Living Without Wilderness, May 2006

Note to reader: In 2006 I moved to Sicily with my husband for a job opportunity. Recently I recovered a journal that I thought was lost.  


I’ve been living in Sicily for about a month and the shine has worn off. Yes, the food is amazing, yes, the architecture is sublime. But I miss my walks in the woods, my wild ocean beaches. I miss my wild spaces.


My husband is working for the Navy as a fire chief on the NATO base in Sigonella. He works a 24-hr shift, so when he’s home we explore near our temporary apartment, and when he’s gone I try to write, entertain our two Labradors, and try not to sulk. I’m learning a little bit of the language, which is the brightest part of my day. I enjoy saying, “Va bene cosi,” to the barista dolloping my macchiato (the real kind, not that milky Starbucks crap) with a touch of foam, and “buongiorno” to my neighbor.


Our apartment complex is made of concrete and sort of resembles a prison, complete with bars on some of the windows, dead plants, and litter piled up in the corners of the parking lot. There is steep, open land behind the complex, but it is mostly scrubby, dried plants littered with garbage. The view is of an abandoned building project serving as a toxic dump site. Our back yard does have one tree, though when my dog OJ ate some of the caterpillars that live in it, he almost died.


On our journey to Sicily, both dogs had to travel in giant crates. It was a hot couple of days, and not a smooth trip. In the taxi from our hotel in Norfolk to the Naval airport where we would catch our military plane, it was so crowded with our duffels and the crates and us that I had to ride in one of the crates with Sophie on my lap. The day after we arrived, half of the living room was taken up by the crates, which I hadn’t broken down yet. The dogs gave the entire room a wide berth, and shot me mistrustful stares for days.


On our first outdoor excursion, my husband and I drove up towards Monte Etna, an active volcano and the highest point in Sicily. In the past, eruptions had sent lava flows down the mountain, destroying roads, cabins, and ski lifts. Apparently an acceptable cycle of rebuild-destroy exists here, because after the last eruption, they rebuilt the ski lifts in the same place. I’m used to mountains = wilderness. Or at least mountains = trails. Not on Monte Etna, where the black, pointy lava has created a landscape that looks like a carpet of shattered beer bottles. The view from the ski lift base was breathtaking, though, and the volcanic steam vents billowed puff after puff, as if a sleeping dragon lay just over the ridge.


I found a book called “Walking In Sicily.” It’s become like my bible. I pore over it on Kurt’s shift days, looking for anywhere on this island that could satisfy my need for wilderness. Cava Grande looked so promising; it’s a narrow gorge with trails along the banks.




The “marvelous canyon cut deep through the limestone plateau” beckoned. We arrived, me with my backpack ready, only to find the trail was a mere 1 km long and the steps carved into the stone wall leading down to the gorge were chock-full of Italians buddy-carrying their coolers down to the valley bottom for a stylish picnic. In heels, linen pants, and Sunday shirts.


Today we’re on our way to a different mountain. This area promises lush beech woods and is famous for some huge chariot battle during the Middle Ages. Apparently there are cork trees—the last remaining on the island. We arrive in a parking lot and follow the double track. Hey, at least it’s not a paved road. And I can hear birds singing, and smell the trees. The track parts the rolling terrain. I start to relax and think that maybe this could be my place. A place I can come when I need to reconnect to what is so important to me: wildness. A place where the trees haven’t been cut down and the flowers still bloom and the birds are happy. Where water can flow free of garbage and human meddling, and mountain clouds snag on limestone cliffs.


Suddenly, the dirt road is paved with ancient-looking stones. The kind you might see in a book about King Arthur. Maybe this is okay, I tell myself. Maybe a little history mixed in with my wilderness is acceptable. After all, Sicily is home to plenty of amazing history. I should embrace it. The road leads down to a lake, which is ringed by bare dirt and a few sparse trees. The water is murky and I’m not sure if I should let the dogs swim in it. On the shore are a handful of scruffy-looking men, huddled around what looks to be a small fire. More people, I lament. There is a pile of wood nearby. When I say “wood,” picture sticks—maybe as big around as my arm and about as long.


I notice that their fire is to brew espresso with the little steam percolators that are ubiquitous in Sicilian kitchens. Coffee? In the afternoon, in the wilderness? I think. One of the men speaks some English, and we learn that the men are woodcutters who work for several Palermo restaurants. They supply the wood needed for their ovens.


I am instantly depressed. Doesn’t anyone on this island care about wilderness? Doesn’t anyone just go hiking…for fun? Does it always have to be exploited: for an adventurous picnic, for firewood, or grazing livestock?


I will not survive here.


The leader who speaks English insists on brewing us coffee. And sharing their simple food—fresh tomatoes and fresh-baked bread and prosciutto and some kind of salty cheese. These men probably make $5 a day. One is missing a tooth, another is wearing boots with threadbare soles, and the other hasn’t had a decent haircut in some time. And here they are, trying to make conversation with us foreigners, sharing what little they have. Being good ambassadors. It’s immensely humbling and I’m ashamed later that it took me so long to engage with them, crack open my grieving heart to them.


Maybe I can survive here. It’ll be hard. I have no trails to run, no mountains to climb. But I have pockets of beauty to hold close to my heart. I have strangers who care for me like family. I have the blue Mediterranean Sea. It’s not enough, by any means, but maybe it is enough—just in a different way.


I tell myself that I can at least try.