Pyrenees Refuge

George LaSealva

Barcelona, October 2010

At 5am Jack and I dusted off the cobwebs and started to shake a leg. We had to mobilize and catch two trains, then hike for five hours before we lost daylight.

We had to trek from our apartment in Barcelona’s Sarria San Gervasi neighborhood to Plaza Espana, a rotary and public square where public hangings took place in the 1700s.  Converted, it was now home to momentous Venetian towers and a central statue that harkened back to the totalitarian days of Franco and the civil war. Underneath, buried deep underground, was an enormous train station. There, we met up with the rest of our group.

Our first stop was Ribes de Freser, a medieval mountain village about two and a half hours north of Barcelona. The town was bustling with busy shops and small cafes thanks to it being a stop on the Renfe train system that connects all of Spain's major cities.

We rushed through the windy streets to catch a small old regional train that would haul us on our last leg before our hike. The train, called La Cremallera, was a rickety “rack-railway” train first installed in the 1930s. It snaked slowly on cogged wheels that serve to stop the train from sliding backwards down the steep grade, up through 3,500 vertical feet of mountain passes.

I sat next to Paula, who had had a few flings with Jack. I sat and joked with her and when she’d had enough, she took her hand and raked her long nails softly back and forth across my cheek, tickling the little beard I had going on. I shuddered, shook it off and ogled out at the Pyrenees Mountains. They were steep and jagged, unlike anything I had seen. Every peak was crested by another edge which seemed to reach the sky.

Jack was upfront reviewing a map and making sure we were on course and on time—he, tall, with strawberry blonde hair and a swimmer’s build, was our fearless leader.

The train terminated at Vall de Nuria—a valley at the base of a cascading mountain range. There was a ski lift and a lodge, which in colder times transformed into a dilapidated ski resort. The lodge smelled like old pine and had an eerie lingering feeling of times past, wooden carriages and horses—maybe even ghosts.

Legend has it that a wooden image of the Virgin Mary was buried in the valley by a fleeing St. Giles after persecution from the Roman Empire in AD 700. Three hundred years later, after scouring the area for the statue, a young pilgrim found the sacred statue and built a chapel that was consecrated in 1965.

Three quarters of Spain’s population lives in urban areas. The countryside is vast and largely untouched.

***

We started off walking underneath the lift line for about a quarter mile and gained a few hundred feet in altitude. I let the cool mountain air sit and rest deep in my lungs. At our elevation were a few tiny undulating masses, floating into larger looming mountainsides that pointed straight upwards at their zenith. Beige, creamy brown and green, the serrated edges sliced into the clear sky.

Lucy, our upstairs neighbor in Barcelona, spotted sheep and tried to run up to them, starting a herd exodus of one hundred or so sheep.  They climbed up the hill with ease, calling out to one another, casually ripping up plants and grass. The sheep outnumbered us and leered at the prospect of overrunning us, but chose to stay put. They backed away instead.

Tuesday walked along with us and listened in. I waited for her to say something. Tuesday reminded me of cold winters I had spent in Vermont, reading about Joan Didion and the sunny, shifty California of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I used to escape on the fleeting feeling of sun and hippies and California and girls like Tuesday. We tromped on together and I daydreamed, wondering if she did too.

The trail, Camí dels Enginyers, was marked with red and white or yellow stripes. We had been hiking for close to six hours. The trail was endless, we’d crest one hill only to find another mountain. Most treacherous of all was a sharp turn with a narrow path only wide enough  to shimmy over while holding onto a thick braided rope secured to a rock wall. I stared down, worrying as I looked at the rock face below, and I thought of falling, imagined my head smashing violently on a rock and exploding—POOF!

“George!”

“George!”, voices from all around me shouted. I had dozed off at a pit stop.

***

The lodge was nestled in a giant basin, facing an enormous cliffside that seemed to scrape the clouds. La Coma de Vacas was two stories high with white stucco siding and a stone foundation. It had a rustic wooden porch with Adirondack chairs facing the vast, prehistoric looking valley that surrounded it. Everything inside was the same color of finished oak. Two gruffy cooks sat inside the kitchen unpacking food and bottles of wine.  

The Coma De Vaca was originally a mountain hut for workers eyeing a hydroelectric dam project in 1959. Forty years later, a group decided to build a bigger structure that could serve as a refuge for hikers so that the hours long hike didn’t require tent camping or a return walk the same day.

I looked around at all the Spaniards in the lodge—mostly couples off for a weekend away from home. They peered at us with a strange admiration as we carried on and wondered what to do before the sun set.

I saw Matt drop a little piece of paper on Jack’s tongue and smile. We all followed suit. Acid. It took a little while to come on, but with empty stomachs and open minds a heavy feeling slowly took root in our arms legs and then minds. Feelings. Admiration anticipation wonder excitement then anxiety. We had to change scene. Tuesday and I went outside for a walk. We found a ledge overlooking the valley and sat down together.

***

The sun had set and it was getting cold. The interior lights of the lodge gleamed yellow, casting shadows this way and that.

Most of the guests were eating what looked like nice meals. I saw roasted chicken, potatoes, a few root vegetables, some wine. They spoke lightly and didn’t move too fast. Everything felt in balance and proportion, each character fit their role and scene perfectly in our movie.

I looked over and forced myself in between Lucy and Cassy who were playing cards and laughing loud, louder than anyone. We sat there, drank wine, gulped down chunks of sausage and crackers. Slowly but surely the crowd of quaint Spanish hikers filed upstairs to a series of connected rooms with sleeping bunks.

We were loud Americans hollering at the top of our lungs, drunk and drugged, waxing poetic on anything we could wrap our minds around. We talked about big dreams and adventures to come.

As the two cooks made their final rounds, cleaning dishes and preparing for their hike down the next day, they shooed us out into the night cold, onto the porch where we finished our wine and huddled together for warmth.

***

Upstairs was scary.

Tuesday was standing next to me and grabbed my hand.

There was a platform that was about eight feet long with space to sleep on top and beneath it and a ton of blankets for us to use. We decided to line up as best as we could man-woman-man-woman-man.

After a few flirtations with deep sleep, I opened my eyes and Tuesday was facing me. I wiggled in close and she squeezed into me, close enough that we could share her over-ear headphones (playing a Grateful Dead deep cut) by twisting one of the earphones towards my head.

I half drifted to sleep, Tuesday’s long blonde hair shrouding my face in a series of scents and feelings that made everything seem familiar, a dreamlike déjà vu.

I thought about what my D.A.R.E. teacher told me when I was 11, that if I ever took drugs I might become schizophrenic and eventually end up feeling as though I was indeterminately a glass of orange juice. I thought back to that time in my life, fifth grade, and remembered a few things that scared me--World War II, drug addicts, being bad at sports. I thought of World War II and how close in proximity I was—closer than usual—to the vicious fighting against the Germans. Just one border away was the land occupied by—Most everyone was asleep and all of the rustling and bustling had ceased. Without our lights or the wall lamps it was pitch black like the turnstile in photo darkrooms. Though my eyes were open, I saw a fantastic display of colors and sounds before me. I saw a bunch of wheels turning, then hubcaps then a giant swastika—the Nazis! They’re close! Then a skull and crossbones—the  jolly roger—spinning spinning spinning spinning—CLICK!

Eric’s light bulb flicked on—he was breathing heavy—lost somewhere inside his mind as well.

***

I retreated to Tuesday, her soft spoken voice and perfect smile—and then it happened. She started to rub up on me ever so gently. I thought she might be asleep, having a bad dream—like when sleeping dogs start to run—but then she turned around and kissed me. I did my best to make as little noise as possible; we were just inches away from the others. I laid back down and tried to go to sleep but she tugged on my shirt and whispered, “Let’s go downstairs.”

We snuck behind the little bar area and into the kitchen and started making out. I stopped for a while, admiring her. I gazed out a tiny square window and looked at the moon and valley outside. I imagined what would happen if someone came downstairs and saw us. They’d never understand. They’d just see two Americans sitting down looking out a little window in the middle of the night in a random lodge nestled high in the Spanish Pyrenees.