“What a great weekend,” I thought to myself, as I sunk further into my seat. While the train slowly rolled out of the station, I could not help but grin. The two days I had spent exploring the sites of Mérida, Spain, had done wonders for my attitude. I was captivated by the town’s Roman ruins, revived by its mild weather, and delighted by the friendliness of the various merideños I had met.
Hearing laughter, I turned my attention away from the landscape and onto my blonde-haired friends, Katie and Lindsay, who had accompanied me on the trip. Judging by their smiles, which stretched to their eyes, I was sure all of us were ready to return to the grind of our semester studies in Toledo. Feeling completely rested and relaxed, I focused back on the auburn countryside. Not even the five-plus hour train ride we were embarking on could dampen my spirits.
As the train chugged through Extremadura on that February afternoon, my eyes grew heavy with the fading sunlight. Hypnotized by the dark landscape and rhythm of the wheels spinning on the rails, I fell fast asleep. A short while later, I woke up only to notice that Katie, who sat to my right, and Lindsay, who was seated across from me, were also in a slumber. The girls, whose short frames were tucked beneath their coats, appeared to be sleeping comfortably. Having no one to talk to, I was intent on waking up in Toledo and, therefore, returned to my nap.
About two hours had passed when I was suddenly awakened by a cacophony of screeching train wheels and a force that propelled me forward, almost on top of Lindsay. When I orientated myself, I looked up and noticed that the car in front of me was tilted heavily to the right, hanging off the track. Upon hearing violent coughing, I whipped around to discover the short, dark-haired woman, who was seated a few rows behind us, standing, wide-eyed. She was cupping one of her hands over her mouth and nose while I was practically gagging from the putrid smell that permeated the car.
“Huele mal, huele mal (it smells bad, it smells bad),” she kept screaming. I nodded in total accordance and asked if she was okay. She responded affirmatively. I spun back around when I heard the door to our car swing open. Standing in the aisle were two middle-aged men dressed in dark blue suits and hats – the conductors.
The taller, bearded man kept walking up and down the center aisle, loudly speaking Spanish into his cellular phone. He looked angry and practically yelled as he informed the person on the line about what had just happened. His grayer counterpart, obviously shaken by the accident, took off his jacket to reveal a white dress shirt saturated with sweat. In broken English, he asked if we were okay and sat down in one of the seats in the middle of the car. We gathered around him. He returned to his native language to explain the situation.
Removing his glasses and constantly wiping the beads of perspiration off his brow with his black necktie, the engineer told us that the fetid stench was the result of the toilets that had spilled over in the derailed car. He went on to say that we were the only passengers on the train, obviously relieved that no one was hurt. Then, he pointed towards the windows to reveal something more disgusting than the fulsome odor that overwhelmed us.
Curiously, I pressed my face against the glass, shielded my eyes from the glare of the light inside, and focused on what appeared to be a field of white pillows. As my vision improved, I could see that the white puffs were moving. I noticed that red was the other color that dominated the foreground. I was horrified. In the ditch alongside the railroad tracks was a sea of sheep. Many were wounded, bleeding profusely, and screaming. The unharmed sheep trampled over the plethora of dead bodies and looked stymied by the unbearable cries of their dying mates. After hearing the loud shrills of Katie and Lindsay, who were staring out of the windows on the opposite side of the car, I knew that their view was just as gory.
Upon their suggestion, we followed the conductors to the caboose to escape the smell and wait for help. As we made our way through several wagons, I began to realize the sheer massiveness of the herd that had derailed us. Sheep continued to loiter in the ditches that bordered the train until we reached the final car. Even when I looked through the caboose’s rear window, I saw more sheep walking over the bodies of others that had been run over. My eyes were transfixed on this grotesque site until the other engineer, who had spent most of the time on his cell phone, began to provide us with more information.
Apparently, the herd of sheep was crossing the rails when the train ran into it somewhere between Don Benito and Puertollano. The man told us that he was able to contact the Guardia Civil (Spain’s National Guard), which extinguished our fears of being lost forever. However, he mentioned that it would probably take awhile because it was late at night, and we were in the middle of vast, sparsely populated countryside.
For the next hour or so, I occupied myself by pacing back and forth throughout the car, occasionally stopping to smoke one of Katie’s Marlboro Lights, or to join the girls in talking to our fellow passenger, who was from Mérida. Between drags from her cigarettes, the friendly, short haired woman explained that she had to be in Madrid in the morning to take a test, but she never complained about the sleep she would lack that night. I was impressed with the positive attitude she had kept throughout the ordeal.
Suddenly, the merideña stopped talking and hustled us to the back window of the caboose. She pointed to a bouncing beam of light in the distance, which continued to creep closer. “Ya viene,” said the woman. It was the Guardia Civil. A few men clad in black police gear helped us off the train, one by one. As we were taken to a nearby dirt road, the other members of the squad scurried about. Several men investigated the scene of the accident while a few others questioned the conductors, writing down information on small notepads. From the edge of the dusty road, the four of us curiously observed the Guardia Civil work its way along. We huddled together and tried to ignore the cold by joking and laughing about the night’s events.
Soon after, a taxi pulled up. The man in charge of the rescue squad had kindly called for a cab, giving us an all-expense-paid trip back to Toledo and for our new friend, to Madrid. Before we got in the car, Lindsay, Katie, the merideña and I posed for a few shots the cab driver took with our cameras. We were proud to have been part of such an adventure and wanted a picture to remind us of this crazy night. However, a photograph would not be necessary for me.
Although several years have passed, I often think about that crisp February night in Spain. Every train whistle I hear, every set of railroad tracks I see, and every unpleasant whiff from an outhouse immediately puts me back on that train car, staring into the gruesome countryside. Nevertheless, traveling has taught me to welcome the unexpected, seeing every occurrence, good or bad, as part of the adventure. I refuse to dwell on the accident negatively. In fact, how could I complain? No one was hurt; Katie, Lindsay and I made a new friend, and I have a story that I will continue to share with others for the rest of my life.