In Italy I learned: It is considerably harder to drive backwards along a one lane dirt road than you think it is. This is particularly true when the road has a hidden ditch running along one side.
My friends and my 78-year-old father were there to experience this lesson with me
In September of 2002, Joy and I rented a fabulous Italian hilltop villa just outside the small Umbrian town of Passignano. The villa, originally a church, had evolved into a rambling house that slept fourteen. Joy and I invited friends and family to join us in the villa for a week. We’d also invited our parents, all four in their 70s.
The villa was two-thirds of the way up a large hill and had a magnificent view of Lake Trasiemeno and the countryside — a mixture of rolling hills and steep mountains, much of it used for farmland, sheepherding, or olive groves. To reach the villa we would drive along a winding narrow road that took us far above the town. Only two or three other houses shared this road, so it was wonderfully secluded.
One day, as I was driving to the villa, my friend Lynn suggested, “Let’s keep following this road just to see where it goes.”
We followed the road up, up, up. About half a mile later we reached the hill crest and our paved road ended in a T-intersection. We had reached a dirt road that ran along the ridge. I paused to consider which way to turn, and since neither direction seemed more promising than the other, I arbitrarily turned left.
About thirty yards along this dirt road, it became narrow, rough, and rutted. There was no farmland up here, just a wilderness of tall, tufty grass meadows and periodic rock outcroppings. As we continued, the ride became bumpier as the road condition deteriorated. It didn’t look like locals drove this road often. I slowed to a stop.
“I dunno. It looks even worse ahead. What do you think?” I asked. We all quickly agreed that this was a bust and we should head back.
“I don’t see a place to turn around up ahead so I’ll just back up to where we came in. The road was wider there.”
The car we’d rented didn’t have good visibility through the back window, particularly with heads in the way, so I relied on the backseat passengers to help guide me.
“You’re doing okay, you’re doing okay. Keep going. Keep going. Left, LEFT!”’
Whumpf! The car jerked violently to its right as the wheels found the hidden ditch and the car tipped so far over that the left wheels barely touched the road surface. The passenger side windows were pushed up against weeds.
“Everyone okay?” we all asked each other. We all were.
“The car rental company won’t like this,” my dad announced from the back seat.
“We’re okay, Pop. We’re driving in Italy. The rental agency expects the car to come back with scratches. Plus, Joy and I got extra insurance to cover damage.” Except for hidden ditches, driving in northern Italy really hadn’t been that challenging. You had to learn how to merge aggressively and expect close quarters, but the driving was rarely stressful. The further south we went, however, the worse the driving experience became. Driving around Rome was decidedly not fun. When we reached Naples, Joy pulled over to the side of the road and burst into tears.
I put the car into drive to see if we could get out. The car barely moved. I tried reverse. It settled back into its original position, but no further.
“Okay, everyone out. The wheels are stuck.”
Getting out of the car turned out to be a challenge. The ditch was blocking the passenger side doors so they would only open about ten inches. Getting out on the driver side required significant leverage as gravity wanted to keep the doors closed. I had to turn sideways in my seat, brace one hand on the steering wheel, and kick the door open. Once out I pulled the passenger door open and then pulled my 78-year-old father out onto the road.
Once everyone was out, I got back into the car and tried again. I tried forward and reverse again. Nothing. John and Lynn got behind the car and tried pushing while I stepped on the accelerator. Nothing. They stood in front of the car and pushed on the hood while I tried reverse. Nothing. We tried wedging rocks under the tires. Nothing.
Then we all stood in the road staring at the car and doing slow turns, looking for a miracle on the horizon. How’d we get so far into wilderness so quickly?
I wandered over to the front of the car and and checked for anything that might have bent or broken. Everything looked fine — except that two wheels were stuck in the ditch and the other two were barely on any ground. After a few minutes I got up and walked back around the car. I noticed that only John and Lynn were there.
“Where’s my dad?”
Pointing back towards the road we’d initially driven up, John told me, “Your dad said he was going back to the house.” I could see my dad striding down the hill. I was momentarily worried about him because he has the worst sense of direction. But that road went right by the villa so he couldn’t possibly get lost. I hoped.
“Did he say he going to go get help?” I asked.
John and Lynn shrugged. “He just said he was going back,” they said in unison. Years later it occurred to me that at his age, my dad was probably in desperate search of a bathroom and getting help was a secondary concern.
We watched my dad disappear down the road then turned back to the car. We tried more pushing and rocking though we all knew it was hopeless. It was just something to do.
After about twenty more minutes of waiting and brainstorming, John and Lynn decided they’d also head back to the villa and arrange for help, just in case.
Now I was alone. Actually, that’s not quite true. It was me and the wedged car. I didn’t feel like I should leave the car unsupervised so I spent time staring at the car, willing it to get itself back on the road.
At one point I noticed that the sky had started turning a purple grey, and all the chittering and buzzing of daytime critters had gone quiet. Even the bugs were leaving me. I sat on the closed passenger door (the nearest thing to a level seat) and pondered my situation. The light was fading faster now, and I was resigning myself to abandoning the car for the night.
“It could be worse. It could be raining,” I told the car. I quickly regretting saying that because that’s the point in the story when things get really bad.
On cue, I heard a low rumble in the distance. Was it farm equipment or was it a car? Far down the dirt road, coming from the direction I hadn’t chosen, I saw a truck traveling along the ridge line towards me. I was thrilled! I was saved! Soon it would pass the intersection with the paved road down to the villa. I didn’t want them to turn there without seeing me, so I stepped into the middle of the road and started waving my arms. As I did so, I started piecing together enough Italian to explain my situation. About three words into figuring out what I’d say, I realized I didn’t need to explain my problem. It was obvious what my problem was.
I could see four men in the approaching truck. Two inside and two standing on the open flatbed. This is when I began regretting my earlier comment to the car. My elation at their approach turned to anxiety when I realized that the two standing guys were carrying rifles. As they got closer I could see that the guys in the cab also had rifles. They all had rifles. Had we been trespassing? Did the Mafia hang out in Umbria?
The Italians turned out to be a group of hunters wrapping up their day. They pulled up next to my car and jumped out. Within moments they were gesticulating. I was gesticulating. We were all gesticulating. As a complement to all the hand waving, between my Spanish and some bits of Italian, and their Italian and a few words of English, we communicated just fine. They walked around the car, assessing the situation. They gave it some experimental pushes though by their body language it was clear they all knew the car was just plain stuck.
One of them pulled out a thick cloth rope that looked a lot like a flattened fire hose and wrapped it around something under the front of my car. The one with the best English explained that they wanted me to put the car in neutral and steer while they pulled the car with their truck. I got into the car and rolled down the window so we could yell back and forth more easily. Rolling down the window turned out to be the smartest thing I’d done that afternoon. Two of them stood behind my car, ready to push. One hunter got into the truck, and the fourth Italian stood in the road, looking at my car’s wheels and directing the truck. The truck moved forward slowly and I could see the slack in the hose disappear and then grow taught. The truck strained while the one hunter called out instructions to the rest of us. I could feel the two guys behind the car rocking and pushing. Nothing. It was not going to work. And then it did. The car reluctantly broke free. The fourth hunter turned to me and pantomimed slowly turning the steering wheel to ease the car up onto the road. I turned the wheel slightly, and the car picked up speed as the tires found grip. Everyone was encouraging the car.
Then the car popped up onto the road and we were all cheers and smiles. His job done, the driver stopped the truck, got out, and came to celebrate with us. I got out of the car to celebrate, too. And then I realized that I’d left the car in neutral. It still had momentum, and it was moving at a clip towards the back of the truck. I dove headfirst through the open window, grabbed the parking brake, and pulled hard. The car stopped about three feet from the truck’s back bumper. The rental agency would not have liked that. Nor the guys with guns.
After I’d crawled backwards out of the open window, there were handshakes and back slaps all around. I pulled out my wallet to tip them, but they all waved me off, touching their hearts or tipping their caps. After “Ciaos” on all sides, the Italians piled into their truck, waved a final time, and headed off along the ridge in the direction we’d originally wanted to go.
I stood there a while taking deep breaths, smiling at my good fortune, and contemplating how wonderful strangers can be. I still had to backtrack to the paved lane that got me up to the ridgeline, but there was no fucking way in hell I’d be backing up the remaining several hundred yards. Instead, I drove forward, the same direction the Italians had gone. About 100 yards past where I’d initially decided this road was a mistake and thrown the car into reverse, I came to a wide patch in the road. A perfectly fine place to do a three point U-turn. When Joy and I reminisce about this driving adventure, she refers to it as, “Not your finest hour.” Sadly, it’s also not my worst.
I was soon headed in the right direction. Waiting for me down below, the villa and several glasses of red wine. Just as I was nearing the intersection, I saw a car coming up the paved lane. The driver was the owner of the villa, and with him were John and Lynn. They’d come to rescue me. We waved at each other as we passed and I told them I’d meet them back at the villa. I forgot to ask how and where they turned around but I’m guessing it involved little or no reverse.