Not forty minutes after wrapping up class in Pollenzo, in one of the old castles of the semi-French kings who once ruled much of Italy, Amanda and I were on the road north to their former hunting grounds, now a national park named Gran Paradiso. Who knows how the Savoys got up there. Horse and buggy? Hot air balloon? We drove a rented Fiat Panda, automatico. (I haven’t worked a manual since the summer of ’00, when my pal Curt and I wreaked havoc on the clutch of a 1990 Chevy pickup during a cross-country drive in which we delivered someone’s armoire from Greenwich, CT to Portland, OR, by way of Provo, UT for reasons I can’t quite recall.)
For the drive, Amanda had procured several delicate slabs of focaccia, both with ample doses of olive oil, one with artichoke, the other with tomato. We split the former as we hurtled through Torino at 130km/h, the going rate even at rush hour on a Friday, and the latter as we left the A5 toward Aosta, up in the mountains now with the temperature dropping, and enough olive oil on the Panda’s steering wheel to power a vinaigrette. We paid 21 Euros for the pleasures of the Autostrada. Gas hovered at 7 dollars a gallon.
I’d downloaded a trail book - British by the looks of it - onto my aging iPad, so Copilot Murray assessed the hikes (which the book called “walks”) while I followed our GPS and several puffy RVs up a narrow road. There were plenty of reasons to not look at the road: firs and larches, shadows and sun, a haltingly beautiful river. Signs for the mountain towns: Vieyes, Epinel, Cogne, Lillaz. Somehow I’d ended up in Italy with Taylor Gentry’s copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind, so the CD player blared an incongruous soundtrack.
The Savoy were a rather French-speaking lot, murkying the bloodlines and borderlands, so the signs in these parts are bilingual, a welcome sight for my tiny mind, which can still grok some sophomoric French but spews out Castillian, or static, or a meek “Ciao” when I ask it for Italian. Deftly decoding bienvenue à Cogne, we found a parking spot near the river. Up in these parts, you call a river a torrente. They drain the snow and ice rimming the mountaintops. In the summer, they rush. From the river in Cogne you could get a great view of our Fiat Panda, now unburdened of tote bags, backpacks, two hiking poles and a battered Klean Kanteen. From the parking lot, we ascended into town via an elevator. Next to a church, we bunked. The hotel provided free brown flip flops and apples. The church provided bells every 15 minutes. Nevertheless, sleep came quickly; it had been a long week.
At breakfast we boiled eggs in a machine that looked like a toaster filled with water. There was a French flag on it. Amanda and I usually boil eggs for 8 minutes, but a wee note counseled 10. Water boils at lower temperatures up here, so you gotta cook things longer. (For every 500 feet or so, the boiling point drops about a degree.) We were 1534m up, about a mile above the sea, and the air up here was light and fresh. After a week of 95° weather down in grape country, this was like climbing into a waterfall of crisp glacial wind, which makes little sense as a metaphor, but it also made no sense why there were not more people here. Apparently Italians all vacation in August; avoid every part of Italy in August.
South of town, our morning hike/walk led us through a lovely wood. Or rather up through a lovely wood. Let’s begin again: our trail led us thrup a lovely wood. A few Italians plodded thrup too. Waterfalls roared. Cool wind swirled. In many places we saw our tiny village below, framed in a valley of green, bisected by a torrent of blue-grey water. Whoever made this park did a bangup job of curating the flowers, as we easily bagged every color of the rainbow by the time we dragged ourselves, two hours later, into a clearing up at 2216m elevation. We did not spurn the spur trail, and were glad for its lookout.
Climbing past a field of rocks, we reached Lago di Loie by noon. Pond-sized, blue-green, very clear, rimmed by long grass and picnicking Italians. No one was swimming, and I’d forgotten my trunks, but I decided my underpants looked vaguely like what an Italian man might wear to the beach, so in I went. Some 2 seconds after entering the water, a message appeared in my mind: please remove yourself from this water. I obeyed; it was less of a swim, more of a baptism by ice. The trees and Italians watched passively from their perches.
It’s been said that the woods are best when one goes in with a goal. I’ve gone that route—gone hunting, filming, orienteering, mushrooming, silviculturing. You see things you mightn’t otherwise when you’re searching for something, or operating within constraints. Trekking a 6.5 mile loop in the Italian Alps is a kind of goal, but we lacked a search, and frankly I found it entirely pleasant. How rare, to let the body and mind ramble under sunshine, only constrained by how long the sun would shine. I wondered whether the Kings of Savoy were under the gun to quickly slay some ibex and get back to town for their royal suppers. In the heart of the ibex, Amanda told me, there’s a small cross-shaped bone.
For lunch, we’d procured some favorable rations: several slabs of cheese pilfered at breakfast, a cucumber, a saucisson, and some miraculous honey we’d hauled up from the Piedmont. The food options in Cogne are, typically, Italian. Italian restaurants serving Italian food. Granted, there’s more of an Aostan influence here, a dash of the mountains, and the French, but you wouldn’t call it diverse. You won’t find congee in Cogne, any more than New Horizons will find pluots on Pluto.
Two gents strolled up during our pranzo asking if the trail eventually looped back to town. I nodded, pointing west, and he explained that he wanted to drink a bottle of wine, so the assurance of a return to civilization was most welcome. Off they went. The sky was full blue. If for a moment you felt the sun’s heat, a sudden swish of glacial breeze would bring you back to IHT, or Ideal Human Temperature. Gran Paradiso’s ability to grant IHT at every turn made me shake my head in wonder: that King was a fool to give up his hunting grounds. Did he know Americans were going to prance about on his game trails in their underpants?
Leaving the lake behind, Amanda and I descended over scrabbly scree into a green valley. There’s no way around saying that it was lush. Not a bad place to be a cow. (None were in sight, but their patties were partout.) From there the trail hooked left, suddenly tracing the edge of another fabulous torrente, somehow clearer and bluer than the last. It was at this point that I wished I could place this entire day in a little jar, maybe an old honey jar, rinsed good and clean. I’d keep the jar nearby, and whenever darkness fouled my spirits, I’d open it for a whiff of happiness, a gentle wander through the wild with the one I love.