VILLABANDIN, Spain — The schoolhouse is gone. So are the bar and grocery store. TV and telephones didn't make it here until the 1980s.
In Villabandin -- population 12, the youngest 58, the oldest 91 -- life is about surviving with less, most neighbors having the same last name, listening to cattle hoofs clopping on icy cobblestones, watching children move away, never to return.
These are a dozen hearty souls who resisted the country's change from a largely rural society to a bustling urban one, but who know that when they go, so will their 900-year-old hamlet.
Their plight mirrors that of many villages in Spain.
In the span of 50 years, Villabandin's population plunged from 136 as people moved away to cities for jobs. The last time a baby was born here was more than 30 years ago.
"This is a village that is dying," said Mercedes Rozas, 67, whose family has lived here and raised livestock for generations. "But I don't like to hear that this is it. It makes me sad."
Still, Rozas and other townsfolk have no regrets about their tough life in the northern Leon region, known for its long, bitter winters. There is no bus service to other communities, nor do they have any place to shop. They buy necessities from vans that come by daily or weekly.
Rozas' husband, who is her second cousin, talks enthusiastically about sleeping in the hills while minding cows and goats or staying up all night because an animal is about to give birth.
"This is heaven. Here we live quietly and peacefully," said Manuel Rozas, 67, who feeds and milks his 17 cows every day.
"We can cope with the cold," his wife said. "The hardest part is the loneliness."
Villabandin isn't alone. Vast regions of central and northern Spain are at risk of becoming human deserts.
The most recent census found that of Spain's 5,000 villages -- defined as having fewer than 2,000 residents -- approximately 100 face imminent extinction, said Ricardo Villarino, who works for the Spanish Federation of Municipalities.
He said there were areas where the population is even sparser than in the Sahara, with fewer than 30 people per square mile -- which the United Nations describes as an irrecoverable zone.
"It's a very serious problem in Spain," Villarino said, adding that small hamlets also are disappearing in many parts of Europe and the United States.
In neighboring Portugal, the Education Ministry said last year that 612 primary schools had fewer than five pupils. In Sweden, some rural areas have just 7.5 inhabitants per square mile. Germany's economically depressed former communist east is losing population as young job-seekers migrate to the wealthier west.
In Spain, a pattern is evident in the rural depopulation: First is a shortage of jobs in a village. The next casualties are the bar and school. With no school for their children, young families who can do so move away. That leaves the elderly, who stay until they die. Then the village crumbles.
"When a village dies, we also lose a way of seeing the world, an identity," said Luis Arias, an expert on depopulation in Leon.
Many people blame the regional and national governments, citing a lack of investment, inadequate access to quality medical service and a lack of long-term planning.
Olga Borrego Rodriguez, who runs a hotel in Murias de Paredes, a village near Villabandin, believes the problem runs deeper than a lack of funds. "They have tried to sell us the idea that urban culture is in fashion, and there is a total disdain for everything rural," he said.
Promoting rural tourism and encouraging young people to settle in the region are seen as solutions, but neither works miracles.
In Spanish provinces with population problems, mostly in the arid, mountainous northeast, some immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere have tried village life. Some get benefits such as housing aid.
But nationwide only a small number have made the attempt to adapt, and most give up, said Francisco Foj, who runs an immigrant program in sparsely populated Teruel province farther east.
Although most of the people in Villabandin hardly recall the last birth in the hamlet, they have vivid recollections of the last funeral, which was in November. Departures for city life by neighbors or relatives can be even more painful.
"I was sadder when my neighbors left than when my husband died," said Milagros Garcia, 80. She said that in the winter, she went days without speaking to another person. "I don't even get to argue with anyone."
The one-room elementary school closed 30 years ago. Now the structure is used as a weekend social club for hunters.
Financially, the people of Villabandin are better off than many pensioners in big cities because their livestock provide food and their homes are paid for. They use their monthly pensions of $595 to buy bread, sugar, oil or fish from the traveling vans.
A priest comes every 15 days. The doctor comes only for emergencies. The nearest drugstore and bank are in Murias de Paredes, three miles away. Only two families have cars and most of the villagers walk to the neighboring village.
But for all their upbeat nature, the people in Villabandin can read the future.
Adonina Martinez, 91, the town's eldest resident, said her only worry was that after she was gone, no one would be left to tend her grave.
"After us, there will be emptiness," she said. "Nothing."