Many roads lead from Asturias south into the neighboring province of León, but only two are practical choices for traveling there from where I live in central Asturias: the old highway going over the Pajares pass, and the much faster, newer AP-66 expressway, a four-lane toll road that tunnels through the mountains instead of topping them and that is commonly called the Huerna for the river it follows. Bus lines and trucking companies favor the Huerna as the faster and safer alternative, as do businesspeople in a hurry to get somewhere and then get home again, or prudent people fearing the precipitous curves or steep grades of the old highway over the pass. That road, the N-630 highway, is the choice for anyone wanting the fantastic views from the heights, anyone who enjoys the thrill of the narrow twisting road, wants to avoid the toll, or is simply protesting a new way when you’ve got the good old way still in working order. That last reason is often why I prefer to take backroads, and it is my running partner’s too. At least from Asturias into León. It’s the way we drove one cold blustery weekend in late February, heading to a Sunday morning footrace in Valladolid. After two weeks of warm, sunny weather, a little wind and the chance of flurries were exciting, and we welcomed the snow that began to fall almost as soon as we took the exit for Pajares. My first snowfall of the year.

Snowplows and three cars were all the traffic we encountered. At the pass, the ground was white and the air was filled with fine, blowing snow. It was not a whiteout, but it was close enough to make my partner recall a trip a half century earlier when his mother and father, aunt and uncle, and he and his sister were returning from visiting relatives in Salamanca. Pajares is not the same road anymore: it’s wider, has pullouts when going up and ramps for runaway trucks when coming down. Nowadays, too, one knows what lies ahead on Pajares or at other places of interest because in addition to a weather report available on your phone, you can also tune in to any number of webcams situated at various points along your route. “Is it snowing or isn’t it?” you wonder, so you look at what lies ahead. What’s more, when conditions are bad, the highway patrol operates checkpoints at both ends of the road, turning travelers away if the road is impassable or if vehicles aren’t equipped with snow tires or chains. But 50 years ago, when you took a road, you were on your own. My partner recounted that on that particular trip over the pass in the dark of a winter evening, the mix of swirling snow and mist was so thick you could not see even three feet ahead. With deadly drop-offs and 17-percent grades, it wasn’t safe. My friend’s uncle got out of the car and walked just in front, one hand on the hood, providing an indication of where the road led. The trouble was that the snow already hid the outlines of the road and hillside, and not even advancing on foot guaranteed that you were on safe ground. It would be so easy to steer blindly over the precipice.

That did not happen. Instead, the uncle led the car down from the pass along the many kilometers of twisting, snowy road, climbing aboard again before they reached the village of Campomanes at the bottom. He must have walked nine of the 20 kilometers from the top. This was a hard-working family that wasn’t easily unnerved. Nothing soft about them. If six of you needed to fit in the car, then you squeezed in. If you had to get home so you could work the next day, then you did. If getting there required walking over the pass, then you walked. If it took all night, it took all night. Those were different times. I wonder, though, had they known the conditions on the pass that evening, would they have attempted the drive? Perhaps yes. To get anywhere in life, you had to take your chances. The family, it turned out, was to experience a good share of tragedy on the road in the years ahead. A cousin took a bull to market on a rainy day when an oncoming car crashed into him, cutting both his legs in half. He survived and even kept the use of his limbs, but was left with a decided limp on his patched-together legs. Such an accident was a terrible setback for the family, but worse was in store. Soon after, this man’s brother, having paused in the road to make a left-hand turn, was killed when he was rear-ended and knocked into the path of an oncoming car. Then their father, years after his two sons had suffered their accidents, was riding in a car whose driver nodded off and drove into a ditch, killing this passenger while hurting no one else. Another relative was run down at a crosswalk where an enemy, knowing his daily walk, waited for him. A godson suffocated from an asthma attack while driving. Who says lightning never strikes twice, let alone five times?

Car accidents, however, are not random events but can be predicted. Pajares is the most dangerous road in Asturias and the ninth most dangerous in the country, according to a study published in 2016. If you drive it enough, you will have an accident. If you travel by car, you will be in an accident.

Not even lightning strikes, for that matter, are random. Some areas get more than the usual share of electrical activity, as some people have more than the usual share of bad—or good—luck. That night, the family got home safely, as has my running partner all of the thousands of times he’s taken the pass, including when I was along. Getting home safely is what everyone counts on, despite statistics. Statistics tell us what to expect but not what will happen. For that information, we have no webcam into the future. We can only drive on, sometimes blindly. Something always happens. If you’re lucky enough to have a view while you’re finding out what it is, enjoy it!

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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