Finding the Mountain of Youth

Earlier this summer I had one of those moments that was both humbling and reassuring. I was in Italy and I was biking alone up the sort of Tuscan hill that is perfect if it’s the 14th century and you want to put a fortified stone village on top, but demands sequoia trees for thighs if it’s the 21st century and you want to climb it on a bicycle.

Now, of course, all those fortified stone villages are filled with cheese shops, wine stores, and — in the case of San Gimignano — torture museums. San Gimignano has three, which is probably three more than most villages need, but based on the four parking lots that surround the town and the swarms of tourists who flock there daily, clearly they know what they’re doing. Sometimes I think Vermont villages could learn a lot from Tuscan ones. The Tuscan model is pretty simple: Use the plague, Pinocchio and Pecorino cheese to put seats in the seats. Can’t you see a torture museum in Stowe? Antique skis and ski boots are interesting, but if you want to give the people what they really want, apparently nothing beats a dungeon with a rack and an iron maiden.

In any case, the sun was blistering the day I was biking and I think even the tour buses were sweating as they lumbered their way up the hill.

I rounded a switchback and saw ahead of me a long line of bicyclists who were clearly a part of a bicycle tour. There must have been 20 of them stretched out in a column about 100 yards further along up the hill. I realized that I was gaining on them and was going to pass them well before the summit, and thought to myself with enormous smugness and great self-satisfaction, “Bohjalian, you are an absolute animal.”

But then as I started churning past them I noticed they were all senior citizens, many of whom had a least quarter of a century on me. They were also riding heavy mountain bikes with tires almost as wide as tennis balls, while I was on a road bike with tires about as wide as a finger. Again, advantage: Bohjalian.

I waited for them at the top of the hill where, as I expected, they paused to savor the view of the valleys behind and before us. There I learned that they were part of a German seniors’ group that was biking across central Tuscany. One of the men was riding in plaid shorts and thick, dark socks with sandals, and he looked like he belonged at the card table in Florida with my dad, but he didn’t seem any more winded from the climb than I was. He had his wife take a picture of the two of us standing together from the knees down, because I was wearing yellow bike shoes and we had made fun of each other’s bicycling footwear.

Now, I have no idea if I will be biking in two or three decades. I have no idea if I’ll even be breathing. But this group of bikers absolutely made my day; they made the future seem rather promising. Imagine: It is 25 years from now and I am biking up the hill from Bristol to Lincoln wearing dark socks and Birkenstocks, and some young whippersnapper on a road bike passes me convinced that he’s the animal. Then we get to the top of the hill and reach the village of Lincoln. There we smile, congratulate each other on a climb well-done … and get our picture taken together outside one of the four parking lots surrounding the Official Lincoln General Store and Torture Museum.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 8, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.