Bardenas Reales – The Way There

Make yourself comfortable. Get yourself something nice to drink or whatever. This is a long one. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

One day I found myself in Barcelona with some time to spare before having to come back to Barcelona. Don’t ask why, just trust me. Somebody very dear to me had told me of some natural park called Bardenas Reales an hour’s drive north of Zaragoza. It was supposed to be scenic and apparently parts of Game of Thrones were filmed there. More than enough reason to go, I figured. And thus, an adventure was born.

I got up early for my standard. I ate breakfast, which consisted of oats mixed in an oat-based yogurt with mango and some other fruit I now don’t remember. I liked it quite a lot. However, I wasn’t able to enjoy it, not really. I was stressed. Why was I stressed? I had a destination in mind and it felt like time was already running out. I also hadn’t traveled alone for some months. The idea of hitchhiking alone in a country where I didn’t really speak the language made me a little nervous.

I got out of the hostel and started walking in the direction of the metro station. Hitchhiking out of large cities can be tricky. Most of the time you have to take some form of public transportation to get to a good spot that is outside the city center. But no worries, thanks to I had a plan. I was going to take the metro, get out some 30 minutes after, walk for another 30 minutes, hop a fence and voilà; I’d reach a gas station on the highway. At that point, it was anybody’s guess how and in what time I’d reach my destination.

On the train, I saw elderly people dressed in an unusually fashionable and trendy manner. This, for some reason, made me kind of uncomfortable. A 70-something lady with leather pants and hair colored bright red? Where was I? The train window revealed run-down looking suburbs of Barcelona rushing by. After slowly emptying, the train eventually came up to my stop. I got out and started walking, accompanied by my heavy backpack loaded with food for a few days.

I walked at a brisk pace and got to the gas station earlier than expected. I saw some trucker in his cabin and wondered whether I should ask him if he’d give me a ride. After walking closer and seeing that he was shirtless and looked like he just woke up I decided it might not be the best idea. I faced the next decision just a few moments after when I had to choose what strategy to use to get a ride. I could either ask the drivers directly when they were filling up their cars with gas or I could just stand at the end of the gas station with my thumb out.

I ended up standing there with my thumb out. I have to admit, this decision was based on comfort rather than reason. The idea of approaching drivers and trying to somehow communicate my intent to them made me uneasy. Sticking to the method I knew felt easier (I had talked to drivers directly a few times before, but it was always in a language I was relatively comfortable speaking). I didn’t feel happy with myself for taking the cozy way. It felt like my insecurity was inhibiting and restricting me. That might also play a part in why I gave myself an hour of mindless standing, smiling, and “thumbing” before trying to talk to drivers directly.

It turned out I didn’t have to face my fear just yet, for just ten minutes later a young couple in a fancy Mercedes sports car stopped and rolled down the window. Now, for context, the highway branched off in two different directions in about 50 Kilometers. Drivers could either go in the direction of Lleida or Tarragona. I had to go in the direction of Lleida.
With the help of Google Translate, I shakily pronounced: “Vas a Lleida?” The driver, a jovial guy with a round, boyish face responded with a rapid burst of Spanish of which I understood absolutely nothing.
I decided to try again with: “Vas a Tarragona?”
To my logic he should have said yes now, which unfortunately wasn’t the case. Another rapid burst of unintelligible Spanish ensued. Just in case my face didn’t show my confusion well enough, I used one of my go-to phrases: “No comprendo”
The conversation then switched to English, which didn’t help because their English was about as good as my Spanish. After some talk which only added to the general confusion, I said: “You go Tarragona?”
To my surprise, I got a clear: “Yes”
My hopes suddenly rising I followed with: “I come with you?”
Again, I got a: “Yes”
And that was that, after stowing my backpack in the trunk we were off.

If you’re confused right now, thinking: “Wait, wasn’t he supposed to go in the direction of Lleida?” don’t be. I’m here to explain. I was simply going to get out at a gas station before the highway branched off and try to get a ride in the right direction there. See, everything makes sense now. To see clearly you have to be confused first. Socrates said so.

We had a fun time in the car communicating using Google Translate and chunks of Spanish and English. They were curious about me hitchhiking. They told me it doesn’t work in Spain because Spanish people don’t pick up hitchhikers. I told them they were Spanish people. Food for thought. As I learned, they were going to Valencia to visit family. I briefly thought about going to Valencia with them but decided against it. Thanks to the 140 kilometers an hour we were doing we got to the next gas station pretty quickly. After a goodbye selfie we parted ways and I found myself in the same situation again.

This time I felt more confident just standing at the end of the gas station and letting life handle the rest. One car stopped a few minutes after, unfortunately going in the wrong direction. No matter, it was good Spanish practice and another boost in morale. Life suddenly took on an almost euphoric quality. The present moment seemed clear and vivid. I was outside on a beautiful, sunny day, wearing a T-shirt in February. Cars were stopping. No appointments looming in the future. No real plan or idea of what was going to happen next and no need to know. Everything I owned and needed was in my backpack, sort of like a snail. Nobody else was with me, no considerations, wishes and desires but my own. No obligations of any kind. I could do anything. Freedom?

I must have radiated this positive energy. Two middle-aged women trying to look younger than they actually are stopped not long after. I was delighted to hear that they were going to Zaragoza. I spent the first part of the next two and a half-hour drive dozing and wondering how two people could talk this much without stop. The landscape started to change into an arid, earth-tone colored half-desert with unique little mountains. We then got talking to each other after breaking the ice during a stop at a gas station to circulate our legs (That’s what they said). It was really just a bathroom break. We had an amusing time, using the old Google Translator to talk about the finer points of life. I could tell they were rather fond of me. They were best friends going to Zaragoza for the weekend to party. I thought about staying in Zaragoza and hanging out with them, but once again, I felt the park pulling me. They dropped me off in the center of Zaragoza and we went our separate ways.

Despite being a good ride, I now found myself in the middle of a city and as you might remember, it can be tricky to hitch out of a city. I looked for wifi to check the almighty which basically said hitching north from Zaragoza is a bitch. Not letting myself get deterred, I wanted to try my luck with a gas station I found on Google Maps about an hour’s walk away. Looking up from my phone, I saw a bus station close by with a plan depicting all the bus-lines. After studying it for a little bit, I found one line which went close to the gas station saving me most of the walk. By that time it was about 1.30 pm and I was confident I’d get to the park on the same day. I headed in the direction of the next bus stop at which the bus I needed to take stopped.

A 15-minute walk later I arrived. While waiting for the bus, I ate an apple. A Pink Lady, it tasted pretty nice. It didn’t take too long for the bus to arrive. I decided I didn’t need to pay for a ticket and got comfortable in one of the seats. Unfortunately, I was the only passenger at that point and after looking at me for a few moments through the rearview mirror the bus driver gestured for me to come to him. When I got to him, he said something I didn’t understand but then again one didn’t have to have an IQ of 150 to figure out what he wanted. My first course of action was to play stupid tourist for a little while hoping he would let me off the hook. No luck, this was a persistent man. I then conceded to pay my fare, which didn’t get us any farther because he couldn’t take card payments and I had no cash on me. I am not a particularly proud person, so I resorted to simply begging him to let me ride for free, which didn’t work either. Sighing, I got off the bus.

I decided to look for another bus or try to catch the same one when it was fuller, hoping to slip past the watchful eye of the bus driver. Studying the by now familiar bus plan a stranger came up to me. I couldn’t quite tell whether he was homeless or just close to it. In any case, judging by the way his breath smelled, he had enjoyed more than just one casual midday drink. He started rambling on about god knows what while standing way to close to me. Not being in the best mood after I got kicked off the bus, I had little patience.
Without much love, I interrupted his monologue: “No comprendo Espagnol.”
Regardless of whether he didn’t hear me or just didn’t care, his speech continued uninterrupted.
With more force: “I don’t speak Spanish, leave me alone”
I turned back to the bus plan, trying to ignore him. He continued on.
By that point, I had become angry. My words took on a rough and cutting quality: “Kolleg i ha gad echt kei Lust, gang eifach weg.”
He certainly didn’t understand any Swiss German, but he got the message that I was rude and angry. This made him rude and angry. Beautiful how life works, isn’t it? He started getting loud, yelling: “Que buscas, que buscas?!” which, to my surprise, I understood because of some vacation I once took in Cuba. Realizing that the situation had the potential to get out of hand now, I quickly walked off reprimanding myself for losing my temper. I now couldn’t even look at the bus plan anymore because he was hanging around there.

I ended up channeling my anger into simply walking to the gas station. About an hour and some highway crossings later I got to it. At first, it didn’t seem like the worst spot. There were a good amount of cars going by. However, they were going quite fast and there were three lanes, meaning I could only really stop cars which were driving on the closest lane to me. While sticking my thumb out, I ate an orange and some almonds.

After an hour of not stopping anybody, I started anxiously glancing at the sun from time to time, trying to calculate how much daylight was left. I was starting to feel uneasy. Doubtful thoughts crowded my mind. Why didn’t I just stay in Zaragoza and enjoy the frivolous pleasures of the city? How far was I going to get today? Where was I going to sleep? What was I even doing, why am I going to this park? My growing unease drove me to start talking to the few drivers that stopped at the gas station. This time, it was easier approaching them and I was satisfied with how well I was able to communicate my intent. But still, no luck. Nobody had space, nobody was willing, nobody went in the right direction.

In the end, two guys in their 50’s that had been drinking beer since I arrived at the gas station stopped beside me after finishing their little get together, asking me where I wanted to go. I told them. I understood that they were willing to take me to a big truck stop 20 minutes from here where I’d have more chances of getting picked up. Having seen them drink one round after another for the past two hours didn’t deter me for one second, I gladly accepted their offer and felt relieved to finally leave this gas station.

In my experience, the most dangerous thing about getting into a car with a complete stranger is their driving. This ride was one of the more exciting ones. Doing close to 150 kilometers an hour using the lanes of the highway very liberally (Often two at the same time) while drinking one more beer, gesturing vividly and passionately arguing about something related to politics with his mate had me on the edge of my seat. Why pay for a rollercoaster? They were proper lads though, just winding down after a day’s work. We talked about travel, beer, Morocco and hashish. Fun times.

Sadly, after checking out the truck stop, I found it nearly empty. Most truckers seemed to be sleeping there overnight. Few cars were going in the right direction. The sun was now edging dangerously close to the horizon. It became clear that I had to move somewhere else. The park was now tantalizingly close, infusing me with a desperate sense of hope. I saw a gas station not too far away on Google Maps. I wanted to keep on moving. To not be stuck again. So I started walking. I had to walk on the highway for a short stretch. This reminded me of a time when I was a kid and driving somewhere with my parents. On the radio, they warned drivers about someone walking on the highway. Back then, I couldn’t fathom why someone would ever do that. Heh.

Reaching the gas station was no cause for celebration. There was exactly one car. It belonged to an older gentleman talking to the gas station employee. I asked him if he could take me to Tudela, the last town before the park started. He said no. Then he said a lot more things I didn’t understand. The gas station employee, a personable, though-looking woman in her late 30’s with kind eyes realized what was going on and said: “Wait here for other car”. For some reason, that managed to calm me down. A little human compassion can go a long way.

A rejection, an offer to take me back to the truck station I had just come from and an interesting sign-language exchange with a Romanian truck driver later I was watching the sunset sitting in the now deserted gas station, praying for something, anything. Then Lorenzo pulled in.

With time, I started developing a feeling for which kind of car is more likely to stop when hitchhiking. One type of car which always gets me hopeful is the little transporter type car (Sorry, I can’t really describe it better) that is often used by builders and craftsmen. Lorenzo was driving one of those. While keeping a respectful distance I walked up to the window. He rolled it down. I asked whether he would take me to Tudela. He said no. I said thank you anyway. When he walked past me on his way to the little gas station store he said something like: “Someone else will surely take you”. After a few minutes, I looked inside and caught him looking at me. Something in the look told me he was thinking about taking me with him. It turned out my feeling was right, for when he came out of the store he asked me where I wanted to go, and after telling him he simply said: “Vamos”. Legend.

We got on well together. I used all the Spanish I learned up to that point to manage some form of conversation. He runs his own building business, which, to him, is a question of principle. Despite it being hard sometimes, he could never work for someone else anymore. He also told me a bit about the area and the different regions of Spain. While driving, he likes to smoke a lot of cigarettes and to listen to a podcast about business and self-employment. We eventually rode past his home, making me realize that he was driving me out of his way some 20 minutes (One way). As I said, Legend.

I was conflicted about what I’d do once I get to Tudela. I could try to continue hitching to the park (Which was half an hour’s drive away), or I could just camp outside Tudela and walk or hitch there tomorrow. Hitching seemed unlikely because it was dark by now. The idea of sleeping in my tent just outside the city made a bit uncomfortable. Should I just get a room? Maybe there was a hostel there? One more thing worrying me was the fact that I was running low on water. I had less than a liter left, which meant cooking dinner would most likely mean not having enough drinking water. I either needed to buy some water in Tudela or find a source of water and purify it. For some reason, I didn’t feel like taking the easy, comforting way again. I wanted to prove to myself that I can survive on my own, without buying water or the safety of accommodation.

After some more driving, I saw that my inner struggle was unnecessary. The kindness of Lorenzo knew no bounds, for we were now driving past Tudela and headed for the park. I had told him earlier that the park was my actual destination, without intending for him to drive me there. Now that it was dark, he didn’t want to let me get out in the middle of nowhere. This meant an additional 30 minutes there and back for him. Poor man. Imagine driving home after a long day at work, then being too kind to not pick up some random kid stranded in a gas station and ending up driving almost two extra hours. I profusely thanked him as I got out in the last little town before the park. He also got me to promise that if I ever build a house in Switzerland I’d hire him for the job.

It was 8 pm. I was almost there. It had been a long day, but it wasn’t over yet. I walked through the little town. It had a much different feeling to it than any other place I’ve been to in Spain. It seemed deserted, or forgotten. It gave me no chance to change my mind. There was no store, no hotel, no nothing. I was left with nothing but the one hour walk to the park. I ate a banana, put on my jacket and started walking up the dark road. I was accompanied by a sudden surge in energy and optimism. I chose all of this. I wanted to be right here, right now. For what reason, I couldn’t quite tell. Not Yet.

I began reflecting: Why had I been so stressed for most of the day? What was the worst that could happen? I had everything I needed. Tent, food, and enough water to not die of thirst. I could’ve done everything I did in a relaxed manner. I could’ve savored the present moment much more, not constantly thinking and worrying about the future. What were the things I needed to feel safe and secure? What does it feel like to not need those things anymore? A kind of mental fog started lifting. I started seeing in what ways I’m restricting my own freedom; my own quality of life.

And then, just like that, I was there. I couldn’t really see anything, it was dark. But I had crossed the boundary, the little line on the map, drawn by someone at some point. I didn’t know what was going to happen in the coming days, what I was going to do, why I had come. But I was here, that was the important thing for now.

I looked for a spot to set up my tent. There was none. The vegetation made it impossible. Little shrubs everywhere, leaving no space for a tent. I didn’t mind, I was tired. Not having to set up the tent was just as fine with me. I was a bit worried about the cold, but there was nothing I could do now. I eventually found a suitable spot for my sleeping pad. I ate a little of something I now don’t remember. I didn’t cook anything, because I never had the chance to fill up on water. I went to sleep wearing all the layers of clothing I had, snuggled up in my sleeping bag, looking at the stars. It was beautiful. I was warm. I slept well.

Thank you for reading, it truly means a lot to me. I hope this wasn’t too in detail. Part 2 coming soon (Soon could mean anything).

Valentin Raphael

11,065 thoughts on “Bardenas Reales – The Way There”

  1. Beautiful writing! It’s a delight to dive into your journey and specially your thoughts and emotions

    Thanks for sharing

    – SVDTY

  2. It feels to me like having to continue to read once beginning. Your story takes me with you on your journey sharing your thoughts, your feelings, your fears. Not knowing what happens next is a chance for experience and forces to let go. Normally we are not so good in. We have to know what happens next. We have to be the one who decides. Having to deal with that the whole day in a foreign country, well… You let me take part of that in a deep and very personal way. I see you close to desperation praying … and a real gentleman named Lorenzo appears. Just wonder-ful. I like your story very much. I would like to know what happend next. Let us know please.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write this comment. It’s motivating and beautiful to see such appreciation and understanding.

  3. Good read about you my friend! Hope you’re fine! Miss ours conversation in Zaragoza! I’m back in Brazil now, hope than one day you to visit. See you!

    1. Hey Daniel, nice to hear from you! If I’m ever in Brazil I’ll definitely contact you :).

  4. Really start missing my deep conversations with you while reading your blog.
    At the sime time i am so proud how you handle every situation, how you “save” yourself from your one negative feelings, how you accept them and move on and convert them in something positive!

    Liebi Grüess 🙂

  5. I am extremely inspired along with your writing skills and also with the format in your blog. Is this a paid subject matter or did you customize it your self? Either way stay up the excellent high quality writing, it’s rare to look a great weblog like this one nowadays.

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