The Hike

“...the sea's only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don't know much about the sea, but I do know that that's the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.” P. Levi

I found it funny that the question my children asked me most throughout the trip was, “When are we going to the beach?” Even though for the entire year prior they saw me spend my time hiking and mountain biking in preparation for the 14 km trail from Monterosso to Riomaggiore.

This wasn’t going to be a relaxing beach trip feeding seagulls cheesy poofs while lounging oceanside with a margarita, but I think they underestimated how much mental fortitude would be required of them to climb the hundreds of stone steps and navigate the weathered trails in 100 degree heat. 

The purpose of this grueling task was to bond and inspire us to work together as a family so that in the future, when we face the challenges of drugs, broken hearts, death, and the indifference of the world, we will remember the hike and work through those problems together too.

There were a lot of motivating speeches along this eight hour hike, but I remember popular cliches being repeated such as “mind over matter” and for my stepson it was “you’re only as fast as your slowest teammate.”  I also received several middle fingers as my family pretended I tricked them into this, but I smiled at each one and allowed as many water breaks as it took for us to finish. We could stop and rest frequently, and for as long as we liked, but no matter what, we were going to finish the hike as a family. 

Following a rough 11 AM start after a debut-night of heavy drinking 
in Riomaggiore, we began the hike after taking a train to Monterosso. We grabbed some local fresh fruit on our walk to the station in an attempt to fight off our hangovers, but nothing was going to stop me from completing this hike. Since we were just taking the train to Monterosso and then hiking back, we decided to purchase one way tickets for €7.50 a piece. If you’re planning to ride the train for the whole day and stop at each little town, then the Cinque Terre Pass is a better deal. 

We stopped at a boutique in Monterosso and picked up a kitten fedora for my daughter before setting out. I like to buy unique hats when we go on special trips because it helps me take a mental picture of that moment in time to better jog my memory later. She proudly wore the pink and tan fedora for the entire hike and even made up her own idea for a youtube channel called “Cat-Hat Travels Around the World.”  Hiking the trail itself was €5.00 per person, paid to a park employee who was sitting atop one of the mountains in a small wooden hut. Make sure to hold on to your receipt/ticket or you will be forced to pay the fee again at the next town along the trail.

I remember watching the gears turn in my sons head as he struggled with finding an excuse that would relieve him of this tortuous exercise. He settled on faking an injury, but his body was too exhausted to believably pull off such a performance. I explained that a helicopter wasn’t going to come for him, and that I believed in him and would stay by his side for every step. I received one more middle finger and we carried on.

On our travels along the Amalfi Coast we discovered sweeping seaside vistas, ancient bridges stretched over ponds full of tadpoles, vineyards for sale, abandoned shops destroyed by mudslides, an elementary school, freshwater falls we could drink from, a cat sanctuary, and cliff divers as we explored the coast and were regularly passed by elderly Italian women gripping their walking sticks.

We passed unique trees with their vines twisting in every direction, creating large holes for the light to shine through and connecting at the top where the leaves bloomed. My stepson said the trees reminded him of our family, a group of people on separate paths eventually coming together to become stronger, maybe there is a poet in him after all.

For my stepson, who plays soccer everyday and fights off ADD to sit still in High School, this hike was a breeze. He ran ahead to the towns along the way and then would run back to check on us and bring us water. There was also a man carrying a kennel full of puppies who we coincidentally kept running into and my stepson loved searching him out at each stop.

Initially, he tried to motivate his brother to keep up using intimidation and ridicule, but eventually learned that compassion and camaraderie were more persuasive if he ever wanted to be rewarded with gelato at the finish line. 

See, I told them that for each of the five towns that they made it to during the hike, they’d receive one additional scoop of gelato. This was a major motivating factor for my introverted and less-active honor-student son who distracted himself from the physical labor by reciting different flavors repeatedly throughout the hike. I’d turn the corner and hear him murmuring “cookie dough, mint chocolate chip, lemon, Gnutella” to calm his sun burnt body and mind. 

We stopped for lunch in Vernazza and made it just in time before the restaurant closed for the afternoon. Against my advice to stay dry, the kids loaded up on carbs and water and went for a swim in the nearby boat landing. I decided to choose my battles and let them learn about chafing the hard way, seeing as we were only at the halfway point. There was an outdoor shower so we washed off as much sand as possible, loaded up our backpack with their now waterlogged clothes, used the restroom, and continued on our hike.

We soon found out that due to a major landslide a few years ago, the Via dell'Amore trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola was permanently closed in addition to another landslide removing a portion of the trail between Corniglia and Manarola. Due to the trail closure we were forced to double back when we came to the locked warning gate. This would cut our hike a little short, but since those two trails only encompassed 3 km of the total distance, I was glad we started in Monterosso and completed the more difficult legs first. We took this opportunity to celebrate our accomplishment with some well deserved swimming in Manarola and hiked back to the train station to circumnavigate the mudslide blocking our way.

We made our way to the only boat launch in town and changed into our bathing suits using some precariously placed towels, while the locals sun bathed on the rocky surface. Most of the towns in Cinque Terre are defined by their cliffs, jagged rocks, and deep water, with Monterosso being the only place with a sandy beach. However, since we were in search of thrills, Manarola was the perfect finale for our long hike.

There was a pool ladder attached to one side of rocks with a rope tied to the cliffs on the other side and a 25' body of deep water between. All three of the kids enjoyed doing cannon balls off the shorter rocks, and my daughter even inspired an Italian girl to attempt a swan dive after seeing her fearlessly complete one on her first try. It almost gave me a heart attack, but she was simply following my advice not to hesitate or you could slip and hurt yourself.

I would have been content with just jumping off the smaller rocks, floating on my back while I stared up at the coastal town and falling sun over the water, but the hike had other plans. 

Soon after we arrived, another group of tourists joined us on the cliffs and struck up a conversation with my stepson who was searching for an adrenaline rush. They led him up the cliffs to a spot frequented by the locals, which was at least 30’ in the air. Before his Mom or I could plead with him to consider his actions, he leapt off the ledge and landed beyond our view. After a little while he swam around the edge of the rocks to wave at us, but that was a stressful minute for his mother.

I decided to climb up to the same spot and see exactly how high the ledge was, with no intention of jumping myself, but the minute I pulled myself up I was greeted by a group of 20 people wading in the water below. They started cheering and encouraging me to jump which put me in a pickle.

I stood up on that ledge for what felt like an eternity pondering my options and staring into the blue abyss 30' below. By this time, my stepson had joined the crowd in the water and saw me standing at the top of the ledge. I watched him venture into the middle of the group and start treading water, and I turned to see my wife shaking her head in disapproval. I looked at all the people with cameras on the shore focused on me and there was no turning back, but my legs were still glued firmly to the rocky outcropping.

That was when I heard my stepson.

“THAT’S MY DAD!” he said to the man swimming next to him, and then everyone started chanting, “LET’S GO DAD!”

This might not matter to people who constantly have that title, but my stepson has only called me Dad twice in his life, and the other time was when I married his mom. I took a deep breath, held my nose like a pansy, stared straight ahead, and jumped out as far as I could.

My back smacked the water like a hammer ringing the bell at a carnival and the sounds of “Ohhhhhh” echoed through the cove as I sank to the bottom like a brick, my exhausted legs kicked for the surface and I pondered how angry my wife would be at me for dying this way. I finally made it to a much needed breath of air as the crowd let out a roar to notify my wife that I was okay. My stepson swam over to high five me and afterwards I swam to the ladder to pull myself out of the water for the day. I said at the beginning of the trip that I didn’t want to waste time lying on a beach and preferred to jump feet first into foreign travel, I guess he made me eat those words. 

After accomplishing this long standing bucket list item I felt extremely fulfilled, but I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted so it was time for some gelato.

The hike taught my son that if he removed the mental blocks of his own self confidence then he can accomplish anything, it showed my wife that she’s not as old as she thinks, and it showed my stepson that neither am I, but mostly it taught my daughter that if we positively motivate each other as a family we can do anything as a team. 

I can’t wait until she returns in 20 years with her significant other and chastises them for slowing down, “I did this hike when I was eight, what are you complaining about?”

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