Sometimes, the direction a long distance walker wants to go, and the direction a long distance walker is allowed to go, aren’t the same. As it proved two day’s running in roughest Calabria…
The first time it happened it was the Carabinieri, the military police, who ‘suggested’ a change of route. They did so while I was making an approach to a forested mountain range which looked as though it would grant several miles of delightfully remote wilderness passage. The Carabinieri were on patrol, driving down from the hills along the exceptionally narrow mud road that I was walking up. When I became aware of their vehicle approaching I waved to be sure I’d been seen, then stepped to the side of the road and leaned back into dense vegetation, hoping they’d have enough room to ease passed. Turned out there was plenty of room, but they didn’t pass. They pulled level; they stopped.
A window hummed slowly open and two dark faces peered out, middle-aged, mustachioed, officious-looking, serious. The face of the policeman nearest me, the passenger, was roundish and bald, and it began talking rapidly, asking quick-fire questions in a concerned voice, but I could only make out the occasional word. Nor, it seemed, could the policeman understand my replies. Neither man had any English; neither man seemed able to remotely comprehend the simple explanation of my walk when I offered it in Italian. Norway? Walking? I might as well have been explaining a hike to the moon. Abruptly, they demanded my passport, and both took turns inspecting it carefully for several long minutes, leafing through it again and again, examining it from different angles as though it might reveal more if looked at upside down. And while this was going on I stood aside waiting peaceably, leisurely crunching an apple, trying to look thoroughly bored and unconcerned.
Eventually my passport was handed back. But they weren’t done. The Carabinieri seemed determined to have me understand something important.
“Questi boschi,” they said, gesturing up at the woods, “Molto pericoloso,” followed by, “Criminali, molti criminali.” They pointed down at their own guns, and up again at the woods. “Criminali.” Pericolosi!” The meaning was becoming clear. I pulled out my pocket-sized English-Italian dictionary to confirm, and handed it to them. For the next two minutes the book was passed back and forth; words were pointed out, and the message, it seemed, was this: “These woods are very dangerous. There are many criminals up there. Men with guns. We must insist you go another way.”
I wasn’t sure I completely believed them but… what choice did I have? I went another way.
The very next day, on the edge of another wild set of hills, a similar event occurred. Only, this time it wasn’t uniformed policemen who turned me back.
It happened at the end of another dirt road where a promising trail looked as though it began. Parked at road’s end were two large SUV’s, and resting against the SUV’s were two impressively bulked up men, dressed in heavy suites, leaning casually with arms crossed, looking thoroughly out of place in so wild a location as this. They looked up as I approached, stepped forward to block the trail, and I came to a halt: I had to… the way was barred. Both men were smiling with apparent warmth as they spoke, as they asked the kind of questions I was now growing well used to: where was I from? What was I doing? Where was I going? They seemed friendly enough, and genuinely interested in the journey, but when I pointed beyond them to the trail that I wished to follow and made as if to move that way they crossed their arms again and stood like rocks, shaking their heads slowly.
One of the men spoke a little English. “Nooo… no-no,” he said, using a deep and wonderfully melodic voice. He smiled easily, but shook his head again firmly. “It is… ah… better you go another way.” He stared at me earnestly, sincerely; there was something half resigned, half pleading in his eyes. “Believe me,” he said finally, with real emphasis.
…I went another way.
What would you have done?