We were focused. We were organized. We had train tickets and I had lunch fixings. We broke camp and checked out, and I got my passport back. We had great plans for all the fabulous things we were going to see during the rest of our trip. Somehow, we lost track of the most important thing.
We were sitting in Starbucks, drinking tea and trying to catch up on our email. I realized that we had never managed to see the main attraction in Valencia. Did you know this? I didn’t know this. THE HOLY FREAKING GRAIL is in Valencia, Spain. We had walked right by the cathedral that housed it the previous day. In the kerfuffle of mosquito bites and headaches and locked restrooms and aggressive panhandlers, it had fallen off our radar. I thought we had just enough time to walk the half mile over there before heading to the train station.
We would have, too, except that the location shown on TripAdvisor was incorrect. We paced back and forth, GPS in hand, and could not figure out which building it was in. Then came a crisis point. My husband, a highly punctual person, believed that we needed to leave to make our train. I knew ‘late’ meant ’20 minutes early’ to him, and I figured we could spare the <5 minutes to dash in, take a Grail selfie, and dash out. His vote carried, and we turned our backs and walked off. Denied the Grail.
Galahad was the only one of Arthur’s knights who was allowed to behold the Grail, because he was pure and perfect. All the others failed some test of character at some point during their quest. I knew that my failure was one of attention and focus. Add to that self-pity. Probably I had also failed to speak up and advocate for my desires soon enough or convincingly enough. The Grail should have been the very first thing we saw, the moment we got to town, or at least first thing the previous day. Now we were leaving town, most likely never to return. DENIED THE GRAIL.
To say I was crushingly disappointed would be an understatement. I felt like flipping out. I knew he was probably right, and that my lifetime of waltzing up to the gate while the plane was half boarded was too risky for reality. I had no desire to forfeit the hundreds of dollars we’d spent on train tickets, especially not for something we would truly only look at for five minutes.
Do you know what I hate? Clocks. That endlessly ticking tally of microseconds, ineluctably slipping away, slipping away, paring off our lives like a cheese slicer. That tyrannical penitentiary of time.
We got to the train station. I was not crying, but barely. We got to Track 5 with, yes, nearly 20 minutes to spare. NO TRAIN. Maybe it hadn’t come in yet? Then my husband realized that we were at the wrong station. Although we had bought our tickets here, this was the commuter rail, and we needed to be back at the OTHER station for the other trains. The one where we had arrived. There was precisely nothing printed to this effect on our tickets! I didn’t even realize they had been different buildings, because I am useless at navigating; I just thought we had come in at a different entrance. We were nearly a mile away and we had 75 pounds of backpacks.
He was right, he was right, he was right.
We set out at the fastest pace we could sustain. That meant there was a difference between us of half a block within minutes. He was looking for the shuttle bus stop, and if I’d realized this, I would have pointed out that we were facing the wrong way down a one-way street. Also, we had no way of knowing when or how often the shuttle came. Thank goodness he remembered where the station was and knew how to get there. I did my best to keep him in sight and chugged along as fast as I could go, pouring sweat.
We made it, but it was close. The train had already pulled into the station and people were already boarding. We had barely sat down when it pulled away toward Madrid.
We talked it out. I was upset, but now 80% of this was upset at myself for creating this entire mess. Yeah, I’ll probably never see the Holy Grail now. I can’t imagine spending thousands of dollars just to go back to Valencia for five minutes. Even booking the tickets would bring up all these memories of what a twit I was. Maybe we’d get there and the building would be under construction, or closed for some festival, or the Grail would be on loan to a museum, or Pope Francis would be using it or something.
If your dream is to see Every Country in the World, and you’re already 40, you can’t be repeating locations. This isn't just regular FoMO, it's terminal FoMO. Fear of missing out bound up with fear of imminent mortality.
At this moment, I was seriously questioning the wing-it method. Every issue we had had was due to 1. Unrealistic Pinterest-based desires to flit from site to site like an extremely fast migratory hummingbird and 2. Lack of concrete plans. I had done it to myself. Philosophizing did not, however, mean that I was over my acute sadness. I kept thinking of the time I had a chance to see Kurt Vonnegut do a reading at Powell’s, but left with my friends to get lunch first and wound up blowing it off. Regret, regret, regret. Goodbye, beautiful Valencia.
The AVE train took us from Valencia to Madrid in an hour and 40 minutes. That’s a distance of 220 miles. The US equivalent would be Seattle to Salem, or New York to Boston. Having done both of those drives, this boggles my mind. There was barely time for the drinks cart, followed by the lunch cart, followed by the collection of the actual ceramic dishes and metal cutlery.
There are security checkpoints at train stations, and we’d been through them twice so far. This time, to our surprise, we were required to forfeit our propane canisters. Our two plus-size, never-opened propane canisters. We couldn’t even simply forfeit them; my husband had to take them outside, off station property, and throw them in a trash can. We were annoyed, but we should have been about ten times more annoyed. This no-sign, no-warning, no-precedent hassle would turn out to cause us more inconvenience for the rest of the trip than we ever could have imagined. So that’s our lasting impression of Madrid. Can’t you please just post a sign showing prohibited items? And put another one at the ticket windows of the other stations?
If you ever want an entertaining conversation, ask any engineer to explain the technical flaws of international security theater.
We transferred to the slow train, where we spent the rest of the afternoon. We were leaving Catalan country and would hear and see mostly Spanish from here on out. For the rest of the trip, we’d be based in Andalucía.
We arrived in Ronda at precisely 7 PM, just when everything was closing. As we left the train station, we saw a sign pointing toward the camping. This was going to be so easy! We walked along and found a second sign. We couldn’t find the camping, though, and we found a bench where we could regroup.
We were back in the place of uncertainty. Thanks to the meticulous security guards of the Madrid train station, we had no way to cook our meals until we could find a camping store. Think about the city where you live and whether you know of a store that sells backpacking fuel canisters. This is another problem that is hardly unique to Spain, one we could easily encounter anywhere at home. The closest one to my house is in a different city, about a half hour drive away. In Iceland, every single camping we visited had a ‘free’ shelf or table, where campers could leave or take things they didn’t need, and partially used propane canisters were the most common item. We never saw a ‘free’ shelf in Spain. Looking back, we could have anticipated a need for a backup cooking method, and now we’re planning to test out an immersion coil and a cheap, lightweight hot plate. If we can’t get something already on the market to work, my husband may put his electrical engineering skills to work and modify something.
We walked to the town Tourist Information center, but it was already closed. We took a moment to walk to the nearby viewpoint and check it out. The sun was setting. There was a Spanish man playing accordion. An older French couple under the gazebo danced a few steps of the tango. The view over the gorge was everything anyone could have wanted. The soft evening light showed the valley at its best. Birds flew far below. This was why we came to Spain, and specifically Ronda. There are perfect places in this world, and perfect moments to be had. No mundane concerns can survive in the face of such singular beauty.
An executive decision was made. We couldn’t find the camping, we didn’t have cooking fuel, and it was getting late. My husband decided we were going to stay in a hotel and go out to dinner. If we were going to do it, we were going all-out. We walked up the street to the Reina Victoria, checked in, and walked back to town for Indian food. We don’t compromise. All the nights in the tent amortize the cost of the two nights in a fine hotel, which to us is a much better solution than spending the entire trip in budget rooms. We shifted gears, prepared to get back to Tent City after we hit the road again, but meanwhile, we were going to enjoy Ronda to the utmost.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.