Tag Archives: Journeys

Climbing the Alto

9 May

It’s an early, gray sky morning and, the streets are empty.  I know where I’m going because yesterday I made a trial run, wandering up the Viale Guiseppe Verdi, past the the empty movie theater and darkened stores before turning to follow the contours of the Parco delle Terme.  Montecatini Terme is quiet and I soak in the gentleness of this unfamiliar town, the morning mist softening the border between antiquity and myself.

I’ve yet to find my rhythm.  Our hotel on the piazza has a grand, sweeping staircase, graced in its day by Verdi himself, but frequented now by my 9 year old daughter, newly fascinated by this introduction to infinity.  Ascending to our fifth floor room by a slow succession of right angles, we climb together this seemingly endless square, twelve stairs to a landing, thirty six to a floor. Over and over again. The challenge I have set myself to never use the elevator wobbles almost immediately as I chase her up and down, growing ever more aware of my age.

But this morning is mine.  My goal is the Montecatini Alto, the medieval village high above Montecatini Terme.  There is a funiculore, but it’s closed for the season and is now only a small station undergoing renovation at the base of the hill, its long stretch of track disappearing into the distance.  But along side is a road; more of an alley really, pavement giving way to gravel as it climbs past the last few houses to what I had hoped to find.  A trail.

It’s easy at first.  True, it is steep enough to affect my breathing, but there are wide, long steps running alongside a stone wall adorned at intervals by small shrines to the holy mother.  And there, far above, is the ancient fortress of the Alto.

The path turns and continues on its way as the ground slowly disintegrates into a wilderness of reddish stones.  Aspiring to gravel, it remains, at this point in it’s decay, a severe threat to the ankles.  Carefully, step by awkward step, I slowly make my way.  Looking upward, I think of my son.

He would hate this.  It would madden him with it’s pointlessness.  A phantom at my side, he proclaims to the hills:

“This sucks!”

“I know that, but here’s the thing,” I gently reply.  “Look up.  Is that not amazing?  In a matter of minutes we will be in that ancient town.  The views will be breathtaking.  This is how life works,” I say.  “You do something hard, and it makes you feel good.”

He is silent as we continue on.

“This is the secret,” I say, winded now.  “I’m trying to give this to you.”

The wind whispers through the surrounding trees.  I pick an olive from amidst the rubble, and then notice they’re everywhere.  Inedible, though.  Hard, uncured.

Almost as tall as me, I wonder if he will ever be as strong.  As patient.  I wonder if my father thought the same.

Slowly the way begins to ease.  Rocks become pebbles, the path takes a turn, and, surprisingly, I arrive, following the soft dusty path rising to the street that leads into the town.

It is early, few people are about and nothing is open.  Built of stone, the streets are narrow and veer off in precipitous directions.  A lone car passes slowly and after a moment disappears into this sinuous cobblestone world.  I follow, weaving my way, taking every upward turn as I continue to ascend, the fun house streets climbing and dropping all about me.

And then the world levels and opens a bit.  The sky and the surrounding countryside reappear, and I stand atop the remnants of this failed fortress whose alliances shifted with each new battle between the surrounding powers until being finally overrun by Florence and left in ruins by the soldiers of the Medici who, in all likelihood, had marched up the very same trail as I.

How many lifetimes ago?  In how different a world?

The trip down is harder than the ascent, gravity adding a new level of danger to the outsized rubble.  Also, I’m running late and promises have been made.  So I stumble along at speed.

The mist remains as the world levels and I descend into town.  Traffic’s picked up, dogs are being walked, a bus hisses past in the the morning gloom.  Two women in bright yellow windbreakers appear in the distance, out for a run, making their way through the streets I have yet to explore.

But there’s time for that later.  I need to keep moving if I’m going to make it on time.

On time For Heath, his complaints and concerns.

On time for Hallie and her games on the stairs.

On time for the coffee, which, truth be told, is the main reason I’m here.

And on time for Amy, her laughter, and all the joys of this journey shared.

 

Little Town

18 Sep

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I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.  — Laura Ingalls Wilder

Morning comes early, and South Dakota is empty.  Pull off on the side of the road, stand in the middle and take all the pictures you like.  No cars to the east and none to the west.  Just the sky, luminous and new.  But I’m hungry, and the diners are not leaping out at us.  Few people means even fewer restaurants and on this crack of dawn Sunday morning they are hiding themselves well.

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Thank god for Huron, home of the worlds largest pheasant, behind which Mom clocks a combined bowling alley/VFW hall with a little clump of cars parked out front.

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The Plains Dining & Recreation Center, whose breakfast menu includes The Haystack, The Hot One and of course, Klazy Eggs.  My diner instincts are good, but Mom’s the master, and sometimes the best cup of coffee is the only one you can find.

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A few miles further along we come to De Smet, South Dakota and the home of Laura Ingall’s Wilder.  The family’s final home, De Smet is the setting for Little Town on the Praire, The Long Winter, and These Happy Golden Years.  The house they rented upon their arrival is getting a new coat of paint this morning.

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While a couple streets away the house Pa eventually built stands quietly amidst more contemporary neighbors.

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But the land they homesteaded, just outside of town, is breathtaking.

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A memorial to the family and their times, it has a quiet dignity and a strong sense of the beauty to be found in everyday things.

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And the world they exist in.

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The Graveyard is not far, and we stop for a few minutes.

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We’re quiet, separating to explore.  The wind rustles the leaves, and after a time I follow Mom up the hill where we look beyond the graves to the surrounding farms.  And then, remembering the distance before us, we get back on the road, heading across Minnesota and into Wisconsin, where dinner is waiting with family of our own.

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