This story begins many moons ago... I have been friends with John Cashill since our days in youth soccer and little league. We played on the same storied Reno National fields at Swope Middle School together when we were younger than my son Sean Patrick is now. We spent summer nights together in Graeagle, growing up and causing mischief in the ways that young boys do. We really only attended the same school together for 7th and 8th grades, but proximity was never really necessary to keep the embers of true friendship glowing between us. After high school I ventured south to San Diego and he north to Willamette, Oregon, but still we stayed in touch, and visited each other regularly. We talked, since high school, about a trip to Europe together, perhaps riding motorcycles and touring around. And although he was able to pull off a graduation backpacking trip over there, I was not, and the dialogue between us continued in the vein of "one of these days". As it does, life moves on and so had we. I moved around a bit to San Francisco and Oakland, and eventually back to Reno to raise my family. He posted up for graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and put roots down doing the same. But we visited regularly, staying involved in our mutual maturation and ....shit, did I just use that word? Really!? Let me get real for a second...we continued to party approximately 75% of the time we got back together, much to the chagrin of our girlfriends/spouses/etc. But over time we have learned a little about moderation and tempering reckless behavior, and we have, in our own rights, managed to raise some pretty amazing children along the way. I'm proud of who we are now, just at the brink of turning 40 years old together. And it was this upcoming birthday that prompted the ever-on-point "Cash Money", as I often refer to JC, to suggest, nay, insist on a boys trip to celebrate our 40th.
Originally in the plans for the trip was our mutual childhood friend (and my now business partner in the bar we own), Brian Ligon. John wanted us all to take some time and plan a big trip over to Octoberfest, and as Ligon and I were very busy recovering from an overwhelming amount of work together and separately, we simply put off the dialogue, thinking that the time was far away. Ligs, in fact, started up a new business of his own, and as time drew on, we came to realize that the three of us were likely not going to be able to get it all together, so the plan evolved. Cashill and I discussed moving the trip up from October and seizing the day, so to speak. Several global festivals were bounced around, but one I had always wanted to do seemed to rise to the top: The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. I have always been a huge fan of large, powerful animals. I was raised riding horses, some of which didn't want to be ridden all that much. And the Reno Rodeo is, to me, one of the best events that takes place in my home town. I make a point to try and attend "extreme bulls" night every year, as the awe I experience when watching those beasts is like nothing else I know. I've harbored a bit of jealousy for the crazy cowboys that jump on their back and challenge them for 8 seconds at a time, to best their efforts. And having majored in English Literature in San Diego, the romantic prose of Earnest Hemingway (whose passion for big game and bull fights is unrivaled) did a number on me as well. I always knew that some day I would experience the thrill of the run in Pamplona. Having obtained permission from the powers that be, Cash committed to the trip, and we began booking flights and residence, securing the proper attire for the festival of San Fermin, and getting ready to experience a trip like no other I'd ever taken. With limited funds and even more limited time, I could only make a week in Spain a reality, so we booked 2 nights in Pamplona for the festivities, and the remaining 4 nights in San Sebastian, at an Air BnB apartment right off the beach. Simple and guaranteed to be a good time, this trip couldn't come fast enough for the both of us.
The precursor to the trip was, appropriately, a meeting up of our families in Graeagle, CA to celebrate the 4th of July. In the most authentic spirit of Americana, we enjoyed a night up at his parents' condo, fireworks at the Mill Pond, and a round of golf at my favorite of all courses, Plumas Pines.
|At the Knotty Pine Tavern|
|My crew golfing the Pines|
Having spent the appropriate amount of holiday time with our families, (and having listened to Pat Cashill, John's father, describe in detail how the more ferocious bulls were traditionally ran later in the week...when we would be in Pamplona), we both went home to pack and prepare for our journey. I assured Mandy, Sean and Ireland that I would take extra care not to get trampled or gored by the bulls, and (more important to them) I would text them immediately after the run was complete, since they were legitimately worried that something terrible was going to happen...thanks a lot, YouTube.
The flight from Reno to Chicago, where I was to meet up with Cash was a bit of a rough one. I tied one on with Mandy the night before, convincing myself that the more tired I was for the long flight to Madrid, the better I would sleep. This is the sort of logic that has cursed me over the years, and this time was no different. The first of many blessings, however, revealed itself to me upon check-in at the airport. While printing my ticket from the kiosk, a prompt for an upgrade popped up and I was offered 1st class to the windy city for under a hundred bucks. "Only a fool would reject such a gift", I thought, and immediately swiped my card. The flight was at 8am, but I had no shame in letting the very nice stewardess know that I wasn't in the best shape, and when she was busy filling up everyone's coffee cups and juice glasses, I would very seriously prefer a Bloody Mary to assist in getting me straight again. She nodded, obliged, and retuned often to see if I was in need of any more. I was very appreciative, but also riddled with guilt and aware that there was much more travel to come, so I said "thank you, but no". I tried to rest in my luxurious seat at the front of the plane, and in fact nodded off a little before the decent into Chi-town. As I did, however, I felt a slight nudge on my shoulder, and opened my eyes, confused, to a plastic bag full of something or other being handed to me by the stewardess. I said, "Thank you?" as I received it, and she turned to strap herself in for the landing. Much to my joyful surprise I opened the bag to find a very nice bottle of French wine which I would tuck into my duffle bag, and explain my way through security with, all the way to Pamplona. Thank you, anonymous stewardess...you kicked my trip off properly with your thoughtful gift.
When Cash and I finally met up in Chicago, we had very little time, so we went to check in to our flight. We noticed that the agent who had assisted us in booking our airfare had neglected to seat us together, so I stepped up to the podium to discuss it with the lovely people from Iberia Airlines. Unfortunately, they told me, there were no places for us to sit together on this sold out flight, and as I was just about to put my head down in frustration, they followed with "HowEVER, it looks like you have been flagged for an upgrade, and we have 2 seats left in 1st class adjacent to each other!"
"What's going on here?" I thought...pausing only briefly before asking what the charge would be. Again, it was a fraction of the cost it should have been, and since we were going to be treated with sleeper seats, individual flat screens, as much food and drink and entertainment as we could handle, and most importantly, sleep...it was another no brainer. Cash and I stretched out and enjoyed the journey to Madrid, dreaming of what glory awaited.
After a restful flight to Madrid, and a quick connection to Pamplona, we grabbed our duffles (both of us carried all that we needed the whole way), and booked a taxi to our hotel in Pamplona. We checked in early, donned our whites and made our way into the heart of the festival to scout out the path we would be running, and take in some of the local fare.
|Pinxos in Pamplona...I am in Heaven|
|On the Calle Estefata|
|Cash scouting our run|
We ate well, witnessed people of all ages partying in the streets all night, until we decided to retire early, get some more rest and be limber and aware for the run we signed up for in the morning.
The morning arrived, and I had been like a 4 year old on Christmas Eve all night...thinking only of the daylight, and barely able to nod off. Regardless, it was time and we had our plan of attack worked out. We worked our way back into the center of the City, and with adrenaline pumping through us like cafe con leche to the power of 10, we got into the mix. At this point in the story, I feel that the work of our go-pro video tells the story in a way that is more entertaining, so....here's a little video of the run that I threw together!
Running with the Bulls from Brian Egan on Vimeo.
No words or self-shot video will really do the intense run any justice. Even what we had planned for our run, our timing, our "outs" along the course...that all fell apart once the first of two guns went off, signaling the eminent release of the 6 fighting bulls and the handful of steer that would guide them up the Calle Estefeta, all the way to the ring where they would ultimately be slaughtered later that evening. As you can see, Cashill's dive under the fence rails was a mere second away from the rampaging bulls passing by, and the lucky runners that would jump up aside him, seeking refuge and praying not to get targeted by those angry monsters in the street. I would have liked to have run a little further, myself, but I could feel the power of those animals upon me, and dared not look away from what was in front of me for fear of stumbling on or over one of the many people that simply cowered to the ground, tucking their heads under their hands and saying a similar prayer to all those around. The slow-motion stalls of the video, while allowing a bit more for the viewer to examine, do little to translate the intensity and speed with which it all happened. I hope that one day I will return to challenge the bulls even further, and experience that absolute thrill of a lifetime from a more centered position. But amateurs as we were, and at almost 40 years old with families to think about, we wanted to balance smart running and a humble respect for the unknown with our desire to seek the thrills that were very much experienced. It was a blast, a kick in the pants, and most importantly...not a gory scene (for us, at least...one unlucky medic actually did get gored that morning...in the thigh...not pretty).
With ear-to-ear smiles on our faces, we returned to the same cafe that Hemingway lived above, sucked down Calimoxos (a lovely on-tap blend of red wine and Coca Cola...available at every bar in the city), and relived the experience over some tortillas de papas con jamon as I whipped out that quick video to share with our friends and family. And of course, I texted Mandy and Sean...both immediately texted me back, despite it being after midnight in the USA. I laughed at the timeliness of their responses, imagining them awake and anxious, and grateful to be able to relieve them of that.
There were tens of thousands of people...families, students, grandparents, all wandering the streets of Pamplona that afternoon and evening...drinking and eating and as the light faded to darkness, engaging in song and dance. Parades dominated the small, ancient streets around the arena, where we were headed to experience part two of the event...the Bullfight!! Approaching the arena to purchase tickets, we were immediately identified as Americans (a minority among the Spanish, even for this event), and swarmed down upon by scalpers of all variety. My internal bullshit gauge was working overtime, as I forced our way up to the ticket window, often pushing away aggressive scalpers who thought it appropriate to grab me by the arm! As we waited in line, one Irish gentleman approached us and asked if we were buying tickets. His demeanor was different than the others, and his tone sincere. I listened as he explained that he was a season ticket holder, with seats "Three rows from the sand", and how his friends had left the festival early, unable to use the tickets. He backed his story up with a description of his profession, running a website that I had actually spent time exploring weeks ago. Well, Michael, you were correct...we couldn't have done better, and with prices less than face value, I would say that the blessings of our journey continued to pour over us.
WHAT an experience. It was truly Death In The Afternoon, and we got a front and center taste of both Pamplonian culture and hospitality from everyone around us, as well as a glimpse at one of the 6 bulls that day putting the Matador face down in the dirt, almost costing him his life!
|Captured by Cashill...Matador Undefeated!!!|
I brought along a new bota bag, freshly filled with the wine that was given to me on my flight over.
Having spent a few years of my life as a Torero, I felt a particular connection to the experience, and again, a sense of awe for the pure raw nature of the thing. Although I may be alone in this thought, I wish to experience more of the bull fighting that goes on all over Spain. From my read of it, it varies all over, but the culture and sport itself is something to respect. I take no pause from animal rights activists or the like, as I know very well that so much of the beef I enjoyed that week came from that ring, and I appreciate the fact that the beasts had a fighting chance! The Torreodors of all types demonstrated great courage and finesse, and I gained a new sort of love for this country and it's rich culture that day.
The arena, unlike others around the country, was full of screaming, singing, music playing people. In any other city, I am told, such behavior would be considered disrespectful to both Toreador and Beast, but there in Pamplona, it was the norm. As the shade slowly found it's way above us, and the fights of the day waged on, I knew that this trip was as educational as one could have been 400 years prior, and as authentic, too.
After the fights, we returned to the streets of Pamplona, the alleyways and the parades and that special breed of partying that I am positive only the Spanish can understand, for only they have created and nurtured such a way of life for centuries.
|Partygoers in Pamplona|
|No lack of protein here|
With plenty of wine in our bellies and another journey ahead of us the next day, we retired back, eventually, to our hotel and took one last slumber before we woke and made for the train station, and a comfortable and scenic two hour ride north to the coast of San Sebastian, or as the indigenous Basque people know it, Donostia!
Upon landing in Donostia, and walking to pick up the keys to our Playa Zurriola flat, we recharged and ventured out first to the beach, to take in the local flavor and swim in the warm waters of the bay of Biscay. What a change in scenery! Having just come from the tourist-swarmed streets of the biggest party I had ever witnessed, the holiday-like European flavor of this gorgeous beach town took me over completely, and I was immediately enthralled.
I had read somewhere in a magazine during my travels that San Sebastian has one of the most densely populated array of Michelin rated restaurants in the world. Although I did no background check on any of the dozens of places that we dined at in those brief 3 days, I know that this fact must be true, because I have never experienced such a palette-bending, wonderful array of food in all my life. I immediately realized what a treat this place will be to bring Mandy back to...a true gastronomist if there ever was such a thing! And my kids!! They would love the playfulness and frivolity of the Spanish people...lining the beaches and surfing in the waters, and doing nothing but playing and socializing all day. After only a night I knew that San Sebastian is a slice of Heaven that I had been blessed to experience, and that a new goal in my life is to bring my whole family back here again some day...soon!
|Sunset over Zarriola|
|Croissant wrapped CHORIZO!!|
|Dropping in on a crowded wave|
Around the second day there, and having spent the previous night in La Parte Vieja (the old part, all Basque) we were truly humbled by a bit of culture shock. It was apparent to us that although (because?) we were easily recognized as Americans, unless we were constantly speaking Spanish, even in conversation with each other, we were treated with a little less respect, and not served the same as those around us. So we made a deal that from that point forward, unless in our apartment, we would do our best to only speak Spanish (and toss in the occasionally googled Basque phrase when convenient) with each other. I'm not sure about Cash, but I immediately noticed a difference in the vibe around us, and realized that the place I come from doesn't really have the right level of respect for other cultures or ways of life. We expect everyone to speak English around us, especially at home, but sometimes even abroad. I reflected on my own arrogance, and vowed immediately to make some personal changes in the way I treated travel, and people from other places. Upon my return home, as a matter of fact, I took it upon myself to start incorporating Spanish in my household every once in a while. After all, if I want to bring my family back to experience this place with me, we need to sharpen our skills so that we might really dive back into this culture the right way!
|They party in front of the cathedral!|
On our last day in San Sebastian, we rented a couple of scooters and took a few hours to explore some of the more picturesque spots that would have taken more time to get to otherwise. This was a great day, having summited Mount Ulia within a half of an hour and then venturing far south along the coast above and past La Concha, getting a feel for the coastal countryside and pure beauty of this land.
Here's a little flavor of a part of the ride, up to the top of Igeldo Mountain!
Cashill and I took a little moto ride around San Sebastian. This was to the top of Igeldo.
The journey home to America was as lucky as the one therefrom, and we were again granted some restful sleep via a last minute upgrade to business class for next to nothing! Although I will say that the Iberia crew and accommodations put American Airlines in a distant second place in every category. Regardless, we were so grateful for the ease of the entire journey, and I, to return to the faces I love so dearly.
Until we meet again, I'll be thinking about Spain, Pamplona and San Sebastian specifically, the food, the wine, the fun, and also about what an amazing time I had with my dear, old friend John. He was such a pleasure to travel with and so go-with-the-flow. It couldn't have happened any other way, and for that, Cash Money, I thank you, dude!