Parallel: Riding Beyond Montanas Vacias
Earlier this fall, Ernesto Pastor mapped out and rode a track that closely paralleled his popular Montañas Vacías route in rural Spain but used all new roads and trails. Read on to find a vivid gallery of photos from his trip and a reflection on how even slight changes of perspective on the places we know well can lead to vastly different experiences…
Words and photos by Ernesto Pastor (@montanasvacias)
Mid-September. The streets of Pozondón, Spain, are gradually returning to normal. Summer residents return to their urban lives after the hustle and bustle of the summer months. I was stopped for a break and a bite to eat in the village’s main square when I began to notice a question being repeated among those who remained.
“When are you leaving?” I could hear a stab of sadness and resignation each time it was asked.
“This afternoon,” or “The day after tomorrow,” seemed to be the most common response, and it sounded as if there would be no one left in a few days’ time.
“So, it’s time for you to take care of your grandchildren?”
“There’s no other choice.” Even more resignation.
The same people who had to leave 40 years ago are now unable to return. Now retired, they’re anchored in the city to this new working time spent supporting their children and grandchildren. And those children and grandchildren set foot in the village less and less every year. I overheard exchanges like these countless times during the trip.
One Step Further
For several months I had been looking for a route that—leaving from home my home in Teurel—could excite me and take me out of my comfort zone. After a few years of giving a hand to travellers coming to ride the Montañas Vacias route, and it being my usual playground, I knew that stepping out of that comfort zone would mean going one step further.
One step further. That’s how the idea came about: why not go around the Montañas Vacías loop following a parallel line just outside the original track? A line linking areas I had to leave out of the original route and including corners yet to be discovered. One where I had to improvise as I went along. I absolutely loved the idea.
The new route I sketched out fit the bill perfectly; it was a completely different experience from the official route, while still cycling only 10 to 20 kilometres away from it. I figured I probably wouldn’t meet many cyclists, and I assumed that, despite being so close, nobody in the villages would have heard of Montañas Vacías before (both of which turned out to be true). It was so curious to see how just by slightly varying your route—or routine—you can have a vastly different experience. And if you go another few kilometres further, you’re sure to get another equally stunning and perhaps entirely different route.
Finding a new sense of freedom is one of the most interesting aspects of this kind of trip. Sometimes you may choose to follow a set route, perhaps out of necessity, but other times you can simply use it as a reference to pick your own path and explore new options. In the latter case, the combinations are unlimited. These two approaches might just be different kinds of journeys, or perhaps they represent an evolution in our path as cyclists. In our first experiences in bikepacking, we generally prefer to follow a set line. However, as we evolve, our experience tends to guide us to go a little further off the beaten track. It’s all part of growing.
In my case, something inside me insisted I plan a solo trip this season, to create a space for reflection. A few therapy days, if you will. Over the months leading up to my trip, some complicated feelings about bicycle travel and the part I play in it had been swirling in my head. I knew these thoughts needed to be chewed on and digested in the way that only a solo bike trip would allow.
What drives us to fly across the planet in search of remote and often environmentally fragile places? What’s the impact of these journeys on the places we say we want to protect? Is it really in our hands to change anything? These questions and more swirled occupied my thoughts.
In one of his books, the British adventurer Alastair Humphreys outlines the question of environmental impact and the stages that made up his process of change on this issue in an interesting way. The starting point is the ignorance of the real effects of air travel. This is followed by a kind of disbelief or denial, despite already having knowledge of the effects. We tell ourselves, “Well, whether I fly or not isn’t going to be that significant.” The next phase could be considered the guilt phase: the stage when you consider taking action, for example, by reducing your number of flights or offsetting your carbon footprint by donating to environmental associations for each trip. The last stage of this process is actively engaging in debate on these issues with the people around you. It’s clear, he says, that it’s easy to come to these conclusions when you have already travelled all over the world, and not when you’re in the middle of planning a trip you have been dreaming about for years. He accepts that part of the guilt, yes, but it’s no excuse for not asking these questions ourselves.
If that seed of knowledge makes us move one or two steps forward in our own process of change, it’s worth it. We can take small actions such as focusing more and more on local destinations or rethinking the length of our trips. Instead of flying several times a year for just one weekend, we fly once for a single longer trip for two or three weeks—or even longer, if our schedules allow. Small actions such as considering the number of flights you take can significantly reduce the overall impact.
For those of us who love travelling by bike, the magnetism of the search for new horizons, new landscapes, and new-to-us cultures is undeniable, but we also shouldn’t deny the magnetism of that closer, much deeper exploration that enhances our sense of belonging to the places we live. In fact, both formats offer boundless rewards, and balance should be the key. However distilled these thoughts might sound as I write this, I couldn’t soothe that clash of concepts and ideas in my mind when it first emerged, and I knew I had plenty of material to ruminate on during my days on the road.
But back to the route itself. The mental list of places I wanted to include along my parallel line was already taking shape, and I just needed to place the jumble of dots and lines on a map to get the party started.
As in previous route designs, I was especially excited to include some of the villages mentioned in a book that has profoundly inspired me to deepen my understanding of my own land, Los Últimos (The Last Ones) by Paco Cerdà. Places like Motos, Arroyo Cerezo, and Sesga. Pedalling through their streets reminded me of the author’s words when he referred to one of these locations as, “that non-place in a non-time, that geographical and mental crossroads far from all known coordinates.”
In the same way, it was a must for me to visit La Estrella, a place that has become an icon of resistance against depopulation, although its last two inhabitants aren’t too fond of this title. La Estrella is a small hamlet beyond Mosqueruela, in Teruel. Its residents, Sinforosa and Martín, who are 88 and 87 years old, respectively, are reluctant to leave the streets of this harsh and remote place that can only be reached after descending several hundred metres into a valley along an unpaved road that’s in increasingly bad shape every year. Martín told me he was trying to convince his wife not to spend another tough winter there, to which she sincerely replied, “If I go, I’ll die.”
They have appeared in many interviews and have told their story countless times. Many politicians—too many, according to them—have been there to hear their tale. I have mixed feelings about meeting them, in truth. The power of the icon they represent is enormous, but I also get the sense that they’d simply prefer to be left in peace. And in reality, they’re just two of many “last ones” who populate these dying villages in Spain’s countryside. Since it’s difficult to find a solution for them, we should at least respect them and their wishes.
A handful of other key locations completed my mental checklist for the route, and eventually my game of connecting dots took shape to create the final figure. One of those key places was the brutal crossing of the Tajo River over the beautiful Tagüenza Bridge. There aren’t many places to cross the river in that area, and this one is hidden in a deep gorge. I had to push my bike for several kilometres to reach the bridge and then again to get out of the valley. There were also the curious geological formations of the “Torcas” in Cuenca, where the terrain is dotted with huge, completely circular sinkholes. I knew pedalling among them would be a uniquely beautiful experience.
To link my points of interest, I counted on the impressive network of thousands of kilometres of forest and farm roads, which are a hallmark of this area. This extensive network is a resource that’s not always as valued as it deserves to be by locals. Conversely, our endless quiet roads always draw attention and admiration from those who come from other parts of the world to visit us. I was already familiar with some of these links, such as the evocative gravel roads surrounding Puertomingalvo, Mosqueruela, and the abandoned Military Base of El Toro, and knew they had to be part of this adventure. There were still many others to be discovered, where I’d let myself flow, exploring as I went along the various alternatives to organically shape the loop. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I got it wrong, but it was all part of the process. With such beautiful discoveries also came some hike-a-bike sections, largely due to the fact that the last storms, which were the strongest in recent years, had wiped some sections off the map.
Several times along the way, I had some choice words for the “other me” who chose the paths to follow. One of the funny things about devising your own routes without following an established track is the laughter when you’re out riding and think, “Who the hell designed this track?!” and then remember it was you. Despite the daily highs and lows, my experience of riding the parallel track left me feeling fulfilled and fully immersed in the here and now each night, which is about as much as I could hope for.
Sum of its parts
From the warmth of my tent and sleeping bag each night, as I reflected and tried to fit all the puzzle pieces together to give meaning to the day, I took stock of my feelings. In doing so, it became clear to me that this time I would not publish the track of my route, as on other occasions. Instead, I wanted to inspire a broader sense of adventure and discovery. Many people have already ridden Montañas Vacías, a route where everything is clearly presented, with a fixed track and a lot of information about what you’ll find. The guide is nicely formatted and contains everything one needs to take the leap. However, I think we should view established routes like Montañas Vacías and others as merely a starting point—as the gateway to a more in-depth exploration and understanding of an area. And to those making their own routes, I say enjoy the research work and the planning, but also leave some space to make mistakes in situ and to be surprised by something you didn’t expect to find. Doing so allows us to feel the journey in a deeper way.
In my case, a parallel ride just beyond the perimeter of a route I already knew well left me feeling completely full. Leaving from home, I turned the experience into a tribute to proximity and local destinations, and also to the seemingly infinite territory of the inland sierras of Spain where I was born. It’s a perfect playground for a lifetime exploration, and also the search for oneself. Isn’t that the ultimate goal when we travel?
In a certain way, I envy Sinforosa and Martín for their security and their clarity of purpose in La Estrella: to resist by staying in their village as long as they possibly can.
“Everything I need is here,” Martín told me. It’s that clear to him. And as she fed the cat, Sinforosa looked up at the sky, then at me, and quietly told me it wasn’t going to rain. I looked at the sky too and saw that it would indeed be clear in the end, so I said goodbye continued on my way to make the most of the last hours of daylight. After all, there’s always more to see around the next corner…
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