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A Walking Trip in the Sicilian Countryside

Last year I was invited on a seven-day walking trip in Sicily. It sounded sensational: up to 10 miles each day through that fierce and ancient landscape. We'd spend two days near Syracuse, on the southern coast; two in Taormina, in the east; and three in the Aeolian Islands, the archipelago just off the Sicilian coast. We'd climb through desolate gorges, across the broad flanks of smoking volcanoes, and up steep wooded mountains rising from the sea. That was the adventure part. For luxury, there were comfortable hotels, two local guides, and vans for the luggage. Plus we'd be in Sicily, where you can't get a bad meal.

There was another interesting aspect to the trip: it was all-women. I'd never traveled with a passel of females before, and I wondered what it would be like. Would we talk differently?Would women alone act like men alone—turn loud and bawdy, like guys on a hunting trip?Without men, would we wear makeup and jewelry to dinner?I was curious. I accepted at once.

Country Walkers, our outfitters, planned everything and sent meticulous instructions. I was told to pack light, to bring only hiking boots, rain gear, sweaters, shorts, long pants, T-shirts, hats, a walking stick, and clothes for dinner. Light?The night before my departure found me, as usual, surrounded by piles of clothes, half-filled suitcases, and random pairs of shoes; myself immobilized by indecision and the whole scene overcast by the brooding mystery of which essential object I would forget this time.

On the first day, my suitcase crammed with ill-chosen things, I arrived at the Catania airport. We were to meet there by midday, and on our way to Syracuse we were to stop for a hike through the Pantalica, a wild gorge.

We met our two guides. Alex Gullo, of Sicilian descent, was in his thirties, slight and olive-skinned, with jet-black hair, soulful brown eyes, and a wide white smile. He was easygoing and gregarious. Paul Blanchard, an American living in Florence, was in his forties, quiet, knowledgeable, and articulate, an artist and a guidebook writer. The two shared a vast love and knowledge of Sicily.

The first afternoon tested them: storms delayed incoming flights, the last member of our group arrived without her suitcase, and the battery was dead in one of the vans. Hours behind schedule, we thought we'd miss our walk. But, at twilight, our resourceful guides had us on a beach near our hotel outside Syracuse. For an hour we strode through the soft salt air, across rough headlands beside the wide turquoise sea, the lights of the harbor glittering across the darkening water.

That night, at a trattoria, we sat down together for the first time. We ordered wine and began to talk. I knew only three of the women, though most of them had traveled together before. We were nine: Susan and Kathy, the organizers; Galen, Stephanie, two Judys; Mary, Leila, and me, all from New York and its environs. I won't say we were middle-aged, because that's a phrase used only about other people, but our ages did cluster gracefully around the 50-year mark. We'd all been married at least once. We all loved walking; we all were fairly fit. No one had trained specially for the trip.

We talked. We talked about packing, which we all hated. Someone said that, in the throes of it, she'd almost called Kathy and then declared, "No. I'm fifty-four years old and I'm not calling anyone up to see what she's wearing." She sounded triumphant, as though she'd ended years of servitude. We talked about our first husbands and our second husbands. With great animation we talked about childbirth. At this I looked at Paul and Alex, who were eating silently, their eyes on their plates. It already seemed we were different from guys. I couldn't imagine this conversation on the first night of a golf trip.

the next morning we were to set off promptly at nine. Promptness, I learned, was one of the trip's two rules. The essential object I had forgotten was a clock, and that morning I was running late. At nine I was searching frantically for my sun hat, but instead of the sympathetic responses for which women are so famous, I received stony stares and silence. More like guys.

Our first climb was into Sicily's great canyon, the Cava Grande di Cassibile. The 820-foot descent was difficult: down steep switchbacks with loose wet stones underfoot. But at the bottom was a ravishing blue-green river overhung with trees and widening into pools. The gorge was hundreds of feet deep, but wide; it felt secret, but was full of light. As we reached a broad, beautiful pool, we noticed that Paul and Alex had fallen tactfully behind. We stripped down and plunged in, some suited, some not. The water was black and cold—crystalline and delicious. We had lunch on the rocks, surrounded by waterfall, sunlight, and birdsong. Later, when we reached the top again, generous Kathy produced a bag of sweet chewy pastries called "esses," after their shapes. We ate them in the lowering sun, looking out on a wild landscape. Across a broad chasm, mountain goats teetered unconcernedly round the cliffs.

That night at dinner we talked. We talked about our dogs, and how we hated leaving them. Mary had made a recording of her voice for her dog, which her husband was playing every night of her trip. Several of us, myself included, confessed to having talked to our dogs on the phone. Are we nuts?I thought about the guys on the golf trip.

We spent the next morning at the archaeological museum in Syracuse, where Paul was an informed and enthusiastic guide. He showed us a lyrical statue of a big, full-bodied woman nursing two blissful infants. Paul described an ancient matriarchal society where men were warriors and consorts who held no property or titles. Eventually, he said, the men rebelled at this unfair treatment.

Up until then, our group had been a quiet and courteous audience, but this story seemed to stir us up.
"How many hundreds of years did it take them to figure that out?" someone asked rowdily, and everyone laughed.
"When was this, exactly?" I asked.
"Those were the Good Old Days."
Paul waited patiently for our hilarity to subside. I wondered if this was sexual harassment. Were we acting like guys?It seemed suspiciously close.

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