Driving north along Lake Garda was breathtaking. Jagged peaks sprung straight up from the lake’s edge, reminding me of places I’ve been before whose images were scrambled together in this vision from the highway. Queenstown, New Zealand came to mind, along with the Grand Tetons National Park. The general outdoorsy vibe, influenced by the cyclists we passed and by the rafting and kayaking signs that dangled above the road, reminded me of Boulder, Colorado.
I was trying to take pictures as we drove, a tricky feat when there are bird droppings splattered all over your windshield and you can’t reach out the window far enough to avoid getting the RV’s hood in frame. I had just finished deleting some blurry images from my camera when I looked up in time to see something that sucked the breath out of me with a sharp stabbing pain in my heart: in the middle of the road, sprawled across the white divider line, was a black kitten, still alive as blood ran from his little body. His head was lifted as he tried in vain to lick his wounds that I could see were fatal. He didn’t know that, though, and he must have been trying to do everything his young instincts told him to do to help himself. His eyes were wide with fright as cars and trucks whizzed past him, not even seeming to swerve to avoid hitting him again. His body was twitching with nervous shock. My hand flew over my mouth as tears sprang to my eyes. It was like watching a painful snapshot move in slow motion. I couldn’t even breathe. I was so scared for him, so distressed that the poor little kitten was in pain and confused, unable to move, and had no one to rescue him. When I finally managed to speak, I asked Rob if there was any way we could turn around and run him over, to put him out of his pain before someone else just kept running over his injury. Rob gently told me that no, there wasn’t, and that someone had probably hit him by then.
I knew Rob was right. The road was very narrow and winding along the lakeside, with a mountain face to our right and lake water to our left. It was one long stretch with no turn around space, especially in an RV. There were many cars, trucks, and cyclists, and surely the kitten had been hit and battered to death by the time I spotted a parking lot where we could have turned around. I sank further into my seat, deeply sad and feeling completely rotten and helpless. I knew there was nothing I could do but pray that someone would run over the kitten’s head if they hadn’t already, so that he wouldn’t have to be frightened anymore. I prayed his little soul would be at peace soon, reincarnating into another cat life where he wouldn’t learn the hard way not to cross the road during traffic. But no matter how many merciful manifestations I sent out, no matter much I told myself the regurgitated false comfort about the circle of life bullshit, no matter how much I tried to let it go, the image of the kitten frantically trying to sit up and lick his wounds in the middle of the road stayed burned into my head.
A couple of years ago, I had watched a kitten die the same way, its body twitching and spazzing in the street. I had been the one that hit it. It had bolted in front of my car with its sibling, who managed to make it to the other side, but the orange and white marble kitty I heard my tires hit and saw in my side mirror as I began to brake will forever be scarred into my memory. I’d pulled over the side of the road, someplace in Arizona, and my brother and friend hopped out with me as I anxiously ran to the poor cat. I cried so hard and I turned away while my brother finished him off with his foot, then swept him to the side of the road. He loves cats as much as I do, and I was grateful he had the strength to lovingly crush the misery out of the kitten that would have traumatized me for life if I’d had to do it. But then I was the one that hit the kitty in the first place, even though it wasn’t my fault, and when I saw this black kitten in Lake Garda struggling to live, I realized with the rush of forgotten flashbacks that I am traumatized for life. Killing an animal is one of the most tragic things I’ve ever gone through. I hit a squirrel once and couldn’t stop crying the whole way home, and then some. Cats are the only creatures I’ve ever felt truly bonded with, the way most people describe their connection to dogs, and so watching one die hits me in a way that I can’t even explain. Anyone who has hit a beloved animal knows what I am talking about.
Of course, the whole experience in Lake Garda made me think about Butters, my little ball of Cashmere Bengal love and fluff back home, and I was still crying when I quickly sent a Facebook notice to my sister asking her to make sure he never goes in the front of the house. She assured me that he prefers the fenced-in back yard, and just hanging out inside the house where all the people are. He does love being around people, and he used to follow me from room to room in my old apartment, so I was comforted by this reminder. I couldn’t bear if something happened to Butters while I’m away. My little sister has been faithful to upload pics of him to my Facebook page, so I can see his Egyptian-lined green eyes and imagine patting his plump spotted tummy. (Thank you, Kate.)
The rest of the afternoon I was pretty numb. Part of me was slightly surprised at how much watching that kitten die affected me, but the other part of me wasn’t, really. I tried my best not to think or talk about it, to smile at the waiter who served me frozen yogurt, to speak normally when I asked where the nearest Bankomat (ATM) was, to not bring down Rob’s buzz about the mountain biking tour that he was excitedly booking. The whole time, that little black furry face licking his bloody fur was stuck in my head. What a horrible welcome to Lake Garda.
On Tuesday, Rob took off on his rental bike to meet up with a local guy from the frozen yogurt place, Francisco. The people in Lake Garda are very friendly, with a forwardness that is disarming and almost suspicious. I chose to shut up the cynical part of me that doubted Francisco’s intentions–I thought he might want to give Rob a good mountain bike tour, then ask him for money at the end. I’ve compared Italy to India in the way of bathrooms; would the similarities continue into sneaky ways of doing business, too? Thankfully, no one ripped us off. I think the people in the small mountain towns of Lake Garda are just honestly warm, and very trusting. For not one activity that Rob or I booked were we asked to give our credit card info, or even to put down a deposit. Everything was laid back, open-ended, and agreements were settled on handshakes instead of contracts. It inspires one to be more honest, I think, when people trust you that much.
While Rob was on his bike ride–he tried to talk me into joining him, but I can’t stand bike seats and don’t like exercise that feels like work, which cycling surely does to me–I stayed at the campsite and wrote. I could have laid out on one of the manmade pebble beaches, but it was windy that day and I didn’t feel like being outside. It was very nice to just stay cozy in my little trailer, writing away and feeling productive, and it also took my mind off the kitten. I was surprised at how much time had gone by when Rob suddenly appeared behind the trailer’s screen door, panting and limping. His mountain bike ride hadn’t been exactly what he’d been anticipating, as his rental bike wasn’t made for downhill riding and that’s what Francisco had taken him for after climbing for 20 kilometers straight. He was a beat man if there ever was one. Originally he’d planned to go on the tour he’d booked after his ride with Francisco, but after riding almost four hours with Francisco, he was too spent.
As Rob and I returned his bike shoes, we noticed a little shack next door to the shoe rental place that advertised “canyoning”. We’d seen signs for canyoning before, along the Rhein River in Germany I believe, but we didn’t really know what canyoning was. (My Outdoor Recreational Leadership-certified sister Mads has since informed me that the “silly euros” have translated the word incorrectly; in the States, it’s called “canyoneering”.) The pictures of laughing people in wet suits, rappelling down waterfalls, and bobbing in rivers made it look like a lot of fun. Rob and I asked the woman who was working the shack if we could book a canyoning experience for the next day, and she said that we only could go if two other people signed up, as the guides only work when there are four or more people in a trip. We gave her our names and my phone number, and she said she’d call us that night if two other people committed.
That evening, Rob and I rented a scooter and had a ride that made our little Korcula excursion in Croatia seem pathetic. Epic doesn’t even begin to describe it. We climbed deep into the mountains of Lake Garda as the sun was beginning to set, so that we had a good two hours of twilight with which to take in the scenery. It was stunning, the most beautiful bike ride I have ever been on. We spotted a castle on a hillside in the distance and made it our mission to get there, or run out of time trying. After a few wrong turns and pedestrian ramp shortcuts, Rob and I made it to the castle just in time to see that its gated doors had been locked for the day. “Do you feel like trespassing?” I asked Rob with a smile. He nodded in agreement.
We climbed over a stone wall that enclosed the castle grounds and found ourselves in a grassy yard with a view to inspire paintings. We wandered around freely until we noticed the security cameras, and, not wishing to deal with Italian police, we decided we’d gotten our castle fix and climbed back over the wall to walk down the steep hill where we’d left our scooter. With an hour left, we continued to head north and higher up into the mountains, where the smell of pine trees became sharper and the air crisper. The scenery only got more and more beautiful as we went further away from the lake, passing old towns that made both Rob and I think of the village from the “Vampire” opera we’d seen in Vienna. So spooky, so dark and medieval looking.
We finally had to turn around to return the scooter before closing time, but I could have kept riding all the way up to Switzerland. I felt layers of warm air caress my skin as we descended on the winding curves of the mountains. I hadn’t realized how chilled I had gotten until the balminess warmed me once again, and while I love alpine scenery, I was reminded that I truly belong in an elevation no higher than where the palm trees are. I just get too cold. Rob and I finished watching Disney’s “A Christmas Carol”, one of my favorite movies ever, and while it wasn’t in 3-D on his computer, it was magical to fall asleep to.