After a year of high tension thanks to the twin plagues of presidential politics and the pandemic, BoomerCafé is doing its part to tone things down, which is why, in addition to fresh stories, we’re running some of our “best of” pieces from the past, stories to remind you that yes, Virginia, there was some tranquility before the tension.
Today’s story is from 2018, by BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs, about a biking trip in the Italian Dolomites, where he learned that “getting away from it all” isn’t what it used to be.
The summer before last, I took a vacation. It was bliss. Almost.
It was a two-week trip to Italy, biking in the Dolomites. That’s the “bliss” part. We Americans don’t know the meaning of “steep.” Nor for the most part, when it comes to pasta, the meaning of “fresh.”
I do a lot of road cycling through the mountains where I live in Colorado. It’s fun and it’s fulfilling, but at the same time, tough, because it’s hard to take a long ride without someone putting a mountain pass in the way. Typical elevation gains for passes here in the Rockies run from, oh, 1,500 feet to twice that. And remember, even if it’s the lower number, typically you’re starting out at a lung-challenging altitude of 7,000, 8,000, sometimes 9,000 feet above sea level.
So it’s tough — a doctor’s stethoscope would confirm that — but not punishing. Our typical steep grades are maybe 6%, 9% at the most. In the Dolomites? We did some climbs where the average grade — underline average — was 9%. The steepest was 17!
A funny little story about that: on one particularly steep climb (and under a particularly hot sun), a friend riding maybe 50 yards ahead of me ran out of steam, and got off, and briefly began to walk his bike. Behind him, I was pedaling up this sharp grade at such a snail’s pace— moving barely fast enough not to fall over— that I perceived that my friend, slowly but surely, was pulling away from me.
The good news in all this (besides the fact that a now-74-year-old veteran of heart surgeries and abdominal surgeries and back surgeries like me could pull it off) is that there is great food and wine each day at the end of the road. Italians take pride in everything they prepare. One day, at the top of a pass in a classic region called the Sella Ronda (four steep mountain passes with about a mile-and-a-quarter of elevation gain in only about 35 miles), we stopped at a hilltop restaurant. Nothing fancy; it was cafeteria style. But I asked for spaghetti bolognese, and what I got could be featured at a four-star restaurant in the U.S. They just like good food!
But the bliss of a fortnight in the cradle of La Dolce Vita — The Sweet Life — was blunted by the bulletins that came across the screen of my iPhone every morning when I got up and again at night when I retired. If I wasn’t beaten down during the day by the agonizing angles of the mountain passes, I’d get beaten down at night by the steady onslaughts of headline stories.
And in this day and age, it’s as if each headline was printed in disappearing ink. It was an unremitting bombardment. Thank heaven for Chianti.
The day I left home, for example, the headline story was North Korea’s slap in former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s face. It called his just-ended two-day visit to Pyongyang — designed to advance any agreements reached at the Singapore Summit (whatever they were; we still don’t really know) — “regrettable.” North Korea accused the U.S. of making “gangster-like” demands to force it to give up its nukes.
But that felt last month. Since then, those “agreements” look thinner than ever.
Then there was a Supreme Court nomination (and this was before we’d ever heard of Amy Coney Barrett), and news that many of the immigrant children who a federal court ordered be reunited with their parents still weren’t (the government even said it wasn’t sure it could), and the President openly alienating friends, tweeting his disapproval of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decisions for her nation and then of then-British Prime Minister Teresa May’s Brexit tactics after that (both women, by the way, stood their ground).
And then, a blockbuster here at home: the Russia probe — or as Trump called it, the Witch Hunt — indicted 12 Russian military operatives for hacking the computers of Democratic party officials, with the goal of disrupting the 2016 presidential election.
And the beat went on. When Presidents Trump and Putin broke bread in Helsinki, Trump seemed to think Putin’s bread was better than his. He stood in front of the world’s media and refused to challenge Putin’s claim that Russia had not sabotaged the presidential election. As if those Mueller indictments three days earlier hadn’t happened.
And the grand finale: when asked by a reporter whether he believes U.S. intelligence officials or Russia’s president, President Trump declared, “He just said it’s not Russia.” And then stumbled into this wordplay: “I will say this — I don’t see any reason why it would be … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
That of course lead to his “clarifications” the next day: he meant “wouldn’t,” not “would.” Right.
Then the Michael Cohen story broke. Namely, that surreptitiously Cohen had taped Trump talking about a payoff to the Playboy Playmate who claims a nearly year-long affair (right after Melania gave birth to Barron, if you must know).
The next day, predictably, Trump pulled out the knives on Cohen. “Inconceivable” that a lawyer would tape a client, Trump tweeted. He also called it “perhaps illegal,” perhaps unaware that in New York State, the law only requires the consent of a single party to tape a conversation. “The good news,” Trump ended his tweet, “is that your favorite President did nothing wrong.” As if that puts the matter to rest.
All of that competed for headlines with the tragic story of a boat that capsized in a lake near Branson, Missouri. 17 people — including nine from a single family — drowned.
Finally, the day I traveled home, the president went to bat against the ideologues in Iran. His tweet, in all caps: “WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!” Supporters call it a game of chess. I call it a game of chicken.
And of course throughout my vacation, the president continued fighting his trade wars on several fronts. Never a headline story, but always a threat to the prosperity of American consumers and American businesses.
To be sure, there was good news while I was gone. With monsoon rains returning any moment, Thai officials moved to rescue those twelve boys and their soccer coach who’d been trapped two weeks in a flooded cave. Over the course of three days, they got them all.
So, go away for two weeks and you can’t escape the machine-gun pace of the news. Whether you’re cycling in the Dolomites, or promenading in Paris, or shopping in Shanghai — all of which we’ll be able to do again, once the pandemic is under control — you can’t escape … unless you turn off your phone.
Greg’s book about the wacky ways of a foreign correspondent, Life in the Wrong Lane, is available from Amazon.