I think nobody enjoys their twenties. It's the worst of times. Your life is a mess, and you seem to be permanently in a state of transition, usually from something bad to something worse. I certainly didn't enjoy mine; I found that the closer I got to 30 the more I was changing from the person I thought I was into someone I didn't much like. I didn't particularly like anyone else, either, and I put a lot of creative effort into being disagreeable. Um. My apologies if you met me between about 1977 and 1984...
Anyway. One summer in our 20s, not long after the death of generalissimo Franco, my partner and I shared a Ford Fiesta with another couple we knew, and toured around the Basque country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia in northern Spain, camping out or staying in cheap hotels. Rural Spain, back then, was remarkably under-developed. No sooner had you crossed the border from France than you started to see ox-carts in the fields and peasants threshing grain by hand with flails. Seriously. It was like driving into a Breughel painting.
The disadvantages of touring a hot country in summer with four adults in a small car designed for suburban shopping don't need pointing out, I'm sure. If, in addition, one of the company is a non-driver and prickly provocateur (that would be me), then the difficulties, anxieties, and petty squabbles resulting from just co-existing at close quarters are not eased. Mild disagreements on diet, where to go next, what to do there, and how to spend the night can build the tension like a summer storm, until released explosively in a "free and frank exchange of views". Luckily, our friends were remarkably tolerant, and remain our friends to this day.
We had heard that the Picos de Europa mountains were worth a visit, and decided to take a look. If the coastal lowlands were a little backward, the remoter mountain passes of the Picos seemed primeval. Paved roads quickly degenerated into rutted tracks, and there was a watchful silence in the tiny, ramshackle settlements that made you feel like a visitor from outer space. The last bears and wolves in Western Europe are said to roam in these mountains.
We found ourselves camping near a strange, end-of-the-road place called Caín (no, really). Beyond it was a spectacular, steep-sided mountain gorge, the Garganta de Cares, along and through which, perched halfway up the cliff-face, some lunatic had blasted a canal before WW1, in order to feed a hydroelectric scheme. Right alongside the canal runs a precarious rock-hewn path. This path is little more than 4 or 5 feet wide in places, has no handrail, and it's a long way down. The canal runs in and out of the cliff, and where it is open to the air swallows dart along, skimming the water for insects within a couple of feet of your nose.
Most bizarrely, perhaps because of the lack of steep gradients, even back then it was a popular track for recreational walking. Occasionally, whole families would come strolling up the hazardous rocky path, wearing flip-flops and even high heels. Passing the oncoming traffic was an ordeal, not least because two of our party had serious issues with heights and steep places. I can't imagine why we even started up that track in the first place.
Eventually, the inevitable happened, and we reached a stretch of path that had been knocked out by a landslide. It was easy enough to negotiate, you simply had to drop down onto the fan of scree, and scramble across. But, due to the combination of height, slope, and real or imagined peril, D (one of our friends) froze; she simply could not, would not go any further. The family parties simply went around us, in their flip-flops and high-heels, shrieking in mock terror as they tottered over the loose rocks. But D's terror was very real: by the time we had forcibly manouevred her stiff legs one in front of the other, step by step, she was shaking with fright.
I don't think I had ever seen such raw, elemental fear expressed before, and something in D's reaction lit a fuse buried deep inside me. When we stopped for a rest later on, I climbed up by myself onto a rocky promontory, out of view of the others, ostensibly to look at the view. What happened then is quite hard to explain.
Gazing across at the opposite bluff, hundreds of feet high, I noticed it was shaped like the snout of a gigantic rising shark. The film Jaws was then still quite current, and the poster image was everywhere. I started to feel a deep, mounting terror. It was as if I had gone fishing for mackerel, and caught the world-fish on my line. There seemed to be a basso profundo roar running through the landscape like an earthquake, or a volcano humming to itself. I knew -- simultaneously -- that the bluff opposite was merely a formation of jagged Carboniferous limestone, and that it was also a gigantic shark surging out of the depths of the earth. I knew -- both at the same time -- that I was perfectly safe and in mortal danger. I was acutely aware of the utter inconsequence if I were to die at that moment. The sensation lasted only 30 seconds or so, but it was the most intense experience of existential dread I had ever endured, and I went back down the hill a chastened, not to say changed, man.
I came to call my new, terrible acquaintance El Tiburón -- the shark. My secret mantra was the quotation from Büchner's Woyzek, displayed on screen by Werner Herzog at the start of his film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser over a shot of a wheat field writhing in a blustery wind: "Don’t you hear that terrible screaming all around, which is conventionally called silence?". Being of a literary bent, I presumed I had had an encounter with a full-on manifestation of what the early landscape enthusiasts called The Sublime, or perhaps I had even had some kind of brutal enlightenment experience, a satori. There's nothing so reassuring as self-importance and up-market labels.
The next time I encountered El Tiburón I was driving a car on a busy road in Hampshire, and I was convinced I was having a heart attack. As well as the sense of overwhelming danger, I had pins and needles in my face and hands, and had to pull off the road onto the hard shoulder to recover. My doctor explained that I had not been having a heart attack, however, but a panic attack. Ah. He recommended substantial changes in lifestyle, and maybe a little therapy. The next 25 years were the story of me learning to come to terms with Old Sharkie, and his tendency to come roaring out of the floor without warning, especially, it seemed, when travelling abroad.
If nothing else, I am much better company these many years later, and rarely if ever seek to upset or alienate anybody -- I know how tough it can be when your life story has, ah, "jumped the shark", and things need to change. People don't need pointless aggression from their friends. I also know how remarkably easy it is to mistake a panic attack for some kind of satori; we are all ridiculous in our vanity, in the end.
On the other hand, I know El Tiburón is always down there, figuratively at least, and have learned how not to be bothered by this. Some days you eat the shark, some days the shark eats you... A large part of the secret, I can divulge, is remembering to breathe at all times.