“We should get out of the city, breath some fresh air, get to know the mountains’ winter”, said Michele last Friday night. Within just a few euphoric minutes, we had booked an Air BnB in the middle of the Gran Sasso National Park, on the Apennines of the Abruzzo region. Little over 2 hours of driving away from Rome the next morning, the landscape had changed dramatically. Our euphoria had turned into contemplation. No music was playing in the car. This is what we were craving: silence and wild.
On the road, off we go to the Apennines!
The roads started getting narrow and empty as we approached the little town of Castelli. On our right side stood a tall wall with signs of landslide here and there. On the left, Castelli was visible from a certain distance, looking like a mystical refuge. The rustic buildings stood on top of a hill with the white-peaked mountains as the background and a deep forested valley underneath. As we walked towards the small historic center, things got quieter and quieter, to the point of lifting the hairs on the back of my neck. Vases of flowers were broken on the floor, walls were cracked, a bloated dead pigeon was stretched out on the pavement with ice still attached to its feathers from the last snowfall. Everything was still. Even the wind blowing at the hilltop had stopped. It was like a ghost city suspended in time.
We entered the only open restaurant in town still weirded out by our first glimpse of Castelli. An elder couple sat on a front table across the TV and held the remote control. An entire family sat on another table chatting with the young waitress. It felt like we had entered someone’s living room. After a plate of pappardelle, we were participating in the conversation and being educated about the strange status of the ghost city center. The waitress hadn’t been able to enter her house since a 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit this region in 2009. Her small hands gestured fiercely into the air as she shared her frustration with us. Last August, another strong earthquake shattered the remaining houses at the city center and shattered also the last bits of hope she still had regarding going back home. The family on the nearby table had been living in a hostel for months and had no hopes of returning home anytime soon either. They had been coming to this restaurant for every meal because their provisory home has no kitchen. Despite the sadness of the situation, they seemed excited to talk to us, having seen practically no tourists in the region since last August. How precious it was realizing that simply being there as tourists was an open door for these people to gift us with glimpses of their lives, sharing their emotions, frustrations, and stories with us over a plate of pasta.
Fabrizio, our host for the weekend, came to meet us by the road where we left the car in order to hike further up the mountain to a place that can only be reached by foot: his home. We hiked some 300 meters uphill through snow and lots of mud, holding on to trees trunks to get through the many slippery bits. His house is a small and cozy hut with stone walls and a little chimney emanating vapor, surrounded by trees and the view of mountain tops. The sounds of bells greeted us as we reached the entrance. Fabrizio raises 17 goats right underneath his house, and they were curious about the newcomers, shaking the bells that hang from their necks in unison as they moved closer. Georgia, his favorite, was looking at us curiously from the limits of the wire wall, her pupils square and attentive. It was raining by now, and the cold intensified as our socks got humid from the snow that managed to slide inside our hiking boots.
Hiking up to Fabrizio’s house
Finding colors and patterns on the floor
That little hut in the middle of the mountain offered all comfort one could hope for. It was strikingly warm inside, thanks to a vintage oven lit by wood standing prettily on a corner. Dry herbs collected by Fabrizio during summer were hanging from the roof, creating a natural incense of eucalyptus and rosemary. Big clean windows allowed the trees, raindrops, and mountains outside to become part of the decoration. As tempting as it was to just stay inside, we were overexcited to be surrounded by wild and went on a little hike nearby to get to know the area.
Fabrizio led us to a panoramic view where the road we had come from greeted us from the North, and the massive walls of the Camicia mountain greeted us from the South. The floor was mainly covered by sparkling snow, and I squinted my eyes because of the clarity it emanated even on a cloudy rainy day. We heard wood crackling nearby, Fabrizio’s accustomed ears quickly identified the sound as a family of wild boars passing by. It felt official at that moment: we were really there, surrounded by the nature of the Gran Sasso National Park. My senses slowly started to tune into this kind of place and energy. To silence, to calmness, to stillness, to the smell of earth and rain and fresh air.
Contemplating the view of our first hike
Baby goats cuddling early in the morning
Some of the goats seemed so smart and friendly, it felt like they were actually posing for photos
Fresh milk from Georgia, the goat, on the natural fridge that is Fabrizio’s backyard
Next morning, after milking the goats and drinking immense mugs of black tea, we dressed our many layers of clothes and headed towards the Camicia mountain. With our senses now more refined, we paid attention to sounds, smells, and footprints left by animals around us. To my surprise, it took no time until we were walking on a clear trail of a pack of wolves. The idea both excited and scared me to the bones. Some of the paws imprinted on the snow were as big as my hand! I have this fascination with wolves since reading Clarissa Pinkola Estès’ ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’. These animals inspire wisdom and spirituality -the wild, deep, and ancient kind of spirituality that makes my heart feel very much alive. To our luck (I suppose), we only saw footprints. I felt many times like we were being observed, even though it is almost certain that we were the only people in those parts of the mountain on that sunny Sunday morning. I felt at once dangerously exposed and safely escorted by something powerful and beautiful.
The start of the hike up the Camicia mountain
Michele rocking the hobbit look
We hiked up the mountain until we saw a trace of an avalanche from days before our arrival. Fabrizio estimated that we were walking over some 20 meters of snow. The parts of the trees we could touch were the tree tops, some just barely exposed. The higher up the mountain, the more obvious was the energy change. The many feelings evoked by the wild are one of the greatest rewards of exposing oneself to this kind of experience. I felt something similar to when I am in the ocean, a mixture of great admiration and awe with great respect and fear. How immense are the world’s natural monuments; How powerful; How much energy; How small are we humans in comparison; How awkward we move in the snow; How weak we are, physically speaking, comparing to the animals that roam around here. And yet how capable we are to feel and think deeply and greatly. Breath in, breath out, and I continued walking with my heart pumping on my throat as I carried these thoughts closer and closer to the clouds.
I bent down to touch the wolves’ tracks that were suddenly visible all around us
How exciting and scary to touch the fresh footprint of a wolf
Reaching the Fondo della Salsa Valley; approximately 1.280 meters above sea level
A somewhat improvised outfit that kept the snow (that sometimes went up to my knees!) from getting inside my boots
As we started walking back down I felt grateful. Grateful for having come to the mountain, and grateful to be able to leave. Being somewhere powerful and grandiose can be highly uncomfortable. Being exposed to great energy is often highly disturbing. Natalie Goldberg said: “whenever I wrote something great, my heart was breaking into pieces”. I understand that whenever I am experiencing something greatly powerful, such as being a testimony to nature’s intense and enveloping beauty.
Later that day, we drove back into the city mostly in silence. We had come to the mountains for silence and fresh air, and we certainly had a fair amount of that in just two days. Letting the experience sink in is a whole different story. Allowing ourselves to follow that initial “we should”, spoken unpretentiously on a Friday night, felt wonderful and adventurous. We’ve come this far, we’ve exposed ourselves to the new, to the wild, to the natural. Now what? Now the challenge is allowing the state of acute sensibility to remain within us while going back to our routines. Now we remember and appreciate nature’s wisdom even from the synthetic concrete jungle we have come to call home. That is the true challenge and also the true gift of travelers who seek to travel deeper.
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