“How do you two like Italy so far?” asked the friendly American at the next table.
“We love it!” we replied, and rattled off all the sights we’ve seen so far.
“Ah, that’s great,” he nodded. “You know, they say a good test of a relationship is traveling together. The way you deal with all the heartache and troubles of getting lost, deciding where to go, dealing with each other’s pickiness and all that. It’s a true test.”
Mia and I glanced at each other. We knew exactly what he was talking about.
(Cue wavy image that signals the intro to a memory sequence.)
We started out from our hotel in Monterosso al Mare around 11:00 AM, after a late breakfast. It was brisk yet sunny. We were psyched. The hikes between each of the five towns of Cinque Terre only an hour or two. More if you take your time or the trail is crowded. We were experienced hikers and aimed to go through all five towns in a day. Ambitious, sure, but sometimes you gotta aim high, right?
As soon as we set off to the Sentiero Azzurro (“Light Blue Trail”), we passed a couple headed in the opposite direction.
“The trail is closed,” they said solemnly.
“They blocked off the trail right back there. No one can go through this way.”
We exchanged glances, then followed them back to town. In the town center, the tourist information office confirmed that the Blue Trail – as it’s commonly called in English – was indeed closed.
“For how long??” another tourist shouted.
“At least until end of the season,” said the representative.
“That’s absurd! We flew all this way to do this trail! It can’t be closed!”
“I’m very sorry ma’am. There have been landslides on the trail. It is not safe. It will be opened again once it is safe to hike. You can come back then.”
“We’re not going to come back! This is absurd!”
Can you guess the nationality of that tourist? If you guessed American, sadly, you are correct.
Mia stepped up to the representative. “Excuse me. Is the High Trail still open?”
“Great! How can we get there?” The Sentiero Rosso (“High Trail”) is an alternate way to get to each town. It is higher up the mountain, a more strenuous hike, and unlike the Blue Trail, free. Travelers can also get to each town by train, ferry, and car, though the Blue Trail is by far the most scenic and famous route.
The representative kindly pointed out the trailhead on a map. We thanked her and left. The angry American was still huffing and puffing, having seemingly not heard a thing we said.
We left for the High Trail and found the trailhead easily. It was an uphill dirt path. And quite a climb. The trail meandered and swayed. Then broke into switchbacks. Our quads were burning.
“Burning fat, burning calories,” Mia chanted. I love that exercise chant of hers. Funny and motivational, just what a burning quad needs to hear.
“Burning fat, burning calories,” I joined in. “Burning fat, burning calories, burning fat, burning calories…”
There’s a lot of trail between Monterosso and the next town, Vernazza. Especially up in the High Trail. Eventually, the trail forked. One led to a sanctuary higher up the hill. The other appeared to head to Vernazza. “Appeared to” are the operative words in that sentence. Following that fork led us to a paved street and over several bridges, before dropping us off at a dead end. Crap.
I’ll spare you the rest of the agonizing details. In a nutshell: we got lost. We wandered back and forth, trying to find the High Trail, or just some kind of trail to Vernazza. It wasn’t until we realized we were almost doubling-back to Monterosso that we finally remembered – ah ha, the little white and red trail markers! A guidebook had advised us to follow these not-always-visible trail markers. Doing so led us up to the sanctuary, and from there we found our way. Four and a half hours later.
To say we were a little frustrated, tired, and bummed out that a two-hour hike turned into a four-and-a-half-hour hike would be very British, as they say. (Read: understated.)
We were damn frustrated, tired, and bummed. Some harsh words were exchanged. Blame was cast. Trying times were these.
Every couple goes through arguments. It’s natural. Add sweat, burning quads, fatigue, and getting lost for four-and-a-half hours, and you’ve got a melting pot of irritation.
Then we happened upon a clearing on the side of a hill. There was a couple lying on a blanket. The view was magnificent. The Mediterranean Sea graced us with her gleaming beauty.
There was an old man with a helmet and a parachute standing there too.
A family of American tourists showed up at that point. One of them motioned to the old man. “Are you going to jump?” she asked.
He looked at her, not quite understanding. “You jump-ay?” she asked again. “Jump-ay?” she repeated, louder this time.
He seemed to get the gist of her words and nodded.
We all sat back as he geared up, prepared his chute, waited for the right wind, and took off. He ran towards the edge of the cliff and jumped. The parachute caught air and bellowed behind him. He floated in slow, graceful circles over the shoreline. I took a deep breath and tried to imagine how amazing the old man must be feeling.
“Wow, imagine how amazing he must be feeling,” Mia echoed. I looked at her and smiled. I took a picture of her at that moment, because she had that cute grin that I love so much.
I held her from behind. “Who would have guessed we’d see an old man jump off a cliff with a parachute here in Cinque Terre, huh?”
She nodded. I could feel her smile. “Ah. The adventures of Mike & Mia…” she said.
We’ve used that line before. Many times before. During trying times and amazing times, but especially during trying times. After we got lost and found our way to that sanctuary back there? We said it.
And after we left the clearing and finally made it to Vernazza? We said it. Then, when we realized it was too late in the afternoon to hike to Corniglia, so we took the train instead, despite telling ourselves we wouldn’t wuss out and do that? We said it. Then, when we finally made it to the last two towns, Manarola and Riomaggiore, before nightfall? We said it. And when we had a delicious dinner at Riomaggiore, then missed the train by a few seconds, only to realize the next train was three hours later and we had to wait in the freezing darkness of the night in our sweaty, dirty clothes? You can bet we said it.
(Cue wavy image that signals the end of a memory sequence.)
The friendly American at the next table was absolutely right. Traveling can be a great test of a relationship. Our trek through Cinque Terre was a perfect test. It was difficult, frustrating, and required a lot of compromise, brainstorming, patience, creative thinking, and trust on both our parts.
It was during our conversation with the friendly American that I realized how powerful those simple words were. “The adventures of Mike & Mia.” It was a way to defuse painful situations – as well as to remind us that we were in it together. I think we first said those words while we were dating. Perhaps it was on a hike where we got lost somewhere. And somehow, it stuck.
We held our glasses up and cheered the friendly American. “To Italy!”
I turned to Mia and added, “And to the adventures of Mike & Mia!”