It is the fourth of June in the year 2007. We are walking northwest along a narrow ridge and a strong cold wind is belting my left side with rain. Just as well, I think, that we cannot see more than fifty yards downhill, in the cloud. It looks steep down there; precipitous, in fact. I am wondering whether the rain is going to turn to hail, or even snow.
This is not Labrador. We are fifty miles northeast of Rome and a mile above sea level, climbing Monte Cava in the Central Apennines, on one of our Sunday jaunts with the Club Alpino Italiano, Sezione Roma. Just ahead of me is my wife, Mary Jane, and beyond her I can see Antonello the orthodontist, and beyond him Alessandro, a banker on weekdays but today our Leader. The dozen others are behind us. Cristina, our second leader, is out of sight in the cloud, no doubt trying to keep the one laggard in the group from falling too far behind.
Tourists come to Rome and sweat and get sunburned and walk through the Forum and crowd into the Sistine Chapel and sit at cafes on noisy streets. Ah, but there is a different, cool, green world inland. One of the groups in the Apennines, perhaps forty miles from Rome, is the Monti Simbruini. The name comes from Latin “sub imbribus,” under the rain. There are places in these mountains that get eighty inches of precipitation a year, as much as the Great Smokies.
The Apennine world is admittedly not pristine. For over three decades the tunnels and long high viaducts of the Autostrada dell’Abruzzo have made these mountains easily accessible to city drivers. A number of villages have swollen with Romans’ weekend houses. The wolf is on the increase but hunters, and poachers, have long since killed every deer and chamois in most of these mountains.
It could have been much worse. When my wife and children and I first began to hike in the Apennines, in 1967, I told myself that I was glad to be here now because in thirty years these mountains would be ruined. The Italians were creating their postwar economic miracle and beauty and nature were low in priority.
Now forty years have passed. The mountains are not ruined. A Green movement grew up in Italy, and even though it has never sent many people to Parliament the Italians, or at least many educated and influential Italians, became environmentalists.
Forty years ago, the Abruzzo National Park was the only such park in central Italy. Developers were building hotels and villas on Park land in brazen violation of the law. Today, the hotels and villas have long since been seized by the law and torn down. Many new parks and reserves have been created. The new national parks are British- rather than American-style. The land remains in the hands of individuals and of the comuni, the towns and villages; but the important thing is that development is now tightly controlled: no more building in the parks. Hunting, too, is not the Sunday madness that it once was. (We lived once in a farmhouse outside Rome that was painted pink and so was quite visible. Still, on Sunday mornings we could hear buckshot ping on the walls.) It is true that a deer remains a rare sight in central Italy, but an even larger mammal, the brown bear, seems to be slowly increasing in numbers.
We never did get to the highest point on Monte Cava. Hiking in a cloud can be hard. Both our leaders had been here before, but in better weather. Before we ever got up on the Cava ridge we had gotten lost, and Alessandro and Cristina had finally decided, correctly, that to reach the ridge we needed to scramble for a half-hour up steep and slippery grass and then equally steeply up through a wood with wet, slippery leaves underfoot.
We stopped finally where a rough track ran down, not so steeply, from the ridge. We will vote on what to do, said Alessandro–and then I will make the decision–and by the way I know a place that serves lunch, if you don’t want to eat the sandwiches out of your packs.
Five minutes’ animated discussion, and we started down the track. In ten minutes we found ourselves in a peaceful little valley. Twenty horses were enjoying the green grass, and five little colts were with their mothers. There were many big beeches, groves and individual trees. The beech is the ubiquitous and noble tree of the Apennines, in the zone that lies between 1500 and 6000 feet above sea level. These beeches had a slightly different look from most. Above a point, say, five feet up each trunk the leafy limbs spread out widely. Lower down there were no limbs, but lots of shoots and smaller new branches. Here there had long been goats, the scourge of the forest, and they had eaten on the beeches as high as they could reach–about five feet. Now the goats were gone, and the trees could sprout at the bottom. Better yet, with goats gone beech seedlings could grow. Perhaps in a few more centuries this valley would again be a place of huge, majestic trees, as it must have been when humans first brought herds to the Apennines, five thousand years ago.
In an hour or so we had reached our cars, and soon we came to the isolated casale in the countryside where we could have lunch. It had been a brigands’ hideout in the 1860s but it was not unknown now; there were fifteen or twenty other diners when we came. It was a good thing we were hungry. The owners gave us tomato toasted on bread, little slices of eggplant toasted with cheese, then slices of cheese and ham, carafes of red wine and of water, a bean and pasta soup, pasta with a bacon and tomato sauce, two kinds of cooked beans plus barley, lamb chops grilled on the wood fire I could see in the kitchen, roast potatoes and cooked greens and salad, and finally cookies with coffee and a small glass of grappa. Alessandro and Cristina collected 22 euros from each of us and soon we were off to Rome.
The traffic was terrible from the Raccordo Anulare, the ring road, into the city. The temperature was twenty degrees higher than it had been on our ridge. The streets were thronged with people. And we had had a happy day.
All our Sundays with the CAI have been happy. Some are more difficult than others, some less. We have stood in sun on a seven-thousand foot ridge in the Monti della Laga, looking at the snows on the Gran Sasso, ten miles away and a half-mile higher, while all around us in the high meadow were white pansies and blue gentians and the tender spikes of yellow orchids. There was also a day on Monte Sirente when we walked gingerly in single file across a steep snowfield, and I slipped. I flipped onto my face and tried to dig in–and two friends grabbed me. If they had not done so, it would have been a long slide down the snow and onto rock.
The two of us have also gone to many places in these mountains alone, and in the old days with our children. My favorite place in all the Apennines is the Col di Vallevona, the high point, 5963 feet above sea level, on a ridge five miles long. There we can sit on an outcrop of white limestone and look out at a hundred miles of mountains, near and far. Now that I am turning seventy-five, it is practical and not morose to think where they might spread my ashes. In the wind, perhaps, on the Cima di Vallevona. The pollution resulting, my Green friends, will not be great.
[Thanks to Alessandro Ponti of the CAI, Sezione Roma, for the photographs.]
Peter Bridges is a former ambassador to Somalia and cofounder of the Elk Mountains Hikers Club in Colorado. He was born in New Orleans, grew up in Chicago, and studied at Dartmouth College and Columbia University. Aside from CLR, his articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in the “Christian Science Monitor,” “Foreign Service Journal,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Michigan Quarterly Review,” “Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London,” “Virginia Quarterly Review,” “Washington Times,” and elsewhere. Beyonce Net Worth