Stranded in Asturias
When I first noticed that weird noise, I tried to ignore it. I kept driving, grasping to the hope that it wouldn’t herald the beginning of a long nightmare.
Sheer will power wasn’t enough. That noise grew into a grinding roar, and the engine labored as if we were dragging a boulder behind us. We were in real trouble, and it couldn’t have fallen on us at a worse time. My wife, Annette, and I were driving through the Picos de Europa, northern Spain’s high mountain range, and found ourselves lost and nearly out of gas on a tiny road late at night, many miles from anywhere.
Another car appeared from nowhere and tailgated us, blinding me through the rear view mirror, while our poor car’s protests grew more deafening with each excruciating moment. Even as Annette implored me to slow down, I pushed on the accelerator and held on for dear life.
I had been uneasy about traveling in Spain. Neither of us spoke Spanish, I knew next to nothing about Spanish culture or road rules, and harbored free-floating anxieties about the entire experience.
Earlier that day, our route took us into the Desfiladero de los Beyos, a ten-kilometer long gorge carved into the limestone by the Sella River. Every turn in the road offered an irresistible panorama. As Annette took the pictures, I looked up to see the sun dropping ever lower. By the time we drove into the green mountains toward Oseja de Sajambre, the sun was sliding behind the mountain peaks. The road was small and winding, and before we knew it, darkness dropped over us like a truckload of tar.
“I hate to bring it up, but we’re missing some incredible views,” Annette sighed as I kept one eye on the sinking gas gauge needle. “I guess we should just stay on this route until we get to the main road again.”
We passed few houses, and in one microscopic town, the road abruptly ended. After asking directions from a farmer, we got on an even smaller road that took ever us higher into the mountains.
“At least we’re going the right way,” I muttered, checking the position of the stars for lack of any other guidance. “As long as we don’t run out of gas, we’ll be okay.”
On we drove, struggling to see the road through a slender area of visibility allowed by the headlights. After what seemed like hours, we noticed that the road was winding downhill. “Maybe we’re getting somewhere,” said Annette. “It would be nice to see a sign just to let us know we’re on the right road.”
It was on that hopeful downhill drive that the car began to moan. As it grew more shrill and the car seemed about to give up, I flung aside common sense and pushed it harder while Annette screamed at me to slow down. I was determined to get somewhere—anywhere—before it finally collapsed and left us stranded where we might never be found.
As we screeched our way around a wall of limestone, I caught my first sight of what we had been seeking for hours—lights! A line of yellowish streetlights strung along the road that meant a town—a real town. We were almost to safety.
The car howled so deafeningly that I wondered if we were riding on the axles. A sign announced we had entered the town of Panes, and a line of parked cars on the right near the center of town drew us over. We pulled over behind the last one and cut the engine. “Thank God we made it to someplace, anyway,” I said. “I hope they have a repair shop.”
“I hate to tell you this, but I need to find a bathroom.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
We paused and heard the sounds of a rock band echoing through the town. A few clusters of people wandered up and down the sidewalk. “It looks like they’re having a festival.”
“That means they’ll have bathrooms, too.”
It was time to inspect the damage. To our surprise, we only had a very flat tire. But when I opened the trunk, we got another shock. Annette picked up a plastic bottle filled with white goo. “This is all Europe Car left us? This fix-a-flat crap instead of a spare? Our tire is too far gone for that to do any good.”
We walked to the center of town through swelling crowds while the music throbbed ever louder. Although it was well past midnight, the festival was going full tilt, with a rock band playing on a huge stage and stands selling tapas, churros, doughnuts, cider, and jewelry. Nearby, a crowd of people watched as two boles players competed. Boles is like bowling except that the players use heavy round stones that they toss into the air at the pins from a distance. It’s the most popular sport in Asturias, and according to the posters, Asturias was holding its boles championships that weekend in Panes.
We finally found bathrooms in a jammed and noisy bar—where the toilets were surprisingly clean—and, since all the hotels were booked up, had no choice other than to make our way back to sleep in the car on the main street. We covered our windows with black plastic bags, drank a bottle of wine we bought earlier that day, and tried to sleep in spite of the music blasting away in the distance and the occasional passing groups of people, laughing and talking, just a few feet away from us.
First thing the next morning, we emerged from our pod and into a brilliant day. We were surrounded by mountains. We tottered over to a tourist office about the size of the interior of our rental car. To our relief, it was open. The woman inside, who looked a bit hung over, didn’t speak much English, but she did manage to let us know that there was a mechanic on the other side of town. We then walked three blocks to the town center where we found a gas station. “Let’s ask in here,” I suggested.
A woman who spoke very good English listened to our tale, called over an old man who had been reading a newspaper by the door, said something to him, and turned to us with a smile. “Just follow him to the mechanic and he’ll explain for you.”
The man, still holding his paper and with his glasses perched on the end of his nose, led us down a hill to what looked like a pile of wrecked cars. Gradually, we could see a mechanic’s shop inside a small Quonset hut. The old man shouted and a smiling middle-aged man with a big mustache swaggered out, wiping his hands on a cloth. He looked at us, then at the old man who explained the situation. “Okay, no problem.”
We thanked the old man and followed the mechanic, who introduced himself as Jose. We then climbed into his truck and directed him to our car while he waved and shouted to passersby, occasionally stopping for a brief chat with a chum. He checked our car over, hopped into his truck, drove back to his shop, and returned with the right tire. We still had to find the lug key to unlock the tires and a bank machine we could use to get money to pay him with, but before we knew it, we were back on the road. “You see Picos today?” Jose asked as we left. “Perfect day, beautiful mountains!”
Indeed, it was a perfect day. We screwed up our courage to go back up to the very section of mountains where the tire went flat and found ourselves astonished at how magical they could be by day. We drove up to Puerto de San Gloria, a high mountain pass with a breathtaking panorama, then to Puerto de Pandetrave, where we could look out over three mountain ranges. After that we stopped at the Puerto de Panderruedas to see the highest peak in the Picos, the 8,688 foot high Torre Cerredo.
On our way back down, we stopped in Potes, the unofficial capital of the Picos de Europa, with a charming old town surrounded by mountains and heaving with tourists.
We got out to stroll through the narrow, ancient streets where shops sold special mountain cheeses, meats, and other local specialties.
Before leaving the Picos, we had to stop in at Panes one last time. The festival was going strong for another night, and this time we didn’t have a broken down car to worry about. We strolled through the streets, listened to the bands, tried some tapas, drank glasses of cider, and watched the boles players and their tense fans. We even ran into the lady from the gas station, who was all dressed up for a night on the town. She asked if we managed to get the car fixed before waving goodbye and rushing off to watch her favorite boles player compete.
As we left the mountains behind, I realized that it would be the gas station lady, the old man with his newspaper, the girl at the tourist office, the fans at the bolo tournament, and especially Jose the mechanic that I would I remember more vividly than the scenery. I turned to Annette. “It was kind of a lucky thing we had bad luck, isn’t it?”
She laughed. “I know exactly what you mean. This disaster turned out to be great. All you have to do is scratch the surface a little to see that the true splendor of any place is found in the people who live there. So yeah, we were lucky to have some bad luck. I suppose there’s a lesson in all this.”
“Oh, most definitely,” I nodded. “Always check to make sure you have a spare tire in the trunk before you leave the damned car rental office!”