Andreas is the truth and I took a few really important steps to find him.
It was Thursday night in Amsterdam and a rare clap of thunder woke me from my sleep. It was mid-summer and I was sleeping with my bedroom patio door open. (AC in Amsterdam is rare.) I awoke to find that my lamp had been knocked off of the bedside table by the wind that was howling throughout my apartment. I’m an extremely heavy sleeper and rarely wake up in the middle of the night… but for some reason, that particular clap of thunder woke me from my slumber…And for some reason, I just couldn’t get back to bed. I had been thinking about a weekend trip to Italy for quite some time and that clap of thunder sent me spiraling down the nomad rabbit hole. A place I’m pretty familiar with.
I opened my laptop and thought, ‘let me just check the flight prices.’
Wow. Round trip to Milan for $120 leaving the next day… I thought, ‘Let me just check the Airbnb prices.’
Wow. Two nights at a rural farm stay full mother-in-law suite in the mountains for $90 total… I thought, ‘Let me just check the rental car prices.’
Wow. The whole weekend for $65.
A good friend of mine had recommended a really famous hike on the Northern Coast of Italy and it had been on my mind for months. I’m not sure why or how, but that clap of thunder woke me up for a reason and knew that I had to book the trip.
Click. The flight. Click. The Airbnb. Click. The rental.
I checked my email. Three notifications. I gave them all the ‘green flag’ which is the flag that travel emails get in my inbox. To the dismay of my bank account, there are usually at least several in there.
The next morning after class, I made my way to the airport by way of the train and was on my way. I arrived in the small Milan airport and headed to the rental car counter. They gave me… (drumroll please), a Jeep. If you’re familiar with travel in Europe you know the cars are SMALL. Roads are narrow and big SUV type vehicles don’t fly. A jeep I thought? After a year living in Europe, I literally had not even seen one Jeep. I thought it was a mistake. Nope, I got the key and walked out to the hard top silver Jeep (#merica). Naturally, I rolled down the windows, cranked the music and drove an hour and a half South to the coast.
Cinque Terre is a very famous hike that is done by tens of thousands of tourists each year. It’s so packed that you actually have to buy a ticket online prior to arriving because they try to limit the amount of people on the trails. You have to park far away and be shuttled to the hike. If you know anything about me or my previous travels, you know that this is not my type of hike. Sure, it was bound to be beautiful and have breathtaking views… but I wanted an adventure. The less people, the better. I was planning on going early the next morning to beat the crowd a bit, but also started opening my mind to the possibility of finding another, more local hike.
Locals are the ONLY way to choose your travel plans. In hopes of discovering an equally challenging and beautiful hike that wouldn’t be as crowded, I set out to find the locals. The nearest city to my farm stay Airbnb was about 5 miles North and packed with tourists. SO, naturally, I got in my Jeep, drove straight to the ocean and started driving South, away from the ‘big city’ and into the small, coastal towns. The road was quite similar to the Pacific Coast Highway in California. A mountain on one side, a cliff with water at the bottom on the other. The views beyond the cliffs were breathtaking and as I went winding around the curves I caught glimpses of small beaches at the bottom of some of the cliffs. Most of the road was empty on both sides, but eventually I came upon a small stretch of road that had about 15 cars on one side. If you have traveled enough, you know what that means. Beach. Somewhere, there were likely stairs or a trail leading down the side of the cliff to a beach. And on that beach, would be the locals I needed to talk to. I halted my cruising and parked my car on the side of the narrow road. I quickly found the winding, steep staircase that led down to the water. Once I got to the bottom, I found a small strip of sand sandwiched between two rocky cliffs. And just as I had hoped, there were a handful of locals soaking up the last couple of hours of sunlight. I set down my backpack and surveyed the land. I wasn’t there to get a tan. I was hunting advice. There were several couples, doting over each other and talking quietly. A couple of families… Not any seemingly single adventurers. I relaxed for a minute and started to really enjoy the beginning of the sunset. It was sinking down behind the cliff creating a shadow over the beach. As this happened, almost everyone started to pack up besides myself. I’ve seen a lot of really beautiful sunsets, but this was my first on an Italian coast and I didn’t mind staying for the entirety of it…
About 30 minutes later, just when I was about to head back up to the car and settle for the touristy hike, a miracle happened. I was staring in the direction of the sun, watching the waves slowly roll in and bounce off of the jagged rocks when I saw the silhouette of a man climbing around the cliff on the rocks. I squinted to make sure that I was seeing it correctly. Where in the hell was this guy coming from??? That definitely was NOT a trail. It was just… rocks…At the bottom of a cliff. And the tide wasn’t very low. This guy knew what the hell he was doing. It wasn’t his first rodeo. He was moving quickly towards the beach but was still about 60 yards from me. I shot up, threw on my backpack and ran to make sure I could catch him before he got to the beach and headed up to his car. As he was rounding the rocks and had just landed on the sand, I met him there…
“Hi, do you speak English?” (In most of the big cities in Europe it’s common that many of the locals speak English. However, in the smaller towns it’s a novelty.)
He replied, “Of course! And Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian. Take your pick.”
YESSSS. “What kind of hike were you just doing? I’m looking for a local hike to do tomorrow morning. Any suggestions???”
I don’t use the word ‘lucky’ very often. But, in this case, I got LUCKY. Turns out, this man was an international hiking guide and regularly led tours all over the world as a profession. He is a native Italian and grew up in the exact area in which we were standing. Valerio was his name. He recommended against going to Cinque Terre which was what I had hoped he would say. I knew that hike would be beautiful, but not what I was looking for.
“Mount Montecello.” He said. “That’s the one.” It was a 10 hour round trip hike and the trailhead was unmarked. No parking lot, no Google Map directions. He told me I would have to simply drive to the very end of the road that I had been cruising along and park in the town cemetery parking lot (which had about 10 spaces). Once I parked my car, I would have to continue walking to the outskirts of the town, past a pink bed and breakfast, past Montecello Coffee Bar, through a small vineyard. Then I would see a stone staircase that seemingly went to nowhere. He said that I would pass several small hillside pastures and farms on the way up this staircase. Then after about 10 minutes of climbing I would reach the trailhead that would be marked by a small sign. Perfect.
As the last bit of light was disappearing, I thanked him for his advice and hurried back up to the Jeep. Before sunrise the next morning, I miraculously found all of the checkpoints. Cemetery. Check. I almost didn’t see it. The parking lot was empty. The small cemetery was covered in fog and donned headstones from the 1800’s…. Bed and breakfast. Check. I almost didn’t see it. It was a small coral colored home that had been converted to a b&b. Vineyard. Check… I almost didn’t see it. It was a private, family vineyard in the backyard of a home nestled on the cliffs. Then, the stone staircase caught my eye. I almost didn’t see it. It was a quiet and cool morning and if I was looking to avoid people, I was going to get my wish. It was a Saturday in June, (high tourist season) and for the next 8 hours I saw a total of 3 people. One of them, was a naked man after which this blog is named.
At the top of the stone staircase, there was a small red sign, just as Valerio had described. The trail was very narrow and filled with cobwebs. Like…Full cobwebs with spiders in them. (Which should tell you that not many people are regularly on that trail.) Thankfully it was dry, but had it been even a little slippery, it could have gone from difficult to dangerous in a hurry. About 3 hours into the 10-hour round trip trek, I started to let the fear creep in. I had been going for 3 full hours and hadn’t seen or heard another human being. At first I thought,…this is great! Exactly what I had hoped for! The scenery was breathtaking, the hike was tough and the best part is that it was all to myself. Amazing, right?!?! Yes, it was amazing. Then I slipped. I had come to a clearing just above the tree line and found myself admiring the absolutely breathtaking view of the ocean. There were small islands scattered just off the coast. As I was admiring the view, my foot slipped on a rock and I went down pretty hard. Luckily (there’s that word again) I landed with my ass flat on a large boulder and didn’t budge, but had I kept sliding down the rock, it would have been a long fall. I took it as a sign and just sat there. Complete silence. No cell phone service. I didn’t even take out my phone to take a picture. I had been in a complete flow state until that point. I took out my journal from my pack and had a stream of consciousness for about 30 minutes. Thoughts about my future, my friends, family. It was one of the mentally clearest times I can remember in my recent history. Part of me wanted to keep going. However, I had gone through about half of my water and started to come to the realization that I likely wouldn’t see another person on my journey to the peak. Given my general lack of experience, food and protection I let fear and reason dictate my decision to turn back. Instead of judging myself for this, I want to point out that the fear actually felt good. It was refreshing to actually feel like I had gone to a place in my mind and a very literal physical place that made me so uncomfortable that I was genuinely a little bit afraid for my life. In our modern world of comfort, those experiences are scarce and therefore the emotion of fear or pain is avoided. However, the more you can experience fear, loneliness or extreme solitude, the better. Comfort in those situations applies to every moment in your life. It made me realize how unprepared and incapable I was. If I had actually encountered some wildlife, or a human that was looking to harm me, I was screwed. Amongst many things that I learned on that trip, one of them was that I wanted to become more capable and well equipped to handle more fear. However, in that moment, I was very ill equipped. I had grabbed a knife out of my Airbnb right before I left and stuck it in my pack, but it was hardly something that would save my life. It had a plastic handle that said ‘pizza’ on it. Not ideal. I decided to turn back and my Mom is happy for it.
Another reflection came in that moment. The competitor in me was judging my mental weakness. Really? You’re going to turn back now??? However, a thought consumed me in that moment that I may have tattooed on my body: I got what I came for. Did I really need to keep going??? I got my fill of amazing views and a challenging, serene hike. Zero people. What more did I need? A metaphor for life. More is not always better. Better is better. And I hit the local hike JACKPOT. I was completely, 100% uninterrupted in my thoughts for hours… When is the last time you had that happen. No phone, no music, no social media, no conversation with other humans. Think about it. The majority of people in today’s developed world will never experience what I did that day. Both literally and figuratively speaking. No need to crave or seek more.
It was quick on the way back. Much easier because I had already knocked down all the spider webs and was headed downhill. I was moving so quickly that I almost missed the haphazardly spray painted blue arrow on the moss covered tree. Another metaphor for life. When things are easy and we’ve already been down the path, we are able to move more quickly and we stop being hyper-aware of our surroundings…things in our peripheral vision become a blur. Luckily, I caught the lone, crooked, arrow out of the corner of my eye. It was on a large tree and was pointing down. There was a very narrow, moss covered trail that would have completely escaped my consciousness had it not been for that arrow. I paused for about 10 seconds and listened intently. Waves crashing. It was a beach. There was a beach at the end of those arrows. And I was going to that beach.
The trail was increasingly treacherous and steep as I made my way down the cliff on the switchbacks towards this beach. Then, the last and greatest challenge. The trail ended and spit me out on to a short, but very steep rockface. I had hiking boots, but not climbing shoes. I looked down the rocks and saw the water. The blue arrows continued along the rocks. I wasn’t the first person to do this. Someone had gone down this and lived to tell the tale. Another metaphor… When you are facing something difficult, just think to yourself… It’s likely that you’re not the first person ever to do this. Someone else has already done it which means that it is humanly possible…And if you are in fact the first person to do it, revel in the fact that if you die, you’ve died in the pursuit of furthering the human race. If you try to start a business in an area that has never been explored and you fail, at least your efforts were valiant and not copies of the people who have already laid the groundwork for you. No honor in speedy success on paved roads.
I took my time as I carefully scaled the rocks keeping close to the wall as I moved down to the ocean. I couldn’t see a beach, but was sure that I would come upon a small strip of sand. I took about 30 minutes to crawl down 30 yards of rocks. Again, very aware of my solitude. No one was there to save me and if I fell I’m not sure there would be anything worth saving.
Finally, at the bottom of the rocks, I looked to my right and saw a small strip of beach past a few large boulders. The water had clearly carved out the cliff over a long period of time and there was a small cove that was completely invisible until you came right up on it. WOW. Shit it was beautiful.
I should remind you at this point in the story that it was mid Saturday morning and I still hadn’t seen a soul. Another metaphor for life. Somewhere, a short, 30 minute drive away, there were thousands of people already on that other touristy hike. All I had to do was put in a little effort and talk to a stranger, and I had the entire place to myself. I had been out there for about 5 hours at that point so I pulled out the towel I had packed, took off my boots and socks and fell promptly fell asleep for a mid-morning siesta on my own private beach on the Northern Italian coast.
I awoke some time later to the sound of voices. People! I was a little saddened. My rare meeting with solitude had ended. They laid their towels down close to mine and we exchanged a few words in broken English and Spanish. (Ready for yet another metaphor?) Once I had gotten to the bottom of the rock face, I had immediately gone to the first beach that I saw at the bottom of the rocks and assumed that was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Wrong. The tiny piece of sand to my right was a just a piece of gold. They informed me that if I had gone to the left around the cliff there was miles of beautiful beaches that I could walk/hike for hours. The pot of gold. I didn’t even look… right around the corner there was a much larger treasure to explore, but I settled for the one that I saw right in front of my face. Naturally, I packed up and headed back to explore the other side of the rock face. I hiked for about 15 minutes before I stumbled upon Andreas.
I’m from Omaha, Nebraska. West Omaha. I went to a private, Catholic high school. I ate steak and potatoes and watched Husker games on the weekends with my parents. Nude beaches are something you hear about growing up and never expect to actually experience. I climbed over a large boulder and jumped down not expecting to see anyone. Instead, I stumbled upon a very tan, very naked, ~65 year old man. He was outstretched on a towel, sunning himself face up with his hands behind his head. Zero. Fucks. I was caught off guard and embarrassed a bit. I looked away, mumbled something out of the corner of my mouth that was a half-assed ‘hello’ and quickly walked past him without even glancing in the general direction again. I’m not sure if he said anything to me because I passed him so quickly. Once I was out of earshot, I laughed aloud as I continued to walk on the rocky beach. What universe was I in? I was smiling from ear to ear as I continued. I only went for another 10 minutes until I finally felt the fatigue, hunger and sunburn all at once. Again, I sat down, this time on the ground in the shade of a large rock. I didn’t want this day to end, but I still had about 2 hours to get back to my car, barely any water left and a low food supply. I wanted more of this euphoric feeling, but, I got what I came for. A recurring thought on this trek.
Just when I had made the decision to turn around and truly head for the Jeep, to my immense shock, the naked man rounded the corner of the rock I was sitting next to. I instinctively shot up from where I was sitting and prepared to run or fight. But mostly, I just fucking froze. There this man was, in all of his glory, COMPLETELY naked. Yep, you heard me correctly. No speedo, no sunglasses. Naked. Nothing on him… except… what was he holding?... Was that a…. a sandwich?????
As he approached me rapidly, with an outstretched hand that held what looked to be a very authentic, homemade focaccia and prosciutto sandwich… He spoke: “Insert Italian gibberish that I didn’t understand here.” My instinctual move was to back away, throw my hands up and shake my head.
‘NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT NAKED GUY. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO POISON ME WITH YOUR MEAT SANDWICH!’ (pun intended) But somehow my intense instinct faded as I could tell that this dude was mostly harmless. He was just offering me some of his clearly homemade flaky, focaccia and prosciutto sandwich. And I was hungry.
Once he broke me off a healthy portion and we were both enjoying the food and the view, he asked me if I spoke any Spanish. “Sí!” I said. We carried on for a bit in broken Spanish. His name was Andreas. He told me that he was a local and had been coming to this beach for 30 years. He said that now there were a lot of tourists coming here, but at one point you wouldn’t see anyone but the ‘neighbors.’ I thought… ‘A lot of tourists? Like, …one tourist? Just Me?’ This guy probably doesn’t even know what Disneyland is, let alone understanding what true over crowded tourism looks like.
We didn’t say much as we ate. I caught myself fighting back a smile. The situation was insane. How did I end up here?
Let’s recap. I bought a last minute ticket, drove away from the crowds down the coast, sought out the local and took directions from a stranger to a remote hike, went solo, saw the blue arrow and crawled down a rock face. This is life. There are never crowds when it requires that many sequential risks.
After a few moments and small talk in broken Spanish, he asked me if I was continuing in my journey. I told him that I was running out of water and planning on turning back soon. He immediately shook his head and said that the beach got even better a little further down. He insisted that I let him guide me further down the beach. Before I really gave him an answer he said that he would throw on his clothes and get his things and that he would be right back. Or at least that’s what I THOUGHT he said. About five minutes later, he came back around the rocks.
He had thrown his towel around his neck and his pack on his back. He was holding his shoes in his hands. Take a look at the photo. This beach was not your normal beach. The sand was very rocky and there were large rocks and boulders to traverse. I was wearing hiking boots and thick socks.
I laughed aloud, there was no holding my glee back any longer. Here we go naked guy. Lead the way.
To my surprise he scaled the rocks with ease like a damned animal!!! He was kicking my ass! Several times, he stopped and had to wait for me. NAKED. The 65 year old man was naked and barefoot and was absolutely smoking me.
For about an hour I enjoyed the sweeping views and challenging walk but could now intensely feel the sunburn that was on my cheeks and my lack of water was worrying me more and more the further we got into the hike. It was time. I got what I came for… AND THEN SOME!
I told Andreas that he would have to continue without me. He begged me to keep going because there were more beautiful sights ahead, but I had seen everything that I needed to see. I. mean. everything. Yea. You know what I mean. I made the trip back to the Jeep and sat there for about 30 minutes staring off into space before I started the car. This had all started with a sleepless night in Amsterdam 2 days prior.
I took a few really important things away from this experience. A few I already mentioned in the blog, but there are some particular things about this experience with Andreas that have really stuck with me since this happened several months back.
Why does vulnerability scare the shit out of us? Realistically, I know what male and female body parts look like. Yes, all of them. In fact, we all do. So why does naked human body scare the shit out of us and make us giggle? - Put this in an emotional context. We all know what fear, pain and struggle feel like. But we all hide those emotions as much as possible. But why? What’s the sense in hiding what makes us human? What we all experience and possess? We’re so afraid to show each other what is behind the curtain, when in reality it’s the most natural thing that could ever exist. It’s unnatural to only experience and express the perceived positive things. And as I mentioned in the blog, the feeling of complete loneliness, solitude and fear actually felt GOOD because they were so foreign.
The most vulnerable person should lead the way and they will probably be able to traverse the rocks faster than anyone else. If someone is open about sharing their failures, fears, romantic emotions, etc., get in line behind them. They have done a lot of digging and practicing to get to the point of feeling comfortable naked. They know what they are doing in life. Don’t be shy and look away, follow their lead. You will see that they likely traverse the difficult terrain in life with much more ease than the weaklings that have to wear clothes all the time and mask their emotions.
An experience is an experience. It’s not a lifetime. Don’t try to make it be a lifetime. Don’t be a drug addict. A high is only a high because it’s different from your daily life. The fear and solitude that I felt doesn’t have to be every day. The most important thing is that we listen to our thoughts that come to us during solitude, thoroughly appreciate the views of the bay and make a plan of how to maximize the lessons learned when we’re not on a mountain in Italy… Take what you have seen and apply it to the mundanity of life, don’t try to recreate a euphoric experience every day. If you try to do this, you’ll be sorely disappointed, or you will end up fabricating these experiences with cheap knock offs like alcohol, drugs and Tinder dates. Then your life becomes about constantly craving something you do not currently have, not about gratitude for the present. Ain’t nothin like the real thing. So don’t try to fake it. Just keep your eyes peeled for the blue arrows and listen to the naked people. They’ll give you the directions to the elusive, truly euphoric experiences. The less of the distracting, fake highs you are on, the more apparent these arrows become.