Beam Me Up, Scottie by Ginna Wilkerson

Beam Me Up, Scottie

As we drove up the mountain, around tight curves and rocky passages, I found myself more and more thankful that I had opted for tagging along in Jeff’s car rather than hiking up. Montserrat is beautiful from a distance but does not look terribly welcoming as one attempts to breach its boundaries.

Some of my housemates at Can Serrat, an artists’ and writer’s residence near the small town of El Bruc in Catalonia, had, in fact suggested that climbing up would be easier than down. I found this a bit counterintuitive; as a middle-aged person with arthritis that settled in my feet, I knew from experience that down was almost always easier on me than up. So, in spite of advice, my new-found friend and fellow artist Jacqui and I decided to accept Jeff’s offer of a ride up to visit the monastery and then prepared to walk down. But, as we were soon to discover, walk did not begin to describe the dodgy maneuvers and dangerous rock-climbing required to get down this starkly beautiful mountain.

First: the monastery itself. This place and its surrounding grandeur play a large role in the spiritual life of the Catalonian people. Catalonian people make pilgrimages to the site of the Virgin of Montserrat, also known as ‘the black virgin.’ We had heard that, if you stand in the center of the majestic outer courtyard leading to the cathedral and raise your arms to the sky, all of the negativity will leave the body. As I stretched to the unknown heavens, I prayed for the ability to carry out what I suspected would become an adventure that would challenge my endurance.

Waiting to see the statue of the Black Virgin, I felt the spiritual energy of centuries of devotion moving through the small space. I touched the hand of the icon in turn. We then left the chapel and turned our thoughts to food; our small band of travelers sought out some lunch. I don’t usually eat until later in the day, but Jackie offered to split a baguette, and I took her up on it. I also bought a second bottle of water, having brought one small one from the house.

So now it was time to assure Jeff and Joy that they could drive back to Can Serrat and leave us to walk down. We had lunch; we had water. Jacqui had her phone that worked in Spain (unlike mine); I had on my best comfortable shoes, and my pain medication was in my purse. My plan was to wait until about half way through the adventure to take it; the pills take about 20 minutes to ‘kick in’ and then help for two or three hours. As they say, the best-laid plans…..

I could tell by the looks on our two companions’ faces that their faith in our ability was a bit shaky, but scrappy Australian Jacqui was itching to set out. She assured me I would be fine, and we set out hiking.

Well, we tried. First we got directions via Jacqui’s phone; the resulting blue line on the electronic map looked doable. For extra surety, Jacqui suggested we go back to the Information Booth we had passed earlier. I suppose we had a shared Australian/American trust in folks in an official capacity providing accurate information to tourists. After all, both Australia and America (particularly my home state of Florida) depend on satisfied tourists. And there was a sign over this small room that read Servei d’Informació.

The clerk could not understand our minimal Catalan and hand gestures, but she did provide a map and draw some lines on it. Okay – that was something on which to begin. We left and started following her map, which took us up some steep stairs behind the monastery, up another incline where we interrupted a wedding photography session, then returned us to where we had started. Rats!

We checked Jacqui’s phone again, trying to determine what we did wrong. Jacqui thought we should go back to the Servei d’Informació and try again. At this point, I was beginning to think of my new friend as the leader of this quest. I realized that, by the time we made it back to Can Serrat, my brain and my body would both be useless. So back to the tiny room we went.

This time, the clerk was even less helpful and spoke less English, just enough to sell us a map and booklet. Jacqui invested the 11€, and we went outside to spread the map out on the ground. If one wanted to learn about the typography of Montserrat, this map might be helpful. But there was no trail labeled on it from where we now were – no ‘You are Here’ – no ‘this way to El Bruc’. The only thing the map did for us was confirm that we had been led astray; the first clerk’s drawing on the free map seemed to lead us in the exact opposite direction as El Bruc! Both of us were beginning to suspect that few travelers actually went down in the manner we had planned.

Back to Jacqui’s phone. Its contribution seemed the most consistent, so we decided to go with that and just set out. Unfortunately, her phone battery was going quickly, drained by the graphics used for mapping. Following the phone directions we went back up the stairs, reached another set of stairs (at least this was something new) and then a sort of outdoor shrine that had signposts in front of it. We both recognized ‘Saint Cecelia’ from the first clerk’s directions and joyfully congratulated ourselves on finding some vague validation.

Off we tramped in that direction. Happily, there were other travelers also going in that direction – more validation. I joked with Jacqui that, if we got safely back, I might have to convert to Catholicism. My feet were beginning to ache a bit, but I was still able to joke at this point, even though we had done a lot of walking (for me) just to get this far. Plus, I had my pain meds to back me up later.

As the crowd began to thin out, we checked Jacqui’s phone again. By now she was turning it off between map checks to conserve the battery. This frugality pleased me. I so did not like the idea of being out in the wilderness without a way to contact help. True, I had just had an ECG at home, and my heart was pronounced fine, but I do have high blood pressure and can get quite overheated and short of breath. I kept reminding myself that everything would be fine; Jacqui was only eleven years younger and did not seem worried at all.

Then we came to a fork in the road. One way went straight on a more rugged looking, seldom traveled path and the other was a steep paved incline that seemed to disappear over the top of the mountain. As we stood at the fork in uncertainty, I heard a voice calling, ‘Jacqui! Ginna! Hola!’ Surprised to be recognized in this foreign environment, we searched for the source of the greeting and found Nel, a newly-arrived resident at Can Serrat who seemed friendly and helpful from the start. Excellent! Nel was an experienced hiker and climber and had done Montserrat before. What luck!

Nell told us that the road up the mountain was the one down which she had just come. Therefore, we should take the path toward Collbato (the exact opposite of previous advice from others) down the more lonely-looking trail. She also told us to look for yellow arrows, which, we later learned, were there to mark the trail up for local pilgrims visiting the monastery.

Thanking Nel, we headed down the smaller path. We soon came to a sort of clearing where there appeared to be two possibilities. One was a path that seemed to lead straight down the cliff-side with a yellow arrow pointing up, and what looked like a dead end at a small wooden fence. My feet were starting to throb a bit, and I was feeling that eleven year age difference. My anxiety level was still manageable, though, thank God. I would hate to burden my new friend with handling a panic attack.

We talked it over. The fact that the yellow arrow was pointing to where we already were seemed to me to tell us this was not the path. I mean, arrows are a pretty universal symbol, with the ‘pointy end’ being the way to go. Suddenly, a local pair of hikers came along, seeming to head toward what we had thought was a fence. On an impulse, we stopped them, and spoke/gestured our question: ‘Collbato? – go to El Bruc?’

The man of the couple answered emphatically, ‘No aquesta adreça – Collbato’ and pointed back where we had met Nel. Jacqui and I looked at each other in amazement.
How could so many people tell us so many different ways? I sighed. She brushed some stray hair out of her face and said, ‘Well, let’s keep going then.’ After thanking the Catalonian couple, we forged ahead. Back to the upward incline.

Looking back, I believe this is the point at which I sincerely started to doubt my ability. I have been exercising at home for a few months now, and I’ve lost a bit of weight since I started eating vegan. Still, I’m a college professor and a poet – not the most athletic of careers, and I have a foot issue that plagues me on a daily basis. The paved road Nell had come down was quite steep, and I soon found my pace slowing and my breathing becoming more labored. Jacqui reassured me that we could go as slowly as I needed to. She also pointed out that we had walked a good distance even before we started the official downward journey, or, as she put it, ‘we did so much mucking about in the beginning.’ She was being such a sport about having to drag along with a rather cumbersome companion.

The worst part about that steep climb was that we were still heading in the WRONG direction. We met another climber coming down that path, and, in spite of the misdirection we had gotten from almost everyone on this adventure, Jacqui decided to try one more time. This fellow spoke a bit more English, and assured us that we should go back to that ‘fence’ – which was actually a small gate – and follow the path from there. At this juncture, we found out, too, that the yellow markings were to guide pilgrims and hikers up to the monastery from Collbato. Thus, they would all be pointing in the opposite direction for us but would be a reliable sign.

By the time we actually got onto the correct path, my feet were in pretty bad shape. I was also melting in the July Mediterranean sun; I was discovering that I had not dressed well for what was turning into a quest to get off the mountain. I had on jeans, an undershirt and a T-shirt, a cardigan tied around my waist and a heavy bag to carry. I had also finished my first bottle of water. Jacqui was much better equipped in shorts and a tank top, and didn’t seem to need much water.

Shortly, I spotted the first of the yellow arrows painted onto the rock surface to our right. ‘Yellow, yellow!’ was all I said. Jacqui turned back to look at me with a grin. ‘Well done, Ginna – I didn’t spot it at all.’ And then, I suppose realizing the significance of the finding, we gave each other a ‘high five.’ At least now it seemed to me that we might get there eventually.

The bad news was that the path here was extremely rocky – perhaps stony is a better adjective – and every time I planted a foot down I had to be slow and careful or I would lose my footing. Keep in mind, too, that losing one’s footing could mean a headlong tumble down the side of the mountain. Even Jacqui slid on a loose rock a few times. We joked about being mountain goats, or Heidi and Peter from Johanna Spyri’s classic tale. I suspected Jacqui was consciously trying to keep my mind off my pain and fear; at one point she asked me how my partner Marilyn and I had met. It is a romantic story I love to tell, but I had to beg off from talking to concentrate on moving my feet forward safely.

At about the time we were struggling to stay on this narrow, unstable goat path, a runner went flying past. Yes, you read that correctly – a runner! I could barely walk safely without plunging down, and this young girl was running. Jacqui and I exchanged looks of wonder. In one way it was encouraging that she could do that; however, knowing the toll this activity must take on this athletic young person’s bones and joints was a bit troubling. Dancing through injuries and on dodgy surfaces was a large part of why I had arthritis at fifty-eight and only in my feet. A ‘head-shaking’ experience: watching this runner bound down the mountain over the stony landscape.

On we plodded. The more tired, hot and in pain I became, the lower my energy level and spirits sank. Jacqui kept pointing out the next landmark down the mountain, saying, ‘See, Ginna – we’ll be there in just a bit. Think how far we’ve come.’ I knew she was saying this to keep me motivated, but truthfully all it did was add to my doubt and anxiety. The next landmark to which she referred seemed miles away from my vantage point; the end of the quest felt impossibly distant. I didn’t say this to my companion yet, but I knew I would have to get a taxi when we finally reached Collbato. There was no way I could trudge another two hours or so back to Can Serrat. If I lived to see flat ground again, I was up for no more walking that day!

Occasionally, we had the luck of a stretch of more dirt than rock, or at least rock that was solid and didn’t slide under our feet. At one of these points, we sat down to rest, and I decided it was time to take my pills. I still had more than half of my second water bottle left. Perched precariously on a large stone and stretching my legs for a moment, I rummaged through my canvas bag feeling for the plastic container of pills. Couldn’t find it. Jacqui suggested that I dump the contents out on the ground; we needed a break anyway. I did so – to no avail. No pill container – no meds – no relief. I wanted to cry. I knew what a difference it would make in my foot pain, and thus in my overall energy level and motivation. But it wasn’t to be. And that was that.

Now the only thing to do was push on bit by bit. Sometime after the no-med incident, Jacqui started scouting out the next stretch of trail from time to time so I could prepare my strategy and psych myself up for it. As my fearless leader, I thought of her as Captain Kirk from the Starship Enterprise and said as much out loud. She knew the Star Trek references well and decided that I must then be Scottie. Jacqui contributed, ‘Ginna, I bet you wouldn’t mind a quick beam-up about now.’ We both laughed, which was invigorating. The mountain hadn’t beaten me yet.

I was not defeated, but I felt fairly beat-up physically; we had been walking for about three hours by the time we began to see the houses below us in Collbato. Jacqui kept trying to cheer me up by pointing out the ‘nearness’ of the houses, although they still looked like toy houses to me. Still, it was some sign of civilization. Those people in those houses were certainly not near enough to be of any help, though; it was still just Captain Kirk and Mr. Scott alone on the unknown landscape. Or perhaps two cowboys in an old black and white Western film, trying to make it alone in the desert after running from the law. I could certainly relate to the concept of having to push on when it didn’t seem possible, as the alternative was to perish in the midst of the wilderness. I could almost imagine myself as the injured of the pair, clutching my gunshot wound and saying, ‘Tex, you gotta go on without me…’ in a desperate tone. I wanted to carry on, but my feet were protesting mightily.

We were taking frequent breaks now at Jacqui’s urging, after a spell of shortness of breath on my part. She joked that she had not brought any clothes to Spain suitable for a funeral, and she wasn’t planning to attend any. I fretted that she was having to go so slowly on my account, and said as much, but she assured me that she was enjoying the view (which was spectacular) and not to worry. By now, I had no choice but to take breaks often; I was overheated and dehydrated, although Jacqui insisted she was doing fine. For about the hundredth time, I was so grateful that I was not alone and that the person with me was so gracious and understanding.

In fact, at about this point, Jacqui suggested I take off some of my extra clothing and roll up the legs of my jeans. I knew this would help, but I hated to see her burdened with more of my problems. Soon, though, my T-shirt, sweater and bag were handed over to ‘Captain Kirk’ and I moved on in just my undershirt. Losing the extra covering and the heavy bag helped exponentially, but I felt guilty that my new friend was toting the whole load. Well, it was what it was. And we pushed on down the rocky trail. As Scottie, I said in my best Scottish accent, ‘She can’t take much more! Look out, Captain, she’s gonna blow!’ We both managed another laugh as I slowly planted each painful step.

We seemed to have developed a system to keep me going; slow pace, advance scouting, frequent rests, and encouragement from my ‘captain’. Eventually, though the path itself was still rocky, we began to encounter trees along the path that I could use for balance. Each time I could hold on to a tree branch, it was easier to find the next safe step down. I had run out of water, but Jacqui insisted she did not feel dehydrated at all, and she saved the last bit of her water for me if I needed it. And those houses were getting closer; I could spot a swimming pool or two and children’s playground items. My spirits lifted a bit, even though my muscles and joints were screaming.

There were a few other travelers now, which was indeed comforting. One young local hiker who looked well-equipped for the climb asked us if we were alright by doing a thumbs-up with a questioning look on his face. I answered frankly – all attempt at faking it gone – that, no, I was not alright. I thought maybe, at that reply, he would offer me some water or something, but he just passed right on down the trail. Jacqui and I exchanged a puzzled look: why did he ask then? Oh, well, you never know what makes folks do what they do…

With the widening of the path and the appearance of trees came more large rock formations in the side of the mountain. One arched nook that we found was such a ready-made photo background that we stopped and took each other’s picture standing by the mountain face. I found myself able to strike a casual pose, although the hand that carelessly touched the rock in the photo was helping to keep me standing. Jacqui, of course, looked smiling and energetic through the lens of my camera. We both agreed that if we were willing and able to stop and play ‘tourist with a camera,’ I must be doing a bit better.

And I was. I think the adrenaline rush of believing I would make it down after all was pumping up my ability to overcome my physical state. I knew I would hurt tomorrow, and could just picture the bottle of pain meds sitting on my dresser back in my room at Can Serrat. I could also picture the town of Collbato, a cold drink, and a taxi ride that would deposit us right at our door. Jacqui assured me that this crazy quest had not been a mistake, even though we had sometimes felt like Frodo and Sam abandoned in Mordor. In fact, she planned to do it again with her partner who was coming from Australia later in the month. And we were almost in Collbato, still spotting the backward yellow arrows.

We came to a signpost informing us that we were now leaving Monserrrat Parc Naturals, and I grinned at Jacqui in spite of my pain. I was relieved, grateful and happy to walk on regular flat ground! Unlike my friend, I felt no need or desire to return to Montserrat as a climber, but I was rather proud of my ability to hang in there.

Seeing a paved road with houses and a sidewalk felt like a miraculous experience. I imagined Frodo and Sam returning to the Shire after destroying the One Ring. Or that injured B-movie cowboy making it to a town with a country doc to bind his wound and give him a shot of whiskey for the pain. I realized that a beer and the ability to sit down might truly be in the cards. And, in fact, there at the end of the street in Collbato was an outdoor cafe where people were enjoying a drink and a chat.

Spying the cafe at the same moment, Jacqui said, ‘See those chairs, Ginna? One of them has your name written right on it.’ I agreed that this was an excellent plan.

We soon made it to the cafe and went inside. The server behind the bar spoke a bit of English and seemed to accept our minimal attempts at Catalan. We both had much needed cold water, and I couldn’t resist the temptation of a draft Estrella. Probably the best beer I had tasted in quite a while! Luckily, we had enough cash between us to pay for the drinks and a taxi ride home, which the sympathetic clerk soon arranged for us.

As the taxi was supposed to arrive in deu minuts, I knew I had better get moving to be ready. Getting off the bar stool after the few minutes we had sat down was a feat, not to mention getting down the three steps out of the cafe. While I sat still, even for such a short time, my muscles had started to freeze in place; I’m sure I looked like a 90-year-old as I struggled with the steps.

Flat ground was easier to navigate, and I had no trouble walking to and getting in the taxi. The driver seemed a bit taken aback that we wanted to go such a short distance by taxi, but neither of us had enough Catalan or Spanish to tell even a part of the story. I told myself just to let it go; all that mattered was to get back to the house!

We arrived at Can Serrat, paid the driver and thanked her, and I trudged slowly inside. Jacqui offered to go upstairs and get me a glass of wine and my meds, which I agreed to – feeling a bit guilty and very grateful. We quickly apprised our housemates of the adventure we had experienced; I recovered sufficiently by dinner time to recount the bare bones of the tale with Jacqui’s help. I was happy to be free of Montserrat, though the view of it remains as magnificent as ever. With help from Captain Kirk, Scottie was well and truly beamed up

© 2015 Ginna Wilkerson


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Bio: Ginna Wilkerson completed a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at University of Aberdeen in 2013, also the year of publication of her first poetry collection, Odd Remains. She received a 2012 Poetry Kit Award for the poem ‘Dimensions’. Currently, she teaches writing at Ringling College of Art and Design, and is working on a mixed media project and a young adult novel.


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