Virtual trek landscape observations

This isn’t a Spain food post but is my observations, via remote means, about my virtual trek along the Camino. I’ve mentioned that, as an incentive to exercise, I convert miles I do on the treadmill in the basement to position along the GPS track I have of the Camino de Santiago. I then use Google’s Streetview and satellite images to try to “see” what the trek actually looks at where I’m “at”.

What triggered this post was my searching for restaurants along the trek that have online menus. I’ve reached Ledigos in Palencia province of Castilla y León  autonomous community. I’ve been trekking across Palencia for over a month now (an actual trek would be a few weeks). Ledigos has a few places to eat but nothing online I can analyze.  That’s been true of all the various towns along this stretch of the Camino.

In my previous post I talked about extracting Spanish food terms from various online lists. This is useful for expanding the corpus I’m building to then have code extract an extensive vocabulary that would be useful in interpreting menus in Spain and deciding what to (or not to) order. Lists are helpful but not very interesting to process. The Spanish terms with English definitions/translations are just mindless mechanical work (automating processing these lists is very difficult). I don’t mind tedium of this kind of processing but I don’t learn much. The dictionaries or glossaries that are entirely in Spanish are a bit more interesting since I use machine translation of the Spanish to English and often these translations require additional investigation to find out what the terms really mean. That’s a bit more interesting and helps me learn a bit (not just mindlessly accumulate raw data).

But restaurant menus are far more interesting. They often use terms that defy machine translation and thus require a lot of investigation. Thus I learn a lot from these. So being a bit bored with processing lists and not finding any online menus along this stretch of the Camino I used Google maps to find larger towns that are more likely to have menus to see. In the province of Palencia there are not many of these towns; in fact, only the city of Palencia is large enough to provide some online material. And that’s what I’m working on in my food terms part of my adventure and will have some posts on those menus.

So searching the map of Palencia revealed even more of the landscape than I’ve “seen” along my virtual trek. And, frankly, what I see is hot, dry, dusty and boring countryside with sleepy little nondescript towns. A real trek on this stretch would not be very interesting.

Here in Nebraska I have access to three trekking trails that are rural and would require more than a day to walk. First is the nearby MoPac, a rails-to-trails conversion that starts about 20 miles west of Lincoln and goes into the city. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this concept the right-of-way that was granted to build railroads often reverts back to state when the railroad is abandoned. While the railroad was operating the route was transformed to level with gentle curves, either filling in depressions or cutting grades through hills. Here there are numerous small streams so the railroad required bridges and those can be refurbished to provide the walking path. So the MoPac (and others) make for easy and sometimes pleasant walking. Since many of these railroad routes were built when train engines still burned coal (or even wood) there is usually additional area along the side of the tracks so embers didn’t ignite crops or houses. So today the MoPac is overgrown with “wild” brush and trees, often 50m or so on both sides of the trail. As a result hiking is often in the shade, something definitely not the case in Palencia. But there are non-shady stretches along the MoPac that can be seriously hot in summer with intense sun.

A second trail is the Wabash, another rails-to-trails in Iowa. It starts on the south edge of Council Bluffs and continues all the way to Missouri, nearly 70 miles, so more than a day hike. This trails is even more overgrown and shaded than the MoPac. So despite being surrounded by farms, usually within 50m of the trail, it feels more like wilderness. The Wabash goes through a number of towns and a few of those now have refreshment (but not overnight lodging) for trekkers. Doing the entire length of Wabash would take multiple days (possibly doable in one day on a bike, although biking speed on the unpaved trail is much lower than paved road biking, so doing the entire Wabash is harder than doing a Century ride). Thus a trekker would need vehicle support at the end of each day to find lodging. This contrasts with the Camino which has lodging, water and food at convenient daily hiking intervals, undoubtedly one of the main appeals of the Camino, all the infrastructure to support peregrinos.

In segments (and recording with my GPSr) I’ve done the full length of both of these trails and very much appreciate that the states chose to use the abandoned right-of-way for recreation. But in some ways I view these trails as practice (or an appetizer) for a real long-distance trek.

So now I’ll tie this together with Palencia. A third long-distance trail is the Cowboy Trail. Nominally (except it’s unfinished) it could be the longest trekking trail in the US. It’s a bit longer drive for me to reach it (I can get to MoPac or Wabash in an hour) so I don’t normally consider hiking any of it. But the Cowboy Trail is right next to a highway I driven multiple times. So it turns out the Cowboy Trail is very similar to the Camino, at least the long stretch in Castilla y León and especially Palencia province. It has little shade and so also is hot and dry and flat and passes through either monotonous fields of corn or soybeans and further west (even drier) through pasture land. It looks a LOT like the Palencia stretch of the Camino.

In my other hobby I do an online recreation called Geodashing.  This involves trying to reach completely random “dashpoints”, just a latitude and longitude. Geodashing requires getting within 100m of the coordinates without trespassing on private land so I take each month’s new set of dashpoint (about 30,000 each month, worldwide) and analyze if I can reach them (i.e. drive close, often on very remote and sometimes poor roads). As a consequence, having done this for over 10 years, I’m pretty good at analyzing countryside by satellite photos and sometimes Google Streetviews. Looking down from space on features on the ground takes some practice to imagine what there is at ground level. So I’ve had lots of practice with this and thus far doing the same for the Camino route I think I have a good idea of what is around the Camino route. For the Camino there are actually far more Streetview paths (the Google cars seem to have gone on all the little roads in Spain, more so than here in the Great Plains). I’m sure it would be difference to experience it for real but I think I have a good idea about the landscape.

I first learned of the Camino de Santiago from the movie The Way. Later I learned there are actually many branches of the Camino and so more correctly the part of the Camino I’m following is The French Way, aka, Camino Francés. While this is a very ancient pilgrimage route it was closed during the Moorish occupation of Spain but now is the most popular route. The movie makes the Camino far more visually appealing since it mostly shows scenes in Navarra and Galacia; both of these are wetter (thus greener and often wooded, more like wilderness backpacking trails) and have significant topography (i.e. the Pyrenees). But the bulk of the French Way is actually in flat and boring farm country. While the crops in Spain are different than the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska farmland is farmland and not the appealing scenery of other parts of the Camino.

But wrapping this long post up I want to comment on another interesting feature. That is the relative lack of human habitation outside the small towns.

Several decades ago I did an organized bicycle trip through southern Germany and Austria. Many people on that ride were from the midwest US so we discussed differences between rural areas in Germany vs the US. A very pronounced and obvious difference was the lack of farmhouses out among the fields. It seemed, since on a bike we notice hills, that all the farmers lived in small towns on hills and only crops are present in the bottomlands. At first we speculated this was a historical defensive choice as farming is many centuries older than in the US and Europe had a whole flock of wars. But we later learned the more obvious answer was that hills are drained and dry and so not very good for crops so houses were built there leaving the better-watered areas just for crops.

So that is another very noticeable difference between the three tails I described here in Nebraska and the Camino. When you can see beyond tree cover there are farmhouses everywhere on the Nebraska trails. And from the satellite and Streetview images there are almost none in Spain, just like Germany. The other really noticeable difference (which is correlated with lack of farmhouses) is that fields here are much larger and usually quite regular. This is a consequence of the land policies in the US where the government acquired vast tracts of “empty” land (as the sarcasm goes, “stolen fair and square” from the original peoples) and made these easily available to homesteaders. Thus, at least west of Ohio, most of the farm country in midwest US has a grid of roads (many now abandoned but still visible in satviews) on one mile spacing, aka, “section lines”. A section in the US is 640 acres or one square mile. In fact, an completely different geographical reference system is used, known a township/range and section than longitude or latitude.

The homestead act allow people to acquire a quarter section (160 acres) often free or at least very cheaply. So often each square mile had four farm houses, now with many abandoned. Unlike the irregular patchwork quilt of fields I see in Palencia fields here are almost entirely regular (not true in the older parts of the US, i.e. the eastern states).

In the US those original homesteads have mostly been consolidated into larger blocks of land. With automation it’s entirely feasible (and economically necessary) to farm at least an entire section if not several sections. At the time when this land was originally opened (19th century) such large farms were not feasible.

I happen to know all this as I am in the process of obtaining title to a “small” farm in Oklahoma where my mother’s family lived. That farm is a mere 80 acres, 1/2 of the original tract of the typical quarter section of land grants. Before WWII it was feasible for a family to live on such a small farm, raising some crops for income and others for personal consumption. The titles to the land I will inherit are a mess, stretching back to the early 20th century. But one feature of land ownership, now reversed with “corporate” farming, was original tracts get divided through inheritance. So my little 80 acre farm will have three owners (once all the legal process is completed). My father’s family farm was divided among 14 owners. So in the US there are these two competing trends, dividing larger tracts into smaller ones and then (usually through sale by heirs who don’t want the farm or small farmers who can’t economically farm such a small tract) into much larger tracts.

Now looking at the aerial view of Palencia it’s clear the process of subdividing land has been going on a very long time and thus creates the patchwork quilt of small tracts. When I toured Portugal two decades ago, especially in the area south of Lisbon the “modern” trend typical here in the US was occurring. Small farms were not economically viable once Portugal joined the EU so small tracts were being consolidated into larger ones. Much of the farm country south of Lisbon looks a lot like the midwest US. In fact, I was surprised to see the center pivot irrigation systems sprouting up with equipment that was produced in Nebraska (the origin of the invention of center pivot irrigation, now home to most of the producers of that system). Palencia seems to have escaped this consolidation process but I suspect some of the competitive economic pressures of the EU will lead to more consolidation in Spain as well.

So the lack of farmhouses actually out on the land is, I speculate, primarily economic (not defense). Land is simply too valuable to waste by building even just farmhouses on it. So the farmers live in the small villages in a more urban land use pattern. Since the farms are still small in Palencia there are many villages, as there were in Germany as I found one my bike ride there.

Having so many villages, often just a few kilometers apart, was very handy for our ride in Germany. Most of the towns had at least a gasthaus and often a market and/or a bakery. This made obtaining food and water easy. If a town didn’t have what we needed the next town was 20 minutes away. But that’s on a bike. Walking the towns are a couple of hours apart and of course that’s what I’m seeing on the Camino. Most of the small towns on that route have one or more albergues. It wouldn’t surprise me that on peak days peregrinos out number the local citizens. When I was looking off the Camino in Palencia the amount of lodging and restaurants, in the villages, declined, for the obvious reason they wouldn’t have many customers.

Now this is where I can make another comparison observation. Through geodashing I’ve been through a large number of small villages, mostly here in the Great Plains. And these villages are wasting away. If they were big enough to have some shops the now nearby Walmart (outside the taxing authority of the town) has driven those out of business (now Amazon is helping finish the job as seeing delivery trucks in the middle of nowhere is now much more common than when I first started geodashing). So these towns are dying. As a result they have few resources, either food or lodging for travelers. So along the three trails I described here long-distance self-supported trekking is basically impossible.

So what does all this mean? For me it has reduced my interest in doing the Camino. Too much of the route is this boring and hot/dry countryside with boring little towns (from Streetview also with many abandoned buildings like towns here in the midwest). Simply not very interesting.

Now the Camino was really not for recreational tourism. Its origin was the religious notion of pilgrimage. Where the route was interesting or the towns were interesting is mostly irrelevant from the classical pilgrimage POV. But all those little towns with resources for trekkers has meant most modern pilgrims are largely doing recreational tourism. And that would have been my focus. In my younger days I did quite a bit of backpacking on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. Well my days of sleeping on the ground and eating freeze-dried food are over, my old bones want a bed and hot food. So a long hike on wilderness trails in the US was not on my agenda. So seeing the movie, The Way, I thought the Camino looked like a great alternative. Also with lodging and food the backpack can be a lot lighter than my wilderness backpacking. So it looked attractive.

But now, after my virtual trek, it looks less interesting. Spain is still appealing but I suspect I’d do my conventional tourism (with a car and mostly cities) if I get the chance to go. So I might see bits of the Camino (as I have the Cowboy Trail here) but I doubt I’ll walk it. This is disappointing to me to see the reality of the Camino as rather different than the romanticized view of the movie. The Camino can still be great, certainly as religious or spiritual pilgrimage or as a way to meet a lot of people with the many hours of trekking as an opportunity for conversation. But I was looking at it more like doing the Appalachian Trail but with beds and restaurants. And I think that’s what I’ve learned – too much of the trail would be just hot and dusty and tiring. Many people find the Appalachian Trail fairly boring, often called the “green tunnel”. While there is some spectacular scenery much of the AT is just walking through dense trees with no sights visible. The Pacific Crest Trail, OTOH, is much higher and much of it (at least the California stretch where I’ve backpacked) is dry and so there are some grand vistas.

So it’s all a question of what goals one has for a walk. I liked the Pacific Crest Trail but am now too old to do that. And now it looks like the Camino is out too.

So where do I look now?

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