April 11-12, 2000
Nestled in a valley of the Pyrenees, as are all Andorran cities is Andorra La Vella, the capital of this small princedom between France and Spain where there is no income tax (except a little more than 12 chickens every two years), duty free shopping, 0% unemployment, a free domestic postal system, ski and hiking trails galore and free mountain refugee huts with fire wood and running water. How they do it, I don't know, but it's here and so am I.
Some guidebooks have ragged on about this place being a giant Radio Shack and construction zone due to the duty free shopping (and petrol is about 25% less here than in it's neighboring countries), but I can't find anything beyond normal for a small town here, except that there are more stores than usual selling hiking boots, cameras and GPS units. All cool things in my book.
A river runs through it too. Right through the center of town, though muddy by this point, an icy cold river from the snow caps runs right through the middle of town.
The air is crisp and cool. Not the biting cold of windy winter day in the big city, or the piercing desolite cold of a dark November Sunday, but just enough where you relax, but you're at the perfect level of comfort if you're kept moving.
There isn't any night life here... the whole place seems to shut down around 8pm, but that's fine with me. After a night's sleep, I'm off to explore. The goal is to walk half way across the country (or at least to the next town). In Portalegre, Portugal, I walked 14km with full pack into town, so I could easily do 6km in a half day here.
But that was on flat ground and this was through the snow capped Pyrennees! This really hadn't clicked though as the mountains, rather than threatening seemed to be calling out, "come on up, the view is great up here."
Despite the pending rain cloud, I couldn't refuse the invitation. Besides, I could climb above the clouds. I'd make my way up a bit then some farmer on the slope would tell me to go back down and follow the road a bit more. The second guy gave me some great clues to what he was talking about (the road splits, then the path has stones on it). He didn't look at me like a crazy person as the others had, but was excited. (I've decided that if you let that look discourage you, BTW, it doesn't mean you're crazy, just lacking confidence in what you're doing) He had climbed the mountain before and caught fish for dinner in the lake. When you reach the top, you'll see more than one mountain hut. All this said in a clear and ad-hoc sign language (the official language of Andorra is Catalan) and a passion to share it all. Now I had a believer and that spurred me on even more to conquer the great white where the snow stays up there through July.
I found the way, the stone path and carried on upward. If the trail split, I'd take the one that went up. If they both went up, the one headed East was the one for me.
I found what appeared to be a shelter, and would be excellent night coverage, but it was too soon and had no water, so it couldn't have been one of the 26 mountain refugees I had mapped out. The tourist office provides impressively colorful trail maps that are nearly useless for finding the huts.
The trail stopped showing evidence of an official route and I blazed my way upward. It was getting cold and wet, which was dangerous for camping out without shelter. My sleeping bag is made of down feathers that has no insulation properties when wet and some of the clothing I was wearing was cotton. "Cotton kills," is what the mountain men will tell you and it's true that you can freeze in it when it's cold and wet. You might be better off naked.
Luckily, a spot of sunlight seemed to follow me up the hill. The mountain was the cathedral and I, a mere mortal looking upward to my destiny, was a follower of that great desire to overcome and see what is on the other side.
While Jack Kerouac may have had more in depth (and crude) conversations on the virtues of Buddhism, my surrounding scenery would well eclipse the beauty of his Matterhorn climbs. Too much to enjoy to ponder religion, my take is akin to Zen, just "be here now."
I surfaced on a plateau with a shooting target, an expensive restaurant, a church and a field. My limit to the amount of time I took to find my way was really limited by the amount of food in my pack, so I peeled for a roasted chicken at the restaurant. While there, the storm came with winds so fierce, I swore it ripped the flag. The brutal winds smashed into the window and I contemplated sleeping on the porch of the old church or moving on after the storm.
I was in no mood to sleep and I could always turn around, so I continued up, following the road. Until a well manicured path tempted me. It was getting dark now, but my night vision was clear even with the moon hiding behind a cloud. The rusted Private Property sign must have been obsolete, I justified, especially since it was plastered with AMA signs, which I gather stood for the Andorran Mountaineering Association.
The ground was wet, but I was dry and surprisingly warm. It wasn't raining and the clouds had fallen. My energy continued as I made mental notes of grassy patches to sleep in.
A dead quiet walk, what could distract me here?
Wolves. Or at least dogs, that sounded like wolves) But that went away with the rain clouds moving in. It was a kind of darkness where the tree stumps looked like people staring back at you, and if not, they were sacred totem poles.
Getting over that, the moon danced in and out of the clouds above. In my head I cranked up the mental volume on some upbeat melodies for this quest, which would be appropriate for a theatrical segment as the here (or villain) flees into the dark and cloudy peeks. I continued past the deciduous tree line and in a clearing, I poked at some foam that someone must have used as a sleeping pad as there's no other reason for it to be here.
Snow!!!!!! I had climbed up to the snow!!!!! This only fueled me more. I wasn't tired, cold and felt I could continue to the lake the farmer told me about. Then I saw a lightened area. I came across a small city. I had conquered the mountain and it wasn't even 10pm yet!
I think I made a complete circle back to La Vella. I tried sleep with the comfort of the near city lights below, but the rain came. There was no clue of a path and the way down was way steep.
It wasn't until I reached the bottom, four hours later that I realized this was not Andorra La Vella, so I'll stop writing about this town since we already in the next.