I ran into R in la plaza mayor a couple of weeks into the New Year. He was having a bad day. First of all, due to the holidays the library was closed so he couldn’t check his emails. Secondly, it had been raining for six days straight and the weather forecast for the following week was just as bad.
“Hey R, how’re things?”
“Well… All my stuff is damp and water has been dripping on my head every morning this week as I cook my breakfast so… I guess I’ve been better!”
R lives in a cave. He’s been around for about a year, but I’ve only crossed paths with him three times. The first time we met a mutual Spanish friend, Alberto, introduced us. He said, “Hey, there’s an American guy over there you should meet.” Then he added, “Es uno de los buenos!” (“He’s one of the good ones!”) R strolled over wearing a leather cowboy hat and started speaking Spanish with this crazy cartoonish accent – the kind of accent Spaniards use when they are making fun of the way American tourists speak. It was hard to tell if he was a guy pushing fifty or if he was a guy pushing forty who had spent way too much time in the sun.
He said he was travelling around Europe rock climbing and he really liked this part of Spain so he decided to stick around for a while. At that point he had been in the area about six months. He wasn’t very forthcoming with answers on that first day. When asked about what part of the states he was from he simply responded, “Oh, I’m from all over. I’ve pretty much lived everywhere.” When asked about what he does for a living he said, “Oh, I get paid to climb. I’ve got sponsors and that sort of thing. But I’m sort of retired now.” I couldn’t place his accent, but I was getting a laid back, West Coast, surfer vibe off of him when he spoke in English. And when I asked him where he was living he said, “Oh, I’m just outside of town a bit.” Then he quickly changed the subject.
A few months later, while drinking cañas on a Saturday afternoon with friends, R appeared again. We were with our friend Toño who is a big outdoors guy into kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking, etc. He and R hit it off straight away. It may have been due to Toño’s presence that R felt comfortable enough to tell us that he was living in a cave. He had apparently been staying in another cave, but some hikers appeared one day. Not long after that the police showed up and told him he had to move on. So it made sense that he wasn’t going around advertising to the entire world that he was living in a cave. Then he found a second cave which was more difficult to reach, more off the beaten path. No problems so far.
Cueva de Boquique (Boquique’s Cave)
It was also on this second meeting that R rolled up one of his sleeves to expose a gruesome six inch long wound that looked as if a blind person had stitched it up.
“What the hell happened?”
“I’ve known I had it for a few years. It was an open wound that wouldn’t heal. I finally decided to get it taken care of, but the doctors here are fucking butchers!”
“A doctor did that?” Toño asked, referring to the stitches.
“It was a nightmare. They’re fucking amateurs. One guy didn’t want to do anything. He told me to wait until I got back to the states, but I told him I might not be back in the states for a year. Another doctor wanted to amputate my whole fucking arm.”
“Jesus… Did they charge you for that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I gave them a P.O. Box address I have in the states so we’ll see if they send me a bill.”
The third time I saw R, about a month later, he seemed kind of lonely.
“Where the hell is everybody? Nobody’s around. Nobody’s hanging out in the streets anymore.”
“It’s getting colder,” I said. “Everybody’s hibernating.”
I asked him if he had any plans to return to the states for the winter.
“Oh, I don’t know. Everything’s just so easy here. I had some money saved up and I thought it would last until, you know, the cancer killed me. But now that I had that removed I guess I’m gonna have to find some sort of work eventually.”
He laughed nervously. I smiled awkwardly.
And now here we were standing in the square in the rain. I was waiting for my parents who were visiting for the holidays. I spotted them across the square and waved my arms over my head trying to get their attention. R mumbled something about having to do some grocery shopping and excused himself as my parents were approaching.
“Who was that?” my father asked.
“He’s an American.”
“Oh yeah?!” My father’s eyes followed R as he crossed the square and slipped down a side street. A missed opportunity. My father loves to speak to other Americans when he’s in Spain.
“Yeah. He lives in a cave.”
“What?!” I watched the expression on my father’s face change from “missed opportunity” to “not interested in talking to a hippy”.
Fuente de Boquique (Boquique’s Fountain)
I saw Toño the other day. He told me he bumped into R again. They had a couple of beers. He said the guy seemed a bit depressed. The cave was soaking wet. The nights were freezing cold. And the worst part: the wound wasn’t healing at all. It was getting dark and it was raining hard so Toño offered to drive R out to his cave. R accepted graciously. They got out to the edge of town and R showed him where to pull over. He strapped on his head lantern and slung his backpack over his shoulder. He said “¡Adios!” in a mock cheerful tone and started off down a muddy track into a miserable pitch black winter night.
Six weeks later on a sunny Sunday morning five of us met at the puente de San Lázaro in Plasencia and followed a dirt track past a few abandoned mills. Our objective was to find the old railroad tracks leading to Salamanca. The line was discontinued many years ago so there was no fear of getting killed by a train. Unfortunately, we crossed the river at one point when we shouldn’t have and there wasn’t another way to get back over to the railroad tracks later. (The only friend who knew the way – Toño – had a bit too much to drink the night before and didn’t bother to show up.) So somebody suggested we hike up to la cueva de Boquique. I had heard of the cave, but had never visited the spot.
The cave is located north of Plasencia in an area called Valcorchero. Valcorchero forms part of the montes de Tras la Sierra which is the western end of the Sierra de Gredos. Valcorchero is pretty steep, rocky terrain and it’s full of alcornoques (cork oaks) which is where the area gets its name: Valle del Corcho or Cork Valley. The cork oaks are exploited for their bark. Once the trees reach roughly 25 years of age the bark is stripped every nine years to make cork products. The average life of a cork oak tree is 200 years. There are also lots of fresnos (ash), robles (oak), piruétanos (wild pear) and encinas (holm oak) in the area.
Puente de San Lázaro (Saint Lazarus’ Bridge)
Our friend Berto said it was a good spot for espárrago triguero (wild asparagus) and he had his Swiss Army knife ready for action. By the end of the day he had a good-sized handful, enough to make an omelette for two for lunch the following day. In 2002 the local council came up with the brilliant idea of creating a golf course in this area. The protests were massive and well organized. As a result, Valcorchero was declared a protected natural habitat and the golf course never materialized.
As we trudged up a muddy path another friend told me Boquique (whose real name was Mariano Ceferino del Pozo) was a 19th century bandolero (outlaw!) who lived in the cave from time to time when he was on the run from the law. I had heard this before from other placentinos, but apparently it isn’t true. Boquique was actually a Carlist (a political movement which aims to establish a separate line of the Bourbon family on the Spanish throne) and not a highway robber. He fought the French in the Peninsular War (1807-1814) and he was actually part of a group that rounded up outlaws – including one group of particularly vicious outlaws known as “Los Muchachos de Santibáñez” – in the north of Extremadura.
Boquique’s first stint hiding in the cave came in 1820 with the Trienio Liberal (Liberal Triennium) which was a brief period of liberal government on the peninsula. The second stint was in 1834, during the First Carlist War. On the 5th and 6th of March of that year he and his wife were captured with a group of fellow Carlists.
As we reached the cave somebody pointed out a jagged, rather phallic, slab of rock sticking out of the side of the cave’s rear entrance. It is situated about 4 meters (roughly 13 feet) off the ground.
“Dicen que Boquique fue ahorcado allí, después de que lo capturaran.” (“They say that’s where Boquique was hanged after they captured him.”) This is another legend which apparently doesn’t contain a shred of truth.
We climbed up onto a massive boulder and sat down in the sun. Somebody opened a bag of cashews. As we were deciding which bar to stop in for a couple of quick tapas on the walk home (every good Spanish hike ends in a bar) my wife said, “Isn’t that R?” I looked down toward the river below us. About 100 yards away I recognized R by the cowboy hat and backpack. He was descending at a good pace, heading for town, and judging by his stride he seemed to be in good spirits. Hell, the sun was shining and he was sure to find a few acquaintances in the square drinking cañas.
We were all munching away silently when Berto said what everybody was thinking. “Quiero saber dónde coño está su cueva.” (“I want to know where the hell his cave is.”)
Berto’s girlfriend Noe gave me a dirty look and added, “Los Americanos son unos bichos raros.” (“Americans are total weirdos.”)
This was followed by lots of snickering from the peanut gallery.
“Que te den.” (“Up yours.”) To make sure she had heard me I bounced a cashew off her head.
Puente de Gaston Bertier which forms part of the abandoned Plasencia-Astorga railway line
Update: Saw R again in early March. His arm is healing up nicely. He informed me that he is currently 57 years old and he lives on about 150 euros a month.
“It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.” – Edward Abbey