The Second-Tallest Mountain in the Alps
Air that smells of ancient pine trees, fresh snowmelt, and rocky earth. Supple wooden fences and sturdy stone walls, built from flat slices of mountain rock – called piodi, meaning “loose.” The cracked, paved sidewalk winding down the hill, scattered with dark brown baita houses, their small windows and green shutters there to help the huts withstand the Alpen winters. Our rental house had three stories and seven beds; my two older sisters and I used the extra bunk beds for puppet shows. The house always looked simpler than the others from the outside. No balconies. No geraniums in window boxes. Just a small, scraggly yard, perfect for acting out stories in while wearing our color-blocked ski jackets and clunky snow boots.
The road up to Macugnaga was long and winding, a spiral up the mountains while trapped between crumbling cliffs on one side and gorges on the other. Once there, we walked everywhere along sidewalks and roads. I don’t even remember where we parked our car. A grey concrete bridge, made ugly by the staggering mountains around the valley, took us from one footpath, across the river, to the other. That river once swept away my favorite Frog and Toad book when my older sister, while sitting atop a boulder overhanging the torrent, skootched backward into her backpack. She pushed her bag with my book and her jackknife into the rapids. I wanted to go in after it but my mom wouldn’t let me…I could have chased it down. The river used to crash through the valley, propelled by snow melt. You could hear it from anywhere.
Summer footsteps of six-year-old feet in dirty, white sneakers don’t feel quite the same as those in Tevas at eleven-years-old or in Birkenstocks at sixteen. Feet that once could slip into the trenches pried open by tree roots in the pavement now step across them without thought. Crunching gravel doesn’t bring the same kind of glee with my ears higher above the ground. I try to remember how walking the village’s slopes with such small strides made my legs ache and my chilly feet sting, but I am instead overwhelmed by the 4,000-foot altitude that drains the breathable air from my young-adult lungs, replacing it with the edge of freezing, dry gusts of wind tumbling down from the tops of the mountains around us. Nine years after we stopped coming to our rental house here, my dad and I are walking up the hill from La Taverna, our Friday-night restaurant, toward the main road and our old house.
How strange to feel estranged from a place so densely populated by memories, first by Google street view, then in-person. Sitting at my desk in my suburban, American room, I would sometimes click up and down the streets, dragging my mouse in circles around my virtual body to try and tickle my memory with each house, wall, and mountain peak. In the center of town, I imagined where the tables and tents of the Saturday craft market used to appear, across from the macelleria. Then across an ocean, I couldn’t smell the smoky saltiness of cured meats like I did when I would stand outside the butcher shop while my parents shopped, tying knots in the thick strands of fabric curtaining the door, there to keep out the flies, until my mom came outside to tell me to stop.
Trying to navigate the footpaths, clicking through yards and driveways from the village center to our house, I always came up against the virtual barrier past which no more images existed. I could not traverse the narrow path to stand in front of our house, only look at it from across the field of wild flowers and stinging nettles. It was possible to jump to the one-lane road on the other side, where I learned to ride a bike, but that was barely a closer view. To my virtual eye’s left, the fountain drizzling mountain spring water into a hollowed-out tree trunk was still there. I had always thought it was a longer walk from our front door to that fountain. Maybe that was just when my mom sent me with a pitcher to fill and lug back to the house.
Now, my dad and I can take each step along the path to stand together, leaning against the fence railings, gazing at the front stoop. I used to sit there a lot, replaced by my watchful mother only when I ran off with my sisters to jump hay bales or play fairies in the field. From that smooth stone, we named Larry and Gary, the giant snails who came to swim in the lake formed by heavy rains in front of our house one summer night. I remember that because we captured it on our camcorder. I would sit there in the sunshine too, sniveling while my mom smeared a paste of water and baking soda onto my bee-stung foot. It would cake off over the next few hours as the mountain air sucked out the moisture. After bike trips to the toy store that stocked Kinder bars and Kinder Surprise eggs, I would clambor back up the hill, dragging my bike beside me, and plop down on the step to piece together the miniscule components of the toy from my hazelnut-y egg. The ghost of melting chocolate coats my tongue as I recall scraping malleable white and milk chocolate out of the plastic shell with the egg’s kid-sized plastic spoon while I tinkered. I know I spent those summers outside in United Colors of Benetton t-shirts and polka-dotted skorts, but my dad and I set out for our late afternoon walk in wool hats and thick socks. The sun is already starting to slip behind Monte Rosa, drenching its peak in a soft pink glow.
In a moment of decision, we turn back toward the main road and La Girasole – the bar and albergo that we used to frequent for pudding-like, dark hot chocolate. We don’t go inside as we pass, though, because the old owners moved out a while ago, taking the hot chocolate with them. Instead, we continue toward the 13th-century pale stone church, Chiesa Vacchia, and the 700-year-old Old Lime Tree that mark the fork in the path ahead. I’ve always wanted to go beyond the church’s iron gate, into the yard with its medieval tombstones and santuari nestled into the church’s exterior. I didn’t before, so I don’t now. This road looks different in the daylight. This was the most direct route from our house to La Taverna, so we would walk along it sometime after arriving for the weekend, through the canopy of coniferous trees, when the moon rose and our stomachs started to growl. I would saunter between my parents, holding their hands and jumping to swing on the count of three. La Taverna is down around to our right, and we turn left to climb up toward the waterfalls, playground, and ski slopes.
The goats we walk by on our way up the hill remind me of the cows that mosey in the fields along the walk by our summer house back in the States. My ragged breathing and screaming muscles match too. We make it to the playground, but not much further. My dad loves hiking. He is at his happiest on weekend mornings in Massachusetts when he pulls on his cargo pants, bug-proof baseball cap, and long-sleeved graphic t-shirt for his walk. I always hated hiking when we were here. Before the concept of exercise as being good for the body and mind made sense to me, I resented the full-body pain my dad seemed determined to inflict upon us as he forced us to join him in his recreation. Tomorrow we will be taking the ski lift to hike the trail that crosses the stretch of striated rock and soil that the Belvedere glacier occupies during the winter. I will join only because of the lunch I know awaits us up on the mountain – toast with crusty, white bread and local nostrano cheese for me, and polenta for my dad. The foods of Alpine ski lodges.
Walking back down the hill, along the main road this time, I notice that scrawny birch tree from years ago, still bent over near the base, leaning on a tombstone-shaped rock for support as it keeps reaching upward. Around us, the brilliantly white clouds drip around the darkening mountaintops, camouflaging the snow stubbornly burrowed between crags and grassy ridges. We return to La Taverna. The restaurant has only two rooms for guests, obscured from the view of patrons by a dated, floral curtain that stretches across the indoor balcony, in front of the bedroom doors. I always wanted to sneak up their stairs to see what spaces sat behind that seemingly immovable piece of fabric. In truth, it’s nothing spectacular.
At dinner, my dad and I sit together at our family’s usual table, far too large for just two people. Sounds of squealing laughter that drove my parents nuts and the gleeful swish of fancy dresses pull at my memory while I feast on pasta ala bolognaise, made from the meat of mountain goats. While slurping fettuccini at this table, I always used to envision the goats roaming free in the Alps around us, making their way up frozen waterfalls like the ice climbers we used to watch from the chairlift. Sometimes I’d imagine one day climbing the ice like I already did rocks; my parents didn’t like that idea. I greedily consume my slice of Frutti di Bosco crostata for dessert, with its tiny wild berries and impossibly flaky crust, reserved since our arrival earlier in the day. We learned the hard way to ask the owners to set aside a piece of the crostata after the night when someone came into the restaurant and purchased the whole last tart, before we had even finished our antipasti. Through the intervening years, I can still feel the devastation in my stomach of one less opportunity to savor the taste of mountain summer before we left Italy for good.
After saying goodnight to our hosts, I walk up the creaky wooden steps to our room while my dad goes for a post-dinner stroll back up the hill. My fingers trail along the banister and poke through the carved-out diamonds and flowers below the rail. It feels mischievous summiting the staircase and slipping behind the curtain, letting the voices from the tables below muffle and the scent of pine wood wash over me. I open our door and move past the bed to stand on the room’s tiny balcony. The already below-freezing air bites my skin. I let my eyes dig through the darkness, scouring the landscape for the memories I’ve left here. I can hear the river tumbling over boulders across the valley and smell the glacier creeping down the mountain. The comfortability from two years of childhood is still here, but it grows more distant with each year I spend away. It’s not quite home anymore, but it was. The whole place breathes out familiarity along with the late-season breeze. I exhale too, and squint to watch my dad step past the Old Lime Tree up the path and fade from sight, into blackness.