We walk the Cares gorge, beginning at its upper reach in Cain where nobody smiles and landlords tell you that you can’t use the wifi, even when it says “Wifi” on the outside of their bar. Oh, they’ll confirm that they have it – but it isn’t for you. Where your own landlord tells you that you can’t check in because check-in time is noon (this at eleven fifty, in the middle of nowhere). Seriously, people of Cain – cheer.the.fuck.up. I’m left wondering what the hell happened here, that they should be like this.
The weather falls well short of optimal – a grey and drizzly day that necessitates my horribly ineffective Primark rain jacket and a poncho from the gift shop for K. I finally renounce my long-standing anti-extendable hiking stick stance and buy myself an extendable hiking stick. We set off.
It very quickly becomes apparent that, despite what has been a very irritating morning – the smell of burning rubber from Polly’s brake pads, annoying news on Gibraltar/Spain relations, rain, Cain – this is going to be one hell of a walk. The river Cares has gouged out this gorge between the central and western massifs of the Picos de Europa; the mountains themselves are dizzyingly tall masses of solid rock on such a scale as to have me wondering if my eyes are deceiving me. In some places the gorge is a mile deep.
Starting at this end, the path – which was originally blasted out of the rock to facilitate maintenance of the canal that feeds a hydro-elecric plant – is close to the water. As the gorge drops away the path remains level and before long the river is far below. Vertigo-inducingly so. I’m a reasonably experienced walker and I have never experienced a walk so level and easy through such spectacular country, though the reality that death lies just a foot or so to one’s right does add a certain frisson.
The weather, while making photography difficult, adds atmosphere – the upper rocks are cloaked in mist and the river as well as the numerous falls that feed it are bustling with busy water. Dippers flit around like errant darts, bending and twisting in the air. We stop for shelter here and there in a tunnel or beneath an overhang.
Another benefit of the rain is that it seems to have put people off – they say the gorge can be unpleasantly crowded in the high season but today, although there are a few others, our peace is undisturbed.
As it deepens, it widens. We reach a relatively open valley from where we can see the path make a brief ascent in the distance. We know that this precurses the steep descent into Poncebos. Having no desire to climb back out of Poncebos, we elect not to descend into it, and open up our cheese sandwiches, our little treat for the half-way mark. This will be where we turn around.
Although it’s a very good cheese sandwich, it loses my attention about halfway through when I find myself reaching for my camera. The seemingly impenetrable dull grey of the sky has suddenly given way to sunlight and pockets of blue. In just a few moments the scene is transformed. As rays play across the gorge the mist is burned away, creating a patchwork of separate little landscapes – the newly illuminated river on the green valley bed, the now back-lit fog around the peaks that parts to reveal the mini-forests that cling to the rock walls up there, the ever-changing patterns of light and shadow on the slopes, the mountainous distances beyond the end of the gorge.
Our perseverance is being rewarded with light. I spend a precious few minutes firing off shots like a paparazzi, then we start out on the return. As we approach Cain once again, we cross the now near river where a little wooden bridge has been put and K bathes her feet in a rock pool while I get a few more photographs in the persisting sun.
Fittingly, the sky clouds over again as we get back to Cain and are permitted to check in to a nasty little room. We brush the dead flies from our bedspread and shower, then think about something to eat. In a town this size, the selection process is brief and at eight thirty we go to the one and only restaurant in town we can see any mention of in guide books. The lady who greets us has a highly-strung air about her and a clipped tone but we quickly decide, based on the few quick smiles she flashes our way, that she’s the nicest person we’ve met around here. I order some goat and we ask for a bottle of wine from León.
We talk some troubled talk, not perhaps as wide-eyed as we were this time last year, near here in the mountains of Asturias; changes lie ahead, not all of them under our control. Those that will be are if anything more intimidating. There is an easy parallel to be made between the day’s hike and the patterns of darkness and light around us; at any given moment we are either working or playing, reaping or sowing, in the light or in one of the shadowy cracks and crevices that will shine again of course, but only when the rays of an indifferent sun deign to illuminate them with an aloof, unknowing sweep.
Someone bursts into tears in the kitchen. A woman, her sobs uncontrolled and from the depths; it is the horrible music of disaster, of bereavement, of the worst news imaginable.
I pour us another glass.
Our tense dueña emerges from back there with a smile stapled to her face. She makes a ‘nothing’ shape in the air by crossing and uncrossing her hands.
“No pasa nada,” she practically sings to us as she leaves by the front door.
Some young men who have been hanging around and who I assume are family start milling in and out of the front door on whatever urgent business. In a town twenty metres wide and thirty long I wonder where they can be going. Phone calls are being made. The dueña re-emerges from the kitchen – she must have done a round of the building – with my goat.
“Todo bien!” she trills.
A short while later the (still sobbing) woman is escorted through the dining area to a gloomy room at the far end and that’s the last we hear of her. The others give the impression of being a little impatient with her, of not caring as much as she does about whatever it is.
We go through with the meal. For all I know this shit happens here every day. I hope for the woman that it isn’t too bad, that she doesn’t find herself in the dark too long. The others have soldiered on magnificently and so must we, I suppose, in our own unsighted ascent through shadow and light. Bad things will happen and so will good. Perhaps the best we can do is to discern some pattern in it all, of effort and reward.