The narrow winding roads that climb over the passes of the Dolomite Mountains in Italy lead to unforgettable scenery and some pretty good stories. Below is the story of a machine gun and a magic wand.
I had spent a week driving and photographing in northern Italy. It is hard work navigating the switchbacks up the massive mountain slopes, but the views from the passes are hard to believe. But it’s not just one or two marquee vistas. On pass after pass you are treated to panoramas of country that would be considered national park-caliber treasures in any country.
There are several east-west routes with many connections to remote valleys. The valleys are deep and they shelter colorful alpine villages. I tried to drive many of the routes that passed near the massive walls and spires of the main Dolomitic peaks. I eventually grew weary of the driving and also from dealing with the impact of the mountains. I tried hard to capture the intense beauty and magnitude, but I felt inadequate.
There isn’t a lot of traffic on the roads, but sometimes you have to deal with lines of cars behind tour buses. Other times touring packs of motorcycles scream by or large trucks push you the edge of ‘your’ part of the pavement. You could be pushed uncomfortably close to a stone wall or a sheer drop off. It is not easy driving.
On my last morning in a beautiful hotel in the small village of Cibiana di Cadore I said goodbye to the cordial staff who had treated me like family. I thought I had done all that I could do with my time photographing in the Dolomites. I was ready for the long drive down the hill to the Autostrada to drive across northern Italy to Milano where I would fly home the next day. The weather had been mostly good, but there had been clouds over the high peaks on several days and some rain.
But this morning, the sky was clear and the mountains were stunning. As I packed my car I started arguing with myself: “I have had good opportunities, I have driven many roads, and now it is time to drive back to Milano and turn the car in and get ready to leave. That is the responsible thing to do. …BUT, wait, I could just go up the hill past Refugio Remauro, down through the next valley, and over Passo Duran and THEN turn south to the Autostrada. That would give me two more passes with views of peaks in the bright morning sun. The clouds may build up quickly, but I could have a few more opportunities. What should I do, go down the hill toward the Autostrada, or go up the hill deeper into the mountains?”
I got in the car and did the responsible thing and drove slowly down the hill through the beautiful village past the ancient stone homes.
I made it about a half mile down the hill and I just couldn’t go on. I had to take advantage of the sunny morning and the views. So I turned around and went back up through the village and climbed towards the first pass.
The sun was still low and the west side of the mountain ridges was in full shadow. But the peaks were bursting with bright light. I tried to work quickly whenever I pulled over to photograph. But I found I was still unable to turn away from the vistas. I took too many photos. Superb alpine villages occupied strategic locations on valley floors and benches.
I gradually made progress toward the west. Hey, I did have all day after all. Of course, I still had to reach the Autostrada and then drive all the way across northern Italy.
At times I zipped my camera pack closed and tried to keep driving. Then I would reach a pass and another world class vista would open up to the horizon.
Really, I’ve got to keep going. Stop pulling over. I concentrated and made it down a long hill and climbed up toward another pass. I could now see the last valley I would enter before leaving the mountains. There were villages in the distance that looked like white speckles at the base of long footslopes.
I started down towards the valley. I only stopped a few times. Eventually I came to a small inn and a few farms which marked the outskirts of the next village. It was autumn and the firewood stacks were enormous and very orderly. I was nearing the valley floor and it looked like I was coming into a good-sized village. Going down a long decline I passed large stone houses and a few businesses. As I entered the village the road made an abrupt left turn and narrowed between buildings.
I slowed and looked over to the left and saw a dark blue SUV parked perpendicular to the street. On the side in large bold white letters was the word: CARABINIERI. A vivid red stripe and red shield added a strong military appearance. There were emergency lights on the roof.
The street was deserted except for two Carabinieri officers. In the street in front of me standing in my lane was a hulking military officer. He was the epitome of the intimidating warrior: tall, huge muscular torso, strong square jutting jaw, crisp uniform, highly polished tall black boots, and hat worn squarely. The morning sun glinted off the shiny black bill of his hat. He was all business and his expression was serious. He held up his right hand to indicate stop, but with his left hand he waved a tiny sign. Of course, it was an official “pull over right here” waving motion, but it was a funny little sign. It was a solid red circle surrounded by a red ring on a white background. The sign was about four inches across and was held at the end of a long skinny stick. It was odd and formed an immediate impression, but I didn’t have time to recognize what the impression was, because I had to quickly slow and turn left into the indicated parking lot next to the Carabinieri vehicle.
I pulled to a stop next to the other officer who positioned himself next to the driver’s door. Before I could look over at him the commanding officer had walked over from the street and was at my window. I rolled down the window and he said something to me in Italian. The impact of his command was lost on me, but I could recognize the authoritarian tone. Quickly he understood that Italian wasn’t working and switched to the few English commands that he knew. He asked what I was doing, where I was coming from, where I was going, and whose car I was driving. I answered respectfully and handed over the rental car contract, ID, passport, and international driver’s license as I was commanded to. He walked over to their vehicle and sat in the car to radio in and check the information.
Then I was able to look over at the other officer who had moved back up to my door. I had opened the door to get some air but he now blocked my exit. He was a round-shouldered, slouchy, and lazy-looking country kid. He smiled, but harnessed across his chest was an old, worn machine gun. He kept both hands on it ready for any kind of mafia confrontation. I certainly had no intention of moving from the car.
While the commander was talking on the radio the kid with the machine tried to put me at ease by making small talk. His English was pretty good. He asked where I was from and when I said California he became excited. He wanted to use his English, but mainly he wanted to talk about the babes on the beach in California and how much he wanted a Mustang to drive around. He became almost jovial. He was mild-mannered and soft-spoken. A simple, goofy country kid. But that machine gun was only a couple of feet from my face!
I very respectfully asked him why they pulled me over and what they were doing. He said that they do this sort of random stop for “control” and security. I told him that the U.S.A. didn’t have national police and I was surprised to be pulled over. (The Carabinieri or Arma dei Carabinieri (Force of Carabinieri) are a national gendarmerie who police both military and civilian populations.)
Eventually the commander came back and asked a few more questions about the rental car and what I was doing there. I think he looked in my camera pack, but my memory is a little sketchy because I was in a cold terror sweat the whole time.
Finally, in a very courteous and business-like manner he handed back my papers and encouraged me to drive safely and enjoy the beautiful Dolomitic countryside.
When I drove away the overload of adrenaline gradually eased and I began to relax. And as I left the village and started down the valley toward the Autostrada I replayed the episode in my mind. The goofy kid with the machine gun had been terrifying in a surreal way.
But I also began to think about the commanding officer and his little sign on a stick. It was only then that I concluded that the little sign looked more like a little-girl’s magic wand. It was weird to see that glowering soldier waving that little wand. His waving motion was strictly military and very official. But I just couldn’t help wondering if he had forgotten his real sign at the barracks that morning and had had to dig into his daughter’s toy chest and found a princess magic wand to use. Maybe the two officers had just switched assigned tools for the day. Or maybe it was a gag, like in Super Troopers, where the two officers dared one another to do outrageous stunts to see how their ‘victims’ would react.
Of course, I have to say that I was treated with respect and courtesy. They were businesslike and professional. I may return to the Dolomites and I don’t need any enemies. But I will never forget that machine gun and that magic wand!