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It’s all wrong, but I’m doing it anyway. 

I’m on a plane, zooming to Italy, and I should be happy and excited, but I want to curl up into a ball and cry. The only way I can really pull this off is by breaking some rules and running up a huge credit card debt. Totally selfish, irresponsible, self-indulgent. 

As I write this I want to scream at you: This bike tour is the dumbest thing I ever did! Learn from my example. Do not try this at home. 

Worse still, do not try this somewhere far away on another continent where the language and cultural barriers mask all your personal flaws, disguising your deepest self-doubts underneath a glowing cascade of perfect Instagram photos.

I want to scream this at you, but there’s a stronger voice, one that says you’re here in this world to drink life to the dregs and have a wealth of vivid experiences. That both you and the world you live in were made by something more profound than you can ever fathom, and that you should show your appreciation by greedily savoring every facet and feature of this unlikely gem. 

We’ll get back to this, but first you should know a little bit about where we are.

As you leave the center of Rome, just southeast of the Colosseum, you can ride your bike on a long stretch of the original via Appia that has been lovingly restored. If you come in the spring, you’ll see tall, waving fields of grass with billions of bright flowers.

Best of all, this place is the winning lottery ticket for ancient history nerds. You get to ride over cobblestones with ruts and channels carved by thousands of wagon wheels over the years. You’ll see crumbling structures of ancient brick, chunks of marble and sometimes a carving or inscription that gives a clue about the history here. 

Virtually all the monuments in the first few miles outside the city were the tombs of wealthy Romans. A burial along via Appia was an essential status symbol. During the height of the Roman Empire, you could barely see the green fields all around you. Tombs crowded the sides of the road, rammed together like passengers in the subway of some ancient ghostly rush hour. But there are even more dead buried underground. 

Centuries ago, Romans built catacombs along the via Appia. There are a few Jewish catacombs, and some are dedicated to pre-Christian religions. But the majority of the catacombs, especially along the Appian Way, were built by the Christians of ancient Rome.

These catacombs were long tunnels lined with small niches to hold the remains of the dead. Some of these tunnels went on for miles through the earth. When it wasn’t convenient to lengthen a tunnel, the builders would dig another tunnel deeper down. Most of the catacombs contain three or more of these levels. And there are more than 40 of these catacombs scattered around the outskirts of Rome.

Thousands of dead bodies underneath your feet, monuments to a hundred more on the grass on either side of you. Yet this ancient cemetery is a park! 

Above ground, practically all you’ll see are joggers and hikers, spandex and dogs and all the other signs of the living. Kids kick soccer balls while their parents prepare a picnic lunch. Every weekend is like a big happy birthday party in a graveyard.

Still, you’re never allowed to forget the dead. There is one big tomb where hikers and bikers and joggers nearly always stop to gawk. 

As you come up the crest of a small hill, this sight will probably stop you, too: The tomb of Caecilia Metella. It stands out like a great tower above the flat fields all around, taller and bigger and better preserved than anything else on the Appian Way. 

The original tomb was a huge, round drum. Now it’s crowned with a circle of battlements biting the sky. In later centuries, different owners added small buildings around it, but these feel like an afterthought. The whole thing is the color of bleached bones, and that’s what it was built for. 

Marcus Crassus was the wealthiest man in the history of Rome. A woman named Caecilia Metella married one of his sons, and when she died her family built the most audacious tomb on this side of the Mediterranean.

This was where I stopped walking, seven years earlier, when I decided to bike the entire distance of the Appian Way. It’s a good place to tell you what this trip was really about. 

The truth is, I was running away. 

I was almost 40 years old when I made this trip. I was secretly terrified of reaching that landmark age (or beyond) with no employable skills or experience, still single, and clueless about what to do with myself. 

Whenever I’m feeling stuck, I find an adventure and I go after it. It’s my way of confronting the failures and mediocrity in my life. I stare them down and say “Things are going to change NOW.” 

I told myself this journey was a way to throw down the gauntlet and go through a dark place in search of the light on the other side.

But it was really just a self-indulgent escape. An escape from responsibilities and relationships. An escape from fear.

What if I was not powerful beyond belief? What if I was just an over-achieving dreamer, drifting into middle age with nothing to show for it? If I became that person at 40, what would my life look like at 60?

This is the kind of trip that might make sense if you found out you had a terminal illness. Or if you lost someone you loved, someone who urged you to enjoy life and dare to live it to the fullest. 

I didn’t have a tragedy like that to add drama to the story, but who says you need to wait for something terrible to happen before you do what you want? I say go out and fulfil your bucket list while your bucket is still full. 

Even if you have another 20, 40, or even 60 good years ahead of you, that’s less than a single brick in the long, ancient road of time.

I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, but I was following an obsession that had haunted me for seven years. Foolish or not, I was going to ride while I still had some time left.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts about whether I was doing the right thing.

This is the 2nd Chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking Down an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me From a Life of Quiet Desperation. I'll be posting a few chapters each week during the Covid19 shutdown. I'm also reading the out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in.

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along via Appia.

All I wanted was to leave. I just wanted to get on my bicycle and ride away on a journey down via Appia to the Achilles tendon of Italy. 

But there in the dark forest where I found myself, a frightening apparition stood on the path right between me and my bicycle.

This isn’t some kind of metaphor. I was literally in a grove of trees somewhere outside Benevento on a warm spring night. I needed a place to sleep, and had just discovered that perhaps this wasn’t the best place to do so.

Unfortunately, it looked like I might not be allowed to leave.

 I’m jumping ahead, though. This story began long before I set off on a bike tour. It started literally thousands of years before I was born.

Once upon a time, an energetic band of free-spirited farmers and artisans built a young republic in a sunny Mediterranean paradise. 

But they were all doomed.

A ruthless dictator from the East had his eye on the treasures and spoils of ancient Italy. He was steamrolling up the Italian peninsula with thirty thousand warriors, horses trained for war, and a score of thundering elephants. He won battles. He took villages. One by one, the tribes and colonies surrendered to him.

And then, when everything seemed hopeless, one man stood up and blocked the conqueror.

He wasn’t a hero, a warrior, or a great leader. He was just a grumpy old man with bad eyesight and selfish ambitions of his own. But he gave a moving speech which ensured that Rome would never surrender. His name was Appius Claudius, and he proved that a speech can stop an army. 

Most of the time, old Appius Claudius Caecus was an arrogant, self-serving prick. Like the driver who cuts you off in the middle of an intersection. Or the person who lets their dog run loose and defecate in front of your house, and refuses to clean it up. 

But even you have your bad days, when you laugh at something inappropriate or forget to put the toilet seat down. Likewise, the worst of us are capable of doing great things. 

Appius Claudius had questionable ethics, but he made a speech that galvanized young Rome against her enemies, and he said one thing in this speech that has lasted for millennia: 

“Every man is the architect of his own fate.”

This story is mostly about my attempt to be the architect of my own fate. But I’ll also tell you a lot about the conqueror, the elephants, and especially Appius Claudius.

The speech was one of his last public acts, but he is better known for what he did at the beginning of his career. When Appius became Censor, he nearly bankrupted the treasury. He devoted almost all the available funds to build a road that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and it led directly into the uncertain wilderness of the south. 

Then, as the keystone of a career that was built almost entirely on sheer chutzpah, he named the road after himself: Via Appia.

Why am I telling you this?

Because two thousand, three hundred and seventeen years later, I was riding a bicycle on that very same road, while every motor vehicle in Italy tried to crush me like a grape in a winepress.

Just after via Appia leaves Rome through the Porta San Sebastiano, the shoulder disappears. Two brick walls guard the road, turning it into a roofless tunnel. It is a Roman Channel of Death for cyclists, where you are nothing but a petty obstacle, a dog turd to be avoided if possible or else smeared across the cobblestones.

Commuters in Fiats, late to work, shouted vulgar curses against my ancestors. Produce trucks threatened to grind me against the walls, an olive between the millstones. Tour buses nearly pounded me like basil in a mortar.

Soon I would be mashed into pesto, olive oil, and marinara sauce. The tricolore of Italy. This adventure would end before it began, and a foreigner would become national cuisine.

But somehow I made it to the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica. At a small building that provided tourist information, I asked if it would be possible to speak to an archeologist.

A receptionist set down her lipstick-stained cigarette and directed me to Dr. Grillo. His office was up the stairs, first door on the right. The door was open, and a grey-haired man, impeccably dressed, stared at me over a tiny cup of espresso. He seemed uncomfortable that a sweaty American, dressed in shorts and clutching a bicycle helmet, would enter his office this early on a weekday.

In the best Italian I could muster, I told him I wanted to bike the via Appia Antica from Rome to its end in Brindisi. From the surprised confusion in his face, you would think I had just asked him to circumcise me.

"Impossibile!" he protested, pronouncing the word with long Italian vowels: eem-poh-SEEEEEE-bee-lay!

Nobody knows how many millions of nobles, senators, philosophers, soldiers, merchants, prisoners, slaves, poets and bandits have traveled on the Appian Way. They've been doing it for more than 2,300 years on foot, in litters, by wagon, buggy, horse, pony, donkey, elephant, mule, and more recently in cars, motorcycles and trucks. Surely one enthusiastic bicyclist could make the journey. 

I had already decided to take this trip, with or without anyone's help. But I wanted some advice and encouragement from an expert, if I could get it.

I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn. I wanted to remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as an empire and too weak as individuals.

Dr. Grillo assured me that it could not be done. He warned me of floods and swamps and mountains. Much of via Appia was buried on private property.  Also, there are many places where we simply don't know which way via Appia went.

But I knew I had him when he asked why I would ever want to do such a thing.

This is the hardest question to answer, even in English. I did my best to explain my fascination with ancient Mediterranean history.

Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together. There's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places.

Grillo understood. Or at least he no longer looked like he was planning to call security or throw me out himself.

When you travel by bicycle, I tried to tell him, you don't just "see" things behind the glass of a museum display or a windshield. You feel the air and the moisture and the contours of the land. You talk to the people and you’re exposed to the weather. You get the feeling of the place.

This is why, after staring down a 2,300-year-old highway, I found I could no longer try to run a business or be a teacher or fulfill any of the other roles the world put before me until I rode my bike to the end of the road, just to see what would happen.

Many Italians are gifted with a powerful intuition. Even if you don't know the right words, if you speak with passion they will read your mind and give you exactly what you want. Before I could finish, my new archeologist savior was nodding vigorously as he opened the squeaky drawers of his file cabinet, pulling out maps, old photos, and drawings.

He gave me a stream of directions and names and numbers in rapid Italian. I scribbled as much as I could understand in my notebook. I wasn't looking for perfection, I told him, just adventure and learning and new experiences. If I couldn't retrace all of the Appian Way, I would still cover the distance and do the best I could.

Dr. Grillo assured me once again that I was attempting something impossible. But he still shook my hand and said, “In bocca al'lupo.” In the mouth of the wolf, a Roman way of saying “good luck.”

Traditionally when someone says this, you're supposed to answer, “Crepi lupo,” which implies that if a wolf tries to eat you it will find you to be poisonous. You will kill the thing that tries to kill you.

However, an Italian friend explained to me that a mother wolf, like the legendary wolf who raised Romulus and Remus, carries her young by holding them in her mouth. If you are “in boca al’lupo,” you are protected by the mother wolf. You certainly wouldn't want the wolf to die.

Either way, I was about to set off into the unknown, on the back of a bike, in the mouth of a wolf.

Dr. Grillo wasn't the only person who said it couldn’t be done. Others predicted I would be robbed, kidnapped, bitten by snakes, infected with malaria and maybe trampled by water buffalos before I reached Terracina. One well-meaning blog reader sent an email to warn me, “The cobblestones will destroy your arse in the first 10 kilometers.”

Everything they told me was true. Via Appia is fraught with peril. It’s a 450-mile gauntlet of knee-grinding climbs, bone-cracking potholes, sheer drops in the fog, bad weather, hostile natives, robbers, murderers and things far worse than that. When you venture along the jugular vein of ancient Rome you’re going to encounter the best and the worst of Italy.

But there’s a reward for trips like this, something you know intuitively before you begin. A journey like this is going to change you. It must. There are too many lonely miles for it not to happen.

Hey, friends and readers,

After years of procrastination, I made a promise to myself that I would self-publish my via Appia Book during the summer of 2020. But as I post this in the spring, we are all locked down in our homes. So I'm putting this out, chapter by chapter, in a bunch of places. I'll read it out loud on YouTube so you can listen to it while you wash the dishes or disinfect your house.

Check back here every week or so, and you'll find a new installment. Or better yet, subscribe and I'll email you whenever a new chapter is up, and give you links to the versions on YouTube and elsewhere. Best of all, when you subscribe you'll get a free copy of my travel notes.

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along via Appia.

A few thousand years ago, something happened at a place in southern Italy called Maleventum. 

Roman soldiers facing a charge of elephants at Beneventum--Public Domain
Pyrrhus' elephants. Public Domain

Maleventum means a bad wind or a bad event. At Maleventum, the Roman republic had its final confrontation with Pyrrhus. 

Pyrrhus was a conqueror who wanted to turn the Italian peninsula into his own private dictatorship. He beat the Romans in several battles.

Pyrrhus was the only thing that kept Rome from realizing her vision for a true republic.

The Romans never defeated Pyrrhus, but at Maleventum they put up enough resistance to convince him that conquering Italy wasn’t worth the cost. He packed up and left for greener pastures.

This is the origin of the term “Pyrrhic Victory,” and Maleventum was renamed to Beneventum, or “good event.”

Your own personal Pyrrhus

You have a personal Pyrrhus that is holding you back. Pyrrhus is the obstacle that is keeping you from your destiny. 

Your Pyrrhus could be your self-talk. Your fears and insecurities. It might be a real, tangible disadvantage. 

Your Pyrrhus could be something you were born with, or something that happened to you. Your Pyrrhus probably seems like something you can never overcome--and that’s the key.

You can fulfil your destiny as soon as you realize you don’t actually have to defeat Pyrrhus.

How to rise above any obstacle

In 279 BCE, Pyrrhus sent envoys to Rome, demanding they surrender. 

Appius Claudius delivered Rome’s answer, and it’s one of the most memorable things he did. In a public speech that promised Rome would never give up, Appius Claudius said, “Every man is the architect of his own fate.”

Romans were inspired to rise up, to be the best that they could be. So they kept on fighting Pyrrhus, but they also kept on building roads and aqueducts, growing crops, trading and farming and legislating. 

They became so good at being Romans that Pyrrhus eventually didn’t matter. The battles he won didn’t have any significant impact on the lives of most Roman citizens. So Pyrrhus left, undefeated but ineffective.

You, too, can rise above an unbeatable obstacle. Do the best you can, be the best you can, wherever and whenever you can. Your problems won’t go away, but they will become far less important. 

You obstacle might be a huge stone that refuses to budge. But you can become a surging river, flowing right over and around the immovable stone. Does the river even notice the stone?

Your Pyrrhus doesn’t matter. It has no power over you.

When you discover you are no longer held back by Pyrrhus, you are having your Benevento Moment. You have endured and prevailed. You have found your fire.

My Benevento Moment

Arch of Trajan Italy bike tour

Benevento is the crossroads where I had to make a choice and a commitment.

One of the most famous monuments in Benevento is Trajan’s Arch. It commemorates Trajan’s victories and accomplishments, but it also marks the beginning of a new road that branches off from the Appian Way.

This new road is the via Traiana (Trajan’s Way), and it follows the Adriatic coast to Benevento. This is a flatter, shorter, and easier route. The way is better known and more clearly marked. There are more places to find food and lodging, and you’re never far from a beach!

I was tempted to take via Traiana the rest of the way. It would mean a safer, easier, possibly shorter route. 

I’m a timid traveler. I usually favor comfort and security over the unknown. But my goal for this journey was practically the opposite. Did I want to shorten my trip, get back to Rome a few days early, just to wander around old paths I’d been down many times before, trying to relive my youth and my past?

It only took a few minutes to move beyond the temptation. I continued on the most uncertain and remote part of the Appian Way, into the Apennine Mountains. This choice led to some of the most memorable parts of my journey.

A decision awaits you at your Benevento moment. What choices will you have to make? You may be tempted by an easier, safer path. Will it bring you what you want?

All of my bridge-burning moves seem impulsive and foolish in hindsight. But I wouldn’t change a single one of them. They each got me a little bit closer to finding my way.

One of the cardinal rules of life: Don’t burn your bridges.

Well, I have to make confession. I’ve burned so many bridges that I have a standing offer of employment from Al Qaeda.

But somewhere along the path of dumb mistakes and bad decisions, I learned perhaps the most important lesson of business and in life: Know Yourself.

To explain what I mean, let me give you a quick description of the worst carnage:

  • Just when I was starting to make money, I abandoned my college-backed career to move to Italy. Just because I could.
  • A few years later, I left a great job, an enviable lifestyle, and an interesting social circle in Italy to become a freelance writer.
  • When a recession slowed down my business, I became a full-time teacher in order to pay the mortgage.
  • When I realized I wasn’t helping anyone as a teacher, and that it was slowly choking my dreams, I resigned in order...wait for it… to become a freelance writer again.

Maybe you have a similar story.

Maybe you should.

Because if you want to be truly successful, you have to know two things: First, what can you offer to the world that is truly valuable? And second, what will genuinely make you happy?

All of my bridge-burning moves seem impulsive and foolish in hindsight. But I wouldn’t change a single one of them. They each got me a little bit closer to finding my way.

You're about to learn a secret about picking up Italian women. Or any women, really. This could probably work on men, too.

WARNING: Some of this story might qualify as Too Much Information. If you think so, you should probably skip it. You’ve been forewarned.

“Non e’ difficile,” said Francesco. It's not difficult. He was telling me how to get an Italian girlfriend.

Francesco had an eagle's head tattoo on one of his muscular arms. He stood beneath a “No Smoking” sign, rolling cigarettes and smoking them one after another.

“Irene, do you think I can teach this American how to pick up Terracina girls?” Francesco asked a young woman who was sipping a cappuccino. He pronounced her name ee-RAY-nay.

She put her hands together as if she were praying, and said “O Dio mio.”

For the next minute or so she looked at me, wide-eyed, shaking her head and her index finger, and mouthing the word “no,” while Francesco tried to impart his favorite observations and techniques.

Ask almost any Italian woman, and she’ll tell you Italian men are pigs. But the truth is, they’re the same as any guys anywhere. They’re just more transparent about it.

I wouldn’t recommend most of what Francesco told me that day in a bar in Terracina. But during my years in Italy I dated three--yes three!--Italian women.

If you're interested, you're about to learn a secret to picking up Italian women. Or any women, really. This could probably work on men, too.

You see, in Los Angeles, I'm just an ordinary dude who talks too much. But in Italy I'm a foreigner with an accent.

When someone speaks to me in Italian, I have to try really hard to follow along. Sometimes the only conversation I can manage is an awkward smile while I nod and say, “si’.” If I need to say much more than that, there’s a long pause while I struggle to remember the Italian word for peanut butter or how to conjugate the verb spalmare.

Apparently my weak language skills come across as intense concentration. My awkward pauses make me look thoughtful. To Italians, I appear to be a good listener.

It turns out many women can't resist a good listener, especially if he has a foreign accent.

Using my foreign accent mojo, I had once met a young woman who lived in a small town in central Italy. We were kindred spirits. In better economic times, she had traveled far, and had seen and done many interesting things.

She broke up with me over the phone about a week before I arrived in Italy to bike the via Appia. Then, the night before I started riding, she texted me and wanted to meet for coffee.

Now here I was, at the beginning of one of the coolest adventures of my life, and all I could think about was this girl. When I looked at Irene, and whenever I looked at just about any Italian woman on this trip, I was really thinking of her.

All I needed to do was alter my travel plans a little, and maybe I could rekindle an old fire. Would I call her? Or would I just keep going, and run away from another relationship?

I’m not an expert at this stuff, but I do have a litmus test. If the relationship makes you stronger, if the person helps you and encourages you to pursue your goals, especially if the two of you pursue your goals together, then you’ve found a winner.

If the person makes you feel insecure and confused, especially if that distracts you from enjoying the fulfilment of whatever really matters to you, then walk away.

On that day in Terracina, I didn’t know if I wanted to embrace the relationship or walk away. Maybe she didn’t, either.

As I write this now, I’m married (to someone else), and all those old issues have disappeared. I just want you to know the truth about my trip. I traveled across half of Italy with only half my mind and half my heart, because I could neither embrace nor let go of the relationship I was in.

If you ever do a solo bike tour, keep in mind that your emotional baggage will color your adventure in unpredictable ways.

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along via Appia.

Did this magic mushroom coffee somehow make me smarter and more creative? Probably not from a single cup. But there are a lot of good reasons to try it out. It might even help you handle longer and faster bike rides.

“This will light you up like a Christmas tree,” was how Tim Ferriss described a brand of mushroom coffee.

I couldn’t resist. I went online and bought some for myself.

A week later, my package arrived. It was a great coincidence, because I was about to meet a potential client to talk about some business writing. I made a cup and the strange potion, and went to the meeting.

To make a long story short, the client wanted to see what I could write in 10 minutes. I came up with a draft for one of his web pages that made him laugh out loud. He wrote me a check on the spot.

So, did this magic mushroom coffee somehow make me smarter and more creative? Probably not from a single cup.

But there are a lot of good reasons to try it out. It might even help you handle longer and faster bike rides.

Introducing Lion's Mane

For the past year or so, there’s been a lot of buzz about this mushroom, Hericium erinaceus. It’s popularly known as Lion’s Mane, and it has been used for centuries as food and medicine.

Igelstachelbart, Hericium erinaceus
Research and analysis have shown many health benefits. It is high in antioxidants and polysaccharides, just like all edible mushrooms. The benefits of these compounds are well-documented. But two things that set H. erinaceus apart are its ability to stimulate nerve growth, and to possibly enhance brain activity. 

For years, Lion’s Mane was quietly touted as a “smart drug.” Then in 2009, Lion’s Mane was tested on humans. A Japanese study found that H. erinaceus helped people with mild cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Unfortunately, a cup of mushroom coffee isn’t enough. The test subjects took almost a gram of dried Lion’s Mane every day for sixteen weeks. It was four weeks before any significant benefits were recorded.

I believe in doing things over the long term, and for the past month I’ve been taking Lion’s Mane supplements. I’m not smart enough to tell if this is making me any smarter, but the more I read, the more benefits I find out about.

One of these benefits is an increase in glycogen levels.

Glycogen is quick fuel for your muscles. It’s stored directly in your muscles, and the more you’ve got, the more endurance you have. A study in 2015 showed that H. erinaceum can increase the storage of glycogen in muscle tissues. At least if you're a mouse.

That’s good enough for me. I’m setting up a space in my house to grow my own Lion’s Mane. Apparently it’s delicious when fried in butter with a little bit of salt and pepper. I’ll keep you posted.

DISCLAIMER: Hopefully you know that I am NOT a doctor, and this article is not meant to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any illness. Consult a licensed professional before you consume anything meant to be medicinal.

By the way, if you want to try Lion's Mane for yourself, I recommend two things:

  1. Make sure you get the "fruiting body" of the mushroom. That's the part of the mushroom with all the recorded benefits. Cheaper brands might include other parts that taste nasty and have no confirmed benefits.
  2. Some of the beneficial compounds can be dissolved in water, others need alcohol to break them down. That's why I like the "dual extraction" process used by Four Sigma. They do both. Better still would be to get the actual mushroom, as I'm planning to do.

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along via Appia.

This story has stayed with me over the years, and now I pass it on to you because you should always regard your work as important. When you think about the importance of your work, when you care deeply about the results, you will show up every day full of passion and ready to give 100%. 

My first job in Italy, my boss gave me a success secret.

She shared it over a bright, neon-yellow liqueur called “limoncino.” (Quick note, in other parts of Italy they call it limoncello.)

I was about to start teaching English to a group of kids in southern Italy, but first the director of the school insisted on sharing the local drink and a gem of wisdom.Homemade limoncello
The people of Puglia make their own limoncino, using the peels of fresh-picked lemons and the strongest grappa they can find. They serve it in a tall, narrow shot glass that looks like a test tube. These glasses are kept in the freezer, along with the limoncino.

The glass was glazed with frost that stuck to my lips for a second. It was like kissing a snowflake, until I tasted the limoncino.

Imagine a box of the finest high-quality gourmet lemon drops you can find. Now dissolve them in vodka. That’s what limoncino is like.

After my shot, I couldn’t stand up for 10 minutes. Which is good, because the Director of the English School had something to tell me.

“Jacob,” she told me, “we have a story here in Cerignola. When we began construction on our duomo, a Cardinal came here to bless the work. While he was here, he spoke to the common people working in the olive groves and the wheat fields.

When he saw three men building a wall for the duomo, he stopped and asked them what they were doing.

“The first man told the Cardinal, ‘I am laying bricks, Monsignore. It is tiresome work.’

“The Cardinal blessed the worker, saying, ‘May the Lord grant that you never carry a load beyond what you can bear.’

“The second man said, ‘I am earning good silver coins so I can buy a donkey and two goats and give my family a better life.’

“The Cardinal blessed him, ‘May your honest labor bring prosperity to you and your family.’

“Finally the third man put down his trowel. He stood tall and said with great pride, ‘I am building a cathedral for the glory of God and the pleasure of His servants.’

“The Cardinal smiled and said a great prayer for this one, ‘May the Lord give you the power to fulfill the great visions you hold in your heart.’
Chiesa Carmine 01
“Now, Jacob,” she continued, “you have seen the great Duomo we have in the center of Cerignola, the Chiesa del Carmine. It is very big and beautiful for a city as small as ours.

All the men in our story worked on this cathedral, but only one of them understood the importance of his labor.

“A few weeks after the Cardinal’s visit, this third man was pulled aside by one of the engineers. The engineer began to teach him the basic principles of construction.

“Soon he was directing small groups of men in their labor. He earned more money, and was able to go to Naples to study.

“By the time this young man was 35, he was a well-known architect. Important people hired him to oversee the construction of roads, bridges and palaces all over Puglia.

“Do you see, Jacob? All of this happened because he understood that his work was important. Never forget this. Even when you are just teaching children to say ‘Hello’ in English, you are building a cathedral for someone.”

This story has stayed with me over the years, and now I pass it on to you because you should always regard your work as important. You don’t need to be blessed by a Cardinal.

When you think about the importance of your work, when you care deeply about the results, you will show up every day full of passion and ready to give 100%.

Do this enough, and you can build a cathedral.

By the way, this story is why I'm writing a book about misadventures along the via Appia.  I'm planning to release it in the second half of 2018, but I could use your help.

You see, I want to offer my favorite readers some incentives for buying my book. I wish I could just give you an all-expense-paid trip to southern Italy. But I'm basically a starving writer, so that's not possible right now.

Instead, what would you like to have as a special bonus? I'm open to almost any ideas. Leave your suggestions in the comments, below.

An ancient love story may help you in 2018. In 161 A.D., someone had a brilliant idea.

This story hides a secret to productivity. And it may also be one of the best examples of fiscal responsibility in the history of western civilization.

If you’re ever in Rome, you’ll probably (hopefully) visit the ruins of the Roman Forum.

There, you’ll see a well-preserved temple dedicated to Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Near the top of the temple you’ll see two lines inscribed in travertine marble:

Divo Antonino et
Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.

The story goes that the emperor, Antoninus Pius, deeply loved his wife. When she died, he asked the Senate to make her a goddess, and he built a lavish temple in her honor.

He spared no expense. You can still see the marks left on the pillars by looters who tried to steal the rare cippoline marble. 

But they couldn't tear the building down.

In fact, the temple was built so well that it survived through the centuries and was even made into a church. The church was dedicated to San Lorenzo, who may have been martyred on the alter at the base of the temple.

But I'm getting off topic.

On the front of the temple, Antoninus Pius carved the first dedication, “Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.” This means “The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree.”

Sanlorenzoinmiranda-rome
Some years later, when Antoninus passed away, the Senate was left with the burden of making him a god just like his wife. Her temple had been costly, and the emperor’s own temple would have to be its equal or better.

But then someone had a brilliant idea.

Instead of building a new temple, they simply added a new inscription above the old one: “Divo Antonino et.” The translation: “The God Antoninus and.”

Now the full inscription read:

The God Antoninus and
The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree

The immortal emperor and empress are together for all eternity, while the Roman taxpayers were spared the cost of shiploads of marble and thousands of man-hours of labor. Everyone was happy, except the family who owned the marble quarries.

Build your house with bricks

There’s a lesson here, and it’s not about finding ways to cheap out.

If the Romans had build Faustina a cheap temple, Antoninus would have required a new, better temple.

In other words, this money-saving trick never could have worked if the original temple hadn’t been built as well as it was.

So, the real lesson: If you do something really well, it’s easily worth twice as much as if you do an “okay” job. Spend more time, money, effort up front and you’ll ultimately get twice as much done in half the time at half the price.

Whatever you do in 2018, challenge yourself to make it bigger and better than it needs to be.

If you’ve been in this world for more than a decade or two, surely a few of your most beloved haunts have disappeared or changed forever.

Once there was a tiny bar near a bus station in Rome, where an old man made the best cappuccino in the world.

He would drop the saucer on the counter at an angle, so it spun for a few seconds, rattling faster and faster as it settled in front of you. He whipped the steamed milk with a loud clattering flourish, folded it into your coffee with a wire whisk, and poured out the last bit of foam into spiral shapes that would turn into a heart, a smiling face, or the colosseum.

Any barista could use this kind of artistic display to mask a mediocre coffee, but this guy didn’t need to. The cappuccino itself was even better than the performance. Rich flavors arose from a perfect balance of espresso and milk. There was a subtle hint of sweetness, and the temperature was always just right.

This place was too far from my apartment for a daily visit, but I know the owner had a lot of regulars. The maestro would greet many of his visitors by name, and get into long, interesting conversations.

I loved to sit and listen in as I sipped my cappuccino. And I could do it, too, because this was one of the few bars in the center of Rome that didn’t charge you extra for sitting down.

Today the old man has long since retired, and now his bar is just another random place to get average coffee.

I’m telling you about this because you probably know a few hidden gems like this, too. It could be an old reliable hangout where everybody knows your name, or a place where you find silence and solitude, or maybe somewhere you only go every now and then as a special treat.

Cherish these places, because they may not last forever.

I could write an entire book about old bars and cafes up and down the coast of California, places where friendly people laughed and shared jokes, places that have gone out of business. I’ve danced in crowded old buildings to live music that you’ll never hear on Pandora, in buildings are now banks or corporate headquarters, or worse yet chains such as McDonalds or Starbucks.

This is all a smaller ripple in the trend that is reshaping the planet. In my youth I hiked and played in wild forests. I saw the trees cut down and the ground criss-crossed with roads and construction. This happened in my backyard in Illinois, it happened where I went to college, and it’s happened to many of my favorite places.

And what about you? If you’ve been in this world for more than a decade or two, surely a few of your most beloved haunts have disappeared or changed forever.

In Minturno I had a favorite place, a place that was vanishing. What’s different is it became a favorite even before I ever got to see it first-hand.

A book called The Appian Way: A Journey has a photo taken in the early 1970s.

The picture is in black and white, but you can see the sparkle of the leaves in the sunlight. It's easy to imagine the bright colors of flowers basking in the sun. You can feel the breeze, and hear the stalks and leaves whipping in a gentle wind.

But a skeletal arch looks like it's ready to fall down. Broken pieces of marble are hiding in the tall weeds.The earth is slowly absorbing the familiar basalt road bed.

This is the site of the ancient Roman city Minturnae.

People lived here. They felt things. They loved, labored, suffered, thought, and dreamed. Now all that's left of their life is a stone boneyard in a field of wildflowers, and that won't last.

The photo shows the effects of ecological succession. Bits of grass take root in the cracks between the bricks. They die, decompose, and turn into soil that can hold deeper roots and nourish slightly larger plants.

The weather goes to work on the rock, releasing minerals into the soil. Soon bigger plants move in, their seeds carried by birds and wind. These plants attract insects, which become a food source for birds and other animals.

All of this biological activity produces acid and moisture, which slowly wear down the rock and widen the cracks even more.

The land changes from the ground up. Plants, bugs, birds, and their droppings decompose and form more soil. Every trace of human work is slowly dissolved by the ages.

Normally I’m a big fan of this regeneration. It gives me hope for our future. Not just for humanity, but also for the millions of other species who share the world with us. But I wanted to see this lonely, man-made city before nature reclaimed it forever.

The Appian Way: A Journey talks a lot about the natural decay of human monuments. The authors Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Loeb Grunsfeld spent years driving and hiking along the Appian way. Their verdict on Minturnae, in the 1970s: “It will not last another decade.”

Their photos of Minturnae charmed me into dreaming up a bike tour down the Appian Way. I have to see it, I told myself. Even if all I see is a half-buried pillar like the skeleton of some giant reptile, I have to see it.

But I may already be more than thirty years too late.

I was in a hurry, but I still stopped in Formia for a shot of espresso. I went to lean my bike against the wall outside a cafe, where three old men sat around a table playing dominos. This scene could have taken place back in Itri, or Terracina, or really anywhere in the Mediterranean. The drink in their glasses did not look like coffee.

“Posso?” I asked permission. “Can I leave my bike here?”

“Only if you stay for at least an hour and a half,” one of them joked.

“But I have to go sooner,” I told them in the best Italian I could muster. “I'm looking for the via Appia Antica.”

This caused a flurry of inebriated laughter.

“Ragazzo,” insisted one of the men, “la via Appia Antica e' proprio qui!” and he swept the back of his hand towards the busy street a few yards away. “Via Appia is right here.”

Inside the bar, I bought five tomato and mozzarella tramezzini, triangular sandwiches made of white bread with the crusts cut off. The tomatoes were green. An Italian had once explained to me that green tomatoes keep longer, and they don't make the bread wet. Best of all, they're crisp as lettuce.

I wanted to sit down, talk to the old men some more, and eat my sandwiches here. Everyone I met in Formia was unusually friendly. In fact, it felt like the town didn’t want me to leave. But I was impatient to keep moving.

This quiet, friendly place offered peace, companionship, and good food. This was the real Italy, the country I had called my home for several years. But I barely stopped for a coffee.

That photo of ancient Minturnae, that fear of missing out, that’s why I zipped through Formia and rode hard enough to make my quads burn. I was so close, and I was certain the last glorious marble columns of Minturnae would melt away forever in the next two hours!

By the early afternoon I reached a campsite outside Minturno, the modern town near the ancient city. The couple who ran the campground offered me a coffee and asked about my travels.

I was anxious to find whatever was left of Minturnae, but as we finished our coffee, the husband told me we were close to the river that marks the border between Lazio and Campagna.

Italy is divided into 21 regions, in the same way the USA is divided into states. Lazio is one of these regions, from the ancient “Latium,” the land of the Latins with Rome in the center. The region of Campagna, which just means “countryside,” is best known for Mount Vesuvius.

The Garigliano river separated these two regions, Lazio the Eternal City and a center of civilization, and Campagna the home of nature in all her savage glory.

Over the ages, Italians built half a dozen bridges at across this river. The ancient Roman bridge is now underwater. Today, the Via Appia now runs across a 19th century bridge that was destroyed in World War II and restored in the 1990s. The bridge is suspended by thick black chains, and guarded by a pair of stone Sphinxes.

Just to the west of this bridge, you'll find what’s left of Minturnae.

In the early 1980s, the locals decided to do something about the burglars who were carrying off the remaining stones of ancient Minturnae. Today, the site is protected by a tall steel fence. Skilled and caring hands have restored and protected the place.

It turns out the writers who brought me here were wrong in their predictions. As I followed the river to the site of Minturnae, marble columns and a large amphitheater waved at me from above the shrubs.

Minturno has seen thirty years of economic growth, along with a growing interest in preserving ancient historical relics.This has led to improvements, not destruction. The Appian Way runs on through an expanded and restored Minturnae, which is carefully guarded and proudly promoted.

I gladly paid a few Euros towards the cause, and bought a ticket to walk inside among the ruins. Clean basalt and sun-baked travertine gave off their warmth. Insects scurried along the stones of the amphitheater. I walked the old Appian Way where it passed through Minturnae, complete with deep ruts carved by centuries of wagon wheels.

I should have been thrilled, but I surprised myself.

Here’s the problem. Today we enjoy a level of comfort and convenience that most people couldn’t have imagined a century ago. But we also need mountain bikes, skateboards and all kinds of games to maintain a sense of adventure.

Bike tours are my way of escaping the comfort zone and entering the untethered universe where anything can happen. This beautiful, chaotic place is the real world. It’s unpredictable and dangerous, but going there is a necessity if you want to feel alive.

Reconstructed Minturnae has been tightly insulated from the real world. Gone are the gorgeous, tragic scenes of the old photo images. Instead, ropes and chains guide you along a pathway through the site. A team of experts have designed every inch of it. They dictate exactly where you can walk and exactly what you’ll see.

Minturnae would have been gone in a decade without the help of these archeologists. But when I planned this trip, I had pictured muddy treks in search of unfettered ruins. I had imagined seeing ancient walls and arches without the benefit of a guide or a guardrail.

Minturnae really is gone forever, replaced by a museum. I love museums, but I have to report a sad conclusion to Hamblin and Grunsfeld’s story: Minturnae has fallen victim to the ancient trade-off between freedom and security.

The Italian government is letting ordinary "civilians" take over old historic buildings. Nine of these properties are along via Appia!

The Italian government is letting ordinary "civilians" take over old historic buildings.

Nine of these properties are along via Appia!

Here's the deal. They want to encourage tourism in the lesser-known regions of Italy. They want to create a market for local cuisine and products. They want to attract tourists to the bikeways and hiking paths.

They want passionate dreamers like me (and maybe you) to renovate abandoned old buildings, convert them into hotels, hostels, AirBnB places. They want marketing plans that will bring commerce to the towns and regions that surround these romantic buildings.

In return, they'll let us (me and my team, which may include you) lease the building for free or at low cost. While it will be run as a commercial venture, we will have our own "private quarters" on site.

So what's in it for you? Two things.

First, if you've ever wanted to know how something like this works, I'll be recording all my steps and efforts right here in this blog. I'm creating a new category for these posts, so you can search under "renovation."

Second, this is going to be a team effort. If you'd like to join me, leave a comment and we'll get in touch.