Route 66

We left our house in Horsforth, heading south on the Leeds Ring Road before switching into Bradford and onto the M606, a little spur of a motorway that connects the city to the M62, Britain’s highest motorway.

Such banal and familiar roads felt odd being the start of my life-changing adventure, but there’s no other way to escape your home than along familiar roads.

We merged onto the M62 heading west, and as we climbed up into the Pennines, we passed the famous farm in the middle, the westbound lanes passing to the south, the eastbound to the north. We both looked over toward it but neither of us said anything. Between me and my Father – and the rest of our family – we had told each other the story of the stubborn owners who had refused to sell about a million times. I had always admired their determination and irreverence, and was sad to learn many years later that this wasn’t true, and that the road went around the farm because the rock underneath is unstable and cannot support a busy motorway.

Dropping down into Lancashire we passed the M66, which given I was clutching a copy of Jack Kerouac’s adventures on Route 66 (the rather tiresome “On The Road”) in one hand and my flight ticket that had cost a bargain £66 in the other, it would have been fun to have taken the M66 to complete the theme – alas we were going to the airport, not to Ramsbottom, and so I said nothing and we continued on the M62 then on to the M60.

My Father and I didn’t talk much. We got on reasonably well if we kept it superficial, but he wasn’t a natural parent and I’m not a natural child, and so it had been a struggle over the years.

Our interests didn’t align much either. He was a different generation (obviously), but not just because of the 25-year age difference, but because the world had changed so much from the his youth. He had been just seventeen (“… know what I mean?”) when The Beatles first hit the world, but he had been looking the other way; the sixties passed him by. He was rooted in the fifties, a gentle Enid Blyton decade where pop music and comedy were safely owned by the establishment. He had grown up to become a middle-class freemason and golf club conservative, a gentle open-minded and funny man, but an unsociable and short-tempered one too. He was happy with his habits and routines, and although he’d do his duty, he was often reluctant, even frustrated, when asked to step outside of that. In contrast, I was defined by the eighties, a love of aggressive anti-establishment comedy like The Young Ones, and music that seemed designed to annoy previous generations. As much as he was settled and content, I was curious and restless, and it felt like we were from different species, not just different generations.

I had tried to get him to listen to Weather Report on the car tape player, explaining just how innovative Jaco Pastorius’s bass playing was, but he wasn’t interested. He didn’t say so exactly, he communicated it by silently nodding in that way parents do when children talk to them about boring stuff. Now I have children of my own, I better understand how uninteresting children can be, but back then I thought it was typical of his lack of effort.

You might lay a similar charge at my door and ask what I had done to engage with him on his turf, and I’d tell you to check your facts before shooting your mouth off because I had shown a reasonable level of interest in golf and computers, even if some of it was fake to try to spend some time with my Father and maybe even gain his approval. I had happily caddied my way around Horsforth golf course many times, and spent an entire day in The Warren on Rabbit’s Captain’s Day when my Father proudly held that position, but I just didn’t have the patience or personality for a sport that was all about precision. There is no time pressure, it’s all about concentration and the consistent repetition of an intricate technique. I prefer sports that demand you react to your opponent’s punch with speed and guile, where it’s about improvisation under pressure, and where you get to wear better clothes.

We got to Manchester Airport and he pulled up to the kerb, and with the engine running, helped me get my bag out the boot.

“Good luck,” he said, then “if you need money to come back at any time, just call,” and then he jumped back in the car and drove off.

I was a little surprised.

I didn’t need him to come in and help me check in. If I was capable of going to Spain with no job, no accommodation and almost no Spanish, I should be able to check in for a flight at Manchester Airport without holding my Father’s hand, but I must have expected him to hang around a little longer than three seconds because I suddenly felt completely alone.

And I loved it.

I walked into the Departures Hall and felt a weight lift from my shoulders. I don’t mean this as the usual clichéd metaphor, I mean it literally: an actual weight literally lifted off my actual literal shoulders. Whatever tension was bundled up in that part of my body dissipated and I felt free and light and able to do anything.

The sensation was intoxicating … and with a smile so broad my face could barely contain it, I scanned the board for my flight to Madrid and skipped off to check in.

I found a seat in the crowded departure lounge, sitting next to a man with his nose in a newspaper.
“Where are you headed?” I asked, desperate to talk about my adventure.
“Johannesburg, you?”
Suddenly my little hop to Madrid didn’t seem so intrepid.
“Madrid”
“Oh nice,” he said, but I think we both knew his was more exciting than mine.

I sat next to a trainee Catholic priest on the flight, me on the aisle, him squashed into the middle seat. This fact alone is an atheist’s knock-down argument because surely no loving deity would allow his employees to suffer such indignity.

I demonstrated my lack of understanding of flight ticket pricing strategies by opening the conversation with “The flight ticket prices were really good, weren’t they? £66 is much cheaper than I expected”
“I think everyone pays a different price, mine was over £300”

Ah, maybe I needed to be a bit more careful with my conversational gambits.

He then ordered several hundred cigarettes from Duty Free, and I demonstrated my lack of understanding of Catholicism by saying, “Oh, who are the cigarettes for?”
“They’re for me,” he said.

I don’t know why I expected a Catholic priest to abstain from cigarettes, it just seemed to jar with my naïve idea of what a God-fearing sort should do. I was only 22 year-old, my ideas were still idealistic and ill-formed. I knew I didn’t believe in the details of religion, and was repelled by the conformity of it, but I was open to believing in something, and I thought belief itself a positive thing and something vaguely worthy of respect. It wasn’t for me, but I was positively disposed toward it and thought priests and other churchy sorts were generally good people trying to do what they thought was right. This led me to assume that they would sufficiently respect God’s creation (i.e. their bodies) to not pollute it with a daily pack of Benson and Hedges.

The smokey Priest was a fun guy, we chatted for most of the rest of the flight, him telling me hilarious stories of the strange world he inhabited, opening my young eyes to the idea that priests are actually people with similar urges and weaknesses as everyone else, although I still never understood why anyone would choose a life of celibacy voluntarily: my celibacy was not voluntary, there’s a difference.

I arrived at Madrid’s Barajas Airport and found a payphone. I had read that it was better to reserve a hostel immediately and not just show up unexpectedly. They got booked up quickly and it could be hard on the shoe leather going door-to-door, and so I set about choosing a candidate from my guidebook.

I picked one and phone them: “Hola, hay habitaciónes libres?” I said. There was a pause, then an incomprehensible jumble of words, none of which I could prise apart from the rest. I thought my phrasebook Spanish and few weeks of classes would allow me to understand the difference between “” (yes) and “no” (no) but apparently not.
“Er … habla inglés?” I said hopefully, realising I had no other moves to play.
She slammed the phone down.

There was no Trip Advisor in those days, but had there been, that hostel would not have got five stars for customer service.

I tried another, this one on a little back street called Calle Infantas that looked fairly central.
Hola, hay habitaciónes libres?” I asked again, this time with a little more trepidation.
” he said, then something else.
“Er, habla inglés?
“Yes, a little”

I confirmed the price and reserved two nights, then continued to explain that I was at the airport and so would be a while before I showed up. He didn’t seem too fussed about the details of my itinerary so I let him go, and left the airport to look for a bus into the city.

After a bus, a metro and a short walk, I was knocking on the door of the Hostal Infantas. It wasn’t much, just an old city second-floor apartment, and my chilly room looked over the narrow unlovely street. This room wasn’t a home-from-home, it was more a room that reminded you that you were not at home.

I needed food, and scanned my guidebook for ideas, but I was fast losing my sense of adventure and so found something close by, ate quickly and cocooned myself back in my room to rest.

The next day I sorted out my bus ticket to Oviedo first thing, and then tentatively explored the city, wandering around aimlessly, missing everything of importance by doggedly refusing to follow the guidebook. I had some ridiculous notion that anything that could be described as a tourist attraction needed to be avoided. This was similar to my youthful compulsion to avoid all music that was in the charts, which wasn’t necessarily a bad instinct if it had just been a suspicion of following the crowd, but when it becomes a fixed rule that closes doors, it does more harm than good.

The thing is, some music in the charts is popular because it is hyped and is nothing but a catchy melody that palls after a few listens, but some stuff is popular because it’s good. Similarly, some tourist attractions are attractive to tourists for no real reason other than the fact that it is well-known – famous for being famous – but some things are actually attractive because they’re interesting; and Madrid has plenty of genuinely interesting attractions for anyone willing to open their mind and learn a bit about the place.

Unfortunately that didn’t include me. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I was young enough to know better, and so spent the rest of the morning wandering around and not seeing much at all. After a quick lunch at McDonald’s on Gran Via, I headed back to my room for much of the afternoon. The guy, I assumed the son of the hostel owners, whose job was to open the door for me before disappearing back to his room to study, gave me increasingly odd looks as I came and went.

I was unsure what to do that evening. I had an early start the next day and am not a big drinker, especially not on my own, and so rather than face an evening of feeling awkwardly alone in a midweek bar being ignored by attractive women, I ate early and went back to my room to read Jack Kerouac.

I breathed differently as I got on board the coach heading north to Asturias. I had found the chilly wintery Madrid intimidating and lonely, but back on the move I felt excited again. It was only a coach, probably the worst way to travel (a train has more glamour, a plane more speed, a car more freedom), but it was the open road, and it thrilled me.

The seats were assigned, and I had an aisle seat about two-thirds of the way back on the right (or the left, depending which way you’re facing. It was on the right once I’d sat down and was facing the front). I was still at the age where I (sort of) believed in fate, or something like it, and I had a feeling that I’d meet the girl of my dreams in Oviedo, and we’d fall in love and be passionate companions for life … so when I saw that the window seat was occupied by the most beautiful girl ever created, I was sure that my fantasy was coming true already!

There is no fixed protocol on speaking to people on long-distance bus journeys (I say “people” but she was not “people”, she was an 11 at least, she transcended mere “people”). A bus is not like a train where you can start a conversation in the buffet car and then either of you can head off back to your seat when you’ve had enough. On a bus you’re stuck, nowhere to hide. I didn’t mind being stuck with her, I would have happily been stuck with her forever, I’d still be stuck with her now if I had a chance, but a lack of language skills made any significant communication impossible, so I got out my book and hoping she’d think me cool for reading Jack Kerouac, I settled in to his stories of life on Route 66.

The bus was soon out of Madrid and climbing up toward the mountains along the A6, the motorway that led to Galicia in the far north-west of the country. I had checked the map many times so knew exactly where we were going.

We cut through the lengthy Guadarrama tunnel and emerged into the hills of the Castilla-León region. It was sunny outside, and surprisingly green, and – increasingly distracted from my book – I stared more and more at the view as the hills disappeared behind us and the huge empty plains of León opened out. There were no such wide open spaces in England and I was transfixed by it. The Spanish ignored it, closing the curtains on their windows to better see the movie (Beethoven) showing on the two TV screens. I sniffily ignored such nonsense, and was amazed to see so many adults happily plug in their earphones and laugh along to such inane drivel. I glanced at the beautiful girl, hoping she wasn’t watching it, and was glad to see she was snoozing which I decided was brilliant.

After about three hours we pulled into a service station and the driver said something, opened the door and disappeared. I had no idea what he had said or how much time we had, and so I turned to my beautiful seatmate I asked, “er … perdona, cuanto tiempo?
“Twenty minutes,” she said in perfect English.
I smiled, “oh thanks”
“I saw your book, I saw you speak English,” she had a beautifully soft Australian accent.
“Er, yes, I am English, and you?”
“Australian, well, half-Australian half-Spanish”

The signs were suddenly clear: before University I had had a plan to spend a gap year travelling around Australia (see more here) and although that hadn’t worked out for various reasons, I hadn’t given up on the idea and I still desperately wanted to tour that vast country and now – right here on a bus to Oviedo – the Universe was handing me that chance, the signs couldn’t be clearer!

We went off to the bar to grab a drink and use the loo. I sat outside, perched on a step, smoking a cigarette to feel more like Jack Kerouac, hoping she’d come to talk to me. After a few minutes she walked past and smiled, and got back on the coach. I waited a sensible amount of time so as not to appear desperate, and followed her back onboard.

“Are you going to Oviedo too?” I asked, not really sure where else the bus was going but having no idea what else to talk about. I wanted to come across as a friendly and amusing companion, but also emit an underlying sense of Kerouac cool. I also needed to do some ground work. If we were soul mates destined for a lifelong love affair, I needed to first build the relationship enough so that me asking to see her again wouldn’t seem completely odd.

“No,” she said.

Oh … so much for the stupid Universe …

“I’m visiting my Grandparents, they’ll pick me up in Oviedo but they live miles away in the middle of nowhere”
“Oh, right, so … er … is Oviedo nice?”
“Yes, it is small and old, but it’s really nice in the centre”

We chatted a bit more but soon lapsed into silence. She plugged in her Walkman headphones and I went back to my book.

The bus turned off the A6 on to the A66 toward León and north toward Oviedo … at least I was on Route 66, albeit the Spanish version, also known as the “Ruta de la Plata” (the Silver Route).

The plains were disappearing, being shoved aside by gentle hills, then mountains. The bus climbed up and up and eventually into a tunnel, then emerged in a rain-swept lunar landscape, snow-peaked mountains in the distance, with what looked like a frozen lake on one side, hills on the other. Another landscape so different from England … I thought about my simple trip across the Pennines two days earlier, the so-called backbone of England, and realised how gentle that ripple of hills was compared to these vast and dramatic mountains.

The weather was awful, and over the next three years of returning to Asturias I don’t think there was a single time when I emerged from that tunnel and it wasn’t raining.

This northern strip of Spain, stuck between the sea and this range of wild mountains, is nothing like the sunny costas most of us imagine when we think of Spain. It’s stunningly beautiful, and often cold and rainy, with a robust cuisine to match the demands of the climate.

An hour or so later we were skirting Oviedo and I looked excitedly out the window as the bus slowed to exit the motorway. No city looks good from the perspective of its bus station, nor from the nearest motorway exit. We build cities to live and work in, but usually the person paying to build any particular building doesn’t intend living or working in it themselves, it’s usually a capital investment designed to turn money into more money via bricks and mortar. This means all the incentives are to cram stuff in and make buildings utilitarian rather than beautiful, and although Oviedo was no big offender in this regard, it still presented a side that didn’t do this lovely little city justice.

I looked at my seatmate, “Hmmm, doesn’t look so nice,” and she smiled, “maybe I’ll hitch to somewhere else” I added as if hitchhiking were second-nature to a cool man-of-the-world like me. I had no intention of hitching anywhere, I had never hitched in my life, but she didn’t need to know that.

The bus station was no work of art either, its central well, crowded with buses, was surrounded by apartments that towered up around us, each hanging their washing on octagonal carousels above our heads. If I lived in one of those flats I’d fear my pants falling down on to the roof of a bus and being whisked off to Madrid.

I said goodbye, accepting that my seatmate was not my soulmate, and left the bus station to find somewhere to stay.

(The publication date of this post has been changed to match the time I was writing about, rather than the time it was written. This was just to keep things in the right order. In case you’re interested, it was written in early 2021)

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