Nearly 9 years ago, my sister and I took a trip to Europe. We were both single at the time with no romantic relationships on any near horizon. At this point in our adult lives, we had travelled together several times and had developed a pattern of assigned day planning.
It went something like this – we would get together and plan where and when we were going to travel, bargain hunt until we found the mode of transportation and an agreeable itinerary (which for two sisters who are about as opposite as two can be was definitely the biggest challenge) and schedule our trip. From there would come months of planning, trips to the library and book stores for travel guides, PBS documentaries (ala Rick Steves) about our decided destination, and some talk about trying to do it all on $40 a day, which never came to fruition. Then out would come the itinerary calendars – we would divvy up the days of the planned trip and each sister would have full planning rights to her assigned day.
For this particular trip to Europe, we had planned a Mediterranean cruise departing from Barcelona and stopping at several ports – Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence and Nice – each stop has its own special memories, but today I’d like to spend some time on the Naples portion of our trip.
In 2007, Italy was experiencing one of the hottest and most humid summers on record. Each day was close to 100 degrees with almost unbearable humidity percentages – it was miserable. But we were in Italy for heaven’s sake, so we were going to make the most out of each moment of this trip! Suck the marrow out of every experience! Vivere la vita al Massimo! (Live life to the fullest for all my non-Italian speaking friends – yes I looked that up!)
We arrived at our port destination of Naples early on the morning of our adventure – this day happened to be assigned to my sister for the planning and she had an amazing day on tap. I am a history nerd and European history in particular, from the Romans to the Nazis I’m your history girl – and my sister made sure I was to be immersed to my history loving core with all things ancient! I was so excited. We were to meet our guide at the ship dock and be taken to the ruins of Pompeii where we would be expertly guided through the restored city and treated to a real pizza luncheon. Following this exciting expedition, we would load again in our tour bus and be whisked to the hiking base of Mt. Vesuvius where we would be able to hike up a couple a miles to the summit and peer into the mouth of the deadly volcano which had, centuries ago, rained down massive amounts of volcanic ash and completely destroyed the city of Pompeii below. My excitement level was at a fevered pitch – to say I was giddy would have been an understatement – it was a once in a lifetime experience and I was going to savor every minute.
I should have known things might not go entirely according to plan when we walked up to our guide and after glancing at me briefly, said in very broken English – “ah, you have been to Naples before?” I was confused and not a little proud – apparently I did not look like a tourist – I must have had the very air of a heavily seasoned world traveler because he sized me up very quickly as being knowledgeable and at ease in my surroundings. This must mean I had been to Naples several times – perhaps he thought I was humoring my less well-traveled companions with this touristy tour – you know how Floridians do with Disney World!? Unfortunately my very high opinion of myself crashed to the ground of reality when my sister looked over at the t-shirt I had chosen to wear that day – a t-shirt with the word NAPLES typed neatly underneath a couple of seahorses frolicking in the surf – and started giggling uncontrollably. I was one of THOSE tourists! One of those who wear the shirt for the place they are going! Oh my goodness, the horror! Now in my own defense, the Naples so proudly proclaimed on my shirt was Naples, Florida and I really didn’t INTEND to wear that shirt on that particular day it just happened to be the next shirt in the pile when we were getting ready that morning – but none of my protestations made any difference to those who were now laughing and shaking their heads at my cheesiness. I was now THAT TOURST GIRL! Ugh!
Still stinging from the embarrassment of it all, I proceeded to the bus that would charter us to our first stop. If there was air conditioning on it, it was of the sort that was designed to not be detectable by humans, but I refused to complain because you don’t want to be a tourist girl AND an ugly American all in 10 minutes. Thankfully the ride was short and we arrived at Pompeii – it definitely lived up to the hype – it was glorious and ancient and everything a good little historian wants ruins to be! We spent several hours wandering through the streets, snapping pictures of every over turned column and wall etching. If you have about 15 hours, I can walk you through each and every picture and make up some story about them because I only have vivid memories of like 1/3 of what our guide told us. It was just so much to take in.
At this point I have to admit a character flaw from which I suffer, I don’t wait well. My life is ruled by the clock – I don’t go with the flow, I keep schedules, I follow time tables, I am on time for things! This is a good thing in a lot of respects – I typically arrive on time for work, school, events, rehearsals, etc.; I have never missed a bus, train, plane or cruise ship departure; I’m the one you want to be at a venue to set up because I’m guaranteed to be there on time and most likely early. However, in the case of vacation this inability to be in the moment means I am typically looking 2 or 3 steps ahead and miss out on the here and now. I’m working on this. But this tendency plays into what is about to happen in our story.
Remember our guide; I will call him Carlo because I have no idea what name he actually went by, the one who thought it hilarious that I wore the shirt FROM Naples TO Naples? He was a bit of a comedian – or at least fancied himself one – I’m not sure if we laughed along with his jokes because a) they were funny; b) we didn’t understand half of what he was saying; or c) we were worried if we didn’t laugh he would leave us on the side of the rode somewhere – probably a bit of all three. He and I had a bit of a back and forth going throughout our tour of Pompeii and I kept asking him about the 2nd half of the trip – the hike up Vesuvius. He would give me no details – just kept asking if I was in shape. Now, I was 31 at the time, fairly active and had been dieting in preparation for my big European vacation, so I was confident when I responded that I thought I was – to which he would smirk and say something indecipherable and point out some other Roman relic on our path. This happened several times – and by the time we loaded up on the bus to head up the mountain, I was getting a bit nervous. Throughout the drive to Vesuvius, I mentally assured myself that I could do this – after all thousands and thousands of people hike this mountain every year! It is a tourist attraction – young, old, man, woman, child – they all have made this trek – why it is probably paved and has hand rails for the handicap to traverse the short track of the mountain on which they will allow you to walk. It would be fine.
It was NOT fine.
Silly little American – this is Italy – this is not Disney World – there is no paved walkway with metal hand rails and water stops – this is a path of crushed volcanic ash with sheer drop offs and no water – this is 2 steps backwards for every one step you manage to move forward. This is 100 degrees and a billion percent humidity – this is hell! Our guide starts us up the mountain and I’m doing ok – I’m keeping up and I’m thinking it is just a little way to the top because surely no one really WANTS to walk this far. And then our guide says something like “I’m going to pick up the pace for those of you who want to get up there faster” – and off they go – I think he ran but memory may be making this worse than it is. I keep trudging and my sister who has always been more athletic than I am is staying back with me – grandmas and children are passing us – but she stays with me. I look ahead to a winding path that seemingly has no end and I look over at my sister who is wearing the vacation camera around her neck. Inspiration strikes.
Why am I hiking this mountain? For the pictures of course! I know a volcano is a crater in the top of a mountain. I know this one is dormant right now. I know I won’t see any lava. I know all the history surrounding the event that makes this volcano important (see the earlier history geek section of this article). I know that the humidity and heat have made visibility from the mountain over the water nearly completely obscured. I know that a gravely hole in the ground bears as much joy and excitement for me as…well as a hole in the ground! I know all these things and I put them together to form what to this day I think is one of my more ingenious plans. I tell my sister to go on ahead – I’m just slowing her down – make sure you take lots of pictures and I’ll catch up to you all at the top. She argues a bit but finally acquiesces and hikes on ahead and out of sight. Once in the clear, I hobble over to what turned out to be the only bench on the trail and sit down for a few minutes. From this level of the hike I can see all the way up and all the way down. I can see out over the mountains and almost out to sea. I dig some water out of my pack and enjoy a few minutes of an actual breeze and the sun shine.
As the group starts back down the mountain, I re-join our tour. We get to the bottom and all of us are given a lava stone from the volcano – even me, the one who did not summit the beast.
I would like to say this failure to reach the top causes me shame or guilt – shows in me a lack of will power or stick-to-it-ness – I’m sure some will read this and call me a quitter (please don’t actually CALL and call me a quitter). For me, however, this experience taught me something entirely different.
This hike, though memorable and treasured, was planned FOR me – it was not of my choosing. I attempted it, gave it my all but simply couldn’t and didn’t want to finish it. I think that happens in life a lot – we start down (or up) a path thinking that we will finish it. It may be a path we’ve chosen or one that has been chosen for us, but we begin thinking that we will see it through. That with enough grit and fortitude we can reach any summit. We can spend a lot of time hating those types of climbs – grumbling through the drudgery of never moving more than a couple steps ahead before sliding right back down. Or we can find a better way. A way that works better for us – that allows us to experience the joy of the picture or the breeze or the rest.
I am a big believer in accomplishments, goal setting, and achievement. And I have lived a lot of experiences in which I pushed through to accomplish a seemingly too hard task. I admire self-discipline and fortitude – in myself and others. I think that when you set a goal you should work with all your might to achieve it! This story teaches me a different lesson. A lesson that an over achiever like I tend to be has a hard time swallowing.
Sometimes the goals we set need to change to achieve what it is that we have been placed here to do.
If the journey brings you no joy – maybe you are on the wrong journey. Maybe the hole in the ground isn’t what you are meant to see – maybe it is for someone else. Maybe finding your path requires trying a lot of them and weeding out those that do not work to your strengths. Maybe the path you began on is not the path on which you will reach the summit – maybe your mountain, climb and destination looks differently than you first imagined. And maybe that is ok.