Chapter 1 Magic in the Mountains

Dark green pines stood tall and erect, as if at attention, in uniform rows as far back as the eye could see. The order of them soothed the tired traveler who smelled their fresh sap. When they entered the foothills of the Dolomites he held on as the taxi bounced him up and down along the rolling scenery. The provincial driver kept his passenger airborne while he piloted the narrow roads like a World War I flying ace.

They were headed for the Alpine region known as Trentino Alto Adige, that part of Italy which shares its borders with Austria. There the beautiful, magical Dolomite mountain range lies. Beautiful, for the colorful way in which their rock ledges glow when reflected upon at sunset; magical, for the enchanted stories which inhabit them.

Daniel was sent to Italy by his company to re-engineer a failing light bulb factory in Bolzano (Bozen when called by its German name). He was to assess whether or not its productivity could be greatly increased, and if not to shut it down. He did not look forward to the assignment. Most engineers would have jumped at the chance to spend a summer in the Alps. Mix work with pleasure, explore a part of the world unknown in order to store up recollections they’d remember the rest of their lives. Not so Daniel. He felt as if he was being exiled.

The red and white striped arms of a train crossing dropped and the velocity at which they were advancing came to an abrupt halt. Daniel’s stomach tightened; his teeth clenched. He threw open the door and jumped out for air. Never liked to be held still like that, meant his thoughts must settle down, make room for emotions to speak. Stay in motion and he’d never have to see what chased him from behind, a painful past clamoring for attention. Instead, he gave precedence to the performance driven thoughts of his mind over the unreliable intermittences of his heart, which demanded he stop, listen to their fastidious admonition, cling no more to secure but stunting habits of a mediocre life which left his creative self-undefined. But this separation from self was exactly what he desired.

It was three in the afternoon when they arrived in Ortisei, the mountain town of the Val Gardena. Shops on cobblestone streets were re-opening after the midday meal. Past them the taxi drove wobbly by, dodging and jerking for a multitude of tourists even Daniel could identify.

They climbed the vast green slopes of Seceda Peak where village homes of princely architecture sprawled majestically above the town. The taxi halted again. This time not for people nor freight of goods, but a train of goats which quickly engulfed them on the narrow pasture lane. Daniel thought he saw one of the shabby creatures wink at him.

“Most funny,” the driver said in his limited English, “they don’t have much goats here. There are only few who would know how to make it with them. Most they have cows.” Daniel looked at their shepherd, whom he found standing at a gate on the other side of the road where he bid his hoofed charges arrive.

As the taxi sat submerged Daniel leaned forward to the driver. “Can’t you do something?” he asked.

“Enjoy the view Signor,” the driver said, lifting a newspaper from the passenger seat to read. “We can wait.”

Daniel grabbed the door handle. “I know how to fix this.” He hopped out before the driver could stop him.

Outside Daniel smelled the herd as it flowed by: acrid smell of urine, oily skin; dung-caked hides hard and prickly to the touch; tethered collar bells that weighed down around each of their necks. Their ubiquitous condition disturbed Daniel as the inherent disarray of a domestically kept population whose heinous odor wasn’t their only natural disposition—their morbid insatiate grunts and yodeling seemed so unnecessary. He waded his way through to the goat herder, a tall lean man with a short silver-streaked beard. How should he address this worn tanned face, standing with his walking staff, as calm and foreboding as Moses? The man raised his grey Austrian cap with a spotted orange plume in its band and tipped it as the Mayor of the town might have. ‘Welcome to Ortisei my friend, or St. Ulrich, depending on what language you prefer.” The native returned his cap to his head. “You are a bold man to risk the movement of the herd like this,” he nodded at the driver, “you should stay in there, like him.”

Daniel studied the size of the pasture gates through which the goats barely passed, bottle necking the lane. With his engineering eye he offered a solution.

“If you organize them into independent lots, like this,” he squared them in the air into groups, “you could pass them fewer at a time, keep them clear off the roadway.”

The eyes of the goat herder widened. “Why, because you are in such a hurry?”

“Then, if you keep the other three-fourths freely roaming over there,” he pointed to a grassy knoll, “you can pass a quarter at a time without blocking traffic. Always keep in mind the flow of the oncoming vehicles and their average speeds.” The man’s eyebrows raised. “Trust me,” Daniel said.

The goat herder leaned on his staff. “Perhaps the first lesson you will learn while here is to welcome the unexpected in life with more tranquility. Are you on holiday? With all that pent-up energy you have,” he spread his arms at the peaks, the Sasso Lungo rising stately above the others, “take advantage of the multitude of mountain paths we have, the richness of this landscape. Free yourself for some adventurous hiking.”

Daniel shook his head. “Some serious meandering perhaps, or less.”

“You are in the illustrious Dolomites my friend, there’s nothing like how it feels to climb to the top of them.”

‘No disrespect,’ Daniel rolled gravel under his shoe, “but I hadn’t counted on staying long enough to do any sightseeing. I’m not so ambitious climbing to the top of anything.” He rubbed his brow, cupped the side of his face. “Sorry, but I’m at the end of a very long flight and need to sleep. Or I’ll be no good for work tomorrow, and then God knows how long I’ll be stuck here.”

“Well, the goats must have felt your nervousness,” the goatherder nodded towards the road, “for you see they’ve hurried along and freed your driver from their useless loitering. Go now and hurry to your final destination,” he tipped his cap, “I wish you an extraordinary stay, even if indeed, you do not end up being stuck here.” Daniel felt in the man’s parting glance the wisdom and confidence one expected from the pastor of a church not a goat herder.

Up a small rise they reached a three-story chalet, the Villa Marisena. Friends had visited it on their honeymoon and gushed about it; the owner sounded gracious on the phone when she took the reservation. And that had been a good enough plan. The driver trotted to the front gate with Daniel’s bags, passing below a leaf-covered veranda to deposit them at the front door. Daniel paid his fare plus a handsome tip, overlooking the delays which were not of the driver’s making, who then sped off down the twisting lane humming an American country western tune.