Savannah had a predilection for horses. When she was only a puppy in Texas she darted beneath a barbed wire fence and nearly touched noses with a horse bending low to her. I thought she was going to be crushed, but she merely hurried back with her tail wagging.
And her tail was wagging now as two gaunt mares craned their necks over a pathetically limp barbed wire fence.
Savannah and I stood on a narrow dirt road. To my left were the mares and to the right was a modest clearing before a barbed wire fence. I’d probably walked too far for the day. There were places to camp a few miles back, but now we were a kilometer from town and the sun was setting.
It was a Friday. Reggaeton rasped from someone’s overworked car stereo in the distance. The town and the area surrounding it would be full of movement tonight.
The clearing we were at was less than ideal, but I couldn’t see much of an option. We were in cattle country and that meant miles of fenced off land. If we pushed to the other side of town I doubted I’d encounter anywhere to sleep before dark.
But the path we stood on gave off the general impression that it was tread often. A hundred feet behind me was an unhitched trailer with a barrel of water for the horses to drink from – someone would be back for that. And the dirt on the road wasn’t soft and loose, but rather compressed and streaked north and south from tires and footfalls.
If I slept where I was I’d be found, but I was in an exceedingly safe country where I spoke the language. I’d rather not be jarred awake by someone approaching in the middle of the night, but I doubted anything malicious would occur and I trusted my ability to talk my way out of any misunderstanding.
So I withdrew my tarp and sat on it.
After a little while of not really being settled, calculating if I had any better options, I gave in to my less than ideal situation. I kicked my shoes then made a peanut butter jelly sandwich. On my third sandwich Savannah leapt to her feet and pointed her nose down the path.
I turned to see a girl probably a few years younger than me walking with a plastic bag of groceries swaying in her hand and two dogs trotting beside her.
When the two dogs caught sight of Savannah they charged at her. If Savannah weren’t near the cart she would have darted back to me with her tail between her legs, but as it were she charged at the two dogs and met them with her hair raised to a long blonde mohawk – she was amazingly brave when it came to defending the cart.
Savannah growled and her tail was curled high like a scorpion’s. The other two dogs meanwhile seemed oblivious to any animosity, they were both wagging their tails.
The girl walked between her dogs and stroked Savannah’s head.
Immediately, Savannah turned docile. She liked at the girl’s hand and wagged her tail low and coy.
“Hello beautiful,” said the girl.
“She’s very friendly,” I said, turned awkwardly with a half-eaten peanut butter jelly in my hand.
The girl looked at me with an expression of detached consideration. She was tall and thin. She had high cheekbones, Spanish eyes, and the sides of her head were shaved and the hair on top of her head was orange and tied into a knot. I thought she was something different and interesting and was suddenly acutely aware of how strange I must look seated on the dirt road with my things strewn about me and a baby carriage to my back.
“Are you the owner of the land?” I asked.
The girl stood straight. Savannah and the two dogs circled each other.
“No, but the owner should coming soon.”
“Do you think that I’ll be okay to sleep here?”
The girl walked forward a little. She seemed very relaxed and unconcerned that I might be someone dangerous. “I don’t know. I think that yes. You will be okay.”
“I would find a different place to camp, but the town is close and the sun is falling. I don’t think that I have time now.”
“I think you will be okay. Did you come by bike?”
“Walking. We walked from Copenhagen.”
“The dog too?”
“Yes. My best best friend. She’s very strong.”
“He’s very pretty.”
“She’s very pretty,” I corrected.
“It’s a girl!” The girl looked down at Savannah with new affection.
“Yes. And yours? They’re both girls?”
“One boy and one girl. They’re very caring. I’ve raised them since they were puppies. I found them both on the street in town.”
The black dog, the female, was sniffing around the trailer up the road, but the tan dog, the male, was following Savannah and pushing its nose against her cheek. Savannah put up with him begrudgingly while she made figure-eights between the girl’s legs.
The girl emanated an aura of calm. Talking with her and seeing how friendly her dogs were confirmed what I thought earlier – that I may be interrupted during the night but there was no real danger. Spain was a stable country with strong social services. There were people who weren’t as well off as others, but there were few truly desperate people – especially in the countryside and in small towns like the one I was beside, there was little room for delinquency. Everyone knew everyone. And everyone kept everyone in check.
The girl and I exchanged some pleasantries before she walked off.
After a half hour a truck rambled down the road. A woman with the dark, leathery skin of a rancher hung out the driver’s side window. She didn’t say anything but stopped and looked over me and my things.
“Is this your land?” I asked.
“I’m walking. I walked from Copenhagen. Could I camp here for the night? I’ll be gone early in the morning.”
“The camino is on the other side of the hill. This is a private road.”
“I’m not walking the camino.”
“There are two caminos here. There’s a camino on the other side of the hill and there’s another over there.” The woman pointed behind her truck to the only other road visible. I knew from looking at Google Maps that the road she was pointing to was larger than the one I was on but lined with houses.
“I’m not walking a camino,” I repeated.
“This is private land.”
I don’t think the woman understood me. She began talking much faster about things having to do with land and cattle and horses and soon I lost the thread of what she was saying. She was using vocabulary out of my depth.
As I stood there attempting to piece together what this woman was saying the orange-haired girl from earlier reappeared.
The orange-haired girl and the land owner flashed some shot-quick Spanish between them then the land owner shrugged and said, “Sleep where you want.” Then drove off.
I looked to the girl with the orange hair. She was smiling contentedly.
“My father has land up the hill. You can sleep there if you want. It will be better than sleeping here, no one will bother you.”
“Fantastic. Thank you. I’m Tom. That’s Savannah.”
Savannah was pawing at the girl’s leg.
“What was she saying?” I asked, referring to the land owner.
“Oh nothing.” Lucía waved the woman off as though she’d never existed.
I stuffed my things into my cart then Lucía and I started uphill. Savannah ran ahead of us. While we walked I explained my adventure and why I was sat out on a tarp when we met. Lucía nodded as though it were a perfectly normal thing she encountered all the time. It was a refreshing reaction. Usually I felt the need to show I wasn’t a degenerate, but Lucía never seemed to consider that a possibility.
She and I came to a tall wooden entry gate up the hill and Lucía paused with her hand on the handle.
“She’s all right with other dogs?”
“It will take her a while to become accustomed but she’ll be fine.”
“I have a lot of dogs. They’re all very amicable.”
“Savannah will be fine.”
Inside the gate was a steep patch of dry land. At the bottom of the hill was cinderblock house, chickens, and a large pen where dogs were falling over each other in excitement at the sight of Lucía
“Jesus,” I said. “How many dogs do you have?”
Lucía laughed. “Eight. She’ll be okay?” Lucía pointed to Savannah who stood stiffly by the cart.
“She’s timid, but this is good for her.”
Lucía opened the pen and the dogs poured out. For a moment they surrounded Lucía then once they caught sight of Savannah they ran for her. Their tails were wagging and only a little gray puppy was barking, but for Savannah, who’d been attacked by dogs on a daily basis in the Americas, the pack running gleefully toward her must have looked like the Mongol army.
Lucía watched the dogs chase Savannah with a sort of detached serenity. She was rubbing the ears of two older dogs as they gazed up at her affectionately.
By the gate the dogs were gathered near Savannah but were more interested in running and playing than the new dog. Their indifference put Savannah at ease much quicker than I’d ever seen. After a minute or two Savannah’s tail was wagging and she was playing with the dogs most interested in her.
“I’m going to take them for a walk,” Lucia said. “Do you want to come?”
“Forty kilometers is enough walking for the day. I think I’ll stay here.”
“Okay. You can put your tent anywhere. At night the dogs will go back in the pen.”
“Is there anywhere flat?”
Lucia looked at the hill which ran upwards behind the cinderblock house. “By the water container should work.”
“Perfect. Thank you.”
“We’ll be back in a little bit.”
I set my tent on a path leading to the water container. It was well above the grass-covered roof of the house and had a great view of the town in the valley. On a hill on the other side of town was a castle lit by soft orange lights. The cathedral in town was lit in the same manner and even from my distance I could see the bell in the bell tower.
I finished inflating my air mattress and was slipping in the tent when Lucía returned. She put most of the dogs in the pen then walked up to where I was with a puppy and the two dogs she was walking with earlier.
“This is a good place to camp?” Lucía asked.
“Oh, this is fantastic. Perfect. And what a great view.”
“You sleep in there every night?” Lucía said, leaning slightly forward to look beyond me to my tent.
“I get a hotel room sometimes, but most of the time I’m camping. It’s nice. I like sleeping outside. It’s tranquil.”
“Do you want a shower? I’m going to go back to my mother’s house now to change and shower.”
“That’s all right.” My throbbing legs were yelling at me to sit down. I didn’t want to take another step. “It didn’t make too much heat today. I didn’t sweat much.”
“No, it’s very fresh in the mountains.”
“Are we in the mountains?” I’d been walking uphill a lot over the past few days, but the climb had been so gradual and undramatic that it never really occurred to me that I was moving into the mountains.
“Of course. Seville is the hottest city in Spain and it is very close to here. It’s only cold here because we’re high.”
“But will it make much more heat south of here?”
I groaned. “I thought the temperature was falling. I didn’t realize I was in the mountains.”
Lucía smiled distantly and gazed out over the town in the valley ahead of us. “Would you like to have a beer later? Or are you very tired?”
I was very tired. Ten minutes under the sleeping bag and I’d be out cold. But there would be many solitary, conversation-less nights ahead so I had to take advantage of the willing company while I could.
“I’m not very tired.” I said. “How does one call that beer with lemon?”
“Ooooo…I love those. I’ve never had a beer more refreshing.”
“I’ll see if I have some. Are you sure you don’t want a shower?”
“That’s all right.”
“Okay. I’ll be back in a half hour. I need to change and shower.”
Lucía went down the hill and I climbed into my tent. Knowing I had to wait a half an hour I messed around on my phone and read a few pages of a spy novel. I was tired though and with the sun already down and the air being cool it was very hard to stay awake under the warmth of the sleeping back.
A half an hour slipped by, then another half an hour. I thought I perhaps misunderstood something. Maybe Lucía was waiting for me in the cinderblock house.
At ten I pushed away my phone and closed my eyes. There were very few sounds. I could hear Savannah asleep outside the foot of tent. Listening her breath was a great comfort and I felt myself begin to drift asleep.
But just before I fell asleep entirely I heard Lucía’s voice.
“Tom, are you awake?”
I jolted alive. “Yes. Yes.” I stumbled out of my tent.
Lucía was a silhouette coming up the hill. She was whispering.
“You were asleep?”
“Do you want to sleep?”
“No, no. I’m content you came.”
Lucía sat cross-legged on the ground. She had changed into leggings and a hoodie and seeing her in the hoodie made me realize how cold I was in only a t-shirt and shorts. I pulled my rain jacket out of my cart and zipped it to my chin.
“What have you brought?” I asked.
“I couldn’t find any beer. I brought champagne. I hope that’s all right.”
She withdrew the heavy glass bottle. In the darkness I could barely make it out. The only light was coming from the orange lights on the cathedral and castle across the valley.
“This is great,” I said. “Thanks for bringing it. Now I’m going to sleep really well.”
I undid the tie then slowly pushed up the cork. There was a pop and the cork was launched somewhere down the hill. I handed the bottle to Lucía so she could have the first swig.
For half the bottle we were talking about common things, our families and traveling, but by the second half of the bottle we’d moved onto more obscure topics. Lucía believed in telekinesis and ghosts and that people had literal conversations with plants. She believed shooting stars could pass through people and briefly carry them to another world.
“You’ve never heard of that?” she said. She spread her arms out to resemble being laid out on the ground. “When you’re watching the stars and a shooting star passes through you?
Years before I would have scoffed, but after three years of walking I’d met too many people similar to Lucía to dismiss what she was saying entirely. I didn’t believe in telekinesis or ghosts or conversing with plants. But after three years of walking I’d met enough people with viewpoints so vastly different than my own that I finally recognized there must be some truth in them (or at least the perception of truth for these people).
“No,” I answered. “But it’s not that I don’t believe your friends didn’t experience this, it’s just that I think it could be something in their minds. And that’s not to say it’s not real. It is real. If they lived it then it’s real. So I don’t know. I just explain things differently. I don’t think a star literally passed through them. I think the mind is a powerful thing.”
“But they felt it.” Lucía moved her hands towards and away from her chest like a star passing through her.
“I believe it.”
“You don’t believe in any magic?”
Our words were shining with possibility from the wine.
“I don’t think I need to. The world is magic already. There are trees and lights and dogs. That’s incredible enough.”
“It is, but I just think there’s something more too, something unseen.”
I couldn’t see Lucía’s face at all. I only remembered it vaguely from earlier and I remembered her orange hair and that she was pretty. And now the bottle of champagne was empty and I knew she’d brought the bottle for a reason and that time was something very important and slipping away so I put a hand on her purple leggings and kissed her.
Then, in an even deeper darkness, Lucía slept with an arm around my waist and her head on my chest. The sleeping bag was pulled over us both and somehow it wasn’t cramped at all on my air mattress.
I listened to Savannah breathing outside the foot of the tent and stared up at the stars shining wildly.