“I think we should go back, Amanda. This doesn’t look safe.”
“Just a little further. I can almost see Manarola.”
Amanda eased around a bend in the trail. So far, so good. Then her left foot slipped, sending a cascade of mud and rock down the steep-angled cliff below. She threw her weight back into her right foot.
“Liz, back up!”
That’s when the trail gave out.
Heart in her throat, Amanda grabbed at what remained of the wooden railing. But it was now unmoored, and it tumbled down along with her toward the Ligurian Sea.
Too panicked to scream, Amanda scrabbled at the cliff side, digging her fingers into the shifting mud and rock. This was wrong. Ground was supposed to be solid.
Where was Liz? Was she falling too?
Then Amanda’s right hand grabbed hold of some stubborn scrub resisting the landslide. She jerked to a halt, the last of the broken trail raining down on her.
Blood rushed in her ears, her body shook. But she was okay. And the scrub was holding. She took a breath and reached her left hand up to grab a jut of rock that looked solid. It held. She dug the toes of her hiking boots into the side of the cliff. Feeling somewhat secure, she looked around.
“Liz? Where are you? Are you okay?”
Silence. Then Amanda heard a groan, followed by the sound of scattering debris below her. Liz was to her left, a few feet over and a few feet down, trying to steady herself against the cliff side. She looked up at Amanda, furious.
“No, I’m not okay.”
“Are you injured?”
“Physically, or emotionally?”
Amanda clenched her jaw to keep from being snarky back. Liz was clearly fine.
She looked up to where they’d been standing just moments ago, on the stretch of the Cinque Terre Coastal Trail that ran between Corniglia and Manarola. Directly above them, the trail was gone, but about twenty feet to the left it was still intact. They could go back the way they came, if they could get up there. They’d fallen about twenty feet down. Maybe thirty. Amanda had never been good at judging distance. But they were closer to the trail than they were to the sea below.
“Well, it could be worse,” said Amanda
“Are you joking?”
Amanda shifted her grip on the scrub to test its mettle. “Those Germans said we could get far enough along the trail to see the views down into Manarola. They had alpine sticks. They looked like they knew what they were doing.”
Liz let out an angry growl. “The park ranger told us this part of the trail was closed. The giant “Chiuso” sign on the giant locked gate back there told us it was closed. We saw no one on the trail. You know what that means? No one’s going to know what happened to us until our bodies wash up on the rocks of picturesque Corniglia. I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”
“I’m sorry, I just thought we needed some adventure …”
“And I let you talk me into leaving my phone back at the hotel.”
“I wanted us to enjoy the hike. This part was our favorite last time. Remember we ran into those cute Austrian guys?” Amanda laughed. “You said we were Hollywood casting agents …”
Liz cut her off. “I can’t believe you’re laughing right now.”
Amanda dropped her forehead against the damp earth and ordered herself not to cry.
Nothing on this trip had gone according to plan.
And that was the problem.
They’d never planned their trips much before. They just picked a destination, sketched out a few of the big details, then went looking for adventure. Their first trip together—their first trip abroad ever—had been right after graduation. They’d pooled all their money, including the money they were supposed to use to buy grown-up clothes for all the job interviews they were about to have, and bought plane tickets here to Italy.
For three weeks, they’d wandered, wide-eyed, eating, drinking, getting lost, finding cute Italians to help them get back to their hostel, lots of flirting along the way. This was what life was all about, they’d agreed. And they’d promised each other, right here on the Cinque Terre Coastal Trail, as they looked down at sun-drenched Vernazza reaching out into the deep blue Ligurian Sea, that they would see the world together. Every year in June, to celebrate the anniversary of their first trip abroad, they’d go somewhere, just the two of them. Soak up life.
They’d kept their promise, for a while. They sailed the Great Barrier Reef, backpacked across Peru, crisscrossed China on bicycles. Ziplined through the Costa Rican rainforest. Jumped waterfalls in Jamaica only the locals knew about.
Then they missed a year, when Amanda was pregnant with her first child. Then the next year, when Liz had started a new job and couldn’t take vacation time yet. Coordinating just got harder from there.
But this June was the twenty-year anniversary of that first trip to Italy. A perfect time, though Amanda, to reconnect with her best friend after years of careers and kids had pulled them apart. But Liz couldn’t go in June. She’d be implementing whatever big project she was developing at work. She had some downtime in January, though. “I guess I could make that work. I’ll have to keep up on email, maybe call in to some meetings. But okay.”
Amanda should have just scrapped the whole trip then and there. Or when she met Liz at the plane gate with Liz’s favorite—blueberry muffins.
“Oh, I don’t do gluten anymore,” Liz said to her over the top of her computer screen. “Or dairy or sugar. I can’t tell you how much better I feel now.”
“You’re going to eat pasta in Italy, right? And gelato? Remember how good the gelato is?”
Liz rolled her eyes. “That stuff will kill you, you know.”
This was supposed to be fun. A chance to be just Amanda and Liz again. Instead, Amanda had spent the entire trip waiting in hotel rooms for Liz to finish conference calls, finding cafés with wi-fi so Liz could go through her email, and hunting down restaurants with gluten-free options. Far from fun, this trip was just a reminder that she and Liz didn’t have any fun anymore.
And now this.
She was hanging on by her fingernails.
A misty rain began to fall from the heavy gray clouds. There was a reason no one traveled to Italy in January.
“I’m going to try to climb up,” said Amanda. She found a solid foothold for her right foot and pushed herself up a few feet. There was a narrow ledge of rock above her. She reached for it and pulled herself up. But her hand slipped on the wet rock and she dropped back down. Once again, the sturdy scrub stopped her from falling even further down the cliff.
“What are you doing?” shouted Liz. “You just kicked mud and rocks into my face!”
“I’m trying to climb up to the trail,” Amanda shouted back, her voice betraying how close she was to breaking down. “This rain is only going to make things worse.”
“We wouldn’t even be in this predicament if you …”
“Yeah, we already covered that.” Amanda grit her teeth against the sarcasm on the tip of her tongue, but couldn’t stop it. “Why don’t you try to climb up? You’re the one who goes to pilates and spin class twenty times a week.”
“Twenty times a week? I work eighty hours a week, Amanda. And that’s a good week.”
“Oh yes. You manage multi-million dollar projects. You have hundreds of people working under you. And I make peanut butter sandwiches. You work eighty hours a week? Well, my job never stops.”
“Don’t play the martyr. You chose to have kids. You chose to quit your career. It’s not my fault your main function in life is cutting crusts off bread.”
Amanda’s breath left her. She knew Liz didn’t think much of her choices in life. In Liz’s eyes, she’d abandoned their sacred pledge to be strong, independent women. Still, her words stunned Amanda. “I can’t believe you just said that to me. You’ve changed, Liz.”
“I’m not the one who changed.”
Amanda’s eyes stung with tears. She was still Amanda Peters. Wasn’t she? Life hadn’t turned out quite as she’d imagined it, twenty years ago, but it was a good life. And she wanted to go back to it. Now. To her kind husband, who’d said goodbye with a big smile on his face even though she knew he was freaking out that he had to take care of the girls on his own for ten days. To sweet Bea and Clare, who made her heart swell bigger than she’d ever thought possible. She’d hated leaving them at daycare when they were babies, dreaded the cheery emails from their teachers filled with photos of the girls having so much fun without Mommy. She’d raced out of the office at 5:00, instead of staying till seven like everyone else. She missed out on a project, then another. Then a promotion. She’d been sidelined. So what was the point? She quit. She hadn’t planned it. It just … happened. She’d never been much of a planner.
“Why’d you even agree to come on this trip?” asked Amanda, her throat catching.
“I was doing you a favor. You sounded so … desperate.”
Fury exploded in Amanda’s chest. She grabbed the rock ledge again. She found a secure foothold, and hauled herself up. She found another handhold, another foothold. She inched up the cliff side. Then slipped, sliding back down to where she started, scraping up her knees.
She slammed her fist into the cliff and tried again. Handhold, foothold, pull. Handhold, foothold, pull. She grabbed the roots of a scrub, but it popped out of the ground. She slid again, banging her chin on a jut of rock, splitting it open. Tears mixed with the mud and grit on her face. She reached up again. Right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot. Slip again. Keep going.
Her legs and arms burned. But she kept moving. The trail got closer and closer. One last big push, and she was over the top. She landed on her hands and knees and held her breath. The ground did not fall out from under her.
Amanda stood up, carefully, and looked down at Liz. “Just start climbing. Use the rocks and the scrub as handholds. Take it slow.”
“I can’t. If I move, I’ll fall.”
“You can do it, Liz.”
“I’m going to fall.” Liz was paralyzed, her eyes wide with panic.
“You’re going to be okay.” Amanda heard herself slip into what Bea and Clare called her Mom voice. She looked around. A piece of railing was dangling from a broken post. Amanda tugged at it until it broke off. She lowered it down to Liz. But it was too short.
“Liz, you’re going to have to climb up to the railing. You can do it. Remember when we hiked the Franz Joseph glacier and we had to climb up the walls of a crevasse?”
“I had metal spikes strapped to my boots then.”
“There’s a narrow rock ledge just above your head. Reach up and grab it.”
“Yes, you can. Just reach up. Okay, good. Now bring your feet up, one at a time, and dig your toes in. Now push up.”
Liz inched upward. Then her foot slipped. She flattened herself against the cliff. “I can’t do it. Everything’s too slippery.”
“Keep going, Liz. Grab the roots of that scrub there, on your right.”
Amanda talked Liz up the cliff, step by step. She braced herself as Liz grabbed the railing, throwing her weight back to compensate. “Good. Now keep climbing with your legs. Look for solid footholds.”
Liz finally crawled up onto the trail. Chest heaving and tears streaming down her cheeks, she dropped onto the ground.
Ignoring her own tears, and the blood dripping from her chin, Amanda held her hand out to Liz. “Come on. We should get off this part of the trail.”
Amanda led the way back to the locked gate with the big “Chiuso” sign. She dragged herself over, wincing as her bruised, shaking legs landed on the safe stretch of the Coastal Trail. Liz trudged behind her. In complete silence, they hiked the jagged paths north, back the way they came. An hour and a half to Vernazza. Another two hours to Monterosso.
When they finally touched down in Monterosso, Amanda didn’t want to go back to the hotel and listen to Liz make a flurry of phone calls and watch her answer emails as she glared at her from across the tiny room. So she turned off and headed for the empty beach.
“What are you doing?” Liz called after her.
“I want to sit by the water.”
“It’s cold. And raining. And your chin is bleeding.”
Amanda ignored her. She sat down in the damp sand at the water’s edge, wrapping her arms around her knees. The water had been so blue, last time. Now it was shadowed winter gray. And yet it was still beautiful. She inhaled the cool, wet air, grateful to be sitting here. And grateful that in three days she’d be back with her family. Back to swimming lessons and pizza nights and bedtime stories under fuzzy pink blankets. Adventure enough, for Amanda.
She heard the crunch of hiking boots on sand. Liz sat down next to her. The two women stared in long silence at the choppy waves as they sloshed in and out.
“You really kept your cool back there,” said Liz eventually.
“You’re welcome,” said Amanda, knowing she’d just gotten as close to a “thank you” as she was going to get.
After a few more moments, Liz spoke again. “I had fun hanging out with you today.”
Amanda snorted. “Yeah, let’s NOT do that again.”
Liz belly laughed as she wiped tears off her muddy face. “Damn it, I want some pasta.”
“Piles of it. I want to swim in gelato.”
Amanda laughed so hard she almost tipped over. Liz put her hand on Amanda’s shoulder to steady her. “But if we’re going to flirt with cute Italians, we should probably get all the mud and blood off ourselves.”
Both Amanda and Liz fell over laughing, adding wet sand to the mess. They clutched their sides and gasped for air. Still giggling, they helped each other up and headed back to the cobbled streets of Monterosso.