This was our most difficult hike. The trail quickly turned steep, the air cold and damp. Susan (oldest child) disappeared at the head of the line. Alex and I (a middle child) climbed together, pausing once at a meadow where we could see the sea. "Remember to stop and look at the view," he told me. "It helps you climb." After an hour and a half of steep, steady climbing, we reached the top, in a thick cold mist that turned to rain. We waited for the others, shivering. There was a stone hut, but it was unwelcoming, windowless and dank. Two men in green uniforms drove up, talked to Alex, and vanished. Freezing, we wondered how long we'd be there. The men reappeared and spoke to Alex. He translated. "They've built you a fire." The green men—park rangers—had transformed the hut, turning an old oil drum into a fireplace. We ate lunch, warming ourselves blissfully before the flames. Kathy produced both esses and macaroons, and the green men brought us chestnuts to roast.
For our descent we took a different path, on the west side of the mountain. Halfway down, Alex, Susan, and I left the others to let them catch the three-o'clock ferry from Rinella. We'd walk around the southern flank of Mount Fossa, and get the six-o'clock ferry from Santa Marina Salina. It was to be an adventure: Alex had hiked only part of this route, and didn't know if the trail went all the way. Moreover, the six-o'clock ferry was the last of the day.
We waved good-bye and took the new trail back up the hillside. Soon we were high above the coast, on steep, red sandy bluffs. This part of the island was empty, and below us was only scrub and brush. The sun lowered steadily, and the trail continued to climb, instead of descending toward the southeast. We passed a tiny rifugio, barely big enough for our three bodies. "That's where we'll spend the night," Susan announced. We kept clambering upward, through the red landscape, until Alex finally said we'd have to turn back. We could still make the last ferry from Rinella.
"Wait," said Susan. "There's a fork ahead. Let's see if the trail turns down there."
We were in desolate terrain, high and barren, with a steep plunging drop to the woods. Below, the ocean crashed onto the rocks.
"Are you nervous?" Susan asked Alex. "Being on this unused trail?"
"No," Alex answered jauntily. "I have you to help if anything happens to me."
"Together we're a hundred and two," Susan warned. "Is this the woman you want in charge of saving your life?"
We climbed crest after crest, hoping, as we scaled each one, to see the white buildings of Santa Marina on the other side, but finding only waves of uninhabited forest. When we reached a wide wooded valley, with no sign of the trail, Alex said, "We're heading down to the coast here, no matter what." A faint path led through wild scree into intermittent clearings, and at last we saw houses. A family was coming in from the vineyards with baskets of grapes. Alex asked where the ferry dock was; his face fell. We weren't in Santa Marina, but in the next village over, Lingua. It was five o'clock. My knees were trembling; we'd been climbing for about seven hours. We hurried into the village and asked about a bus. There was one, but no one knew when it would arrive. We asked a woman for a ride, but she wasn't going to Santa Marina. We set out bravely but hopelessly on the main road. It was now 5:30, and Santa Marina was several miles away: we couldn't possibly make it. A car came by. Alex waved firmly, and it slowed. Alex leaned in and spoke to the elderly driver. The man looked at us, then nodded gravely. We caught the ferry with seven minutes to spare.
at our last dinner, we all felt festive, and the food, as usual, was wonderful. We talked about the trip, already reminiscing. We had hiked up and down volcanoes, through pouring rain and sulfuric mists, through gorges and amphitheaters. We felt strong and successful and proud.
Leila told us about her conversation with her dentist.
"You're taking a vacation," he'd said, "where are you going?"
"Hiking in Sicily," she'd answered.
"Oh," he said, "then you're still quite active."
Leila laughed so hard her eyes watered. It made us laugh, too, but everything made us laugh that night. We asked Susan and Judy One to do their soft-shoe routine. Finally they stood up, side by side, and began gaily shuffling and kicking in unison, accompanied by Susan's half-sung, half-spoken "Steppin' Out with My Baby." We cheered and clapped: we found it charming. We found everything charming, that night, and everyone found us charming, or at least this was what we felt.
More and more companies are offering walking tours. Here, the author's choice and a few others to consider.
Country Walkers 800/464-9255; $2,595 per person for the outfitter's standardized Sicilian trip.
Abercrombie & Kent 800/323-7308. In addition to visits to the country houses of Scotland and the medieval villages of the Dordogne, A&K offers walking safaris through Kenya and Tanzania.
The Wayfarers 800/249-4620. Specializes in walks through the European countryside, and has also added the United States and New Zealand to its itineraries.
Mountain Travel Sobek's La Dolce Via 877/773-6523. This adventure company is launching its first walking trips in May, primarily through Italy and France, with an emphasis on regional food.
Butterfield & Robinson 800/678-1147. Walking trips through Europe and Southeast Asia, as well as customized tours.