Dusty tore down the mountain chasing the tires of the mountain bikers in front of him. It was the second day of their group ride and he felt like an amateur against the hardened skills of his fellow bikers. This island, La Palma, is not only the most mountainous island of the Spanish Canary Islands, but also one of the most mountainous islands in the world. It’s a mountain biker heaven, with shops and hostels spotted throughout the island to provide refuge for the thousands that trek here year round. Yet, despite its popularity in the extreme sports world, the island remains mostly uninhabited and undisturbed with several villages and only one main city. At one time this remote Canary Island was patronized by a famous pirate known in the west as “Peg Leg” or more accurately, Jean-Paul de Billiancourt who raided the frequently plundered shipbuilding island of La Palma in 1553.
The “mountains” that Dusty twisted and turned his way down are actually the steep sides of still active volcanoes. The entire island is a product of two main volcanoes, with contributions from others throughout its’ history. As a result, the beaches are the black, glittering sand of aged lava and the ground crumbles with broken pieces of the last eruption.
He stood with his feet on either side of his bike, having made the ascent to the top of the mountain they’d be biking down soon, and took in the scene as he caught his breath. The green, rocky mountain below him seemed to melt down in the ocean, bubbling at the edges with white sea form. Clouds hazed at the furthest point of the sea, making it nearly indistinguishable to tell which was the water and which was its’ mirror.
“Ok, this first section is steep. You’ll need to keep your distance and do a front pivot turn to get through the bends.” The group leader addressed the group of 10, all young guys except one Italian female lawyer. Everyone’s experience ranged, but Dusty felt that he had the most to learn from the group than the others with only a few months experience under his belt. The group leader was German but had moved to La Palm and bought a bike shop/ B&B. He offered to take groups on the trails all over the island, providing transportation when needed and guidance before each section of a trail. “Keep an eye out for each other. If someone goes down, it’s up to the next person behind them to yell it through the line until it gets to me at the end. Ok? Super. Vamos!”
Dusty pulled down his helmet over his face and kicked forward on his bike, getting to the edge of the cliff with the others and waiting as the person in front of him disappeared down the trail. He leaned forward to tilt his bike and breathed steadily as the trees and greenery whizzed past in the peripherals of his eyes. He focused on the trail, reading the curves, bumps and roots of endless trees. Finding the motion of the mountain was his goal for this ride, learning the fluidity of the curves and mounds like one learns a dance by feeling the revolutions of their partner’s body. His tires pressed into the flesh of the mountain and he caught his breath as he performed the recommended pivot turn through the bend in the trail. He rode fluidly, rising and falling with each mound, and reared back on his handlebars as the bike fell through the air in a jump. Roots and rocks dotted the ground in between the trees like freckles on a body and he worked his bike back and forth to miss them. The tension in his shoulders became the energy of his hands controlling his speed with the front back and then the back brake. This job, this unit, this German assignment asked more from him than he had been prepared to give. His daily negotiations with corporate alliances here in Europe and back in the United States left him wishing for a community not dependent on money or status. His email had become the chain that kept him to his desk and served as his morning Grim Reaper. But this ride, this island, undressed the uniform of stress and responsibility from his body and warmed his bare, liberated skin.
All too soon, dust rose in the open track of the brief respite in the trail where they’d agreed to stop and Dusty rolled his hand over the bars to clutch his bike. He stepped to the side with the others and awaited the arrival of the last few members of the group. He took out his phone and smiling with freedom, began capturing the views around them.
While Dusty rode his hours on the island, I sipped café con leche leche (a drink that we had learned was a local favorite) by the pool of our lodging and watched the waves of the dark aqua ocean. The patatas and salsa verde I’d ordered were too delicious to even wait too cool and my burnt tongue groaned with the warmth of my coffee. I was in a paradise of black, blue, green and white swirling colors but I couldn’t shake the cloud that seem to hang only over me like a cartoon. Lately I had been hit with so many hints from life that confirmed my insecurities about being a real, capable adult. During the past weeks, I felt like I could hear life cackling at me whenever I forgot to make that phone call at work for my boss or ended a conversation with “but you know, you can, like, do whatever”. I felt incompetent and powerless to be able to change. But mostly, I was so insecure with myself that I didn’t even want to be around me.
But maybe, I thought, as I looked at the game of beach volleyball playing down on the black beach, I could find something I liked about myself here. I inhaled that resolution and smiled at the startling sweet smell of the air, a side effect of the copious banana farms throughout the island.
On the days we explored together, we trekked down to the hiking trail Ruta de los Volcanes along the Cumbre Viega mountain ridge on the southernmost part of the island. While the majority of the island is covered in tropical greenery, we spotted in the southern tip of the island small spines interspersed between large red rocks and yellow crumbling earth. We moved slowly, party for the crumbly, rough terrain of the path and also because we simply could not stop admiring what we saw. First there was the sparse shrub covered Volcan Martin (which can be seen the road and erupted in 1646) and down further was Montana de los Charcos (its 1712 eruption is responsible for flattening much of the southern part of the island). Dusty climbed the ridges of the steeper parts of the path ahead of me and stood on the edge to take pictures of Crater del Duraznero (caused by the San Antonio volcano in 1949) and Crater del Hoyo Negro (formed from the 1949 San Juan volcano which is responsible for flattening the southern part of the island). We descended from the volcanos to the Punta Fuencaliente, the southernmost point of the island complete with an old lighthouse to watch the sea.
The volcanoes themselves reach a height that, on a clear day, you can see the top of the mountain on Tenerife, the next island over. These heights, paired with the remoteness of the island, give a chance to see more stars at night than ever known before. NASA and the Spanish government joined forces to study the clear, unspoiled vantage point to the heavens and now the Gran Telescopio Canaries and Los Muchachos Observatory on one volcano of the Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente. This national park is a massive crater formed by successive volcanic eruptions and now is one of the highest spots on La Palma.
That morning, we drove northeast from our little town of Los Llanos and couldn’t resist stopping at a little café that seemed to dangle precariously from the cliff edge. But upon entering the small outdoor tables, we could see why the location had been chosen. From the deck of El Mirador de Time, we could see in almost every direction up and down the coast of the island. The expansive banana farms rolled up and down the rises of the island and their sweet smell made the air thick and syrupy. We stayed to order omelets with salsa verde and cafés before continuing on our day.
Our destination was the top of one volcano, where the top had formed a crater called la Caldera de Taburiente. To reach the crater, we drove past La Cumbrecita, a vantage point to see the island, and parked at the beginning of the Rogue de los Muchachos trail. The ground was all rock this high up, a sandy red and brown that steamed from the sun and dusted our shoes. We walked along the edge of the steep ridge climbing to the top when suddenly it the entire Atlantic Ocean and the edges of the tiny island opened up. The warm sun greeted our faces as we gazed down at horizontal banana farms, growing up the sides of the volcanoes, their large green hats covering fat yellow fruits. The brightly painted orange and yellow houses and buildings spotted along the edges of this island, so small I could reach out with both arms and wrap the edges in a hug. We could see the small towns nestled into the slivers of air between two volcanic cliff edges leaning in to kiss. Small clouds below us hid parts of the black beaches along the island edge, as if trying to shield our eyes from the nudity our fellow European travelers felt comfortable enough to express. We continued to walk along the highest peaks of the crater on thin, amber paths that fell off down into the crater on one side and down the volcanic side on the other. We gulped thin air that was no longer sweet from the wafting bananas below but had a faint sour of sulphur emitting from the volcano. Dusty couldn’t be happier; this were he found his source of contentment and solace from life, when he is wrapped in the warm embrace of Mother Nature and chasing the freedom of Father Sky. We spent the day charging ourselves in the power of the view that volcano offered us until hunger brought us back to our car and down the road below the clouds.
But I didn’t find my bliss until a few days later, when we discovered the true infinity pools of the island that so many hotels across the world try to recreate. The ocean waves pounding against the dark lava cliffs form inlets into the cliffs over the centuries but uneven ones that twist around to form a mouth. The result is a natural pool in the cliffs with water that rocks with the current, but will sit in the sun all day and warm to a pleasurable temperature. In high tide, the waves crash against the opening of the pool and the cold eater will splash the swimmers soaking in the sun warmed bath. Dusty and I drove the winding roads around the perimeter of the island, there being only one road that cuts through the center of the island from east to west, to the northeast corner of the island to Barlovento. We parked along the cliff edge overlooking the ocean and climbed down the stone staircase to las Piscinas de Fajana, a group of several infinity pools with seats carved into the lava rock and home to colorful, tiny fish who enjoy their visitors. Waves with white foam crashed on the sides of the stone pool, the sound like the heartbeat of the Atlantic. And she was welcoming us in with the sun warming the stones where I sat on the edge of one of the pools, my legs dangling in the water waiting for Dusty to finish undressing. The waves were loud enough to dull the sounds of us talking, completing the ambiance to the sunlit circle of warmth. I floated in the water, tilting my head back to soak my hair and yelped when Dusty pulled my legs to him and wrapped them around his waist. We took our GoPro camera and filmed the tiny, darting fish swimming around us and taking ticklish nibbles of our toes. Dusty stepped out of the pool and stood on the stone edges of the pool to capture the waves splashing into the pools at high tide.
As I watched him taking pictures, I understood something about my insecurities. I may be a little awkward of a person, probably unprofessional and a little uncouth, but what was more important for me to realize was that I am lucky. An incredibly, jealously-provoking, want-to-hate-you-but-can’t lucky person. I’d grown up thinking the Canary Islands were one of those places that only either the really rich or the really lucky get to see. And here I sat, letting the rippling aquamarine arms rock me in the sun and watching tiny red and yellow fish dart in between my toes while my love smiles and walks back towards me. I am one ridiculously lucky girl and in that moment, I felt humbled by the island’s gift of understanding and felt her smile in the warmth of the sun.