The past two weeks have held some of the most unforgettable whirlwinds of my life. Two Tuesdays ago, I went to the train station to collect my mom, who arrived after over 24 hours of traveling. I greeted her with cheap, fake poinsettias because I didn’t know where to buy flowers, and held back happy tears when I saw her on the train platform.
The next day, I showed her around my favorite parts of Sevilla and caught up after the longest period in my life that I’ve gone without seeing her. I was proud to know this city well enough to host her. Then we headed up north, and spent a night in Barcelona. We didn’t have a chance to really explore Barcelona, which was fine with me; it was a pit stop on the way to the Catalan Pyrenees and I was ready to be out of the city. We rented a car from the Barcelona airport, and it turned out that the law requiring Americans to have an international driving permit was not enforced. She had one, just in case, but the plan all along was for me to drive, whether or not the rental company would allow me to be listed as a driver (they did).
Being back behind the wheel was incredible. When we got out of the city and began to see the mountains ahead of us, it felt like a homecoming. Have you ever been somewhere that you’ve never been before, and felt like you were coming home? That was how I felt in the mountains of Cataluña.
To me, every mountain range, with its own specific peaks and valleys, paths, and vegetations, is unique. But something about these mountains reminded me intensely of the Blue Ridge mountains. As we drove to the little town of Camprodon, we began to see signs for Ceret. They didn’t mean anything to me, but my mom recognized them and wondered if it could possibly be the same Ceret that is so near to where our family used to go in the French Pyrenees.
Our first day in the Pyrenees was one of the very best days of my life. We drove to the Vallter 2000 ski station outside the little town of Setcases, and from there began to hike up the snowy mountainside. I spoke briefly to a woman working at the ski station, who seemed skeptical that we would accomplish the hike, and came off as very condescending. She suggested that we buy bastones (hiking poles) and come back another day. This was neither the first nor the last time that someone would suggest that I was ill-equipped or ill-prepared for something I was determined to do. Maybe because of my age, maybe because I’m a girl, maybe because of some cultural need to warn and educate foreigners, I have often felt like people are eager to tell me not to do something that I have in fact researched and planned and feel confident doing. It makes me mad and definitely doesn’t deter me from doing whatever the thing is. My mom, on the other hand, listens patiently and nods and then goes and does whatever the thing is anyway (something she got from her mom. I may have inherited the determination, but I didn’t inherit the patience and have not developed the grace to be kind or positive as someone infers that I cannot or should not do something.) All of that to say, we set out to do our hike just as we came to do.
We hiked northeast through the snow next to a narrow arroyo. As we ascended further, the ski station fell out of site behind us and we were left with a view of the snow-capped, towering Pyrenees all around us. This part of the mountain range was nothing like mountains back home or like anything I’ve ever hiked in. It took my breath away and made me feel alive in the way that only mountains can.
When we reached the ridge line, I saw a signpost that read “Reserve Naturelle.” French. We had hiked to France. My mom joined me on the ridge and together we looked in silent awe out at the Spanish peaks, gorges and valleys on one side, and the French on the other. It was my first time crossing a border on foot. We stopped to drink water (and in my case, also a juice box, because Spain has delicious peach juice that comes in boxes) and then hiked west along the ridge line. The wind blew hard and the snow was slick, but I didn’t care. I’ve seen incredible views before, but the magnitude of this one hit me harder. Maybe it was the slope dropping on either side of us, maybe it was the pure white snow and the deep blue sky, maybe it was knowing that I was standing on the threshold between a country where I have roots back many generations and a country that I have made my temporary home.
There are times in your life when you feel like in that moment, you are exactly where you are meant to be. When your heart is so full and your joy is so great and the past and future fall away and the present surrounds you and saturates your mind, body and soul. Standing on that snowy mountain ridge line, I felt so deeply at peace and ecstatic. I can use all the words and pictures in the world and it still won’t do it justice, but if you’ve ever felt that then I know you know exactly what I mean.
After that incredible day, I almost didn’t care what we did next. It had been so profound for me, and had given me so much that I hadn’t even known I needed. But it turns out that the following day had its own set of wonders in store. The Ceret my mom had seen on the signs was, in fact, the same Ceret that she visited as a child. The conditions weren’t good for hiking, so we got in the car and headed to France. My mom handled it remarkably well when I insisted we listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Through a combination of luck, memory, and directions from my Aunt Niki, my mom got us easily to the driveway down to Mas Calamiche, the farmhouse that her family rebuilt from old stone ruins, with the help of a fiery Catalan stone mason. Apparently the mason often got angry and walked off the job, only to promptly return. My mom claims no nostalgia for the sweltering summer days that she spent carrying bags of cement and laying stone, but I could tell she was proud anyway. The new owners, who aren’t really new at all, weren’t home, and we explored the little cement pool that I remember swimming in and the boulders behind the “little house” that I remember sweating in through hot, un-air conditioned nights. I was not even one year old the first time I went to Calamiche, and I was probably seven the last time I went. I remember hiking with my mom and eating a goat cheese and baguette sandwich at the top, and at the time it seemed like the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. I remember the farmers who lived nearby, Isidore and Augustin, brothers who had never married but who lived off the land and had all sorts of wonderful and exciting animals that I was enamored with. Isidore and Augustin both died sometime after my grandfather died and we sold the farmhouse, but on our way that day we drove by their old orchard and I wished we could have visited them one last time.
My first and my last times at Mas Calamiche
On Monday, my mom left to head home, and I flew from Barcelona to Mallorca. After a night in a hostel in Palma, I took a bus to Deia to begin the northern half of the GR221, the dry stone route through the Sierra de Tramuntana mountain range. The first day of hiking was easy. It was a mix of dirt footpaths and stone walkways that wound around old country houses and above terraced farmland. I got to the Muleta refuge in the early afternoon, with plenty of time to drop off my backpack and explore the nearby town of Port de Soller. I had originally planned to camp as I hiked my way through Mallorca, but camping is more or less illegal there. (More or less because it’s permitted in specific government controlled campsites and as long as you don’t light a fire. Or something like that. Everything I read ahead of time made it seem strictly illegal and punishable with heavy fines. Either way, I didn’t see any clearings like there are so many of back home, that lend themselves so well to camping). When people hike in Mallorca, they either do day hikes or stay in the refugios in huge, rustic rooms full of bunk beds.
My second day of hiking the GR221 was by far the hardest. The trail leads from the Muleta Refuge directly to the Tossals Verds refuge, but Tossals was booked solid so I knew I would have to go an extra distance to the nearby town of Lloseta. I got up at six and got ready so that I could leave as soon as it was light out. This time of year, Mallorca gets under ten hours of daylight, and I didn’t want to waste any of it. A group of hikers was heading out around the time I was, and explained to me that it would save time to hike the first few hours through the small towns instead of on the GR221 trail itself. I ended up hiking with them that whole day. The youngest in the group other than me was a 34 year old woman named Aina. She, like most of them, was originally from Mallorca, but unlike the others was hiking alone and just joined them for the day. They all seemed to feel parental toward me, as though I were collectively their novelty child: this young American woman doing this thing on her own. They kept offering me food and checking if I was doing alright. I stayed with the group more for the sake of their reassurance than mine; they were much more concerned about me than I was, but it was nice to have the company, camaraderie, and care. By the time we arrived to Tossals, the women of the group had gotten a solid lead and we spent a while sitting around waiting for the men to catch up. It really inspired me to see this group of experienced and strong women hiking together, talking, laughing, most of them doing this trail for at least the second time.
The ladies on the final stretch of the hike to Tossals
Killer views from the trail
From Tossals, I planned to hike or hitchhike the rest of the way down to Lloseta on the road, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. We had completed about 15 tough miles with a lot of ascent and heavy packs. I got lucky and caught a ride down to town with two women who work as cooks at the refuge during the day. I had bit the bullet and made a hotel reservation for the night, deciding it was better to know I had a nice place to sleep than to attempt to camp illegally in an unfamiliar place that didn’t seem to lend itself easily as a makeshift campsite. The hotel ended up being the most luxurious and wonderful one I’ve ever been to. I took a jacuzzi bath with jasmine bath salts and drank mint tea on the balcony in my fancy hotel bathrobe and slippers. I think it’s the kind of place people go on their honeymoons. Each side of the bed had fancy chocolates waiting to be eaten. I ate them all myself (perks of being single in a room meant for couples). I knew the combination of the intense day on the trail and the ridiculously indulgent hotel contradicted itself in every possible way, but it was also a really damn nice way to spend a night after what had arguably been the hardest single day of hiking I’ve ever done.
For my third day, I opted against trying to catch a ride back up to the refuge to pick up the trail where I left off. Instead, I hiked by carretera to Caimari and then by a trail that formed part of the GR222 to Lluc, my next destination. “Carretera” means highway but the roads I was hiking on were not at all what I think of when I think of a highway in the American framework. They reminded me a little bit of Grindstaff or Pensacola back home, only without a double yellow line and with slower speeds. Hiking this way was a means to an end, because it was logistically straightforward and allowed me to do the Cami Vell de Lluc, the old pilgrim’s trail that leads to a monastery. It actually ended up being nice to hike on the road a ways; most of it was surrounded by farmland and it gave me a glimpse into what life must be like in rural Northern Mallorca. The best part, though, came on the GR222 when I stopped for a snack by a mirador–lookout point. A falling down fence made of wood and caution tape attempted to block off the rocks on the other side, but it did no good. I slipped between the fenceposts and found myself at the beginning of a rocky ridge that jutted out from the mountain. I walked out on it and had 360 views of the mountains, with gorges and a narrow highway winding below.
I made my way leisurely to Lluc, only briefly stopping by the monastery that I had just done a little half day “pilgrimage” to. Maybe for some hikers, back in the day, the monastery was the spiritual part, but I felt it along the way instead. It’s funny to me that people exalt the beauty of man-made houses of worship or prayer so much. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some gorgeous cathedrals, but the most incredible building doesn’t hold a candle to the creation that’s already out there.
At the Son Amer refuge in Lluc, I made friends with some young doctors who work in Mallorca. Two were from mainland Spain and one from Kuwait. After dinner, we shared a few joints and looked at the stars before making our way to our bunk beds. Living in a city, I had really missed seeing the stars.
I was the first to leave the refuge the next morning. Now on day 4, my body was waking up early on its own and was ready to go. I was excited to do the last little bit of my hike, and the conditions couldn’t have been better; the air was crisp and the sun was shining. The hiking itself was easy, almost all descent as I came down off the mountain. I walked through woods with short, shrubby trees that let the light cascade through their leaves. There were wild goats grazing in between the rocks and vegetation. As I made my way down further, I walked alongside domestic sheep as they grazed their fields. And suddenly, I was back on pavement and in society. Back to standing out, a little girl walking on the road with a giant hiking backpack, instead of feeling like my boots and backpack made sense and belonged as they had on the trail.
A nice man in probably his late fifties or early sixties stopped and asked if I was heading for Pollensa, and offered me a ride. I was glad to accept, and opted out of the last little stretch along a decidedly boring highway. The man’s name was Rafael, and he was kind and warm. He told me that back when he was in school, he and his friends would meet up every Friday, backpacks ready to go, and decide which mountain or river to head to that weekend. I told him I thought it was a wonderful way to grow up, exploring and hiking and swimming like that. I am so thankful that I, too, grew up playing in the river and the woods.
Now I’m back in Sevilla, back in “civilization” or whatever you want to call it. It’s time to think about finals and do laundry (really though, I desperately need to wash the few sets of clothes I re-wore and sweated in for two weeks) and deal with public transportation and the throngs of people and bright Christmas lights and popup cotton candy stands that appeared just in time for Christmas (I hate cotton candy. I’ve always hated cotton candy.)
The truth is I don’t mind having some mundane down time to get things in order and ready for what’s next. The past few weeks have been incredible, and intense. And I leave Spain less than two weeks from today. I have mixed feelings about leaving, but I feel so fulfilled by these recent adventures.