Hiking the Italian Dolomites: A Trek Back in Time in Search of the Future

As we sail into summer and enjoy our vacations, I thought I’d reflect on my big adventure from last year.

“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” –Joan Didion

I grew up in small, middle-class village on Long Island that had a “sister city” on the French Riviera – or Côte d’Azur – that was somehow both quaint and effortlessly glamorous all at once. Like so many siblings, the two towns had very little in common, apart from a vast ocean that connected them like aloof parents. But none of these details mattered much to me, because the summer I turned 17, I got the chance to reunite with this long-lost “relative” and live with a French host family in the small town of Sainte Maxime.

Maybe it was buying Heineken from a beach vending machine (did I just imagine that?) or tasting jambon and fresh melon for the first time sitting under lush bougainvillea (a far cry from a LI Expressway diner), but one thing was certain: it was one of the best summers of my life. I tasted independence for the first time – in another country, no less – and was introduced to people I thought only existed in novels from English class. My host family’s good friend, a Swiss banker with a holiday home down the road, was smart and sophisticated, and spoke seven languages – a fact that was so simple yet seemed so rich in possibility. Perhaps someday I, too, could have a job that would let me travel the world, own a summer home in another country and raise children who could flip from English to French with batting an eye. However superficial these teenage dreams were at the time, without even knowing it, he and his family inspired me to think big about the future. They planted a seed of ambition that years later motivated me to go back to graduate school, relocate to a foreign country (twice!) and even start my own business.

But now at age 34 – another 17 years later – that girl seemed just as foreign to me as that Swiss family had once been. I was reeling from the disintegration of a 10-year relationship – one that helped shape so much of my identity as an adult – when my dear friend Mike (who lived nearly 4,000 miles away in Amsterdam) convinced me to tackle our existential challenges head-on. “Let’s take an old-fashioned pilgrimage into the mountains,” he declared during one of our regular skype chats. And before he could even suggest a destination, I said “I’m in.”

I mean, what’s not to love about reconnecting with a good friend over cheap red wine, gossiping about boys and maybe taking a selfie or forty (!)…a concept that barely existed the last time we lived near each other in Europe. So we set off for the Dolomites, a mountain range nestled in the northeastern part of Italy, bordering Austria and Switzerland, not only geographically but also culturally – a subtle point of tension that transcended language barriers. I had never heard of this specific mountain range before, but at that point, I literally would have traveled to anywhere he suggested; the fact that it was Italy just made it all the more perfect.

Wikipedia defines “pilgrimage” as a “journey or search of moral or spiritual significance.” And although I’m not a religious person, I did indeed find something spiritual about walking every single day, sunrise to sunset. Walking fosters a powerful mind-body connection, forcing you to slow down (you can only hike so fast!) and think about where you’ve come from and where you’re going, on the route and in more generally in life. So it was no surprise that while trekking across the peaks and valleys of the Southern Limestone Alps for seven long and sometimes rainy days, I started to become reacquainted with my 17-year old self… and all of the wonder and hope and, yes, angsty tears, that come along with being a teenager.

Here are just a few of the ways that hiking in the Dolomites transported me back to those high school years – imperfect yet full of so much possibility:

  1. Sleep: we stayed in mountain huts, or refugios as they’re called, reminiscent of camp dorms. Each night we’d stumble back into our narrow room, tipsy from carafes of red wine, and talk to each other from our respective bunk beds about life; our crushes, our fears, our hopes. There’s something so calming about knowing that even in the dark, a good friend who “gets it” is out there in the world (whether they’re in the bunk below or an ocean away).
  2. Fun: without access to wifi, something no amount of money could seem to buy us despite our most creative attempts (“I’m willing to rent a room in your Inn for the entire night just to use your wifi for the next hour”), we eventually overcame our existential anxiety of disconnecting. To my surprise, my instagram followers survived without knowing that at that very moment I was drinking Hefeweizen at a South Tyrolean cafe. And Mike and I quickly remembered how to entertain ourselves in the pre-internet age. There was plenty of alcohol, gossip and giggling – in true teenage fashion – but our joy really came from connecting with another person in a meaningful way and truly being in the moment. Which is always the truth, whether it’s online or across the table from friends.
  3. Food: when staying at a refugio, you eat what the house mutter prepares for you. While meal choice is limited – will it be Austrian schnitzel or Italian pasta? – you can’t really go wrong. No mention of gluten, paleo or the latest trending vegetable (are ramps really the new kale?) – just honest food with fresh ingredients. And plenty of homemade strudel – a real treat after a long day of walking. (Ah, to be a growing girl again!)
  4. Transit: remember the days when getting your license seemed like the only route to true freedom? Well, it’s the same deep in the Alps. There’s only one way to get around, and that’s on your feet (or mountain bike, if you’re brave). But if you’re looking for a taxi, it’s nearly impossible to arrange without significant planning, which made me appreciate the ubiquitous uber cars back home in New York. On the flip side, the minute we could connect to wifi, this predicament gave Mike a great opening line on tinder: “so you’re cute…but what’s your car sitch?”
  5. Goals: every day we had one clear objective: to walk to the next hut, no matter the terrain, weather or overwhelming fatigue. A single-minded mission (and a little pain!) has a funny way of simplifying and expanding your mind when it feels cluttered by all the distractions of adult life. Finally, I had the headspace to think about what actually mattered back in the real world and spent my days talking to Mike about the “big things” I still wanted to tackle, just like I did when I met that Swiss family.

All that said, I wouldn’t trade where I am now – all the life experiences I’ve accumulated, good and bad – to be a teenager again. But I am grateful that hiking in the Dolomites reconnected me to that 17-year old girl I used to be. So I raise a glass of Gewürztraminer to not waiting another 17 years to recognize and appreciate how far I’ve come on my trek. I can’t wait to take on my next big mountain.