A Race on Stilts for Tradition.
It was hot and humid and the mosquitos were swarming, but there was nothing Guido Edera would have rather been doing one Sunday evening than gathering wood in the forest. One swing and his rusted machete cut half way through the arm-thick tree trunk. With the second swing he yelled joyfully, “Two swings for a tree, one for a head!”
In most places, a man swinging a machete and referencing cutting heads off might seem terrifying. But in a patch of woods near the small hillside town of Schieti (skee-et-ee) in mid-June, it makes perfect sense. This is when Schieti is putting the finishing touches on preparations for the Palio dei Trampoli, a wild race on stilts across its steep streets.
There are bigger and better-known races in the le Marche Region of central Italy, but the residents of this pre-Renaissance town overlooking a curve in the Leaf River surely match any for enthusiastic support. Their love for the event is based on tradition. In the centuries before bridges were built, their ancestors would use stilts to cross the river when the water was high. During summer months when the river’s level receded, children would race through the castle halls on the discarded stilts.
For the past fifteen years an annual race has been held to kick off the summer and keep the town’s history alive. It brings the residents together for a weekend of music, food, and competition.
The event draws enthusiasm from all ages, but it may mean the most to the machete-wielding Edera, who began craving as a boy when he fashioned toys from trees for his brother on the nearby farm where they were raised.
As an adult he served in the military and later worked in train yards. After retirement, he began carving again, mostly making pieces for nearby schools. Each piece he makes, whether a model of farm equipment, a Pinocchio, or a set of stilts, is tied to Italian history.
But none of his work reaches as large of a group as his stilts do. Accepting no payment, Edera makes all the stilts used during the Palio dei Trampoli. He is happy enough, he said, knowing that this event is keeping the town’s history alive for the children.
On the day before the races Edera needed more wood to finish a last minute set of stilts. After a short but wild drive through a tunnel of trees in a small, three-wheeled utility vehicle, Edera takes a short hike to find suitable trees to become stilts. Stepping over boar tracks and through clouds of mosquitos, he examines each tree like a jeweler examining diamonds, searching for the imperfections.
When the right tree is found, Edera raises his machete and swings it into the base of the trunk, sweat falling from his face with the impact. A second swing and the tree falls through the brush to the forest floor. Once he is happy with the trees he has, he brings them back to his workshop.
In a dim garage with clouds of gnats swarming around a single light bulb, Edera goes about his woodworking magic. Using only a few tools, he somehow transforms the freshly cut trees into seven-foot tall poles about 5-inches in diameter. You can tell they are stilts by the wooden footholds attached about 30 centimeters from the bottom.
The only non-wood on the stilt is a rubber strap across the foothold necessary to help the racer stay on the gear. “It’s a transmission belt,” Edera announced, after retrieving it from another room.
On race day the center of Schieti is alive with activity. People line the one road through the town waiting to see their friends race. The aroma of tagliatelle, traditional pasta specific to le Marche region, and the homemade tomato sauce it’s served with waft through the streets on a gentle breeze. As the sun sets behind the rolling hills and farms, the first races begin.
The one hundred meter race starts at the bottom of the town. The competitors follow the asphalt road up the hill, through one curve and one turn, finishing below the castle in the town’s center.
Standing close to six feet tall and wearing his race uniform of a green vest and traditional straw hat, Silvio Filippini, 17, was racing for his second consecutive year. After finishing third in his first Palio dei Trampoli, he is determined to win this year. And with last year’s winner not competing this year, it was anyone’s race.
Filippini stands ready at the start line with the other three racers. The speakers crackle on as the starter calls, “Tre! Due! Uno!” and the racers bolt up the hill. Running in staggered steps, some of their hats fall, hanging on their backs by a drawstring.
At the first turn they’re all tied, but as the hill flattened, Filippini began pulling away. At the straightaway he has moved several seconds ahead of the pack before rounding the final turn. Filippini sprints the last leg of the race finishing just as the other racers are rounding the last turn.
The crowd erupts, everyone swarming Filippini to congratulate him, and then moving as one toward the area where the award ceremony takes place. Some people are running to ensure they have a good view for it. Among these people rushing ahead is Guido Edera, and, with a smile on his face he calls out,
“He won on my stilts!”