Tested by the Mountain
Little did I know how soon on my mountain hike I would wish I had the safety bolt called "Life Saver."
I came to the mountains outside of Barcelona to write. The ground is hard-packed red clay and over that a layer of rock. It’s mountain, so the earth undulating, up and down, requires heavy thick-soled shoes which I had brought along. Most people come here to walk. Circles of the 1992 Olympics can be found on street signs, but the area icon is the mountain range. I am on one side of the mountain; on the other side lay the monastery. That was my destination.
I knew it was a long walk to the monastery, but once there we would listen to the boys’ choir sing. I thought of mountain songs:
Climb Every Mountain (Rodgers & Hammerstein, 1959, The Sound of Music)
The bear went over the mountain (a nursery/camp song),
Rocky Mountain High (John Denver, 1975)
Ain’t No Mountain High (Ashford & Simpson, 1966, recorded first by Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye);
The truest thing I ever said about a mountain walk was on my first day here when someone pointed to the mountain in the distance and said they were going to go over it.
“Climb that?” I gasped.
But in 3 weeks’ time, I felt so ready to do it myself, I ignored the many opportunities the universe presented for me to say no, to take a pass, to save this experience for another day, another month, another year, another life.
Elia, my first artist coordinator at Can Serrat, asked me if my ankle could take it.
Elia is a walking artist. Her thing is getting people to see how they can regain their humanity and sense of human scale through walking. The latest installation of her art was a walk in San Francisco. People held hands as they walked. I had forgotten about how they cried at the end.
About my ankle, I told her, the more I use it the better it feels.
Then minutes before we set out, our guide Paola, the Columbia writer, said, pay close attention on the path because if something happens to me you can get back to the house. I nodded, yes, of course.
And finally, after 45 minutes of walking, we reached the sign saying, Parc Nature Mont Serrat, and the trail head for the mountain. Paola said, “if you are going back, this is the time to go.”
I looked at the gate. It was a round-about, no simple stepping over a threshold. I had to turn and turn again to continue. I said, “I hate to be a quitter.”
All those chances to ditch the mountain hike not taken because enthusiastic me doesn’t know how to say, no.
So, there I was on the mountain, a woman who cannot walk and talk at the same time.
I tensed at the first big rock, but forced myself to climb over it. As far as I could see, the path slanted up. Think Dorothy and the yellow brick road, but this road was 50 shades of grim.
Paola was calm as she told me, some parts are very difficult.
“Will we have to crawl?” I squeeked.
She did not reply, that I could hear, but after each challenging section, I asked, “Was that the hard part?” She always said, no.
It was rough-going. So much rock, and when I walked on it, some rolled like ball bearings. After a half-hour, Paola must have noticed my staggering because she said, take the lead so you can set the pace. Follow the yellow arrows painted on rocks; they show the way.
But I said, let me be in the middle.
Every rock in the world lay on that path. Before long the Negro anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” played in my head stuck on the lyric, “stony the road we trod.”
I picked my way, seeing each stone, all the pebbles, and every shard. I scolded myself: you are sweating this too much, too concerned with each step, you’re plodding.
Others who came before me had decided to find an easier way. They stamped out a path to the side of boulders. I followed these shortcuts.
Upon substantial rocks, I planted my foot flat. The impact couldn’t have been good for my ankle, but it didn’t turn on me, though I was thinking, 'Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?' which is translated, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?'”
The sun shone on me, and I plowed onward. One foot after the other.
Level ground put wind in my sails. I moved faster. Sometimes I was alone on the path. Then, I imagined my friends had stopped for a picnic, and caught up to me again, in no time, as the path turned difficult again. Sometimes, the path just ended.
There I looked around, muttering, that can’t be the way because a boulder blocked the path. Or the path ended in a tiny crawl space under the boulder. Or the path dissolved into nothing but air. The worst was when the path seemed run into a wall. It was magic right before my eyes created by mono-chromatic rocks as the path turned north up to the sky.
Now there is a lesson for life: ascension looks like a wall as it leaves one plane for another.
In those situations, yellow arrows pointing where to go next were a god-send.
Signs of civilization, the terra cotta tile roofed houses and the concrete highway, comforted me, despite how small they were getting.
This was a real situation, with no guardrails, no roads marked, “for authorized personnel only.” You know, a way to cheat. This was not the America I live in. I can’t tell the depths of my discouragement, my despair at making it through.
I have read about mountain rescues, and now I was thinking, that could be me. Once I was so tired that I thought a flat rock could be a seat I could occupy until my friends came back on their return trip.
I avoided looking at many views which I am sure were beautiful to some eyes. My own eyes focused down, and inward to my heart skipping like a stone flying across a pond. Once I looked up and saw only the rock walls of Mont Serrat. I was not just on the mountain, I was inside it, where the rock curled like the cup of a hand.
I saw no animals. There were plants, vines, trees. Anna Maria picked wild rosemary, needles fragrant. Feet crunching on the trail broke up the silence. Occasionally, I stepped aside to allow bamboo-thin joggers to pass, grateful for any bit of rest.
Always, there was the path with its yellow arrows.
As mental fatigue set in, the voice of my dragon boating coach, Rob, came into my head: when you get tired, focus on your form. The You Tube instruction for hiking with a walking stick said the correct form is to put the stick behind you, and push off on it. It saves energy. And so I put the stick at a slant to the ground behind me, and I was renewed.
Rounding a bend up high, I yelped in delight. Bright colors, yellow and red stripes painted on the mountain wall, with a bright blue star atop. It was the flag of Catalonia, the flag for independence from Spain. L’resistance lives. Paola took my picture with it.
Finally, we arrive to a small structure, a church, one that belonged in the mountains. It was dusty, reddish-gray, and the door was a grate secured with a padlock. I looked through the door and saw a tiny sanctuary with an altar.
“Is this what we came here for?” I said, disappointment thick in my voice.
“No,” Paola said, “but we are close.” Later she told me, at some points of our hike she lied to me, so I wouldn’t get discouraged.
We set out again.
It was more of the same stony path, but slowly people appeared. They appeared as if by magic. Some wore tennis shoes, others sandals. They had not come over the mountain. The path widened enough for a car, and was concrete ridged like Ruffles potato chips. Ruffles have ridges for strength to scoop up dip, but these ridges were for traction because the path continued down, steeply down.
I used my walking stick as a brake for about a mile. It was like the mountain was pushing me off: go, go, go.
Then over my right shoulder below, an oasis. Buildings, people walking around and buses. After we had gotten a foothold on the mountain path, Paola had told us that there was a bus down the mountain.
“And I’m going to be on it,” I blurted. Half-an-hour on the path I knew that there was no way that day I was walking down the mountain. I didn’t care what the bus cost. I had cash and two credit cards.
The monastery was not just one building, but a little city. It turned out to be a Catholic resort in the middle of the mountains, built around the idea of an abbey, but offering also a golden basilica, hotel rooms, a quaint coffee shop, an expansive restaurant, a cafeteria, a farmer’s market, a store and a bar, of course, always a bar.
I grinned at Paola; tilted my head to touch hers, threw my arms around her shoulders. She had gotten me here. I was so grateful. “Mucho gracias,” I gushed.
It was 11:50 am.
We had crossed over the mountain in two hours and 40 minutes.
You would think that I would have gone and sat down right away. But no, Paola led us to the W.C. (water closet) where I almost dropped my walking stick into the garbage can. Then, once again, I was cleaning up in a public toilet.
Out on the plaza again, Paola pointed to a set of arches. “This is the way to see the Black Virgin.” The line was long to gaze upon an icon of Mary and her baby Jesus, both with noble black faces.
I stood in the crowded corridor of flying buttresses, thinking, they can just look at me to see a black woman who trusted in god.
I left my friends in the coffee shop to go speak to la policia about the whereabouts of the tourist office. They pointed it out and soon I had in hand a Montserrat Sanctuary map with the bus stop circled. Into my jeans pocket, I safeguarded 5,20 euros for the fare, and set my phone alarm for 4:30pm. The bus left at 5pm. That was 3 hours off.
Back at the coffee shop, my friends informed me that they had decided to walk back around 3pm, that gave us an hour to see the sights. Anna Maria, a Ph.D. art historian, wanted us to visit the museum advertising many masters of European art: Picasso, Pizarro, Caravaggio, Degas, Renoir. I was dog-tired, but somehow my mouth whimpered, OK.
It cost 7 euros to walk around gazing at the paintings, while I wondered from whom the church had stolen – oops – I mean appropriated this artwork. You know, some countries are still trying to recover art stolen during WWII.
Nothing intrigued me more than the collection of pieces on the theme of the Black Virgin. The one I liked the most posed her against the mountain, a gold crown on her head and around that an aura edged in stars. Angels edging her crimson skirt all had color in their skin.
After that, I most loved the beautiful benches.
Outside again, I am feeling the life sapped out of me, but remarkably I summon the energy to fork over 13 euros to ride the Funicular. We rode the tram up the side of the mountain, an almost 80 degree slant, to Sant Joan.
At the top people milled around. Paola set off in one direction and I sat with Anna Maria on a short stone fence. There was still more rock above that she wanted to explore. “There might be a cave up there,” she said.
Finally, my brain decided to return from vacation. “Knock yourself out,” I told her. “I am going to be sitting on that wood bench right over there in the sun.”
So I sat and people-watched, thinking deeply about how to hitch a ride down the mountain all the way to the Can Serrat front door. God forgive me, but I’ll do anything. When I was a teen, mini-skirts were the style and the practice was to show some leg.
I took off my horrible, heavy, not-sexy hiking shoe, and my thick sock, and pull up my pants leg to reveal an Ace Bandage.
Yes, I had a problem with my ankle. I sprained it, but there on Saint Joan I was thinking, this will be good for sympathy.
I spied a man clowning in front of the Funicular sign. He was a big man, with dark-hair and a slight paunch, most likely from drinking beer. He stuck out his arms straight to the side from the shoulder, and wagged his head. “I am a person,” he said loudly. He said it a few times, and sounded a little crazy, but more importantly he was speaking my language.
This is my guy, I thought, but then he walked in the other direction away from me, doggit.
I was sunning my foot and ankle when my target came back into view, walking my way. He didn’t know it yet, but he's giving me a ride down this mountain. I try to arrange my Ace Bandage more attractively, wishing it was red, with sequins.
When he is close enough, I said loudly, “Sir?”
He must be lonely for English as well, because he came right over to me.
“Are you from the States?” I asked.
“I’m from Michigan.”
I told him I was watching him clown. “You’re so funny.” I smiled and moved my bag to clear space on the bench.
He sat right down, and told me the sign had a stick figure on it and, whatever else he was saying.
“Actually, I find their signs to be pretty easy to follow,” said a voice behind me.
“Uh,” he said, “This is my wife.”
I pivot to her. No martial bullshit was going to mess up my ride off this heap of rock. Now, she has my total attention. Turned out she was Lacy Gray from Santa Cruz, California. I explained my situation, and asked how they got here. They traveled from Barcelona by train to a cable car, then hiked for an hour.
“Is the hike steep?”
She nodded, yes, but I wondered about that. Her shoes were no match for mine, but she didn’t have a bum ankle, like me.
A blond boy sitting behind her, leaned forward. Peering at my bandage, he asked, how did you do that?
This kid was about to enter an elite club. Until now, only a few knew about my ankle: the people at Can Serrat; my niece, Brianna, who, because she lives in Brussels, will come to Spain and take control if something serious happens to me. In Michigan, my husband knew, and Jose, one of my drinking buddies in East Lansing.
Jose spent his sabbatical in Spain last year, and advised me on my pre-trip planning. When I emailed him about my ankle and my upcoming walk in the mountains, he sent back the map to a sporting goods store in Barcelona, and the ad, with the price, for el baston, a walking stick.
Now this kid wanted to know. I told him, I was walking down this rough road near my house in the mountains, coming home from Barcelona late on the night of my third day in the country. I didn’t have my flashlight so I was following a person who did have one. I was chattering and laughing, drunk on the best gin and tonic with lime ever put in a 20-ounce glass. Then I stepped in a rut and my ankle turned. (I didn’t say the part about drinking; Americans judge drinkers.)
When my ankle turned, I did not fall. Fortunately, I was 3 minutes from the front door of Can Serrat. My fellow artists let me lean on them over those last painful steps to the house.
Next morning, I had a swollen knob of a left ankle and a prescription for 3 days of rest, ice, and Naproxen. Since then, my sore ankle has reminded me to step carefully, and it may have been a talisman against injury on my mountain hike. You never know.
I’m much better now, except for my mouth, which keeps saying yes to new adventures in Spain.