In the Mountains of Andalucia

Searching Higher
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Cabrero watching his flock
Cabrero watching his flock

So I went looking for that connection: One dawn I slipped out of bed while the others still slept and clambered down into El Tajo, under the arched Moorish gate through which Washington Irving descended. Looking up from the dim, rushing bottom I watched the sun break above the toothlike houses on the escarpment above. One afternoon I drove out to Acinipo — Old Ronda — now simply a high hilltop covered with pasture like any other hilltop, except for the ruins of an enormous stone theater built into its crest, where the Romans who once lived in a city on the hillside watched their dramas. Another afternoon, we followed a local farmer/guide through the Cave of Pileta as he shone his lantern on 25,000-year-old cave paintings of bison and fish executed in charcoal and ochre by the Paleolithic inhabitants of Andalucia.

All of this placed the weight of hundreds of years of human occupation on the rounded hilltops and broken escarpments of these old mountains, the Serrania de Ronda, as if they had been eroded by the endless stream of lives that had passed here. But — still — I hadn't touched that mountain spirit, and for that I knew I needed to seek out the living.

Our last morning in Ronda, I rose again in the pinks and oranges of the Andalucian dawn and slipped our Peugot from the garage under our little hotel. I carried with me a map scrawled in ballpoint pen on the back of a cardboard doughnut box. It had been drawn by the proprietor of the corner grocery down our street, Calle San Jose, back in Cadiz. We called him"The Goatman" because he sold the most delicious goat cheese, he knew all there was to know about goats, and he had been born in Yunquera, a Pueblo Blanco not far from Ronda where his brother was a cabrero — a goatherd.

He'd sketched a mountain pass on the map beyond Ronda and circled it with his pen. El Puerto del Viento (The Pass of the Winds), he'd called it.

"Here you will find inspiracisn!" he'd told me, looking up at the beamed ceiling of his grocery as if at the mountain peaks. "Mucha inspiracisn y muchos cabreros!"

The road from Ronda switchbacked toward a ridge of mountains where the white clouds tumbled over the crest like a breaking wave. Beneath the peaks was a high valley, emerald green in the sun, and half a mile out in the center stood a lone white farmstead, a finca, as if it were the farmhouse at the end of the world. A stocky man was walking down the road, his weathered face shaded by a beret.

"I am looking for los cabreros," I said.

He laughed. "I am a cabrero."

"But if you are a cabrero where are your cabras?"

He pointed up toward the blue sky and misty clouds scraping over the ridgetop.

"Up on the mountain."

"May I follow you?"

"Si, si. But it is far."

For the next several hours I followed Juan, the owner of the white finca, as he strode upward through the wildflowers and tall grasses. Ronda looked like a splash of milk on a green plateau far off and far below while the wind blew hard and cool in the morning sunlight. He swept his hand over the valley and peaks and spoke in an Andalucian accent I could barely understand.

"It's beautiful here. But today there are some clouds on the mountains." Then he added — apropos of what, I didn't know, except as a way to say that we were friends simply by climbing into these mountains together: "You're a good person. I'm a good person, too." Juan whistled and called for his goats, and we heard a responding whistle and the clacking of stones from a ridge nearby. His son had located the herd. Whistling and calling, Juan and Francisco herded them down the ridge and across the valley in a great brown and white river of seven hundred goats, herd dogs nipping at their heels and goat bells clanging.

Leaving the goats bunched up just outside the finca's walls, Juan invited me inside, across a small cobbled courtyard, to the farmhouse itself. Later, with much shouting and whistling and waving of arms, would come the culling of the milking from the non-milking goats. Then I would watch the family, with smooth efficiency, herd the milking goats into the shed and hook them to the milking machine in groups of a dozen, filling the big stainless steel cans with steaming goat's milk.

But first we rested inside the farmhouse. One entire wall was taken up by the fireplace, and the stones of the floor were the hearth itself, with benches built inside the fireplace for sleeping on cold winter nights. Carmen, Juan's wife, brewed mugs of strong coffee, sliced slabs from a loaf of country bread and spread them with pork lard. A cat wandered in, and a puppy, and a baby goat that chewed on my pant leg. They asked about my children and I asked about theirs. Juan cut thick wedges of cheese from a wheel, shoved one into his mouth and handed one to me.

"Is this made from the milk of your goats?"

"Claro!" — Of course! — he said. He nodded to Carmen. "She makes it."

I knew then that at last I'd come to the place I wanted to be, starting with that train ride twenty-five years before. These were somehow the people I'd sought back then, escaping from the dizzy hedonism of the Costa del Sol, these mountain people who were sturdy and straightforward, who loved the place where they lived and the work they did, who somehow rested easily on a point of balance.

"It's delicious," I said.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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