A few months before coming to Italy, I read the memoir of a man who had spent a year in Basilicata. I thought the book would help me learn about the region, but unfortunately, the memoir was mostly just lighthearted stories about his interactions with his neighbors and the wine he seemed to be drinking too much of. One chapter, however, did grab my attention. He described a harrowing drive up a steep hill to Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano, two towns that were already on my radar because they were included in the listing of I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia. These twin towns were perched on the side of the steep stone faces that make up the Dolomiti Lucane mountains in southern Basilicata. The stones were formed by tectonic plates pushing up and cementing sandstone into these massive, steep cliffs, and that there were two tiny towns clinging to them seemed impossible. After looking at pictures online, neither David nor I could wait to visit.

We went to these towns with plans to hike The Path of the Seven Stones, which I had read was a short, easy two kilometer walk between the two towns. We had plugged the trail into our phone and the Google map led us through tiny side streets of Pietrapertosa down to the bottom of the town. On the way, an older woman watering her flowers said, “Buon camino,” as we passed.

I hadn’t heard that since I had hiked the Camino pilgrimage route from northern Portugal into Santiago, Spain four years earlier, right before meeting David, and I wondered if this was going to be as challenging as my Camino had been. We were no strangers to mountain hikes—we lived in Colorado and had spent the past two summers during the pandemic hiking and biking many of the mountains in the Fraser Valley—but now I was a little worried. Was this “hike” was going to be the gentle walk we thought it would be?

The first mile led us down a steep, stone-lined path, and I regretted not bringing my hiking poles from Colorado. With two artificial knees, an artificial hip, and arthritic feet, the incline was both difficult and scary, and my pace was much slower than David’s. Along the way, we saw several stone benches around rings of stones, and some stone sculptures that reminded me of the Pulnabrone Dolmen I had seen in Ireland. There were also several standalone sculptures out in the middle of nowhere. We hadn’t taken the time to read about the path before our hike, so didn’t know what we were looking at, but snapped some photos anyway, hoping to figure it out later.

David reached the bottom of the hill faster than I did, and when I joined him, we sat on a log beside the river to eat the sandwiches we had brought along. I could see the path we had come down from Pietrapertosa across the canyon, and the next town of Castelmezzano high on the hill in the distance behind us. That meant not only would we need to go up the hill into Castelmezzano, but we’d also then need to go back down when we left that town and back up to reach our car in Pietrapertosa. In other words, we’d only covered twenty-five percent of the hike so far which felt daunting.

I looked at the options on a trail map on my phone and saw there was another route into Castelmezzano. Instead of going straight up the other side of the canyon, it meandered around the mountain in a loop, which seemed like a gentler climb, so I suggested we take this route. It would be slightly longer, but I hoped a little gentler on my joints.

Before leaving our lunch spot I snapped some photos and texted them to my daughter. She and her husband were serious rock climbers, and the signs in the park showed all sorts of rock-climbing tours, routes, and more. Jenny quickly responded back, “Cool! Looks like they have a bunch of ferrata routes!” I should have asked her right then what that meant, but I didn’t. I also should have surmised that if she was that excited about the rock-climbing features of this park, it was probably going to be far too difficult for me. But that never occurred to me.

I hadn’t always been afraid of heights, but in recent years, the fear had been building. Jenny and I had gone to India together the year after Greg died, and she had wanted to hike a section of the Himalayas outside of Dharamshala to scatter her dad’s ashes. It was supposed to be an easy hike, so easy that our guide was simply wearing jeans and a sweater with his loafers.

Jenny carried everything for the two of us in her backpack and she easily skipped along in front of the guide while I watched every foot placement. At one point, we had to cross a section of scree, a steep part of the mountain with loose rock across the path. With every step I took, I could hear and see small rocks tumbling down the side of the mountain and I was overcome with the feeling I would slide right off the mountain with those rocks. I clung to the guide’s sweater from behind, feeling completely embarrassed but too terrified to let go. That was the first time I had ever experienced any fear of heights.

The summer before coming to Italy, David and I were hiking Byers Peak, very close to our condo in the Colorado Rockies. We had been hiking and biking all summer, and I was in decent shape. We traipsed through the woods until the trail exited the trees and became exposed above tree line. The higher we went, the narrower the trail became. I had all I could do to place one foot in front of the other, trying to ignore the steep drop down the side of the mountain to my right. Between the elevation—nearly 13,000 feet—and my growing fear, I could barely breathe.

By the time we reached a slightly wider flat section of the trail, my fear had grown into a full-blown panic attack. I threw myself to the ground, started sobbing, and told David I couldn’t go any further. He didn’t push me, but after letting me rest and calm down, he told me he wanted to go on to the summit, which was just a very short distance from where I was sitting on the path. It didn’t matter to me that it was only five more minutes to the top—I was paralyzed with fear—so I stayed put and he continued. He left his pack with me so that he could more easily climb over the boulders between the path and the summit. I sat hunched on the ground in tears, capturing his climb on video, certain he was going to die.

After that experience, any highway with a steep drop-off and no guard rail sent my heart racing, I could no longer ride my bike on the paths in the mountains that were narrow with steep slopes, and simply looking down from a patio in a city to the ground below turned my stomach. I hated feeling like this, so figured I’d just avoid anything that triggered these panic attacks.

We started the hike as indicated around the looping part of the mountain. After about fifteen minutes I reached a stretch where the “path” narrowed to just a foot or so wide. There was a huge boulder to the left of the path that leaned into the trail, and a massive drop off the right side into the canyon. My heart was already racing when I noticed a cable that was bolted on to the side of the boulder winding around the boulder to the other side of the path.

“How do you think that cable does anything to hold that massive boulder in place?” I asked David who was a few paces behind me. And then I realized that wasn’t the purpose at all. This was a via ferrata, cables bolted into the rocks for difficult climbing situations. Climbers were supposed to hook their harnesses onto the cable for safety, to catch them if they lost their footing. I had no harness, nothing to hook onto the cable, no rock-climbing skills, and zero confidence to continue forward.

David could see I was hedging, tentatively putting one foot forward then pulling it back. I was frozen, trying to visualize exactly what would happen if I lost my footing while clinging to the cable. The view to the bottom was causing the same panic I’d had the summer before in Colorado. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hang from the cable with my arthritic hands if I slipped, and though the thought of plunging to my death in the canyon made me want to vomit, I grabbed the cable tightly and inched around the boulder, slowly sliding my hands along the cable until I had cleared it on the other side.

I was bent over trying to slow my breathing when David reached me. “You did it!” he said, excited I had overcome my fear enough to proceed. I wasn’t going to celebrate until we were safely back in the car, but yes, I was kind of proud of myself.

Although that was the only via ferrata along the path, the rest of the hike was anything but easy. Parts of the trail were washed out and required traversing the ravine, the trail was steep and slippery heading up into Castelmezzano, and it was blazing hot outside, spring having finally arrived in southern Italy. When I saw the road into the town at the top of the other side of the canyon, I nearly sprinted to it for safety.

The views from the other side of Castelmezzano were worth the torture. These two towns perched on the rocky cliffs of the mountains were far more beautiful in real life than any picture I’d seen online or in a book. We snapped a ton of photos, texted some friends, and posted a selfie with Castelmezzano behind us on Instagram.

Since we hadn’t really researched what this path was about before hiking it, I pulled out my phone to read about it online while we rested in the shade to catch our breath. The path, I learned, took its inspiration from a legend of this region, telling the doomed love story between a man and a witch. The story was divided into seven chapters—destiny, magic, witchcraft, witches, flight, dance, delirium—and there were seven stone sculptures along the path matching these chapters.

I was dreading the return hike back to Pietrapertosa. Even though we had agreed to skip the via ferrata, we’d still need to hike down the steep path to the ravine floor and up the other steep path into town. My back and feet were already in agony, so I decided to focus on finding and photographing all seven of the stone sculptures to distract myself.

The hike back down and up was as difficult as I had anticipated. At one point a large white horse cornered me against the fence and tried to nibble on my shoulder. I was scared but having never heard of anyone being eaten by a horse, I stood very still hoping he’d move along. David was using a twig to coax him away from me, and after a minute or two, as he turned towards David, I scampered ahead. As soon as the horse passed David, he ran around the fence into the open pasture of his farm, throwing his head up and down as he trotted. I thought he was in our way, but it turned out we were in his way.

When we came out at the top of the town, we went immediately to the bar where we’d had a coffee before the start of our hike. I ordered a bottle of cold water and an icy cold beer to share, and the barista told us to take a seat and she’d bring them over.

“Siete Americani, no?” she asked as she set down our drinks. “Perché siete qui?”

Yes, we are American, I told her, and explained that we came to hike the path between the two towns. She understood that part but pressed me. “Ma perché siete in Italia?” This wasn’t a tourist area at all, other than the couple of months in the summer when young people came to ride the zipline between the two towns and serious climbers descended on Pietrapertosa to hike along those via ferrata routes, so she didn’t understand why we were here when winter was just barely ending.

“Siamo in Italia per due mese per la mia doppia cittadinanza,” I said. I’d said this line so many times that I sounded fluent. When the barista complimented me on my Italian, I assured her it wasn’t that good. She shared that she had studied English all through school so was quite proficient by the time she had graduated, but she now worked in this small town and only saw English speakers a couple of months a year, making it hard to retain her skills. She was frustrated.

“Io capisco!” I said. Since I only brought guests to Italy once a year, I just didn’t have enough practice speaking. “Ma quando sono in Italia adesso, parlo solo in Italiano.” She understood and assured me my strategy for trying speaking exclusively in Italian would definitely help me improve.

Then she asked me again, but why here, why in Basilicata? It was the same everywhere—many people we met wished they had a way out of this region, an opportunity to be somewhere with better job prospects. They just couldn’t fathom anyone wanting to come to this part of Italy. But I had the opportunity to see the region without the challenges they faced, and I always told them how special Basilicata was to me.

We chatted for a bit about the climbing routes, and I shared with her that my daughter and son-in-law were serious rock climbers. I also told her despite our hiking experience in Colorado, which offered similar challenges, this was still quite hard for me. By the time we left the bar, I felt a connection to this tiny town that I’d never even heard of before planning this trip. I hadn’t known that Coloradans and Italians had a shared interest in rock climbing, but I had conquered this mountain, just like so many of my fellow Italians had.

Four months after we returned from Italy, I finally summited Byers Peak in Colorado where I’d had the panic attack the year before. And as I stood on top of that mountain, I reflected on how lucky I had been to hike in Italy, as that experience was what had given me the push that I needed to finally overcome my fear.