Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

July 15, 2006

French Riviera & Milan, Italy

So, we flew to Bergamo, Italy, where Dawn was handed the keys to a Fiat Punto, a small four-door diesel machine that we raced across Italy’s Po Valley from Milan to Asti, before climbing into the Alps and crossing into southern France. Our first destination was Les Gorges du Verdon, Europe’s largest canyon, and to the nearby town of Castellane, where we found a wondrous clear blue lake to swim in and a campground where we set up our tent right next to the babbling Verdon River.

The next morning started off clear, but some dark clouds began to appear as we started our nearly 10-mile hike along the bottom of the gorge, where we passed many tempting swimming holes in the river. And although we did stop to take a swim in one exceptionally beautiful but cold one, it wasn’t without serious risk of only freezing to death.

Signs all along the route that showed a stick-man figure running from a tidal wave warned in French, that waters from the damn way up river are sometimes released without warning, and can cause the river to rise quickly. We luckily got away with taking a refreshingly quick dip without being swept away, but didn’t fare so well out of the water when it began to rain. Well actually, it at best only developed into a steady drizzle, despite numerous bright lighting flashes and repeated thunder cracks that echoed violently down the canyon. But it was fun and exciting running for our lives seeking cliff overhangs under which to hide; yet each time that we’d find one, the rain would stop.

The skies cleared to cloudless by late afternoon, and our evening drive south from the gorge was a treat of vivid color and soft lighting. We passed many small and antique French villages, all of which seemed deliberately to need paint jobs, and then before long, we began getting our first distant glimpses of the Cote D’Azur. As we neared the coast just east of St Tropez, it looked and felt just like entering into the wealth and natural beauty of Santa Barbara, California. Tropical trees and flowers swayed about adorned lavish estates in the heavenly mellow breezes straight off the Mediterranean Sea. And everyone seemed tanned, healthy, and relaxed.

We found a campground right across the street from the ocean, where the air was fresh and a pure joy to sniff. In fact, we felt no need at all to put on our tent’s rain cover, to better enjoy the clean air while sleeping under a clear night sky twinkling with stars. I woke up early the next morning before the sun rose, and went for a stroll along the shore. But by the time I’d returned, the western sky had clouded up a bit. Dawn was still peacefully sleeping like a curled up kitten, and I decided to let her snooze a while longer before waking her up for a day of sights and discoveries. So, I went to go take a shower to pass some time, and then there I was all lathered up, when suddenly I heard a rocking clap of thunder.

I rushed out of the bathroom dripping and running in my flip-flops into a light rain, and found Dawn throwing the tent and all its belongings into the car. Wisely, when she awoke to the thunder, she sprang into action, and all our stuff only suffered from a mild amount of moisture. But after each eating a fresh-baked French bread smothered in jelly and/or chocolate paste for breakfast, the sun came out again in all its glory, and it only took moments to dry everything in the mid-morning warmth.

We then began our journey along the famed French Riviera. The coastal scenic route continually rose from sea-level yacht filled harbors, up to breathtaking cliff top views and then back down again. It is along this stretch of prime real estate where the Alps meet the Mediterranean, and the geographical result is nothing short of a natural spectacle. Then, add in the factor that the weather is generally quite appealing as well to say the least, and you’ve got the making for what many consider to be paradise.

After passing Cannes and Antibes, we arrived in Nice. And Nice was really nice. The water was an inviting Caribbean-color blue, and we rushed to park the car and find ourselves a spot along its four-mile stretch of beach. Interesting though, because the beach wasn’t really a beach at all, it was merely a vast rock pile. Yep, not a grain of sand to be found, just lots and lots of smooth, rounded rocks and pebbles. And on this particular day, the wind was blowing at full gale force, and was cause for some mighty powerful waves. I tried hard to go for a swim, but I was just pummeled in the churning surge. Dawn meanwhile, was able to wiggle herself into a comfy spot atop the rocks for a noontime nap, and enjoyed the tingling effects of surf spray.

Our drive continued later to Monaco, past the Monte Carlo casino, and then on to another splendid cobble stoned beach town inches from the Italian border called Menton. Protected in a cove, the beach (rocks) at Menton easily lured us to its obvious charm and much calmer surf. And this time, swimming was without incident and a very refreshing late day experience. The setting all around us was truly magical as well, with mountains towering high above the steeple spires of the old town, and tall shadows sweeping across the palm tree-lined waterfront boulevard and a nearby grassy park where folks relaxed in seeming bliss.

After we dried ourselves in caressing warm breezes that also carried sea gulls lazily flying by, we drove up an extremely steep and windy road into the mountains above town. Our guidebook said that there was a campground up there, and at the very end of the road, there indeed was. It was a spectacular place to camp, with numerous tiered camping spots virtually situated on ledges with stunning views over Menton far below, and the non-ending horizon of the Mediterranean. We set up our tent again without its rain cover on, to better smell the surrounding eucalyptus trees throughout the night, and to listen to relaxing distant purr of the pounding surf at the foot of the mountain. And sleep that night was indeed a sweet dream.

We woke up early the next morning to a choir of chirping birds and a beautiful sunrise, and began our drive away from the coast up the river valley of the Roya, to the southern French Alps mountain town of Tende. We arrived just in time to purchase another soft, long baguette (French bread), but were an hour and a half early for the opening of the local outdoor store at 9:30am. We pondered just continuing on to Milan where we needed to fly from that night, but Dawn’s heart was set on climbing a “via ferrata”.

Somewhere in between hiking and rock climbing, is a new sport called “via ferrata”. Via ferratas are actually nothing new for those in the mountains of northern Italy, where soldiers back in WWI first built them to more easily maneuver in rugged terrain. Meaning “iron ways” in Italian, via ferratas are systems of climbing aids that make scaling and traversing cliff faces possible. And along with modern day safety precautions, even we could be like flies on a wall.

The key to surviving such an experience, is the harness that you wear around your waist that has two “leashes” hanging from it with oblong metal ring spring clips called carabineers attached to their ends. These carabineers are always “clipped” by the climber to the steel cables that have been somehow been installed up there on those mountainsides, and if you do slip or fall, you’ll only drop a few feet and end up dangling by the harness, instead of plunging hundreds if not thousands of feet.

There are also numerous artificial handholds and footholds imbedded into the rock to make the climbing easier, and it’s just then a matter of moving along on ladders, iron pins, iron rungs, and steel staples. The only problem a climber really has, is his own fear of heights, his own overwhelming sensations of extreme vertigo, and his own paranoia of being greatly “exposed” to the elements. Via ferrata routes are then in theory, a safe and thrilling means of outdoor adventure, that provides access to steep vertical rock faces and extreme mountain terrain, which would otherwise be accessible only to highly experienced roped climbing parties.
So when the outdoor store finally opened, we rented the gear we needed and started our steep hike up to the start of the two-year old Tende via ferrata. We were pretty sure we’d understood from the French-speaking only guy in the store, that we’d be able to finish the route within two and a half hours, just in time to return the gear and get our passports before the store closed again at noon. It was important to arrive by midday, because arriving late would mean waiting until 3:00pm when the shop would open again, but that wouldn’t leave us with not enough time to get all the way back to Milan for our flight. So we practically ran the trail up the mountain that rose high above town, and then while completely out of breath, began clipping “into” the via ferrata.
Somewhat evenly spaced iron rungs protruding from the rock face were easy to scale like climbing a ladder, but the steel cable that we were clipped to and that the carabineers slid along, ended every couple of yards. That meant, you had to keep stopping to unclip, and then clip on to the next one. But we quickly found out, that that wasn’t that easy, … at least for me.

Seeing as how one hand was usually tightly clutching to something for dear life, it was with your free hand that you had to unclip the karabiner. But that turned out to be a tricky maneuver with only one hand. This is because you needed to slide up, and then turn the safety-feature latch of the carabineer, simply to get it opened. But with one hand, that was no easy task, and took a fair amount of dexterity, and a strong pinky to do the pushing up. And as we really began exposing ourselves, and inched higher and higher up and across the stone slab we’d tied ourselves to, the more difficult it seemed to get for me to get those dang carabineers to work.

And at one point (ok, at several points), it became quite exhilarating (scary!) up there, when it became very obvious that there was no easy way out or off of that sheer vertical rock face. And there, where I just couldn’t unclip my karabiner, and Dawn was quickly leaving me behind, and we had to be back by noon, and I was losing strength in my pinky, and it was starting to get tiring hanging from one hand, and town was miles literally directly below us.

But at last, to the complete relief of Dawn, I finally overcame my very vocal (screaming) frustration meltdowns, and eventually discovered a method for dealing with the carabineers. And then, the whole experience became truly amazing. On several occasions, we had to walk along a single steel cable like we were tightrope walkers, as the cable wiggled back and forth high above lots of nothing below us. And a couple of other times, our climb took us up and over slight overhangs, which meant dizzying moments of actually having to lean back to get above it. Yikes! But then right when I thought we must have conquered everything, we came upon a 130 yard-long zip-line.

I tried to share in Dawn’s excitement, as I watched her glide away over a hungry canyon all the way to the other side. I hoped I’d understood her directions for hooking myself to the cable, and then next found myself hanging in mid-air and speeding through space. I only prayed that my momentum would slow by the time I too reached the other side. And much to my surprise, I made a perfect landing. And then eventually after a little more climbing, we finally reached the end of the via ferrata. But Dawn concluded very quickly, that she had just enough time to fly again.

So, Dawn re-crossed the canyon via an alternate route that partially made use of a suspension bridge. And then before long, was hooked up again for another ride across the abyss. But with the conclusion of that last adrenaline rush, it was time to go. And we ran down the mountain trail and arrived at the outdoor store with but a few minutes to spare. And by high noon, we were passing over the Colle di Tenda and the border into Italy, where the word ‘via’ to me meant “very intense adventure”, and ‘ferrata’ meant, “like driving a “Ferrari”. And Dawn drove our Fiat through the Alps just like one, seemingly not yet done with thrill rides for the day.

Naturally, we soon stopped to pick up a jar of pitted Italian olives, a vice snack food we just can’t seem to get enough of these days. And the drive back through the Po Valley was under bright, sunny skies and past happy fields of sunflowers, and row, after row, after row, of between chest-high and earlobe-high corn. By late afternoon, we exited into Milan’s Linate Airport, but not to get a flight out, only to park the car. From there, we caught a bus to the city center for a short but sweet visit to the Duomo (gothic church). Then it was finally on to Bergamo and Orio al Serio Airport where RyanAir flies to, 47 kilometers east of Milan, … and where we caught flight FR5207 home.

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