Archive for Thursday, August 24, 2006

Hemingway’s curse

A sad, strange saga of two gringos at the running of the bulls

August 24, 2006

Editor's note: For six days in July, former Basehor Sentinel reporter Joshua Roberts visited Pamplona, Spain, for the annual running of the bulls. The festival lasts for a week, from July 7 to 14. Roberts, who is assistant editor at the Craig (Colo.) Daily Press, was accompanied to Spain by Denver resident Dale Knipp, who is a 1993 Basehor-Linwood High graduate.

Fear continues to paralyze me. I look at my watch. It's almost time. I bend down and tie my Nikes. I turn my New York Yankees cap around and close my eyes for a minute.

It's now or never.

Then, miraculously, a calm washes over me. I take a sip of my San Miguel beer -- a little breakfast of champions purchased to take the edge off -- and breathe a sigh of relief.

After all, there's a certain acceptance that comes when you admit to the inevitable.

And today, that cruel reality is this: I'm about to die.

I stare down the street, through the fog and past the crowd of drunken rednecks who will watch this catastrophe unfold. They'll soon be thirsty for something other than strong drink -- blood.

My eyes fix on a curve in the street 50 yards away.

Some of the most vicious beasts God's own hands ever produced will soon round the corner and come barreling toward me. These animals -- six or seven 1,200-pound monsters with horns strong enough to gut through kryptonite -- are destined to their own sad fate.

They will be stabbed, stabbed, stabbed. Slaughtered to the cheers of a lustful crowd, all in the name of sport.

I am convinced these beasts are intuitive and know this. Justifiably so, I believe their disposition is poor, their intentions nasty.

I, along with a lifelong buddy from Denver, am in the path of destruction. We are idiot gringos.

Minutes from now, rockets will ring in the morning air, signaling the bulls' release and my impending doom.

The fear is growing stronger. I take another drink and contemplate the hoof beats I'll hear beating down on me.

Goodbye, sweet world.

Bull market

About 200,000 people live in Pamplona, Spain, a city in the state of Navarra, near the French border. Each July, the phony tough and crazy brave descend on this town for the seven-day Festival of San Fermin. More than 1.5 million people will visit.

My friend, Dale Knipp, a fellow Kansan turned Colorado import, and I made the trek here.

He wanted to test his bravery by running with the bulls. I came to get out of Dodge for a while, dig on the scenery and pay homage to Hemingway.

Ah, that old blowhard. Ernest Hemingway, the former reporter turned influential author, made this event famous in his 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises."

You can't escape Hemingway's influence here, a city he came to adore. I wouldn't be surprised if his ghost still inhabits the bars and balconies each July during the festival, an event he practically fathered.

His likeness adorns the walls of what seems like each shop and building in town. A statue of him stands outside the bull ring, which is seated at the end of the half-mile running path.

The bull-run has a history that dates well before Hemingway, but it was his novel that gave Pamplona the notoriety it enjoys today.

I suppose the allure of the bull run lies with the adrenaline rush the runner feels by surviving danger. Dale, the adrenaline junky that he is, ran twice.

"The only thing that matched the intensity of doing this was when I flipped a raft into a class 5 rapid and thought I was going to drown," he said. "This is something I've always wanted to do. Along the lines of a life to-do list thing, running with the bulls was on mine."

While the thrill of running is certainly there for those bold -- or dumb -- enough to take it, the danger is equally present. People have been seriously injured.

People have died. The only question is: Will I be one of them?

To run or not to run

On Saturday, we hear news that an American from North Carolina was partially paralyzed after toying with the bulls. Later that day, I meet a drunken fellow from New York, who earned a gash from his lower lip down across his neck, courtesy of the toros.

"You've just got to go, man," the New Yorker says in a flurry of spittle and booze-reeking breath. "If you don't, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Just got to know what you're doing."

Remember that this is advice coming from a guy whose face doctors sewed back together a day earlier.

Later, I'll watch on a closed-circuit TV in a downtown bar as another man, a round portly fellow, is gored in his backside.

I'm supposed to run the next day, a Sunday. After seeing the unlucky guy's injury, I turn to the bartender, order a beer and a shot, decide I'll need some divine intervention to survive and wonder if I packed my rosary.

Coming into this event, I was fairly certain I would run. But now, I'm torn.

Best I could tell, I have the following choices: Run and possibly die, run and possibly live, or avoid the run at all costs and limp back home with a battered ego like a Nancy man, sissy pants. Another possibility also comes to mind -- faking an injury.

I begin feeling a little soreness in my hamstring and then order another drink.

Sorry, Ernie

D-Day is here. In 15 minutes, handlers will release the bulls. It'll take them about 20 seconds to reach me.

I am now shaking. My mind is running doomsday scenarios. They range from best case -- that my injuries will be minor, like the New Yorker's gash -- to the fatal -- like paramedics scraping my meat waffle carcass off the streets.

Dale is beside me. He looks cool and composed. I haven't spoken to him in 20 minutes. The tension is broken by talk of Hemingway. I begin to curse the man and the legacy this event -- his event -- left behind for fools like me.

"Never liked him anyway," I said, lying. "No way he was ever sober enough to do this."

We're interrupted by police officers. A phalanx of blue uniforms begins moving toward us and other waiting runners. They begin shooing people out of the area, pushing them back toward the starting point.

An officer tells Dale we can't stay here. That we have to move back nearer to the pen from where the bulls are released.

Less than 10 minutes to go now. We have that long to walk back to the beginning, if we want to run. I walk slowly.

Five minutes. Slower still. The fear is exiting my body. So is my nerve, my will to run.

We reach the gate at two minutes until 8 a.m. Dale hops through the fence and into the crowd of other runners. He pauses, realizes I'm not behind him and looks back.

"Coming?" he asked.

I meekly shake my head no and take a seat with the other spectators. Safe -- yes. Uninjured -- yes. Proud -- not on your life.

The bulls -- these missiles of muscle, horns and violence -- rip through the runners with blinding speed. They won't go out of their way to hurt you, it appears, but they aren't making any extra effort to avoid you, either.

I see people run with terror on their faces. I see people leap head-first through openings in the surrounding fence. I see people fall, cover their heads and silently hope that neither hoof nor horn touches them.

The run lasts about three minutes. Dale says when you're inside among them it feels like an eternity.

I go to meet up with him at the bull ring. On the way over, I buy two beers. Dale is busy chatting with some Americans whom he ran with. They pose for a picture, victorious smiles on their faces.

I'm dejected, ashamed.

I saunter over to Hemingway's statue. His presence here is unmistakable. I can feel his eyes bore through me. If he were alive, he'd probably slap me and call me a coward.

I take the second beer and place it on the statue and say goodbye to the man whose legacy I came to honor.

"Sorry, Ernie," I say. "Next time I'm here, I swear it."

I'm sure he knows I'm lying.

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