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Spin the Globe: Cheryl Strayed Takes a Hike in Andorra

AFAR chose a destination at random and sent Wild author Cheryl Strayed, with 24 hours’ notice, on a summer trip to a tiny country known for fabulous . . . skiing.

“MANY HIKES!” the man at the tourist office in Andorra la Vella boomed, setting a map before me—only to whisk it away a moment later, proclaiming that it was impossible to hike now. “You could be shot,” he stated, his voice almost elegant in its certainty. In a mix of Catalan, Spanish, English, and pantomime, we worked out that I had arrived during the single week in the entire year that was hunting season in Andorra, a tiny, landlocked country sandwiched between Spain and France in the eastern Pyrenees. The quarry in question was the Pyrenean chamois, a goatlike antelope commonly referred to by Andorrans as the isard.

“You wait a week and then you hike,” he said. When I explained that was impossible, he shrugged. “You only live once. Why risk?”

Disheartened, starving, and smelling like a goatlike antelope myself beneath the clothes I’d been wearing since I had left home twentysome hours before, I dragged my suitcase out of the tourist office and across the way, past a statue by Salvador Dalí called Nobility of Time. I hadn’t slept since I’d been in my own bed in Portland, Oregon. I was nearly hallucinating from exhaustion, and the melting clock seemed a perfect reflection of how distorted and faded I felt.

“Do you think I’ll be shot if I go hiking?” I asked the woman at the front desk of the nearby Hotel Hesperia a few minutes later, as she checked me in.

“Do you think I’ll be shot if I go hiking?” I asked the waiter at the nearby café where I had dinner that evening, sitting at a sidewalk table overlooking the Gran Valira, the concrete-lined river that runs through the city.

Everyone agreed I might be shot.

I sipped a glass of wine and stared at the river and wondered what I’d do now. Shortly after I learned I would be traveling here, I had typed the word Andorra into Amazon’s search engine in hopes of finding a guidebook. The first result that came up was a bra. The pickings are slim when it comes to information about Andorra. The few guidebooks that mention it write primarily of its stellar ski slopes and abundant tax-free shopping—the latter of no interest to me, and the former irrelevant because it was September. The books summed up the capital city, Andorra la Vella, where I now sat, as a hub of consumerism worth a stop only if you wanted cheap cig­arettes. I had pinned my hopes on hiking the trails that traversed one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, and now I was denied even that, for fear I might be mistaken for an antelope.

What else is there ever in our lives to do but make the best of it? If I could not walk
in the wilderness, I would walk in the city. The next morning I set out rambling  up and down the streets, marveling at the sheer number of stores. They sold just about everything imaginable: shoes, perfume, china, fancy scarves, knives, cell phones, leather jackets, and, everywhere, plastic statuettes of Our Lady of Meritxell, the patron saint of Andorra. Throughout the day, I buttoned and unbuttoned my sweater as the late summer sun duked it out with the cool edge of mountain air that is ever present in the city, 3,356 feet above sea level, the highest capital in Europe. As far as places to shop go, Andorra la Vella is a rather pleasant one—better than any U.S. mall—and the historic district is downright lovely, full of cobbled streets and enchanting old buildings, some of which date to the 9th century.

That evening, I worked my way through the sort of unexpectedly bizarre salad one gets from time to time in a foreign country—this one had white asparagus that appeared to be
pickled—and a pizza served with a bottle of oil, because god knows if there’s one thing pizza needs, it’s more fat. I watched children toting knapsacks and women carrying grocery bags and couples holding hands pass by my concrete-riverside sidewalk table in the magic light the sun made as it sank behind the mountains that surrounded us, and I realized the guidebooks had it wrong.

I was charmed by Andorra la Vella.

The following day I found my way to the enormous Caldea Thermal Spa, which sits like a space-age glass church just outside the city. After I handed over my credit card, I was led to a section of the building called Inuu—the fancier, inner sanctum sister spa of Caldea, it turned out—where I stripped off my clothes, donned a robe, and immediately got lost among a maze of futuristic doors and bewildering hallways. Fearing at every turn that I’d either wander into the men’s dressing room or be abducted by health-conscious Martians, I finally happened into a sauna of sorts, where I found an older German couple making out like teenagers. They were kind enough to overcome our mutual mortification and direct me to a member of the staff, who guided me to a room where I was slathered in mud and scrubbed with sugar, then massaged to within an inch of my life while wearing an atrociously unflattering one-size-fits-all disposable thong.

Afterward, I sat on a bench at a playground near the spa, feeling tense and lonely rather than relaxed and blissed out. Watching the children on the swings and monkey bars made
me miss my own kids. As I listened to the incomprehensible chatter of the parents and the universally recognizable laughter of the children, I got the feeling I sometimes get when traveling alone. Like I didn’t know where I was or why I was there or what I’d been thinking to ever leave home. Like the only thing that would set me right was to keep moving. Like I really truly needed to go for a hike. Even if the country was teeming with people set on shooting isards.

So by midafternoon the next day I was in the village of Arinsal, seven miles and a world away from the capital city. I’d been drawn to Arinsal for its vast array of hiking possibilities, but especially for its proximity to Andorra’s highest peak, Pic de Comapedrosa, a pyramid-shaped mountain that tops out at 9,652 feet. I got a room at the Hotel Montané, situated opposite the gondola lift in the center of town, and chatted with Fiona Dean, an expat who manages the place while also serving as the British Honorary Consul.

When I asked her if she thought I’d be shot, she just chuckled. So an hour later, I started out on a stony lane that ascended behind the hotel, leading to a grassy footpath that soon became a trail known as the Camí de Percanela. I followed it without a map but with a deep sense of wonder as I climbed above the village, watching the sun slant toward the high mountains that surrounded me. I walked for more than an hour, away from the hotel and back, listening for gunshots. I heard none.

I set out the next morning shortly after dawn for Comapedrosa, again walking straight from my hotel along the road to the hiking trail. Within a half hour I had entered Comapedrosa Valleys Nature Park. Its alpine landscape of trees and meadows and lakes against the endless blue sky was so beautiful I couldn’t help but stop to look around every 15 minutes—never mind I also needed to catch my breath. Up and up and up the trail went without mercy, at times rocky and steep, at others winding beneath shady forest canopies and over bubbling streams. An hour into the hike, my half-hearted and overly optimistic goal of reaching the top and returning before sunset faded into the pleasant challenge of hiking to the Refugi de Comapedrosa, a rustic stone lodge that sits midway up the mountain near the picturesque Trout Lake and offers simple meals and beds for hikers.

When I limped into it, weary but elated, the lodge was buzzing with a group of perhaps 20 hikers speaking French, each of them devouring slices of cured meat and thick slabs of bread slathered in olive oil. In the Catalan-Spanish-English-pantomime that had become my own personal Andorran dialect, I asked the gray-haired woman who worked at the hut to bring me the same, along with a lemon Fanta.

There’s really no better meal than one earned after hiking a hard trail. I sat alone, eating in a mild ecstasy while eavesdropping on the French hikers. Though I hardly understood a word they were saying, we exchanged smiles and nods, all of us happy to be in this place together doing the same glorious thing as summer turned to autumn. After lunch, I retraced my steps, making the long hike back to town, arriving tired and hungry and weather-beaten, grateful I had not been shot, and even more grateful that I had risked the chance that I might’ve been.

As the man in the tourist office had told me, you only live once, after all.