Escape and evasion

First day at home without really thinking about work. I have spent the whole of this first week of lock down figuring out how to lay off staff legally, physically shut the buildings down (electrics, gas, water – something we have never done in 20 years), solicit loans from the banks, message providers and property owners, try to interpret the governments meandering promises of help for PYMES (small to medium sized businesses). I even managed to completely clear my desk.

A happy man at last. The first smile after a week of burdens and worries – Ellie and I have just finished one of Fernando’s work outs.

Back at home it was a week without exercise. The adrenalin and fear of potentially losing my business has pushed me through the last few days without considering the need to get out. I might have drunk a few too many glasses of wine but that is only a temporary habit, I’m good at breaking it. Seven days after shut down I’m more sanguine, more optimistic, after all with everybody (indeed everybody, all around the world) in the same boat my problems will slowly get dissolved in the giant soup of global meltdown. I will fret, but not too much.

“I had a fine prospect of the whole ring of moorland. I saw the car speed away with two occupants, and a man on a hill pony riding east. I judged they were looking for me, and I wished them joy of their quest.”

John Buchan, The Thirty Nine Steps

Here in Spain ‘lock down’ means just that. No runs, no bike rides, no swimming. Of course I’ve always broken rules, life would be boring without doing that so I consider a run, after all I can leave my house through the garden over an old arab aqueduct without even venturing on to the road that runs past my house. From here I can lope a kilometre before I hit the main road near Vejer’s small industrial estate. At this point I will have to keep a sharp eye out for potential pursuers, I’m almost hoping there’ll be a chase across moorland John Buchan style. I’ll take a dog, more of a run than a walk, if I get stopped I can always say I was chasing the dog. (Eyebrow raising policeman emoji).

Over the hill

I jog along the trail, the fields bright green with young wheat swaying in the wind, towards Cañada Ancha (a cañada is a droving trail and ancha means wide, you can work it out). I cross the main road to the track that goes up to Abejaruco – no Guardia Civil in sight, just white vans. What is usually a busy road is now almost empty with the occasional delivery trucks and white vans speeding along. I run past empty huertas, cross the old bridge where somebody has dumped a load of polystyrene and up the hill taking the right hand fork. 2,5km. in and I haven’t seen a soul. Milly’s off the lead, sniffing out rabbits amongst the purple vetch and wild spring garlic. The track has been resurfaced recently with a decent layer of albero so my ankles are saved the twisting they usually get on this section. I wheeze up to the top of the hill, the acebuches (wild olives) and an old rusty tractor welcoming me as I crown the top, a mild breeze cooling me.

I stop at the restored finca to the right of the track and go through a gap in the hedge on to the house’s terrace. I seem to be almost at the same height as low scudding clouds sending showers across the distant Atlantic. I can’t see Africa today but the hills of the Sierra de la Plata and the Sierra de Ojén loom out of the dark lushness heavy with damp. I can see distant pinpricks of red Retinto cattle mooching on the plain while a couple of storks wheel above the flooded waters of the river Barbate which has spilled on to the marshes below Vejer.

I feel rather guilty to be honest as I know I’m privileged to be here. None of my friends in Vejer go out, and Rafa was stopped by the Guardia Civil for taking his dog into Las Quebradas, the woods behind Vejer. They’ve now been sealed off with red tape across the road. I’m possibly one of a handful of people in the whole province who can go for a run or walk without being seen. On one hand it feels so good to be out in the open air but on the other hand where’s my solidarity with my fellow men?  I do though know I won’t be seeing anyone so social distancing won’t even be an issue and a healthy body helps a healthy mind I convince myself. How tough it must be to locked up in a flat with just a Youtube fitness class for company or an abusive husband and 3 noisy children.

The run continues, 4km. in and Milly has slowed down a bit. She knows the route well enough so I’m not bothered if she lags behind to sniff out a vole or a partridge nest in the hedgerow. The track has narrowed to a path with breathtaking views across La Janda on one side with the peaks of Grazalema in the far distance. Two marsh harriers wheel and turn across a field below me, how happy they seem and always in company. I presume they are a couple, the ones I see near El Palmar are equally never more than a couple of wing beats away from their partner. The hedge is a tangle of canes, cactus (it seems the cochineal bug hasn’t killed them here) and native lentisco (mastic in English) which when their red berries are out I pop them in my mouth and chew them, yes that’s the origin of the word masticate, they’re an interesting gummy resinous flavour and texture.

When we were kids in Beirut me and the bro’s would chew on bright yellow wild sorrel from the garden. At this time of year I’m running through swathes of it lining the path, here it’s called ‘vinagreta’ for its strong sharp flavour. Barbie pink rock roses are just coming out too, so it’s an early start for a jumble of colours for this first day of spring. My shoes are damp from running through the grasses, the scent of clean air, the rise and fall of my heavy breathing, the movement of my arms all combine to lull me into a sense of complete isolation. Am I alone in the world? Where am I? How did I get here? The lack of oxygen to my brain is clearly affecting me. I let out a very loud whoop of energy confident that nobody will hear me. If I drop dead right now I won’t be found for days, perhaps by then the Griffon Vultures (notably absent today) will have scavenged me and spirited me away with them to roam the skies above Vejer for ever.

My Suunto watch beeps me back to reality, 5km. and the route is turning slowly back towards Vejer. This is one of my favourite parts of the run as the narrow path broadens out in to a sandy track and I run through a grove of olives gone wild (not wild olives which are a different species). For some reason this place seems timeless, I have visions of Romans (Libreros the old 2nd. century settlement is less than half a click from here) in tunics and sandals lolling under trees chewing on fatty sausage while their wine goes vinegary in the sun. Donkeys beat flies off their backs with their long tails and lizards are chased through the undergrowth by little roman children. I leave my dreams behind, the track here is dotted with thigh high dwarf palms whose spiky leaves I strive to avoid. In the early summer the plateau here sports fields loaded with heavy hanging sunflowers. In a summer sunset (it’s so hot this is the only time to go for a run) it feels as though I have sunk in to a golden bath of dusky glowing flowers. 

The path narrows now and drops down in to a glen where a spring runs through canes irrigating a patch of land cleared among dried out elms and spanish willows. I spy a silver caravan surrounded by maize, leek tops, cabbages and  feathery carrots all laid out in perfect rows. There is no smoke from this lonely shelter, it looks like a survivalists retreat where nobody’s survived. Km. 6 and the path cuts through a stony cleft and takes me to the highest point of the route with views across the fields towards La Muela and if I was just a little higher I’d see the beaches of El Palmar and Conil. My knees take a pounding, I hate running downhill, easy on the breath but hard on the joints. I put Milly back on the lead as we near Cañada Ancha, her tongue heavily lolling she insists on lying in a puddle while I jog on the spot beside her. ‘Chop chop’ I tell her, ‘no time to waste, the police could come along at any minute’. This spurs her on (either that or the thought of a big bone back home) and we rapidly cross the road on to the last stretch home.

I let Milly off the lead again and just at that moment a huge buck brown hare bounds across the path, takes a quick glance at us and hares (of course) it’s way homeward. Milly streaks off but the exertions of the day don’t help and within a 100 metres she’s given up the chase. Her tongue hangs loose as she sits on the stony track waiting for me. We turn in to a field sown with potatoes their green leaves sprouting happily as if just released from the incarceration of the neat rows. Here one can tell the intervention of man more than high up on Abejaruco which seems more organic and definitely more wild. There are less trees, the sorrel is non-existent but the wild grasses are strong and I know that within a couple of months we’ll be seeing poppies lining these fields. Km. 8 and we’re home, skirting the potato field we cross the old aqueduct straight in to our garden. An hour on the trot and I didn’t see a single person. Muffin is waiting at the gate, black, hairy and as chubby as a baby bear. He licks Milly’s face and they run up together to the house. Home sweet home.

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