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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off the Grid: Steep is a state of mind

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

The cure for carsickness, it appears, can be found in the panacea of sheer terror of one plummeting over a narrow cliff-edge road (run off by a tourist bus or a horde of Vespas, no doubt) and completing a series of vehicular somersaults from one precarious switchback over another and another, leading to a silent moment of midair suspension before crashing into the Mediterranean Sea.

I hear the water is so salty, though, it lends to buoyancy.

This knowledge did nothing to support keeping my light lunch inside my stomach, though this could have something to do with how many espresso lungo I justify in a day.

They are so tiny and harmless in their doll-sized cups – and at a euro-50 apiece, the most cost-effective stimulant I know of.

In any case, I was jittery before we headed over the mountains from Naples toward the Amalfi Coast of Italy, and by the time we made it down the other side, my adrenal glands were left dry-heaving what remained of my anxiety.

Amalfi: Halfway down the boot front of Italy is a little curl of coast that stretches into the Mediterranean Sea, its tip being the island of Capri.

One thousand or so years ago, it was of great maritime import and historical significance.

It is thought that the Amalfitans were using gold coins (from trade with the Arabs) to purchase land when the majority of Italy was still bartering as means of commerce.

It is also home to a history of papermaking, a skill also acquired from the Arabs, and something to which most writers are drawn, like moths to a light.

The town is built into the steep ravine beneath the towering Mount Cerreto and consists primarily of one “road” wide enough for a car but only if it honks loud enough to encourage pedestrians to scurry into shop doorways or be run over.

The rest of the many passages to homes and restaurants are narrow staircases that wind in an unending labyrinth between buildings, under them, behind them, until at last one finds herself on a millennia-old set of steps leading to the terraced-lemon tree orchards.

Instead of rolling trash cans down the stairs, they lower their bags from the window with a hook on the end of a rope.

This maze of halls and stairwells and tunnels gives way to rock only when that rock towers perpendicular to the horizon of the ever-blue Mediterranean Sea.

The stairs continue, though, if one can convince one’s husband that, eventually, they’ll come to the top of something and it will all be worth it.

What’s more is that back in the village of Amalfi, there’s a gelato place (or eight) that makes lemon sorbet they stuff into a hollowed-out lemon the size of a small pineapple and I’ve been needing a reason to eat one all week.

I’ve decided gelato is Italian for electrolytes.

In the mid-1300s, this stacked city of mortar-and-stone homes had its port and lower sections obliterated by a tsunami, and the once-important maritime center never regained its status or population until the tourists rediscovered it.

My guess is the gelato lured them, though the breathtaking seascapes and lush green mountainous backdrop could have something to do with it.

Now, the lower parts of the city and the waterfront are teeming with those tourists: Americans, Germans, British, Indians, Japanese, French and more.

They scuttle through the streets from shop to shop to see if the linen here is better than the linen 40 feet away.

They purchase tiny bottles of limoncello, souvenir tiles and purses and straw hats and imported dresses and handmade sandals. They have alarming, hot pink sunburns and giant ice cream cones.

Yet, if one wanders a staircase beyond or above the main-and-only drag, suddenly the town’s quaint charm and magnificent history is revealed.

Amalfitans live stacked upon each other, staring into each other’s living rooms, across each other’s laundry, above each other’s terraces.

If a piece of ground is free, it is filled with lemon trees and lush gardens.

Every potted plant is growing something edible. I am left to wonder if this is the solution to my gardening woes and make a hard pitch for relocation.

Charlie reminds me we have two children back in America.

From our rooftop terrace breakfast, I noted that it must be possible to climb to the top of something considering these folks seem not the least perturbed by steep or even the laws of physics.

I pointed to the top a colossal stone formation, determined it a destination, then dragged Charlie in that general direction.

As we ascend through the village, doors are open and music is playing.

Meals are being made and pots clank. A cat wanders through a gate from one garden to the next. There are no cars or even the buzz of Vespas up here.

We walk under sheets hung in the sun to dry, past fountains for drinking water, and wind our way upward, ever upward, toward the sheer faces of cliffs.

They hang so far over the slopes that thousands of stalactites drip their way into the air.

Stairs are cut into the rock mountain and we climb past lizards and snakes, past the last houses, a stone bench, the terraced orchards with their black netting, past fig trees dropping their heavy fruit, upward until we are at the knife’s edge of the ridge.

There is, of course, a house here because the Amalfitans determine house sites by finding the least probable place to put a new home, then building one there.

They prefer, it appears, narrow spaces, steep spaces, spaces where couches must be carried up a mile of stairs or where the market is a mile down the stairs.

They also love places where it looks like a mountain is going to fall on their house should the earth shiver even the slightest bit.

I brought Charlie here so that if he complains about any of my complex building ideas, I can point out that sometime around 874 AD, the Amalfitans were doing these things with the only power tool they had – a donkey to schlep their rocks to the most precarious precipice they could find.

The stairs gave way to a path that reached along the stony ridge, ancient pine trees and unknown flora shading us as we basked in reprieve from the bustle of people below.

Less than 2 miles from the packed shoreline and stopped traffic, we did not see a single person clambering for a view.

It was both affirming and discouraging at the same time.

If not to see this magnificent coast line, if not to see the world from a different perspective, then why do we come at all?

We popped out of the trees on a precipice of stone that stretched above the ravine of Amalfi and the small village to the south.

Before us the Mediterranean left a perfect glimmering line against the blue sky.

I was sure we could smell Africa, ancient trade routes, and the sweat of whoever built these stone steps.

The coastline of Italy stretched away to the south and great emerald walls plunged into the sea to the north.

In the distance, we heard the soft sounds of humanity, but even that could not disturb our view.

Ammi Midstokke can be reached at