A Long Month On La Palma

If photos really do steal your soul, then I’m screwed. I just spent a month the island of La Palma, and I took so many photos with people that I started to hate whoever invented cameras. Let me stress here that I didn’t take the photos; rather, I posed in these countless thousands with people who wanted to have photographic proof of having met me, because people in La Palma are under the delusional impression that I’m an important person. I won Transvulcania once in the distant past, and the Palmeros are proud of their hometown race, and with it they’re proud of its stars. For me, though, everything about the island has captivated me since my first visit in 2012. La Palma represents a lot of what has always captivated me about travel: distant places, different cultures, other languages and ways of life. The isolation of a community built on a volcano in the middle of ocean feels exotic and new and exciting. I wanted to live that life myself, so last month, on the pretense of running the race again, I moved in.

This is a land of blue-collar workers and café culture. People here wear jeans and button-up shirts with muted colors. Tanned old men stand in doorways and lean against walls watching the world go by. They’re always chatting with each other and don’t seem to have the American-ish need to be doing something all the time. Among this crowd I am conspicuous. My clothes are shiny and bright and new. I have nice toys like my bright red backpack with all kinds of clips and straps, and I drive a car so clearly a rental that other rental cars wave at me as if we know each other. Probably more than anything, I’m a white boy among Spaniards. My pale skin, curly hair, and blue eyes stand out in the tanned crowds here nearly as much as the time I was in Japan, and I attract stares wherever I go. By an odd twist of history, I am usually taken–and I mean among the non-running Palmeros– for German. As one local friend explained to me, Tenerife is the island where young British people go to party, while La Palma is the island where old German people go to hike. Americans are virtually unheard of here. It’s oddly refreshing to feel that all the stereotypes heaped upon me are entirely new. But good thing my Spanish is improving, because although even my language skills stand out, there’s not much fallback in English, as few signs use it and even fewer people speak it.

But if I’m a spectacle in the cities, the mountains are a spectacle for me. I’ve heard that La Palma is the most mountainous island in the world. I would believe it, too, because the geography of the place is stunning. From the empty ocean a volcano has risen to 2,400 meters, and with it two other smaller ones which together form a dramatic spine of dark rock that rises steeply and straight in the south and continues, undulating like vertebrae, to the great caldera in the north. Rounded on three sides like the dome of any self-respecting volcano, the Caldera de Taburiente is all but empty on its western flank, having at some time in the distant past collapsed inward with terrific force that gouged a monstrous canyon out of a former mountainside. Geologically speaking, this happened in conjuction with several volcanic eruptions that clearly left their mark on the landscape. Many hundreds of years later, after the lava cooled and the rocks eroded and the plant species repopulated, we travelers now have the double benefit of witnessing the desolate remains of such extraordinary geologic upheaval while sitting under shady pine trees and listening to the birds.

Did I mention pine trees? Why yes I did. That’s because, with elevations surpassing treeline, this volcano plays host to several different biomes. From the black-sand beaches one can run up through banana plantations, pine forest, old-growth Laurisilva forest, and finally the alpine zone that’s really just a big expanse of black rock and small shrubs above treeline. In ancient times the pine trees (Pinus Canariensis– the endemic brand that’s super drought-resistant) and the Laurisilva (broad-leafed and water resistant–yeah, La Palma has microclimates) came down all the way to the coasts, but now their range has been largely overrun by banana plantations tended by people. These plantations are terraced up the hillsides by stone and cinderblock walls, and the infrastructure is extensive. From just about any vantage point one can see broad staircases of the wide-leafed, big-fronded, green banana trees climbing thousands of feet up the mountains. Many of these are enclosed in beige netting, presumably to keep out insects, so that the fields often have a checkerboard look from above. And if you get close enough to investigate, you’ll see that each tree is composed of a stout green trunk about 10 inches in diameter, with no undergrowth, and with one long, jutting arm sprouting circles of an almost cartoonish amount of bananas. I’m talking like 100-plus bananas per branch. Given the extent of the the plantations, La Palma, small though it is, must be exporting some serious banana tonnage.

The one place not blanketed entirely with banana trees is the northeast corner of the island. This area, not having been scorched by lava flows (at least not as badly) has instead been scoured into remarkably steep canyons. Ancient Palmeros used to save travel time between points on the coast by climbing to the 8,000-foot summit rather than traversing these canyons. Because not only are the canyons steep, loose, and treacherous, they’re also thickly overgrown with what feels to me a near-rainforest of vegetation. The fact is: La Palma is a microcosm of environmental diversity dictated by more factors than just elevation. The northern and northeastern slopes of the island are significantly colder and wetter than areas just 20 miles south (as the crow flies.) Desolate open deserts in the south give way quickly to lushly vegetated hills and canyons. On some parts of the island a trail is merely a suggestion to hikers who might instead choose to cut switchbacks across open ground, but in the thick forests up north the undergrowth is much too thick to allow passage without a trail. Because of this topography and climate, the northeast has remained the most virgin ecosystem on the island. People live and farm there still, but in far fewer numbers. The trees and the birds and the flowers still hold sway up north.

If La Palma can be said to have a soul it will be found in the songs of the birds and the colors of the flowers. My knowledge of flowers is poor, but their in-your-face magnificence on this island has kindled in me a kind of reverence. They sparkle on the hillsides in dazzling arrays of form and color. Some are soft and trumpet-shaped, the color of buttermilk. Others are rounded with the stems of a thousand tiny buds. Some leap out of the greenery and demand to be seen, while others hide away in the shadows of larger bushes and trees. But all are magnificent. They give to the land a feeling of freshness, of being new and clean and hopeful. And they give to the air a fragrant scent that comes and goes with the sea breeze. La Palma stands tall and regal over the wide ocean, but its austerity is softened by its fields of bloom.

Fittingly–this being a Canary Island (although research tells me that the name comes not from birds at all but from the roman word for dogs)–the birds are ubiquitous and vocal. I’ll spare you the monotony of a list of names by sparing myself the monotony of more research, but the experience is knowledge enough. The birds are everywhere. They sing from before dawn all the way to evening, when the frogs take over. Their songs range from feeble chip-chips to elaborate tunes and complex melodies. Their colors, up close, run the gamut of the rainbow, with every imaginable shade of black and red and white, violet and orange, bright blue and pink and yellow. They are big and small; they hop between branches and flit between canyon walls. When they walk on flat ground they hop or bob their heads, and if you get close enough you can see the subtle shades of color fading into different hues across breasts and wings that make each one unique. They seem fragile and cute. The fate of songbirds living in civilization the world over is horrifying, and La Palma is no different with its profusion of cats and windows. But the birds yet persist, and their songs mark the passing days in this haven above the wide, blue ocean.

As for the ocean, I’ll note that it feels less like a thing and more like a medium, like a canvas on which the world’s landforms have been drawn. From my terrace, which sits maybe 800 feet above sea level, I can see a whole lot of ocean. On clear days when the horizon is well-defined, it stretches into a distance without perspective. Occasionally I see small white things which appear to be pieces of plastic, but which actually turn out to be boats. The 2,000-foot-long, 300-foot-high cruise ships in the distance are mere rectangles in a blue void. But it’s not just any blue, or rather, it’s not just one blue. The ocean is a vast expanse of dark blue and navy and turquoise and cerulean and cyan and teal and ultramarine. There are so many shades of blue in the ocean that I looked up and memorized several shades of the color that I hadn’t heard of before. And there’s also a lot of greens and greys in there too. Streamers of one color will stretch for miles across the surface of water that is an entirely different color. Shadows from the clouds darken the surface too, and whitecaps are visible for miles out to sea on windy days. The ocean is so enormous that I can hardly bear to look at it. I can’t relate to anything I see out there, and it shows me that I’m small and insignificant. Whenever I look at the sea I get freaked out and quickly focus on anything near to hand.

On clear days I can see two other islands from my apartment. To the southeast I can see the hulking mass of Teide–at 3,700 meters Spain’s highest mountain–looking like what it is, a great, big cone-shaped volcano. To the south roll the ridges of La Gomera. What is unmistakable, when looking at these two other landmasses, is that they are really small islands amid a really big ocean. And despite the apparent size of the mountain on which I stand, I know that my isolation is just as complete. The ocean is a power inconceivable to me, and not simply for its power to dash rocks to dust and swallow fleets of ships in a single storm. The ocean’s greatest strength lies in its patience. It was here before any of us, and will likely be here long after us, and each slow day as the sun grinds overhead the sea washes a few more pebbles from the beaches that loop the speck of land I currently live on. It may be in no particular hurry, but someday the water will wash away every last rock from this 8,000-foot-high peak. It’ll take Teide and La Gomera too, eventually.

Speaking of big incomprehensible things, La Palma is also home to some of the best astronomical observatories on the planet. Since the clouds rarely reach above 1,500 meters and the big old ocean keeps the night sky dark, the stars here really kick ass. Not hesitant to get as close as possible to the heavens, the scientists have bogarted the absolute highest point on the island–the Roque de los Muchachos at 2,400 meters. This happens to be in the aforementioned alpine zone where trees don’t grow, and the white domes of the telescopes can be seen from nearly everywhere on the island, like big white pills stuck into the summit. In the evening the sleepless scientists climb into their enclaves and peer upward through telescopes several meters across and try to see things that might give us a sense of place in this vast empty desert of space through which we float. But as far as La Palma is concerned, their discoveries are minor compared to the gravity of the race.

Through this tapestry of life and dreams runs Transvulcania. This race, though only seven years old, regularly attracts some of the deepest competition on the ultra calendar. This is not least because of the support of the International Skyrunning Federation and the nearly obsequious generosity of the race organization itself. Whether because of the herculean efforts of the race to build a running culture, or because of some innate love of trail running bred into the community (I’d guess something of both), the people of La Palma have accepted the race with more than open arms. From the pre-dawn aid station at Los Canarios throbbing with cheering fans, to the alpine enclaves of El Pilar and Roque de los Muchachos pulsing with energy, to the finish line barricades more than a mile long and lined the whole way with screaming spectators, the island comes out in full force to support this event. The finish line photos show a scene that could be anywhere in the world of sports, be it the Olympics or the Tour de France, with thousands of people lining both sides of the chutes and waving signs and flags and cameras. For all that the race traverses the spine of the island through scores of natural wonders, the defining aspect of Transvulcania is the people.

For those who come out to support the race–most of the island–this isn’t just a passing fancy. Transvulcania means something. It’s their race, on their island, through their home mountains, and they are proud that their island is the site of some of the best racing in the sport of mountain running. To those who live on this isolated mountain, the resultant global attention is intoxicating. They, more than most other people, are eager to cast the sport in angelic terms and deify the stars. Kilian Jornet, Luis Alberto Hernando, Emelie Forsberg, and Anna Frost–these are names that every Palmero recognizes. And not just their names–when these runners walk down the street, people know about it. Running is to La Palma what soccer is to every other Spanish city. It’s the sport that puts the island on the map.

I won the race too, once, three years ago. And that has engendered the aforementioned photo frenzies that make me so uncomfortable. Part of my discomfort stems from my opinion that my accomplishments don’t warrant such idolatry–perhaps on Luis Alberto or Emelie, but not me. But I also want to communicate with people, and the photo posing acts as a barrier to that. The photo frenzies alienate me; they isolate me from the community and set me on a pedestal as one above many, rather than one among many. And I just want to shake people and say, “Stop it! I’m just like you!” But I have to remember that I’m not from La Palma, and that I feel gratitude where they feel pride. People don’t consult their sources of inspiration for permission as such, and by winning the race I serve to some people a different role than the one in which I see myself. And in this I’m not alone–each year new, successful runners overshadow old ones and provide inspiration anew. Fans of the sport are affected by fast runners and their stories in ways that those at the top don’t often expect.

It strikes me that all of us–whether we’re dreaming of exotic places or watching the open ocean or staring into the stars or idolizing athletes–we’re all trying to communicate with something larger than ourselves. And having been on the other side of one of those examples makes me think that maybe we’re not quite so small as we think. Or rather, maybe the unknown isn’t quite so big as we make it. But really–it’s still just running. Relax.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you visited a place long enough to learn about it and experience it on an intimate level? Where was that and how did you find your extended encounter?
  • Have you seen a hobby, sport, or another part of culture take on a greater-than-usual meaning within certain communities? Why do you think that sometimes happens?

There are 6 comments

  1. ClownRunner

    Was one of the old men in the doorway Karl Meltzer in disguise trying to convince you to run Speedgoat in July? :)

Post Your Thoughts