I love hills. I love the challenge of climbing, I love looking over my shoulder to see my progress, and I love the feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment that come with arriving at the top. I love the burning in my thighs and the feeling of wind on sweat. Maybe most of all, I love the thrill of going down again, not only for the rush, but because I find a certain peace when all my hard work is undone in those few short moments. I think that peace comes from the knowledge that a new hill awaits at the bottom of each one conquered.
Some people don’t like hills. They would rather ride on flat ground, and in a straight line. For the obvious reason that hills are unavoidable when touring, these are not the types of people who tend to ride their bikes around the world. However, there is a less obvious reason as well: it takes a certain kind of person to enjoy climbing hills. They have to be adventurous, optimistic, driven, and up for a challenge. These people, whether cyclists or not, will end up traveling, exploring, meeting new people, and learning all sorts of quirky facts about the world and how it works. All of this is to say that I decided today that I really like people who love climbing hills, and I think I’m going to surround myself with more of these kinds of people from now on.
Now Cristina, Alex, and myself are by no means super-expert-bicyclists. Nevertheless, we’ve ridden our fair share of rides, and, as such, our fair share of hills. It should thus come as at least a mild surprise to learn that the three of us collectively agreed that we today conquered our “gnarliest hill ever”. What we mean by “gnarly” is that it was certainly not the longest hill we’ve climbed (I find myself thinking back to the constant 15km uphill ride along the Petit Train Du Nord in Quebec), nor was it the steepest, but it was a perverse marriage of the two.
We began at sea level, where the air was warm and the infrastructure relatively well maintained. By the time we climbed the steep 8.6 km journey into mountainous Calabria, the vegetation had changed, we could see our breath, and we were in a cloud. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure I saw a herd of wild yaks, but I may have been hallucinating due to extreme exhaustion. It took hours, and we were frozen, sweaty, and weak in the thighs.
We ate lunch at the top, and it was at this point that I realized that my cell phone was missing. While it wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t even have a smart phone, I realized then just how quickly one could become addicted to such a device. As I looked through the only pouch I had opened that day for the 17th time, my heart continued to beat faster and faster. Gone would be all my music, my notes, my poetry, my maps, my Italian learning apps, my online banking, and my ability to independently communicate with my family, friends, and girlfriend. It was then that the irony set in: the one time I misplace my phone would result in my having to ride back down, and then up again, the gnarliest hill every conquered.
So I rode back down – 20 km one way to be exact – to the the place I was sure I had left my phone. It rained the entire way, and I quickly became drenched, frozen, and on the brink of despair. I realized upon leaving that the chance my phone had been neither stolen nor ruined by the rain was roughly the same as that of a sloth with a hernia successfully outrunning an avalanche.
My lower back was in quite a lot of pain, and I soon lost feeling in my hands and feet from the cold, but I tried to stay positive. I made myself focus on the stunning natural and cultural beauty all around me. I thought of where I was, and how lucky I was to be riding my bicycle in such a place. I practiced my broken Italian, and distracted myself for a good amount of time by trying to remember how to say “ninety”. I thought of the kind cafe owner Giuseppe, who, with zero English, invited us to stay in his home when the weather turned bad. I thought of all the amazing new foods we had tried in Sicily, and of the new friends we had made.
As I neared the only place I thought my phone might be, I thought to myself: “Maybe I placed in on the concrete face down, so that the silver phone case will not only blend in with the pavement, making it invisible to people walking by, but also protect it from the rain”. I held my breathe as I finally pulled up on my bike. I was completely and utterly exhausted, drenched, and frozen, and my phone was nowhere in sight.
Instead of cycling back, as I had intended, I took a train to Rosarno, where Alex, Cristina, and I had planned to meet. I sat alone, drinking cheap beers outside a dark cafe, put on dry socks, and slipped my feet back into my wet shoes. I was missing home and having a hard time finding the eager anticipation for the hills I would climb the following morning. I was wondering if I’d be able to find my travel companions, and if not, wondering where I was going to sleep.