Monte Corbaro, Italy – December 29, 2016
I wake in the dark and pack before the stars disappear. The first ten minutes between peeling away the sleeping bag and taking steps are hell, but then it’s all bliss and time robbed back from the night.
The path is good. It’s follow-the-river boring with roads spilling out noise from one side or the other, but it’s flat enough to walk on autopilot and watch sunlight settle in and stretch down the valley walls. I’m still in the Alps, but I’m low, deep down a valley, safe from the cold, snowy peaks.
In a few hours, I’ve cycled through the usual thoughts, the mistakes I’ve made in life, the different paths I could have taken, the jobs I could have worked, the money I didn’t make, the girlfriends I might have married, then I’m bored. My feet hurt too. The pads feel a little loose, like they’re going to have the audacity to blister after three thousand miles. I call them traitors in my head and walk stubbornly on after fiddling with my socks.
The river curves and bends and spills into Lake Maggiore. I spill with it, a little dull from the day, slow, like a car that lost its top gear. Houses, hotels, and restaurants crowd along the shore. The trail evaporates into sidewalks and shoulders. I walk along, wanting something more, but not wanting it enough to climb back up the mountains. They are tall and steep and the thought of fighting up them in the late afternoon makes my legs feel heavy. I want stay on autopilot and drift forward. Another sidewalk ends, cars and roads stretch forward, autopilot blinks off.
I compromise and pick a route that takes me halfway up the slope and contours along mountainsides. I tell myself it will be little villages, the lake below, and not a lot of traffic. It turns out to be a stubborn climb on tired legs, walking in the dark up a road, and a closed trail halfway to where I am going.
I glare at the sign like it has done me personal harm. I know what it says without translating, but I translate anyway, just to be sure. In all three languages, the trail is closed.
I sit on a bench to eat a chocolate bar and stare out at the lights below in the darkness. Lake Maggiore curves below like a Norwegian fjord, its banks a sea of lights that ebb and flow up the side valleys. Cars race along the highways, a moving stream of white and red. A few ships cross the black water, floating across the surface like satellites drifting in space. It’s a chaotic tangle of humanity rendered into quiet points of light by distance and night.
But the trail is still closed. I break off pieces of chocolate and stare. I could just go anyway. What is a piece of paper to my feet? In the dark, no one would know. A flash of car lights catch me. I feel a bit like a wild animal caught in the beams. The small village is almost empty, but a couple gets out. They speak English and he says he saw me walking earlier. I ask about the trail.
Is it closed closed or is it just closed?
It’s not closed, he says.
But what about the sign?
No, it’s not closed. But don’t go at night. It’s too dangerous at night. The day is fine, but not at night. There are cliffs and ravines at night. You’re going to Luino? Just go back down to walk along the shore. What’s in Luino?
I am actually going to Spain.
He shakes his head.
Spain is not that way, he says.
But I’m not a bird, I answer.
The words come out with more frustration than I want to show. I want to go down the trail anyway. Day and night don’t matter. The steps are all the same.
The man tells me again how dangerous it is. I nod and think people are just afraid of the dark. There is no difference between a headlamp and the sun at ten feet. I hesitate. This is why I hate asking for advice. I hate ignoring it in front of someone’s face even when I’m sure it is wrong.
I decide to go anyway, but then my feet turn and walk backwards toward the junction that would take me down to the lake. I want to scream at them. What are you doing? I decide to never ask advice about routes again.
I look at the trail sign, at the lake shore, at the trail sign again. The man and his wife disappear into their house along the road. I think of sneaking past in the dark. I look at the sign again. There is a another trail, another option. I could go up. I look back down the road to the man’s house and the lights glowing in the window. He didn’t say anything about going up.
I climb in the darkness. My breath clouds in the cold as the trail switchbacks up the mountain into a fog. My feet don’t hurt anymore, not once I started climbing. My mind settles in, my body feels fresh. Old men and warnings about the dark night might as well be rocket fuel. Three thousand miles wears you down, but it builds an edgy pride too.
The lights along the lakeshore blur into an indistinct glow as I rise through the fog, tracing the trail through fallen leaves. It snakes up then contours along the slope, slowly rising to a pass with a small church, closed for winter.
The fog is all around me there. Drifting past the buildings. I think of camping, but I think of the mountaintop more. I climb up the ridge, the trees thinning, shrinking and disappearing. Condensation freezes my beard into icy strands. I climb higher, my headlamp a cone of light in the darkness.
The fog fades as I rise, thinning until it can’t hold back the stars. I shut off my headlamp at the peak and stare. Shadowy mountains hang like islands in the distance, rising above the thin sheet of fog. Stars burn above, brighter for knowing that I alone can see them. The world is all magic, just visible enough for imagination to fill the shadows. It’s all quiet and peace, given over to those who do not fear the dark.
A few hundred steps later, I cross the Italian border.