Mountain goats make for tumultuous trekking

Menaggio Travel Blog

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My ankle throbbed, as I wiped the dried blood from my knees with the edge of my dirt-streaked T-shirt – my last visible sign of my time in the Alps – and the hazardous mountain behind me disappeared from sight. I sat down gingerly on the stiff, plastic ferry seats, my rear end still tender from when that pesky goat mistook it for a pincushion. The pain would subside in days, but the incident would stick with me for a lifetime. My kids' kids would tell their kids the story of how their intrepid great-grandmother bravely fought off an entire herd of killer mountain goats single-handedly and barely escaped their evil clutches alive. Of course, like any good game of telephone, the story would be far exaggerated by that point, but who was I to argue with folklore?

At a young age, I was struck by the curse of spontaneity. Whether it was flinging myself off the top of the refrigerator seeing if my She-Ra cape really would allow me to fly, or stealthily slipping into the back of the UPS man's truck in hopes of a cross-country adventure, this character flaw of mine has always resulted in injury and, in worse case scenario, a trip to the hospital. Still, I couldn't help but wonder, as a nearly grown woman forever plagued with Peter Pan syndrome, what inspired the most recent of dim-witted ideas. …

I was weary. Six cities in 14 days. Sleepless evenings aboard overnight trains, often involving bunkmates with a lack of hygienic skills and stowaways that practically held me at gun point. Tracking down hostels in the still of the night, frightened by every minor sound and movement within my eerie twilight scope; crashing on train station floors more often than actually paying for accommodation. Living solely off cheese and bread, and on special occasions, Nutella smeared on a fattening croissant, when I felt the need to reward myself. Yes, backpacking solo is an exhausting hobby.

So when I went off the beaten path to Lake Como (okay, maybe not so much a "beaten path" per se, as George Clooney and his celebrity posse flock there each summer), I thought, where better to immerse myself in serenity and regain my sanity than in a quiet Italian hideaway with the breath-taking Alps as my backdrop?

I don't think I was quite prepared for what was to come. When I stepped off the ferry that transported me from Varenna, Italy – a small town an hour north of Milan – to Menaggio, a quaint mountain community nestled in the foothills of the Italian Pre-Alps, the breath was literally knocked out of me as I surveyed the magnificence before me. I have never witnessed such scenery firsthand: the clear, crystal blue lake captured by cascading, lush, green mountains and the distant snow-capped peaks framing the photographer's dream  – it looked like a scene out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

After spending the first afternoon simply enjoying my surroundings, soaking up the glorious end-of-summer sun and consuming a lifetime's worth of gelato, I aimlessly wandered into the local tourism office ready to begin my subsequent days of adventure hiking. Frankly, I was quite disappointed with myself for having been in Europe that long and not taken advantage of the abundant outdoors opportunities permanently at my disposal. After a summer working and leading camping excursions out in the great West of the United States, I was just itching for anything involving nature and wildlife. Or so I thought.

In the tourist office, I came across a list of nearby hiking trails and inquired about each of them. In nearly flawless English, the tourism officer didn't miss a beat, thoroughly covering each option with me, yet stopping before she read the last one on the list. I urged her to continue.

"Oh no, you don't want to do this one," she said in a cautious tone, the worry evident on her face. "This one is only for the most experienced of hikers, and we definitely don't recommend it for the average tourist."

An average tourist? Me? Clearly, this lady did not realize whom she was dealing with. I had spent my past few summers working as an audacious ranch hand in the Arizona desert, leading backpacking trips through the national parks when so inclined, and even skinning a rattlesnake or two if duty called. I had tackled Zion National Park, cruised through Bryce Canyon, frozen in La Sal Mountains and nearly fainted while covering 13 miles in just four hours in and out of the Grand Canyon one blistering August afternoon where the thermometer grazed 109 degrees. I could handle one measly hike in the early autumn Alps.  

Her hesitation at telling me anything further might as well have issued my death sentence then and there. This lady didn't think I could do it. The stubborn gene I inherited from my own mother does not allow me to turn down any challenge, which is exactly what I saw this as.

I retreated to my hostel before sunset in preparation for an early awakening and full day of mountain-aerobic fun. While getting ready for bed, I noticed a seemingly buff woman a few years my senior unfold a crinkled map and set out her hiking boots beside her bunk. My curious nature getting the best of me, I struck up a conversation with her and found out she was Jackie S., a 26-year-old fellow traveler from Manchester, England, and planned on tackling the same trail as me the following morning. Ten minutes later, we declared ourselves good enough friends to be hiking buddies and decided to make the journey together.

Armed with our maps and daypacks, we rose before the sun did and headed down to the city center to catch the first bus to Breglia, a barely visible dot on the map where we would begin what we thought promised to be a nice, little stroll through the Alps. We would later find out we were completely wrong in that assumption.

We boarded the bus and were pleased to find it was relatively empty – that is, until we reached the first stop and an entire clan of elderly Italian women joined us for the ride. What began as a quiet trip up the mountains soon became the outing from Hell, or rather a less than jovial jaunt through the land of the chattering Chihuahuas, as these were the most talkative over-70's I had ever encountered.

Jackie and I both had Italian socialites as our seat buddies. They continuously attempted to converse with us in their native tongue, even though we incessantly said, "No Italiano" in as polite a tone as possible. Our words were lost on them. Apparently, they thought if they repeated themselves enough times, the language gods would miraculously grace us with bilingual abilities. To their dismay, that never happened.

This was all a little much for me to handle at such an ungodly hour, but one by one, our new friends departed at their respective stops – all churches scattered throughout the mountain ironically enough – leaving Jackie and I alone once again. The bus screeched to a stop in Breglia shortly thereafter – the final stop on the route – and warily made our way up the stone path to the starting point of our hike, already a bit fatigued from the first hour of our morning.

I soon discovered the term "hike" was an understatement for what was to come and finally understood just why the lady at the tourist office exercised so much vigilance when I showed interest in the trail. From the beginning, the path was at least as steep as the Kaibab Trail of the Grand Canyon, and it took us the prescribed two hours to reach our destination, Rifugio Menaggio. I was rather downtrodden at the prospect of being considered just "average," but happy to sit down for a breather.

After we spent an ample amount of time admiring the spectacular view and taking multiple rolls of photographs, Jackie had the bright idea to hike up even further to the chapel on top of the mountain. I was a bit tired, but considering the path was marked "easy" and seemed true to its word, I consented. I'm not quite sure at what point we veered off said "easy" trail, but our error only became evident to us once we came face-to-face with a near vertical path of jagged rocks with authentic alpine goats (complete with sharp, elongated horns and bells dangling from their necks) sprinkled throughout the mountainous terrain to complete the picturesque scene.

Being ever the budding photographer, I removed my Canon EOS Rebel 2000 from my bag, in order to adequately capture the quaint moment. It was "Sound of Music" in every sense of the meaning. I half expected Maria and a coalition of von Trapp children adorning Heidi costumes and their hair in plaits to come bounding over the horizon at any moment belting out, "The hills are alive!" in ear-pleasing four-part harmony.

However, to my horror and Jackie's entertainment, it wasn't the kids that did the bounding, but the mountain goats instead (I guess they were camera shy) – they bounded directly down the hill and straight for us. It was not unlike the scene in "The Lion King" where Simba is trampled by wildebeest in the gorge. Jackie was having her turn with the alpine walking stick we had picked up along the way (a helpful hint from my travel-savvy dad) and calmly fought off the savage beasts with no afflictions. But instead of fleeing in the opposite direction, the hungry goats continued to chase me down the ravine.

In my haste to escape the monsters, I stumbled, fell over the edge of a small cliff and began to tumble like a snowball rapidly gaining speed to what I presumed was my death, the goats still hot on my trail through it all. The whole time Jackie was yelling after me to be assertive and just shove them out of my way. Normally, I'm not one to let a few harmless mammals hinder my journey (although the size of their horns didn't do much to alleviate my fears), but a Swedish couple I met at the refuge below had relayed a message not to touch any wildlife I may encounter. Apparently, the goats had most likely been infected with some sort of parasite that would have passed along a severe skin rash to me if I did indeed come in contact with them – exactly what I wanted to endure throughout the remainder of my trip.

Finally, nursing my injuries and annoyed by the goats' persistence, I administered a few swift kicks with my good leg that caught them off guard and gave me enough time to break free and escape from them with just a few minor scratches, a bloody knee and a sprained ankle, some nice souvenirs from my time in the Alps, I must say.

We continued up the path without any similar such incidents and eventually came to a section in the trail that could only be bypassed by hoisting oneself up a series of rocks that was supported by a lone rusty chain. The chain looked promising, though, as it seemed to have been there at least as long as the mountain itself.

I had never feared heights before, but when my foot slipped, sending rocks spilling over the edge and tumbling thousands of feet in their descent, I was suddenly filled with an uneasy sense of acrophobia, something I had never before experienced. But somehow in the midst of all my pain and exhaustion, I managed to pull my athletic, five-feet, six-inch frame to the top, and after scaling yet another foot-wide cliff, narrowly escaped death for the second time that day.

Once we finally reached the tip of the mountain and it wasn't possible to go any further up, as we had just climbed the highest peak in the area, I saw a sign that announced "Alpiners' Trail: Proceed only with proper equipment." Now they tell us. That would have been handy to have read at the start of the trail. While I am a self-professed outdoorsy girl, an alpiner I am not.

From there, we wasted no time hightailing it back down again and reached the bottom without any tumultuous occurrences – only eight hours after we initially left the bus stop, and just two minutes too late to catch the last bus back down the mountain for the day. Having had enough mountain fun for one day and not wanting to wait around to greet, rather warn, the following morning's hikers, we did what any self-respecting, "sane" backpackers would do and stuck out our thumbs. Perhaps not the safest of options, I will be the first to admit, but delirium had set in, we were stranded in the Pre-Alps with only the goats for company and were, in a word, desperate.

A trendy little Italian get-up carrying a kind, middle-aged couple came whizzing down the motorway to our rescue and pulled over to help us out. Now if you've ever had the pleasure of riding in a car with an Italian, you know how traumatizing this can be. My near-death experiences in the mountains were nothing compared to my transport back to the hostel. The trip that had taken us an hour there took less than 20 minutes to get back, and there were times when I saw at least one of the tires skid over the edge of mountain. However, at this point nothing fazed me – I was just grateful I wasn't camping alone in the Alps with my new goat friends.

Alas, we did arrive back in Menaggio in one piece, more or less. All things considered, I found this to be the most admirable feat of all. After that, I chose not to stay another night, bid a quick farewell to Jackie and was on the next ferry to Varenna and, from there, on the first train out of Italy. No more Italian nuns or parasitic wildlife for me, thanks.

Maybe next time I'll simply stick to churches, museums and nude communes.

AndiPerullo says:
Ok, first of all you are an amazing travel writer! Second of all, I hate what the goats did to you, but it's a really amusing story (glad you weren't seriously hurt)! ;-)

And you so rock for taking the hardest trail!!!
Posted on: Apr 24, 2007
worldcitizen says:
Lake Como was the first place I visited in Italy. It's beautiful!
Posted on: Apr 19, 2007
Eric says:
great writing! do you have any photos from Lake Como as well? It's one of the places in Italy that I didn't get the chance to visit!
Posted on: Apr 18, 2007
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Menaggio
photo by: ruxaa