“Let me go first in case there are snakes,” he said nonchalantly, “I’ll see them.”
The sun blazed overhead as I felt my skin burning. Snakes? Did I hear that right? This was not what I had signed up for. It was supposed to be a simple morning hiking in Sulmona up Colle Mitra to the iron cross that stands guard over the town. That cross had been mocking us for almost two hours as we went round and round below it. The only one who seemed to be enjoying herself was the dog, frantically running ahead of us as we fought our way through thick brambles that clawed at our legs. Sweat trickled down my forehead as our threesome trudged across the hill, desperately trying to avoid the silvery spider webs that were strewn across our path. Jacopo, my hiking partner, was born and raised in the mountains; hiking for him was no more difficult than a simple stroll. A friend has referred to him as a goat because of how easily he would bound up and down, his long legs carrying him on. Meanwhile, my short legs made me more of a hamster trying to keep up with him. However, simply mention a spider and he would refuse to go any further until I had disposed of it. An hour later and even the dog had fallen into step behind me. I looked down at the flowers that lined the stony way. A butterfly landed peacefully before being pounced upon by a camouflaged spider. This was life on Colle Mitra; eat or be eaten.
We rounded a corner and saw a small patch of trees in the distance; a small oasis appearing out of the side of the mountain. Pacile. Once a thriving medieval town and the birthplace of San Panfilo, patron saint of Sulmona, all that remains now are some ruins and a large water trough used by shepherds when they move their animals to pasture. The town itself was destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century but you can still find traces of where the people used to live. From the outside, it seems pretty unremarkable; just a bunch of trees dotted on the hillside. Take a closer look and you’ll see it’s teeming with life. An endless stream of cattle has left the place covered in some rather pungent manure, which in turn, has allowed the flora and fauna to flourish. Little dung beetles scurried back and forth, hurriedly rolling their precious brown gold.
We took shelter under the trees, the cool air a welcome relief. Jumping the muddy river that ran alongside the trough, we filled our bottles with fresh clean spring water as the dog happily splashed and rolled in the dirt. We caught our breath before beginning the final ascent to the top and that infamous cross.
The sun was in our eyes now. Just below we could see two large, white mounds. Dogs? Rocks? No, they were two hulking white cows that had been left out to graze. Most likely the perpetrators of the offensive disorder left at Pacile. We continued onward, passing a solitary hiker walking in the other direction; the only other human we had seen since starting our climb almost four hours earlier. Onward and onward we climbed, looking back every now and again to see Pacile shrinking into the distance. My knee was starting to hurt and my head beginning to swim when I finally saw it, an iron butterfly emerging from the top of the mountain. La Croce. We had finally reached the top. The whole of Sulmona lay out below us, a patchwork of ancient and new buildings. I immediately forgot the pain in my leg. The throbbing in my head subsided. This is what we had come to see.
Hiking Colle Mitra was rather like my entire experience here in Italy. Sometimes this country makes you go round and round with its bureaucracy. Sometimes there are snakes lying in wait to trip you up. And sometimes you make it to the top despite all of the obstacles put in your way. That is why we travel; for those moments when you can put all of your discomfort aside and say to yourself that you did it. You climbed the mountain.
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