Tuesday, June 29, 2010

when the odds are in your favor

I think sometimes – what would it be like to be an Ed – calm, deliberate, not afraid? In occasionally traveling with him, I have become, sometimes unintentionally, at least tiny bit more like him. And, I suppose, just a microscopic bit – he, like me. It has to happen if you share the same path as much as we do.

But I cannot say that I have taken on his fearlessness. It’s not that Ed courts danger. But he is completely without irrational fears and he is without some rational ones either.

Me, I waver. I’m bold, sure. I blog, I lecture, I travel, I try new things, I criss cross busy streets on a speeding bicycle. But don’t put me near an edge of a cliff, because I am sure I’ll topple down. My fear of lightening is legendary. And I have no interest in being in a small boat in the open seas with no land in sight.

Ed has no patience for irrational fears in others. He wont hold your hand and tell you it’s all right again and again. He’ll tell you instead that reality does not support your ridiculousness and then he'll move on. Or taunt you with melodramatic speculations about the brevity of life.

I push myself just a little in all wakes of life and nowhere more so than in the matter of irrational fear. But I know that you can’t merely talk yourself out of it. If you’re on an airplane and you’ve hit a violent storm and the plane seems to be cascading and bouncing madly, you’ll have most passengers’ hearts racing. And even if someone reminded them again and again that the chances of a crash are so small that it’s not even worth a quiver let alone a heart flutter, and that they are at far greater risk of crashing when driving their car to their daughter’s ballet lessons, they’ll still be afraid. If you put a bullet in a chamber and one thousand chambers stand empty and the gun is pointed at you and the trigger is pulled, all you can think of is that possibly in one second you’ll be dead.

Ed would say – quick and painless. The best way to go.

We remain, in this way, so very different.

It is our last day in the mountains. Indeed, I’m thinking that by afternoon we should be at our final short stop – at the agri-tourism (or, in Catalonia -- a "turisme rural," meaning a working farm with rooms) El Moli de Siurana, not too far from Spain’s Costa Brava and the town of Figueres.

But our hosts in Gombren keep telling us that we should consider seeing Vall de Nuria while we’re in the area. How far? – I ask. Not more than twenty kilometers from here. It’s so beautiful!

Doable. And so we leave Gombren on what looks to be a lovely morning...


...and pick up the road that heads straight for the still snow dappled summits of the Pyrenees.


We drive through the mountain town of Ribes de Freser...


...and continue down a winding road to Queralbs (where the road basically ends, though I see a sign for a footpath to France – a mere four hour hike).


In this tiny hamlet (resting at an elevation of 1200 meters) there is a train station with a cog rail line. We can take this up another 800 meters or so, following the raging Nuria stream along to the Vall de Nuria – a valley just below the majestic summits that we can see from Queralbs.


From the the Vall de Nuria, there is a hiking trail back down to Queralbs. Estimated descent: 3 hours and 20 minutes.

A switch of shoes for Ed, food and water into the pack, a sweatshirt for me (it’s cooler up there), maps from the rail station and we’re ready. We take the 11:20 up to the Valley.

The ride up is breathtakingly beautiful. Pines, rhododendrons, cascading waterfalls in a gorge with jutting cliffs and scree of rock. (I take almost no photos; the hike will offer better opportunities.)

But once we leave the train, I’m slightly disappointed. The valley has been developed for tourism. There are several chairlifts and a gondola and there is a tourist depot that is not insignificant. There are about a dozen short trails further up into the mountain and we take one of those, but it’s an uninteresting walk that weaves around the gondola posts.

(Though the short trail has its good moments: coming across these horses, grazing freely here, coming across a pure blue gentian flower, and letting yourself gaze up at the summits, rather than down at the recreational playground below.)




It’s 12:30. Time to begin the descent. But we both see that clouds have been forming around the summits. At the Queralbs train station, I had noticed that the weather station -- on display for all to see -- was predicting thundershowers. Is there any chance that we can do this hike and avoid being hit by bad weather?

I think not.


I suggest we take the train back. But Ed is of a different mindset. To him, the hike down looks nothing short of magnificent. Yes, there probably will be rain, maybe even a storm. These mountains are full of storms and rains. That is not a reason to give up on a hike.

I look at the sign.


That’s a long time to spend in bad weather. Still, I want the challenge. I start out with him but I keep glancing back at the clouds. Each time they look a little worse. Ed tells me that I am likely to ruin the trek if I keep fretting and worrying. I rather angrily admit that he is correct. I turn around and head up back up to catch the 1:02. See you when you get down!

He moves on, I retreat.

And then I stop. It’s as if I have that gun pointed at my nose, with thousands of empty chambers and a bullet lodged in one. I am terrified of a storm that is really not likely to hurt me. And I am giving up on a hike that is surely one of the more beautiful hikes in the Pyrenees.

And so again I turn around, this time to catch up with Ed.  (Do you see him on the trail? In the red t-shirt?)


Are you sure? He asks. Uh-uh – I answer, with very little conviction. I watch the train leave the station. It'll be fine, I say to myself. Look at the flowers, just keep on looking at the gorgeous flowers...



Twenty minutes into our descent we hear the first rumble and then the next and then the rain comes.

I suggest that we hide under a clump of pines and see if it quickly passes.


It does not quickly pass.

There are only two choices – return up or head down. Returning up by myself into the midst of the storm seems less appealing than continuing down with Ed.


Obviously you know we survived. I have to say, we descended the entire trail (except for the last twenty minutes) in continual rain accompanied by claps of thunder.


The trail was a slick stream of water. The rocks, so beautiful to gaze at, are monstrously difficult to navigate in the rain. I take out my camera only occasionally and when I do, it gets its share of raindrops. Toward the end, I have nothing dry on me to wipe down the lens.

Of course, irrational fears have irrational moments of comfort. I descend trails much much faster than Ed. This time I find myself scampering down quickly through the open stretches, only to wait for him under the shelter of pine branches. It feels safer there.

And the lower we get, the less scared I am. Some idea there about lightening not finding me at lower elevations. I begin to see again the details of the world around me.



I have to say that were it not for the storm, I would sing loud praises about not only the beauty of the descent, but the extraordinary maintenance of the path. As a bonus, there are frequent and reassuring signs telling you how much time you have left in your trek.

But, the rain is a constant and the feeling of cold wetness takes hold. About half way down, there is a shelter of sorts but there’s no point in stopping. However bad the storm is now, it could intensify. And, I am already somewhat cold. I have a hood, but the wet sweatshirt is only a slight blessing.


And so we continue through this splendid gorge until finally, the sign tells us we have only a few minutes left. Village horses, their coats glistening from the rain, greet us at the bottom.


Maybe “greet” is the wrong word here...


And now the village is upon us – all rock and wet slate, offering safety from real and imagined dangers.



We unabashedly change to dry clothing in the parking lot, eat our packed lunch in the car and drive out of the mountains, through Ripoll (where we pause for a pastry)...


...and due east toward the village of Suriana, where the sun is still shining and the sunflowers are blooming their little heads off.


We are in the thick of olive and wheat and sunflower country.


After a "drive around in circles" search for the right road, we find the "turisme rural."


The air is warm again. The table is set for a Catalan supper of salads and sausage. The air is calm. I am calm as well. Though every now and then I turn to Ed and ask -- what if... what if it had intensified? What it there was a downpour and we could not navigate the trail? What if??? He patiently tells me how we may have handled any one of my imagined exigencies. Then he asks Sara, who is serving us supper (she is actually the farmer's daughter), if he could have some more bread.