How far is 1.5 km, anyway?

I’ve very quickly run into a ‘classic’ information problem, here at Casa Ana. And for those who know my moderate approach to any physical activity, smile widely as I recount this anecdote! Beyond the physical geographer’s ‘facts’ characterizing this part of Las Alpujarras – the elevation, the geological history and land formation, the soil, plants, wildlife and climate data – the stuff of geography textbooks, wikipedia pages, etc., – other categories of ‘facts’ are turning out to be highly suspect. One I’ve encountered numerous times since I’ve arrived relates to measures and experiences of physical distance.

Of course you can imagine, measures of distance are a well-known information problem as all travellers (or reference librarians) could tell you. Before Google maps, librarians used to keep conversion tables, travel guides, and subject expert materials, that speak to “from here to there” distances for all kinds of eccentric connections, in their ready reference desk drawer.

Here at Casa Ana in Ferreirola (pop. 32 in the summer), the nearest place to eat lunch or dinner is in the next town over, Mecina (pop. 68); the nearest grocery store to purchase food for cooking back at Casa Ana, is further away, in Pitres (pop. ~ 1200). And not surprisingly, Google maps has not captured everything one needs to know to make “trip planner” a reliable information tool in this region. Today I am in need of at least one larger meal and/or groceries to cook with. [Aside: during the subsequent 2 weeks, there will be more scheduled meals here for our group of writers. This week, however, I’m on my own.]

My host, Anne, has a number of walking guides that she has prepared – much like old-fashioned library pathfinders – consisting of a double-sided page of text laminated for repeat borrowing by guests, and intended to guide the traveller through each milestone on their walk. [see photo]. Each guide includes a time estimate and level of difficulty. The traveller’s (or patron’s) question usually begins, “Can you tell me how far it is to …?” and these guides are her structured informational responses.


Pitres is further ‘up’ the mountainside, about another 200 m. in elevation, 4 kms. by road., 15 minutes by car (nope, I don’t have access to a car). Anne provides 2 versions of guided ‘walks’ (both ‘easy to moderate’) to get me there, including a verbal tip about how to cut the road distance by walking across country. She notes which one is less rigorous for me to get ‘up’ the hill, without a marathoner’s cardio conditioning! And she estimates the time I’ll need to get to Pitres as 45-ish minutes; at the same time, I acknowledge my librarian skeptic’s inner voice!

My caution was justified (as friends might expect this story to end). I managed the walk out of Ferreirola following the ‘medieval’ mountain route up to Atalbéita. I then got further along to the fork in the road past Atalbéita [no photo available] with a sign indicating Pitres –> 1.5 km. [40 mins] Hmmm … [I was a bit wiped by this point]. By now I could see Pitres still ‘some’ distance up the hillside – I figured I’d already made it more than halfway. But I wondered how far 1.5 km would be by road, and where would the marker that Anne told me about, appear for the cross-country shortcut? (These are not well-populated paths or roads, because it’s winter and off-season). I waited awhile at this signpost breathing slowly and trying to decide what to do. A couple of cars eventually passed me on the road and while counting steamboats, I waited to see their flashes of colour hit the outskirts of Pitres. Nope, never saw any distant metallic flashes, many steamboats later. [More smiles.]

It’s early days here for me, and so I opted to return to Casa Ana and try another day. As you might expect, I’m now getting hungry! So I’ll soon take the ’10 minute’ walk that is really 25 minutes, over to Mecina, to Carlos’ place again – where I’ve now eaten 3 evenings in a row. And I’m still laughing!

For the information peeps and just in case we need reminding – few ‘facts’ are certainties [nods to Latour and to all reference librarians]. Our documentation is often explicitly contextual and implicitly subjective. Doing is still the most credible way of informing!

One thought on “How far is 1.5 km, anyway?

  1. Sounds like a little more adventure than you need. European distances and walking time are definitely different. And once you have done all the walking, you have to carry food back! How is the writing going?

    Yep – you got it – about carrying food back – I was thinking about that also while deciding whether or not to keep going! Work writing is slow, better quality – also doing some hard reading (very dense academic stuff) that makes my brain hurt!

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