1980 was a cold year, not unlike 2008. I spent the spring in rainy Northern Spain, doing geological survey work, for my first degree. That's when a dead cow started to interfere with my life.
La Rioja, Northern Spain, 1980. I had settled down with Matthias in the abandoned Salinillas village church, which was nothing but a miserable den under a leaky roof. We muddled through the cold and rainy spring with many coffees, Veterano Osborne’s, Jamon Serrano and red wine in the evening bodegas. Coffee and cognac kept the heart warm, and so did the simple, yet sincere friendship we received. In short, we were part of the village.
On the few days it didn’t rain we went out in the field to do geological surveying and sampling activities. Since most of the villagers had moved to the cities, and slaughtered their bush goats, thorny underbrush had conquered the slopes of the Sierra de la Cantabria. It was tough going. Some days we crawled along wild boar tunnels, when dense shrubs prevented us from walking.
Every evening we returned to our dark, wet and electric power-less abode with blackened and soaked army coats, stripe-painted by the charcoal of last year’s forest fires. One day we almost got shot by the Guardia Civil. They thought we were from the ETA (the Basque separatist guerilla), or just regular smugglers.
The mountain trails we saw on our 1956 black-and-white air photographs weren’t there any longer, abandoned and invaded by thorny thicket. The topographic contour maps from 1954 weren’t a great help either. In fact, they were extremely lousy, and General Franco’s cartographers had forgotten to map more than one lonely valley, and hidden gorges were missing (I couldn’t really blame them- these were thorny and rough mountains, and the La Rioja bars were certainly more entertaining). Only a few access roads remained open.
The dirt road to ‘my’ part of the Sierra originated in Payueta, a hamlet of a few old farmhouses that might have seen happier times. Only one stone house remained inhabited by some angry unwashed and unshaven villagers and equally filthy and angry chain-dogs. I wasn’t a welcome visitor, but I knew no other good alternative to access my terrain. From Payueta, the dirt road led up to the mountains. I could reach every spot of my mapping area with a comfortable hike distance of 1.5 hours.
Life was good until a dead cow interfered with my geological survey plans. One cold morning in May, rainy clouds were hanging in the mountains. As usually I hiked up into my terrain, with the intention to map a profile up on the mountain’s crest. After passing Payueta, I saw a dead cow on the side of ‘my’ access road at the edge of the valley. Dumped in the open, it lay there, and nobody seemed to care. As the weather was cool, there weren’t too many flies buzzing around. Keeping one’s breath and walking fast solved the problem at this point in time.
In June, however, the weather changed and the cow’s corpse stunk to heaven. Zillions of colored flies were buzzing around, whilst vultures circled a merciless hot sky. I couldn’t stand the stench and choose another, by far longer access road winding up the hill from the village of Berganzo. However, luck wasn’t on my side. There was a big geological problem, and the old map I had was clearly wrong. Whenever I came closer to its solution, invisible arrows seemed to point to the stinky edge of the valley. The mother of all problems was hidden somewhere around this rotting corpse. Gradually I approached the area from different angles, and solved, step-by-step, the complex salt-diapir-induced fracture pattern, in the company of flies and disheartening stench. After two weeks of painful detail work, I had solved the problem to full satisfaction. It was done.
When I finished my survey notes it was already late in the day. The way back to Berganzo would take another two-hours-hike, and it would be dark by then. I decided to risk a shortcut through dense, unknown brush, by-passing the stinking corpse with the aim of regaining the Payueta road. However, this so-called shortcut turned out to be the most miserable, God-forsaken thicket I ever had seen or felt in my life, a dark-green variety of hell. The entire bush was buzzing with wild hornets, the ground sizzled with vipers and thorny vines transcended the gloomy shade like a cursed web. I looked around and asked myself: “what have I done? Where am I?” Meter by meter I fought my way through the thorns, cutting a path through spiny bushes until my shirt was in tatters and blood tainted my face and arms.
Finally faint light broke through the canopy and I reached the meadow as dusk fell. I was back in ‘my’ world. My heart was beating wildly. Some two hundred yards away loomed the rotting corpse, wobbling as the vultures of dusk dived in and out for the last pieces of smelly flesh. Its hollow-eyed and corned head pointed at me. It seemed to talk to me: “you got what you deserved, you silly gringo bastard.” Then I realized that my trusted watch was gone. I must have lost it during my fierce battle with the thicket. But nothing would make me go back into that hellish mess.
I gave a last look to the cow and the evil forest. I headed for the valley with the notion in my heart that little can be achieved without sacrifices. I called the locality Vaca Muerta, and marked the spot on my map. Anyone out here would recall a dead cow. In a lonesome countryside, everything is remembered and the ghosts of the past take their time to disappear in a bottomless, opaque history.
(c) 2008 by Franz L Kessler