#13 The Heart of the Brenta Dolomites & Heading Home (August/September 2013)

The Heart of the Brenta Dolomites
Pinzolo/Carisolo, Italy
The tripper-planner in Bill hit a rare low upon arriving at Pinzolo, our first stop in the heart of the Brenta Dolomites. His meticulous route planning in the spring had been done from his usual maps that indicate just enough information for selecting destinations worthy of our effort to get there by bike, information like the presence of hiking trails and if the ski lifts are open in the summer. Once we were near the Brentas he began examining his more detailed regional hiking maps and some of those trails in the Brentas were farther "over there" than he'd anticipated. I began hearing the first rumbling of concern in the form of "There might not be as many trails to occupy us as I thought." I wasn't too concerned because we have become quite skilled at occupying ourselves. 4618 Even part way down from the top of the lift, our mountain trail was "over there."

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Once out of the vertical stretches below the hut, it was still a long way back to the Pinzolo lift.
Stepping off the chair lift platform at the top of the second of 2 lifts from Pinzolo stopped us in our tracks, however. Our lifts up from the main road hadn't deposit us on the mountains as is usually the case, they took us to in sight of the mountains. It was heartbreaking to stand there on Day 1 of our 5 night stay for which we were paying high season rates and realize the mountains were largely out of reach to us as hikers. It was about a 1000' descent from the top of the lift down to the next valley from which to begin approaching the mountains. It turned out to be about an hour of mostly in-the-forest walk to the base of the nearest mountain. An hour each way plus an hour round trip to walk from our apartment in Carisolo and to ride the lifts meant 3 hours of each day would be spent just getting to the base of the mountain. "Pinzolo is good for skiers, not hikers" was Bill's conclusion as we stood there in dismay.

Our final assessment was that there was basically 1 good mountain hike for us from Pinzolo, which was up to the 12th Apostle Hut. A challenging trail with multiple, short, near-vertical scrambles and a total of 3,500' of gain, it was a good event. It could be done as an out-and-back or as a loop, but that was about it. Hikers at our skill level had to stay overnight at the hut to access the via ferratas or they risked arriving at the lifts after they'd closed for the night. Other than the 12th Apostle Hut, Pinzolo was a place of forest walks, which isn't what we come to the Dolomites to do, or multi-day, hut-to-hut excursions.

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The views above Madonna were dramatic though the geology wasn't as delightful as the Dolomites farther east.
Madonna di Campiglio, Italy
Up the steep road from Pinzolo was Madonna di Campiglio, the primer destination in the Brenta Dolomites for hikers and skiers. And indeed, Madonna di Campiglio's mountains and views of them were more expansive than Pinzolo's and the lifts whisked us to tops from which we hiked up further and not down. But after a week of hiking from Madonna, we were convinced that Madonna's mountains weren't stunning enough to give the Brentas top billing as a destination in the Dolomites. The "over there" experience of the mountains compared with the "right here" feeling in the more eastern Dolomites continued to leave us wanting for what we had known farther east. And more than at Pinzolo, fully experiencing Madonna's mountains was reserved for expert hikers doing multi-day hikes.

Neither Pinzolo or Madonna dazzled us with their views of the peculiar geology that we'd come to think of as typical of the Dolomites, but unlike Pinzolo, there were many hiking trails to explore at Madonna. In hindsight, the large number of trails was Madonna's strongest point and there were more trails there than any other single hiking area we'd visited. Bill was relieved and impressed that at least he'd been right about that. Making a special effort to travel farther west in the Alps to visit the Brentas this summer had been a disappointment but we were glad to know for ourselves what they did and didn't have for us. We won't make the Brentas a destination again though if we are in the area we might hike from Madonna.

Basta! Basta! Vieni Qua!
Basta! Basta! (Enough! Enough!)
Like the exasperated young Italian mothers, at about the 2 month point in our 3 months in Italy, we'd had enough and were saying "Basta!" But the mothers had tired of their children and we'd tired of the Italians. And we weren't alone: the mountain region Italians, who don't consider themselves Italian, also tire of "The Italians". "The Italians" come from farther south and don't share the same sense of propriety that the more Germanic northerners have, a sensibility which is similar to ours. The more southern Italians live big--they fill the space with noise and litter.

Shouting and screaming children are the norm for these visitors to the mountains and the parents generally deal with the racket by shouting over their loud children. Ear plugs help, but they aren't always enough to allow us to sleep. When hiking, some families would get to a scenic spot, like a little lake; disperse; then start shouting at each other. To us, it seemed like such an odd response to the beauty of nature.

After the "Crisis" or economic meltdown hit in 2008, Italy and other countries had "travel at home for holiday" campaigns to boost t
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Even stemless thistles & other flowers couldn't counter the visual experience of the trail litter.
heir economies. We noticed a significant shift: the number of Germans and Austrians in the Dolomites plummeted and the number of Italians jumped up. And with the shift came the shouting and the garbage. There was a noticeable spike in the litter on the close-in trails. On some previously spotless, routes it became hard to be out of sight of a piece of litter on the trail. Piles of toilet paper, foil food containers, you name it, it was on the trails. At one venue this summer we noticed a huge sign board at the trailhead illustrating all of the different materials constituting litter--a sign that was uncharacteristically in Italian only.

Talking with Monika, the Croatian housekeeper, when we were back in Selva in September reinforced that we'd better get used to it. She said the summer guests this year were "All Italians." We pressed her; surely some of the Germans were coming back but no, "All Italians." And the Germans weren't even returning for the ski season: now about half of the winter guests were Russians.

"Vieni Qua!" (Come here!)
"Vieni Qua!" often came after a string of "bastas" shouted by the Italian mothers, which means "Come here!" It's a phrase we hadn't noticed in the past but parking ourselves at more family oriented venues this summer changed that. "Vieni qua, vieni qua!" was often ringing in the background. Mothers ran the 3 syllables together so tightly that I laughingly said it sounded like a name and we laughed again imagining that some kids think that "Vieniqua" is their name. Bill enjoyed the joke so much that he's decided to name his first, yet to be purchased, iPhone "Vieni qua" in keeping with using Italian names for our latest devices. He named his iPad "Io" (eee-oh) which is Italian for "I" and I named my iPhone5 "Quinto" which is Italian for 5th. So when "Vieni qua" arrives in our home it will put smiles on our faces for years because we'll be reminded of this summer in the mountains.

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Intricate facades in the Italian villages turned our heads.
Heading Back to the Eastern Dolomites
Bill routed us back "home" to Selva in the eastern Dolomites through both new and familiar territory. And as had been the theme for the summer, Bill plopped us down for a day or 2 of lower elevation hiking in 2 areas we'd been through before though hadn't explored. Like many of the new hiking venues this year, both were satisfying for a new experience but neither would beckon us back for a longer stay.

Bolzano, Italy is a city at the base of the eastern Dolomites that we always stay in, either when entering or leaving the Dolomites, or both. But this year things were done differently and that included staying outside of Bolzano instead of in the heart of the city--it was an inspired decision. Bolzano hotel and pension rooms tend to be expensive, small, and stuffy, a problem given that the details of the geography make it one of the hottest cities in Italy. But 10 miles out of town on the slope of the steep valley wall, it was cooler and breezier. Our bigger room had a welcome balcony for the pleasures of outdoor living that the city hotels don't offer. And given that we were on a 3 month tour instead of 9 months as in the past, our sense of urgency for resupplying in the city was very low. Bill did route us by 2 of our favorite food markets on our way through Bolzano the next day, which satisfied our shopping needs while giving us a more relaxed lodging experience.

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An Old World street scene near Bolzano.
That 30+ mile ride from west of Bolzano, through the city, and up towards the Dolomites themselves was delightful. It was our last full biking day of the season, which is always sad, but it was an exquisite ride. We'd ridden the route, entirely on protected bike or multi-use paths many times, but it is always different. The greater Bolzano area is biking crazed and the vast network of bike paths is constantly being reworked. It was a game of discovery for us to see where they'd take us this time. This year a confusing area long under construction was fully completed and we breezed through without a pause. In another area, the route for the last couple of miles into the city had entirely moved, presumably because of another construction project, and we held our breath hoping it took us where it said it would, which it did.

As we exited Bolzano on the mountain-side we began admiring the steep, intensely terraced vineyards. The glories of the lower humidity day meant that the colors really popped and the vivid greens against the brilliant blue sky were mesmerizing. The slopes are incredibly steep there as in many places in the Alps, but we still stared and marveled at the intense agriculture on them and the look of the Old World buildings. The vineyards disappeared when we hit the sharper curves in the narrowing gorge and our gaze turned to the rock faces above us and the new art on the bike path. The ongoing project of presenting the creations of challenged youth adds visual play to the persistent though usually gentle grade on the bike route. The artwork dropped away and then we looked higher to the serpentine curves of the seemingly excessively elevated freeway taking a steady procession of semi's to the nearby Brenner Pass. Whether it's raining, stifling hot, or a perfect cycling day like this day was, we always delight in these routes in and out of Bolzano. The dedicated bike paths, the access to goods and services, the sense of camaraderie, and the scenery are as good as it gets for the international cycling crowd.

The next major stop after the greater Bolzano area would be Selva where we'd wrap-up our summer holiday by spending a week on the trails and preparing for our journey home.

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Why run on streets when there is scenery like this available?
Anticipating the Ortisei Mountain Run
The day after our return to Selva from our 7 week bike tour we were out scouting the course for the Ortisei mountain run in which we hoped to participate in July of 2014. It was a mix of sleuthing and orienteering as the race organizers only published 6 turns in the course, plus the start and finish. My email inquiry to the officials for more information yielded a "Just follow the arrows" reply, which meant that on race day we'd be on the course for the first time. No doubt the locals and the elite runners would have ready access to the details but we were destined to be left in the dark. Luckily one 2013 participant documented part of the course and posted his video on YouTube. At about the half way point he ran out of power and we were left to guess from that point on. pix

It took us 5 hours to walk the 9 mile course that day with Bill watching the video on his tablet as I jotted down routing notes for future use. At times we were reduced to comparing the pattern of tree roots and protruding rocks on the trail surface in the video with what was before us in order to decide which fork in the road to take. Damaged bark on trees, boards on the road, and a glimpse of a building on the video all aided in our decisions of where to turn. And surprisingly, in the 7 weeks since the race was held, one of the trail signs had been replaced so it was a complete mismatch with the video. But by the time we'd made it to the finish line 4,100' above the starting point, we were pretty confident we'd only made one wrong turn, which buoyed our enthusiasm for a trial run on the course.

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The finish line will be about 20 minutes beyond this area.
Walking the route was also invaluable for deciding what style of minimalist shoes to use for the event because of the very coarse rock on some of the service roads. And the repeatedly severely steep grades in places made it clear that few of the recreational runners would actually be running those slopes so we'd have plenty of company when using our fast-walk approach. Seeing the mix of deep shade and completely exposed trails helped us visualize how we'd want to dress for the event as well. All of this was priceless, first-hand information to have as we embarked on our 9 months of preparation for the event.

Our first attempt at navigating the mountain run route 4 days later at our maximal sustainable level of output with a minimum of running was a success. The course is supposed to be completed in 2:30 and we made it in 2:48. Significantly slower than we need to be but not out of reach. Some recently recurring injuries had prevented us from beginning our running training, so we still had hope for upping our overall speed over the next 9 months. And there is that surely quantifiable but unknown-to-us issue of the estimated drag from the 5 lb packs we carried, packs that we hoped will drop down to 1.5 lbs on race day. The hardest part for us is that 15 of those excess 18 minutes must be shaved off the first hour and a half of the race to be allowed to continue on from the check point. But we were pumped by our triumph with what seemed like an unimaginably hard level of output and will continue our training at home.

Heading Home
Leaving the Mountains
Always a bittersweet time, we tucked our bikes and panniers away for the winter, said our goodbyes to our favorite people and places at Selva, and looked ahead. The prospect of participating in a real mountain run had given this summer's stay in the Alps a new twist and added a tinge of excitement to our departure. Training for the event would add a welcome new sense of purpose to our fitness program as well as guide our SW itinerary as we looked for new peaks to climb. We were already scheming how to increase both the intensity and endurance aspects of our exercise while being respectful of the limitations of our bodies. We hoped that being 4 years into our change to a forefooting gait and using Jeff Galloway's run/walk training strategy would allow us to become runners again without the injuries we experienced in the past.

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The Teva Zilches first employed in 2012 have become our favorite minimalist trail shoes.
Savoring our new goal of being novice mountain runners lead to reflecting upon how the Dolomites had shaped our lives and bodies over the last 10 years. We arrived in the Italian Alps as cyclotourists and quickly learned that it was too small of an area to only bike through--it was over too soon. As Bill began looking at the hiking trails on his maps for the area, he became intrigued by the via ferratas, the hiking trails secured with steel cables. His fear of heights was a barrier and so we began a program of ramping up his confidence. We started by using curbs and rock walls as balance beams and then visited a couple of ropes courses to get higher while in Northern Italy.

Doing via ferrata hiking routes forced us to improve our hiking speed, especially going downhill, and compelled us to take rock climbing classes while at home. Hiking was clearly the way to best experience the lovely mountains and our summers eventually became dominated by hiking rather than cycling. And seeing the tremendous ease of the best hikers on the rocky slopes gave way to forefooting and wearing minimalist shoes. Now we were seeing a new way to deepen our connection with these mountains: running up them. How different our lives would be if Bill hadn't followed his route planning hunches that guided us into the Dolomites in those early years.

On the Roads & Rails
In keeping with Bill's theme of doing things a little differently this year, our stops from Selva to the Amsterdam airport diverged from the well-worn path. We spent nights in Bressonone, Italy; Munich and Hannover in Germany; and then near the Amsterdam airport. Someone asked "Why Hannover?" and the answer was easy: "We always miss our train connection at Hannover so this year we just stopped there for the night."

The emphasis when heading home is always on keeping it "tranquillo." Relatively short travel days on the bus and then trains and confining the travel to the middle portion of business hours kept our stress levels down. One of the better jet lag recovery tips we learned a few years ago was to get plenty of sleep and keep the stress down a few days before flying and it certainly works for us. Keeping a sense of spaciousness in the long journey to the airport also gives us time to start making the psychological adjustments to life back in the States and to catch-up on neglected chores.

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We were already settled in when our train was sidelined.
One source of stress literally hit the cracking point on the way home, which was our second wheel on one suitcase began showing signs of splitting even though we'd shifted most of the weight to the other bag. We'd hoped that by keeping it light until we flew would get it home, but by the time we arrived in Hannover it looked unlikely to make it. Unable to buy a file to cut through the rivet like we'd done with a borrowed file on the other wheel when in Selva, we asked at the hotel front desk for help. The maintenance guy had left for the night but when Bill checked back in the morning, he was happy to take the project on, especially since we had all of the needed parts. He declined the offered tip and seemed pleased to have been on the winning team for solving an unusual problem. Relieved and smiling, we headed to the Hannover train station with 2 purple wheels on our black suitcase that morning.

The cosmic joke on this year's train journey to Amsterdam was that we didn't entirely avoid the Hannover curse, though the glitch occurred beyond the city. After an unusually long wait at a station, an announcement in German only instructed customers going to Amsterdam to remain on the train and that all others were to exit and board the next regional train. A fellow traveler said we'd be on our way in 5 minutes. After 45 minutes of stillness another fellow passenger said we no longer had an engine and it was unknown when one would arrive. Lucky us: there were no fussy babies in our car, there was a power connection for our computers (though no internet), we had an extra day in which to make our international flight, and we had a pile of food with us so we calmly ignored the delay. An hour and a half later we were underway, knowing we'd missed our last connection. But at least our next train change was in the greater Amsterdam area and Bill thought the needed line ran about every 30 minutes.

With the distractions of the train delay and vulnerable wheel behind us, we could again turn our attention to going home. This fall's organizational challenges would be greater than those last fall because instead of a 2 month visit in the SW and then returning home for the holidays, we'd be hardcore snowbirds and spend the entire winter in the South. We relished not doing the extra driving that coming home involved and avoiding the winter rains but it would be odd not to feel the festivity of the season at home. The holidays come and go almost unnoticed when in the National Parks, which is where we are likely to be at the time. The medical and dental appointments that had always been December/January chores would be shifted to October or May and we'd need to be preparing our tax returns remotely. None of the issues were big or difficult, it was more a matter of anticipating the stream of issues to be tended to but they warranted consideration before we were actually home.

Our 36 hour stay in an exurb of Amsterdam near the airport signaled the official close to our European tour. The layover day was spent doing a P90X workout, walking into the village for groceries, redistributing the weight between our 2 suitcases, and applying our brains to important tasks before the fog of jet lag burdened our thinking for the better part of a week. Though still in Europe enjoying its different ambiance and sense of space, resuming the P90X video workouts was a strong signal that "it was over." The DVD workouts are what we do for "townie" time; its our substitute for hiking or biking. We'd much rather be exerting outdoors but the indoor workout has become an invaluable part of our fitness focused travel since our 9 month cyclotouring season shrank to 3 months. So, the next time you hear from us we'll have been doing P90X daily while at home preparing for going to the SW for the winter. Cheers!