One, I was a bit under the weather when we arrived in Malaga for this part of our Spanish adventure. I had been fine during the majority of our trip, when we were ensconced in the little village of Cuevas del Becerro. We frolicked and cavorted and inhaled adult beverages with an alacrity that was stunning. However, a few days before we planned to head for Malaga, I got that annoying throat tickle which signifies that your respiratory system is about to mutiny and attempt to drown you in the Oceano de Phlegma. By the time we motored down from yonder mountains toward Malaga, with the accompanying increase in atmospheric pressure that such a move entails, my head felt like it was going to explode if someone so much as belched three blocks over.
Moment of reflection: Now that I ponder, I realize that I fell prey to unsavoriness the day after we did our day trip to Gibraltar, which means I probably picked up some bizarre monkey disease, because that’s how it goes in my life. (No, I did not do anything with the monkeys, I was just near them.) Other folks get a common sniffle and then they soldier on, whilst I end up in an isolation tent in the 1880s, with Clara Barton mopping my fevered brow and quietly motioning to the other nurses that they should go ahead and sell off my meager belongings.
Back to the scene at the Alcazaba in Malaga, and the other important thing to know about this day: It was extremely humid. This is not surprising, as Malaga is on the Mediterranean, and cities on seas are humid. That’s how it works. (I am always surprised when visitors to New Orleans or Charleston return home and then whine about the curly hair and the constant sheen they sported whilst on vacay. You see all that water right over there? Yeah, it’s called an ocean. Problem solved.)
Of course, it’s not fair, really, for me to make jest of people who complain about the humidity and then turn around and do so myself, but life is a rough ride and you don’t always get a trophy. As you can also note in the above photo, I’m already starting to get a bit moist in the midsection, as that’s where all my beer fat lives and that extra padding is the first to complain when atmospheric conditions are not suitable. The situation would dramatically deteriorate shortly after this captured moment of slightly-damp joviality.
We finished up with the wonders of Alcazaba at a point on the grounds that was the furthest away from the entrance gate. (And this place is big. It’s not like some other tourist sites, where you visit the birthplace of Betsy Ross and discover that she lived in a two-room hut and the tour is over in seven minutes. Where the hell did she have room to make a flag?) And as we stood at this far point, gazing up the hill at our next destination, Castillo de Gibralfaro, we realized that we don’t know how to get there.
We could see loads of folks traipsing along this paved pathway thing a fair distance away, one that seemed to be leading somewhat indirectly to the Castillo, which was even further away, but we didn’t see any signs saying “If you want to join the festive parade, go this way.” There were just intimidating walls everywhere, mocking us, and preventing us from joining the exodus of the chosen people out of Egypt. Surely we didn’t have to go all the way back down this stupid hill, out the entrance, and then start climbing the stupid hill again.
But we did.
So I’m already unimpressed with the second phase of our excursion, mentally preparing a scathing missive to be slapped on the Expedia website. (“You should warn people about this!”) We worked our way downwards, fighting past all the newly-arrived and naïve tourists who were unaware that if you wanted to go to the castle as well there’s a really big surprise waiting for them. (And no, we didn’t forewarn any of them, because they were still happy and we were not. Sometimes life works that way.)
We got to the bottom of the hill, pivoted to the left, and then pivoted again, and there we found the deceptively-innocent launch point for the pathway to the stars. At this point, there was only a slight grade to the climb. But as we surveyed the scene, our heads tilting back as our eyes tried to trace the arc of ascension, we realized that some of the people in the distance were really, really tiny and they were really, really high above us. This was going to take three days, I already knew it.
My partner: “Are you up for this? With the congestion and all?”
Me, inside voice: “Are you out of your mind!” Outside voice: “Sure, let’s do it.” Because, love.
Off we went, and the first five minutes or so were lovely. A modest incline, a slight breeze, and tons of cats running around to cheer us on. (I haven’t really figured out the cat thing with Malaga, or southern Spain in general. They are legion.) Then we turned a corner and encountered our first flight of stairs. A long flight, with those weirdly-spaced steps that make you wonder who the designer had in mind when he sketched them out. It certainly wasn’t anyone with the average human gait.)
And it went downhill from there, even though we were going uphill. The pleasantness and ease of the first stretch was tossed aside, with the designers assuming that if we had made it this far, some basic competitive instinct would kick in and we would endure whatever they threw at us. And throw at us, they did.
The switchbacks started, zig-zags with gradients that were sometimes 30 degrees, sometimes 40 or 45, the kind where you have to struggle along in a very unsexy, bent-over manner, grunting and swearing. I’m in decent shape for my age, having traipsed far and wide on countless quests in numerous countries, but this was brutal and unnatural.
And I couldn’t breathe.
My lungs were filled with yuck. If I took too deep of a breath, I would go into a coughing spasm and there would be… product. And this product is not easy to get rid of in a public setting. I tried to be discreet about it at first, getting as far off the path as I could and leaving a little package for the cats to later discover and then bring up at the next neighborhood association meeting. About halfway up the hill, I no longer cared. If a cough attack hit, I took care of it right there in front of Jesus and a Benetton Brigade of tourists from nations far and wide. Shame was no longer an issue. I wanted to live!
Luckily, some decent soul somewhere along the line knew that this was a spirit-depleting sojourn, and there were a number of “rest areas” where people could sit for a bit and update their wills. I took full advantage of those spots, wheezing, dripping in sweat, and feeling my underwear disintegrate and drip down my leg. Additionally, there were plenty of other folks who were walloped by the climb, diminishing my disappointment with my performance. (There was one Asian family who, from what I could tell based on vocal tones and body language, entered dangerous divorce territory, with the wife vowing to never have sex with the husband again whilst their ashen-faced children looked on in mute acceptance and waited for oxygen masks to drop from the trees.)
Of course, there were also those people, the super-fit freaks who live for this kind of mess, racing past us in their matching designer sportswear, nary a drop of sweat on their streamlined bodies. (And yes, some of them were senior citizens, thereby re-upping my shame.) I thought about hating them but I really didn’t have the strength to do it. Besides, there’s really no valor in making a climb that you have trained to do. The true glory is in making a climb that you never should have even considered. Right? Right.
So I kept going. Hacking and wheezing and possibly (you can’t prove it!) having moments of extreme gaseousness. (I don’t know what was in the meds that I had procured at the local farmacia, but I shouldn’t have been surprised by their expulsive power considering the transaction had basically consisted of me pointing at internet images on my phone whilst the pharmacist cursed my lack of Spanish.) I was a wet, burbling wreck of a creature. Wretched is a good word to use here. Wretched.
I should point out that my partner, throughout all this madness, was uber supportive. He kept saying that we could turn around at any time, with no angst or retribution. Naturally, such exemplary behavior should be respected and rewarded, and I did so, by not throwing him or myself over the railing. Instead, I kept going, fixated on the prospect that eventually, in some future century, we would reach the top of this damn mountain.
And we did. Hours later, we arrived at a junction point where you had two travel options. There was a long, arcing curve of pathway that took you to the end, and an extremely taxing set of stairs that greatly shortened the distance but might decimate you with the exertion. We did the stairs, three at a time, resting in between, and then three more. At the summit, there was an additional choice. Enter the castle grounds on the left, or pause for refreshments at a small venue on the right that proffered water and beer.
I drank more water in that one moment than the sum total of my water consumption for the past fifty years.
Then we went to the castle. Even though there really isn’t a castle, in the traditional sense. It’s a footprint, an echo. Walls and ramparts and watch towers and ghosts.
And it was extraordinary. The history, the sense of another time, the comingled but disparate, faded voices of so many people over so many years, and the incredible, magnificent views. I was tired, exhausted really, but the spark reignited and we explored every inch. You don’t always know what might be waiting for you at the end of a climb, which is why we should climb every chance we get, even if we’re gassy and can’t breathe.
Originally published in “Bonnywood Manor” on 10/28/16. Minimal revisions made for this post. I’m still in the midst of kicking off NaNoWriMo as well as entertaining visiting family, but I hope to get back in the swing of things shortly. Stay tuned.