The Path (Best) Not Taken

It all started when someone told me – or maybe it was something I read – that the best place to watch the sunset on Capri was from the Faro – not the Faraglioni, the rocky outcrops off the south-east end of of Capri – but the real lighthouse at Punta Carena.  It made sense. Punta Carena is the most south-westerly tip of the island.   I had also read that there was a path from Monte Solaro down to the lighthouse.  After our morning boat ride around the island, it sounded like the perfect outing for the afternoon.

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On the left, the lighthouse at Punta Carena. In the distance on the right the Faraglioni.

On a previous trip I had taken the chair lift from Anacapri up to Monte Solaro and then walked down along the Via Crucis, which was pretty rough in parts, but for a path also known as ‘The Way of the Cross’ and ‘The Way of Suffering’ it was totally doable and the views were great. (Yearning for Light, Feb. 23, 2014)

Looking back I realize I was offered not one, but two opportunities to reconsider my plan. But as a sign I once drove past on a treacherous mountain road warned, you have to give your guardian angel a chance.

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As we drove along the south shore that morning I was somehow oblivious to the fact that the path I planned to take was somewhere up there in those craggy peaks.

When we got to the ticket counter at the chair lift and I asked for ‘Due biglietti, solo andata‘  the clerk looked at me, and clearly hoping to save me from myself, asked ‘Andata solo?’ (One way only?)

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Most visitors (wisely) take the chairlift down.

We wandered around the top of the mountain for a while, enjoying the views, taking photos of each other, and of other visitors who then took photos of us.  It was beautiful. But after a while I began to feel the first twinges.  We had pretty much covered the top of the mountain and I had seen no sign of the path.  Also, after a lovely, leisurely lunch, then the bus up to Anacapri and then the chair lift, by the time we reached the top of Monte Solaro it was late afternoon. This was September.  The shoulder with the short days.

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On a clear day the view from Monte Solaro stretches east all the way along the Amalfi Coast.

Finally I went back to the chair lift and asked one of the attendants.  Oh yes, signora, there is a sentiero.   One of them led us to a small gate below the station.  Eccolo!  Here it is, he said as he opened it and waved us on our way.  What was soon revealed as remarkable about this brief interchange was that in a region where dramatic expressions and grand gestures are part of everyday communication, at no point did he give any indication whatsoever that the path might not be suitable. At the very least not for one of us.

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As we set out the sun began what seemed like a precipitous fall and peaks to the west began to cast their long shadows on the path.

There had been many mornings when, in the interests of maintaining a blissfully companionable relationship with my now adult daughter, I had worked very hard to keep my mouth shut tight when I saw her footwear choice for the day.

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How had she known to trade the flip flops for running shoes on this particular day?

I on the other hand was wearing sandals. Not stylish, delicate sandals, but the comfortable, thick-soled, sturdy sandals I always wear and which I had worn on the Via Crucis.  But they were no match for the loose rocks and pebbles of what was more a mulattiera (moo-lat-tyeh-rah) than a sentiero.   A less travelled mule track.

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I’m coming.

On the few – all too few – flat stretches when I wasn’t consumed with trying not to sprain an ankle or smash my camera on the rocks, I had some very nasty thoughts about a poem that up until then I had always thought was quite lovely.  Especially the last lines – “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— /I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.

If you are of a certain age you probably recognize the lines from the poem by Robert Frost, a poem you may also have learned by heart as school children once did.  Of course that was in a bygone era when memorizing poems was viewed as an effective way to develop our memory skills, rather than a stifling impediment to our individuality and creativity.  In any event, like most readers and many professional critics, I had always viewed the poem as an ode to those courageous enough to set out on the lonely, less travelled path.  And like many of them – search engine data backs this up –  I was also under the MISTAKEN impression that the Frost had called his poem ‘The Road Less Traveled’.   Mistaken not because there is only one ‘l’ – he was American – but because he had in fact called it ‘The Road Not Taken’.

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Even carrying my bag my daughter made much speedier progress than I.

And, as it turned out, the difference between the mule track I was struggling along and the path I had expected was just about as big as the difference between Frost’s road not taken and his road less travelled.  Except that, as I learned in a fascinating article by the Academy of American Poets, the poem was meant to be a joke.   A gentle tease of his walking companion, Edward Thomas, who no matter how lovely the path they took, always lamented the path not taken.  Apparently all this ‘crying over what might have been’ got on Frost’s nerves, so eventually he sent Thomas a draft of a poem entitled ‘Two Roads’.  The fact that the ‘I’ in the poem was meant to be him went right over Thomas’ head.  A series of letters followed in which Thomas dug himself deeper and deeper into his mistaken interpretation and Frost got more and more exasperated at his friend’s obtuseness until Frost finally wrote a letter in which he berated his friend for missing the mock nature of the sigh in the line ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh’.  Thomas, his feelings obviously hurt, shot back ‘I doubt if you can get anyone to see the fun of the thing without showing them’.

About an hour into what for my daughter was clearly a thoroughly enjoyable outing, the ‘path’ led to a pine forest barely penetrated by the feeble rays of the rapidly setting sun.  At times we weren’t even sure we were on the path. Unbidden and unwelcome, an Italian poem about a road now came to mind.  Only this one wasn’t a joke.  It was a very serious oeuvre about losing one’s way in a dark forest.  « Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,/ché la diritta via era smarrita. »  Literally (more or less) – ‘In the middle of the path of my life I found myself in a dark forest, for the right way was lost’.  With these words Dante begins his descent into Inferno (Hell) in his epic poem, La Commedia Divina.

By the time we made it out of our selva oscura my only hope was that we would reach the restaurant where the owner of our hotel had made a dinner reservation for us before it was pitch black.

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This is the closest we got to the lighthouse that night.

Luckily the restaurant was on the west side of the island where it was still light.  The pool bar – I hadn’t realized the restaurant was part of a hotel complex – was closing when we arrived, but the young man in charge told me we could get drinks from the bar inside the restaurant.   And then we sat down by the pool, wished each other ‘Salute!’ and watched a sunset that was made even more spectacular because of the path we had taken to get there.

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2 Responses to The Path (Best) Not Taken

  1. Isabelle says:

    Poetry analysis and travel blog together from the middle of a “dark wood”! Bravo again!

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