Difficulty Leveled up
The 8,000-foot pass had been open for a week, it was true, but had been blocked again by a storm two days before, and more snow was forecast for the evening. He suggested we detour east by way of Perpignan and Barcelona on the Mediterranean, skirting the Pyrenees. But that would have meant bypassing Andorra, and Andorra was a must. It was still just about, as my idol Halliburton had found it 40 years before, “the oldest, the smallest, the highest, the quaintest, the most isolated republic on earth,” and I was determined to see it. It was too early in the trip to skip a country, too insignificant an obstacle. We headed into the Pyrenees.
We first met fog, then rain, then fog and rain again. The snow coated the ground at the 5,000-foot level, with spruce and pine standing in dark contrast against it. At 6,000 feet it was snowing hard and fogging thick. We had to get out to read the signposts. The narrow road was a winding blur, with a 600-foot drop off its side.
At 6,500 feet the road was deep with snow, the retaining fences were almost covered, and day had darkened into night. The pass was 1,000 or 2,000 feet higher, ten miles up ahead. We hadn’t seen another car all afternoon. Perhaps the pass was blocked? If we turned back it might be a week before it was open. If we pushed on we might spend the week stuck in a snowbank. We pushed on.
It was impossible to see. The thick screen of snow reflected our lights. The road and the ground were of one grayness, and the sheer drop filled with fog was only a shade away. The road snaked and twisted up toward the pass, and I could no longer guess which way it was going. Al got out with a lantern to lead us, but the howling storm drove him back.
There were five inches on the asphalt now and it was hard to hold the road. I regretted that we had had our special tires shipped directly to Spain.
Then it happened. I had turned slightly to the right, and the wheel clawed at space. It was over the edge. Before I could react, the car was going off the road, down the mountain slope, down toward certain destruction in the gorge 2,000 feet below. Now both front wheels were over the edge. The brakes locked. The rear wheels slid. The fog opened to bid us welcome.
It was the longest 14 inches I ever fell. That’s all it was, though it seemed to take forever. Our bumper lodged fast against a big spruce just down the slope. Below that tree, nothing.
We winched our way back onto the road, and two hours later plowed through the pass in four-wheel drive, up to the hubcaps in snow. There was not another tire track to be seen. An hour more and we had dropped 1,500 feet, below the danger zone. Ahead a faint light glimmered from a house half-buried in the snow. Our pounding was answered by a robust Andorran in a heavy sweater who explained that the building was his home, but also a restaurant where he served meals to skiers. We weren’t skiers, but we were famished, so we trooped in. The meal was delicious. His wife served and their round-cheeked daughter flirted with us from the corner. The owner sat with us and shared the wine. There was a problem with payment: we were out of French francs and hadn’t had a chance to buy any Spanish pesetas, either of which are acceptable in Andorra. We had traveler’s checks, but the owner had never seen them and wouldn’t accept them, all American Express advertisements to the contrary. After some friendly mutual embarrassment Al paid for our meals with a pair of ski boots from our 44-pair collection and a couple of rolls of Glad Wrap.
I explained to the owner that we needed a place to camp for the night, and he suggested we drive on to Andorra la Vella down in the valley. But we’d had enough of night driving in the snow. There was a flat spot off the other side of the road, a large ledge with a small wood tool shed on one edge, so we decided to make camp there. The man was nervous about it, but the ledge was flat enough to take the camper and wide enough so we wouldn’t be blown off the mountain.
The night was incredibly cold. The wind tore down from the mountain pass and rattled the camper. The ledge beneath us creaked and groaned. Tired as we were, it was several hours before the storm abated enough to let us sleep, and it was only a short while later that I awoke with a start on hearing someone or something walking in the snow around the camper. The steps circled us three times, stopping, listening.
I threw open the camper door and jumped out with my flashlight. No one was there, just two fresh sets of bootprints. What were people doing prowling around us high on a mountain, miles from the nearest town in the dead of night?
The morning broke clear and crisp, the sky a bluest blue, the snow a startling white, the dark fir trees a forest of exclamation points.
Woodrow couldn’t be roused, so Al and I dressed and headed to the house hoping for some hot coffee and perhaps an explanation of our nocturnal visitors. I got there first, Al having lagged behind to take some pictures of our campsite, and the owner greeted me nervously, giving me the feeling he wished we’d taken off I moved into the restaurant room where two strangers stood beside a potbellied stove that had obviously been burning much of the night. I was not introduced.
“My camp is on the ledge and I heard noises in the night. Could that have been you and your friend?” I asked one of them, first in French, then in broken Spanish when I got no answer. He saw me looking at his boots.
“Perhaps. We might have walked by your camp on the way up here to go skiing.”
When Al came in with his camera the two strangers jerked away as if they’d seen a snake, and when he started taking pictures of the innkeeper’s family they walked outside. l let it pass, but later, when we stood outside admiring the parkling day, Al took out the camera to put on a filter and the two men vanished back into the house.
What was going on? What were they afraid of? I had a theory: smuggling, though prohibited, was still an important activity in Andorra, and perhaps …. Or was I letting my imagination get the best of me? Here we were, barely a week on the road, and I was seeing smugglers popping up all over the place. In any case, we’d never know, for we had to push on.
But we couldn’t. Our wheels had sunken in deep during the night and a coating of ice held them fast. We unhitched the trailer and threw the Land Cruiser into four-wheel drive, but the tires spun hopelessly We shoveled away with our entrenching tools, but the wheels only dug in deeper.
We’d have to try to winch our way out, but there was nothing to anchor the winch wire to, except the little tool shed, about thirty yards from us. It was old and rickety, and I didn’t know if it would take the tremendous strain. Yet there was no alternative. It was either that or spend Easter in Andorra.
Al turned on the motor and released the winch lock while I grabbed the hook and cable and pulled them around the shed. As I knelt on the far side of the shed to fasten the hook, I saw something green through a hole in the wall. I looked closer: it was two huge backpacks, bulging with contraband American cigarettes, partly covered by paper and loose boards. Now all my questions were answered.
Except one: how do we get out? If we pulled the shed down and exposed their hideout, who knew what the smugglers would do to us on that lonely mountain? But there was no other way out. I decided to take the chance and signaled Al to start winding in on the winch. The shed creaked and groaned as the cable went taut, but the car was still stuck fast.
I looked back toward the house and saw the strangers running at me with a pick and shovel in their hands, obviously upset. Al revved up the winch again, the cable shuddered, the shed trembled and the car seemed to pull forward a fraction. The two men were up to me now, one of them stopping close beside me with an ugly pick in his hand and the other trying to undo the winch hook. But it was too late for that. With a painful rumble, the winch drum heaved in on the cable again. A board popped loose and the flimsy shed started to tilt and seemed about to collapse-when the car leaped forward, free.
As we drove away Al turned to me. “You know, Steve,” he said, “it just goes to show how wrong a person can be. I really misjudged those guys. Wasn’t it nice of them to come out with tools to help you?’