The List

Dec 1, 1998
Outside Magazine
Don't Get Ahead of Yourself

Check out the first half of The List that Matters:
Items 1-25
Items 26-50

51. Swim from One Landmass to Another.

51. Swim from One Landmass to Another
Why? For mental rejuvenation. For the exercise, always more tolerable with a goal on the horizon. For the literary buzz of paddling in the wake of Lord Byron, who crossed the Hellespont. For the memories of summer camp, where the girls' cabins beckoned across the pond. For the sheer hell of it.

52. Drive to Road's End
Two promising cul-de-sacs:
-In Texas's Big Bend National Park, drive up the road ending at the Juniper Canyon approach to the lonely Chisos Mountains. Everywhere you look will be cacti and birds, unpeopled brush, rock, sandy gravel, and a big, empty temptation.
-The virtually unvisited national park Kheerman Tsav in southern Mongolia. Depending on how you define it, the road peters out either 100 miles before you reach the park (envision a Zion National Park big as North Carolina) or 400 miles earlier, where the pavement of Mongolia's sole highway ends six miles outside the capital, Ulan Bator.

53. Handicap the Palio
By Jonathan Harr
Last July, under a fiercely hot Tuscan sun, I met my friend Fred Wessel at the gates of the ancient walled city of Siena. Fred is an artist, a specialist in egg tempera who visits Siena to pay homage to Simone Martini and Lorenzetti, the great 14th-century masters of egg tempera, and also a man with a keen appreciation for the weird. One thing he likes to show visitors is the mummified head of Saint Catherine, dead now 619 years. The head reposes in a small gilt box in the cathedral of San Domenico. In the gloom, one studies it by a dim yellow light that flickers from behind, illuminating the desiccated relic like a jack-o'-lantern. I was deep in morbid contemplation when a commotion out front commanded my attention.

Into the cathedral came a large group of people leading a horse, a big, high-spirited beast that snorted, rolled its eyes, and pawed the marble floor. The throng led the horse to the altar, where, in an instant, it raised its tail and defecated copiously. A roar of approval went up. People gathered at the steaming pile and exclaimed joyously,

The horse, I learned, would race in the Palio that afternoon. For reasons I never understood, its performance in the church was regarded as an exceptionally lucky omen. But then, there is a lot about the Palio that is hard to understand. It is at once an occasion for feasting and high spirits as well as a truly demented race, dangerous to man and beast, the engine for bribery, fistfights, and general mayhem.

The Palio has been run virtually without interruption every year since 1275. Ten of the 17 contrade, or neighborhoods, of Siena compete against one another for victory in the race, which is held in the Piazza del Campo, the central square. The piazza, famous throughout Italy for its beauty, has the shape and contours of a clamshell, and that makes it singularly unsuitable as a racetrack. In the last 30 years, 37 horses have died from injuries sustained at the infamous San Martino turn, a right angle that a sane rider would not attempt at a pace faster than a canter. There are no rules in the Palio. A riderless horse may win, and the jockeys—mostly Sardinians and Sicilians with homicidal tendencies—use horsewhips with great vigor on each other.

The best place to see the race is from a window overlooking the piazza or from the wooden grandstands erected around it. Both are expensive and require reservations well in advance. The true Palio experience occurs in the center of the piazza, behind the barricades. By race time, about five, the crowd is packed in elbow to elbow, frenzied, intoxicated by alcohol and sunstroke, riven by partisanship.

Fred and I chose a neighborhood bar up by San Domenico, a lovely and cool spot where we drank grappa and sat among the old folk watching the race on television. It lasts only a minute-and-a-half. If memory serves (grappa is contra-indicated when it comes to memory), two horses went down at the San Martino corner. Another jockey went over the infield rail, and his horse—the one I saw in San Domenico, I believe—finished second. It would have won had it not taken San Martino a trifle wide.

Jonathan Harr is the author of A Civil Action.