June 16, 2015
I slept in doorways, on curbs and benches. It gets chilly in Pamplona at night, even in July. I got really cold. Cops would wake me and move me along. Other times partiers would offer me a drink and try to pull me to my feet. In my tired wanderings I stumbled across the Hemingway statue outside the arena. He looked stoic, full-bearded and happy. There’s a curved brick slope at the foot of the statue. It made for a comfortable bed. Surprisingly no one bothered me and I slept well there at the foot of Papa Hemingway as fiesta rambled on a half block away.
Hemingway’s work, more than any other writer’s, inspired me to write. There was something familiar in the characters in his stories. Literature to me was about fancy people in England in the 15th Century. I never imagined that street fighters, fishermen, and common soldiers could be fodder for great Nobel Prize-winning literature. There was a sense of adventure in his work. I’d boxed and won a Chicago Golden Gloves title. They’d shipped me all over the world to fight. My father instilled a love for hunting and fishing in me as a young man. When I first read Hemingway I felt he was telling my story and the story of my family and friends. After a junior college professor inspired me to read some of Hemingway’s short works, I decided to read The Sun Also Rises. I read it in one sitting, five or six hours in the library at Elmhurst College. Afterward I told myself I’d go to fiesta one day and live some of the things I’d read in those pages.
I woke at dawn. An officer kicked my foot and walked away laughing. Laborers finished standing and securing the barricades 50 yards away. I wandered to Telefonica. Beautiful young Spanish women swept past by the hundreds. I stood in the center of the street as they passed. I met eyes with them, told them bonita. Some stopped and smiled. Others giggled. One took me by the hand and tried to lead me away, but I stayed. I waited and readied for the run. I had no idea I was standing in the wrong place. As 6 AM approached the crowds along the barricades thickened and photographers took their posts in peek holes in the boarded-up shops. I moved up Estafeta. There were hundreds of hopeful runners scattered all over the narrow passageway.
Suddenly a police line the width of the street formed. It moved toward me. They herded everyone up the street. At the first intersection on Estafeta the barricade swung open. I couldn’t believe it. Why were they pushing us off the course? I’d done everything right! I was here an hour early, sober! Some of the would-be runners up front resisted. A tall officer with gray stubble on his cheeks cracked a runner over the head with his nightstick. The police line heaved and shoved every single one of us out onto the side street.
We all panicked. I ran down side streets asking urgently, “Where do we have to go to run?!” People pointed different directions. I ran all the way down one long street, found no entry at the barricades, and ran back. I cut down an alley praying that I would find a way in. I cut down another alley that wrapped around a tall building. Exhausted, I sat down and quit. Maybe running with the bulls just isn’t in my destiny. My heart ached heavily and I wanted to go home. As my breathing slowed I heard a tremendous tense chatter and a voice on a loudspeaker that switched languages every few seconds.
Curious, I followed the noise and found a long barricade with many people all perched on the top row with others strung along it straining to see over. I pushed forward. A few people ducked under and onto the course——police stopped another and pushed him out. The nearest officer turned his back and I slipped through the barricades deftly, like stepping through the ropes into a boxing ring. As I passed through the second barricade I smashed into a dense mob of bodies. There was a ton of body-to-body pressure. It ebbed and swayed—at its worst I struggled to breath. Everyone was scared. The only direction you could see was up. There was the ornamental façade of an ancient building with a large clock on it. I realized it was the town hall.
The clock read 20 minutes till 8. The recorded PA voice switched to English. It warned of great bodily harm; if you fall down, stay down. The crowd murmured. The murmurs twisted and lifted into a cheering roar that bellowed up then fell into laughter. Some people were drunk; others were giving obnoxious advice to an American married couple near me. I told them they were wrong but what the hell did I know? It was the blind leading the blind. At ten minutes to 8 the police line holding us back broke and the thick mob unraveled and sifted up the street.
I walked a half block and came to a sharp banking turn. A five-tiered wall of cameramen loomed behind the barricades. Photographers working for publications all over the world vie for position here, from as early as 5 AM. This was La Curva, the curve, Dead Man’s Corner. I remembered seeing the ESPN series on the run in the early 2000s. They’d called it Hamburger Wall and described it as the place where the herd crashes every morning. The series described it one of the most dangerous places to run. I figured I’d start right there.
Bravely, I held my ground at the curve—right in front of the barricades the photographers jockeyed behind. Suddenly a stick rocket screamed into the sky and burst high above the red-tiled roofs of the city. Wild panic surged up the street. Suddenly I wasn’t so brave anymore. I crossed onto the inside of the curve where a bunch of runners stood (a stupid mistake—I’d soon learn why). The American couple appeared and asked me if this was a good place to run. I shrugged.
A second boom rumbled in the sky. Then a wild cheer from the balconies and barricades swung up behind it. A steady stream of runners rounded the curve and flowed past me. Some laughed; others were mortified. A low, deep rumble grew in the distance. The speed and density of runners pouring around the bend grew. There were only terror-struck faces now accompanied by a high-pitched scream. The leaden rumble twisted into a sharp crackle. The cobblestones and buildings resonated. A large black streak surged through the curve. The crackle exploded. Time froze. The lead bull bucked a runner with its forehead. The man floated on a cushion of air above the bull’s snout with his arms flung out. His lips stretched in a wide-mouthed terror-grin. Bulls, steers, and man crashed into the mural of San Fermin next to the photographers’ barricade with a thunderous, wooden boom. I froze and gawked. Most of the herd rose and rumbled past. One bull stayed and dug his horns into the fallen people. There was a white swirl in the corner of my periphery. A hard-panging bell flooded my eardrums. I turned. A giant steer barreled directly at me an arm’s length away. I dove backward and pressed my hands into its shoulder. The fur was taut as a drum. Somehow my legs missed its hooves. The young American couple was running ahead of me hand in hand. The steer plowed through them. Its hooves gobbled them up. Their arms and legs splayed wildly under the hooves. They screamed.
My forward momentum carried me over them. At the last second I leaped and pulled my knees way up to my chest. My feet barely cleared them. I stopped and looked down. “You OK?” They both writhed on the ground. I was going try to help them when the last bull at the curve bellowed wrathfully and raised his head. I remembered hearing that a separated bull is deadly dangerous. He broke into a gallop and I turned and ran as fast as I fucking possibly could. Luckily the final bull rocketed past me on the other side of the street. The thick stampede of people spread to allow him through. Other individuals seemed to force their way in front of him and sprint ahead for several strides before peeling to the side. I kept sprinting forward, at first in terror. As the crowd slackened I remembered that they released vaca (wild cows) into the ring after the run. I sprinted for the arena at the end of the course. As I got to the tunnel into the arena several police officers pushed the immense double doors closed. A crowd fought to get through the narrowing opening. I pressed into it as well. Then the police pulled out their batons and cracked a few of the revelers in front. I gave up. Another stick rocket burst above the arena and a joyous cheer washed over the entire city. I cheered and grasped at others nearby. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” They shrugged me off, laughing. It struck me that this was bigger than any individual experience, that all of us had shared it together. Then the joy twisted to shrieks again. A wild ramble approached with shouts and panging bells. I had nowhere to go so climbed up on the barricades just in time. Four steers swept just under my feet. I realized they’d opened the arena doors to let the steers in and jumped down. The police struggled to shut the heavy doors. Two other runners pushed at the opening. I sprinted and drove my shoulder into the others’ backs and we avalanched into the dark tunnel. The police shut the doors and we ran down the dim tunnel giggling. I stepped onto the white sand of the arena for the first time. The brilliant morning light struck me like a warm wave. The entire arena, full to the rafters, gave the hundreds of runners a standing ovation. Then the cheers fell into Spanish songs. Complete strangers embraced on the sand. Others raised their arms like victorious gladiators. I walked around dumbfounded with euphoria among the wild pandemonium.
BILL HILLMANN is the author of Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain (June 16, 2015, Curbside Splendor). He has covered the San Fermin/Pamplona Fiesta for Esquire, Outside Magazine and National Public Radio (for which he won the Edward R. Murrow Award) and his commentary on bull running has been featured on the Today show, CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose, and many other programs. In 2014, during a Pamplona bull run, he survived a near-fatal goring which made headlines worldwide. His fiction debut, The Old Neighborhood, was named Best Novel of 2014 by the Chicago Sun-Times and received rave reviews from Booklist, Chicago Tribune, and The Week. Hillmann is a former Chicago Golden Gloves champion. He lives in Chicago where he works as a Local 2 union construction laborer.