Approximate reading time: 3 minutes.
I have just returned from a few days in the Canavese region of the Italian Alps and my wanderings gave me cause to remember an autumn, many years ago, marked by death. I have also posted photos on The Armchair Mountaineer Facebook page.
I have walked up this mountain path countless times. I have seen it in winter, spring, summer and autumn.
I know every detail of it as it rises steeply from the village, past gardens, orchards and vines towards what used to be a roaring torrent but is now little more than a dribble, dwarfed by the concrete defences and waterfalls that hint at a destructive power long gone from its now paltry waters.
I still wobble on the cobbles and pant like a dog as my body struggles to find a rhythm on the steep gradient. I stop frequently, probably in the same places I have stopped a hundred times before, to catch my breath and look back at the grey roofs of the village.
I spent every summer of my childhood and youth enjoying the mountains and this under-used path. I have trodden over these roughly constructed stone steps under baking heat and masked by a blanket of snow, but I haven’t done it for a while.
Having suffered some form of occupational burn-out I resolved to quit the rat-race, in search of a more outdoor life. And coming back to Italy seemed like a good place to start looking for it; coming back to the tiny home in the cramped courtyard that my grandfather had shared with his thirteen siblings.
This village of Quincinetto, these slopes and streams, is where my love of mountains was born and there is something in the melancholy of autumn that makes it more poignant.
Thirty-four years ago a childhood autumn here was marked by death. My first experience of the fragility of human life left me confused and these woods provided an escape for my mother and her two boys. As my grandfather lay dying in his bed, consumed by the ravages of cancer, we would come here to sit in the cool, clean October air, to build small stone walls and push toys along roads in the damp earth. For me it was a pleasant change. For my mother it meant a couple of hours of freedom from the futile and grinding effort of looking after a dying parent. A moment of peace, perhaps.
Now, as I meander up through the trees the silence that wraps itself around me is at once comforting and calming. Perhaps as it was, briefly, for my mother too; spending some time in the presence of two little lives and away from the all-consuming cloak of death.
As I walk I stoop a little and stare at my feet. One in front of the other, over and again. The only sounds I hear, above my own heart pounding in my throat, are the occasional sweet chestnuts thudding onto an ample cushion of leaves. They bounce senselessly down the hill. It seems there is no one here but me. At one point, from a distance, I spot an old man binding some sticks next to his old stone house. Dressed in a grey jumper and blue work overalls - the one-time uniform of rural Italy - he might as well be the ghost of my grandfather. He doesn’t see me. There is no one here but him.
I keep moving up. Between silver birches, soft green grass provides a vibrant contrast to the yellowing leaves which cling on, unwilling to give in to the inexorable pull of winter. The woods thin out and I come across a mountain stream. I stop to rest. Thirty-four years ago this used to be a river. In the valley, in the summer heat, I used to splash joyously in its limpid pools. Now the white noise and random slapping of its water draws me into sublime relaxation.
I get into the kind of meditative state which I have found almost impossible in recent years. I am thinking, but it is in fleeting fragments of memories which demand no answer and wash over me peacefully.
A couple of hours have passed since I walked out of the door and I am expected home. I head back down and the sound of the water recedes, enveloped again by the forest. Beyond the occasional signs of wild boars who mercilessly plough the landscape in search of roots, the yaffle of a green woodpecker provides the only hint of wildlife and shocks, against the quiet. I suspect he thinks there is no one here but him.
But I know he is wrong. I am here again.