Once you get outside Benevento you hit some beautiful country right away. There was no way I could have predicted the amazing show that was waiting, but that's the serendipity of bike tours.
It was going to be a major turning point in the tour, and after this night I would spend a lot more time talking to people, sharing stories and experiences, being social. But as I left Benevento, I didn't know yet what was about to happen.
I rode my bike out of the city early in the evening. A traffic cop told me the way, and soon I was cruising along a winding, hilly country road in the failing light.
I didn't have plans for where to stay that night, but here's the great thing about touring southern Italy by bicycle. Your tent almost anywhere in the countryside.
In fact, when I met an old man walking along the side of the road and asked if he knew anywhere to camp, he smiled and gestured magnanimously across the forests and meadows around us.
"You are welcome to camp anywhere you want in my country," he said.
This was just my second night of stealth camping on the tour of via Appia, but I've always had great luck when I leave things up to chance.
The land was deep green, with beautiful oak forests and grassy meadows. At one point I passed a sign leading to the Ponte Rotto, where I would one day fulfill my dream of camping out in ancient Roman ruins. But not this night.
I rode my bike down into a broad valley as the last glow of the sunset disappeared. The world was pitch black. The only light came from my flickering Cat's Eye bike light and the silver points of stars up above.
I came to a farm at the top of a gentle hill covered with olive trees and grapevines. Nobody seemed to be home when I went to ask permission, so I found a level spot near a bunch of olive trees and set up my tent.
I was ready to crash when I saw a dim light gently bobbing near the spot where I had wheeled my bicycle off the road. It looked like someone walking with their cell phone, so I shouted a friendly "Buona sera!"
No answer, but the light kept coming closer, taking its time.
I didn't want to startle anyone in the dark, so I turned on my flashlight, pointed it at my own face, and called out another greeting down the hill.
No reply, and this began to feel creepy.
"Listen," I said in my best possible Italian, "I'm just passing through here on my bike and I stopped because it is dangerous to ride in the dark. I wanted to camp here for the night and leave early in the morning, but I don't want to cause any problems. I'll go now if you want me to."
The mysterious light stopped, but continued to bob gently in the air, flickering on and off. I pointed my light at it, and saw nothing but the low branches of a young oak tree.
A ghost? This wasn't the only time I've ran into ghosts in Italy (that's another story) but something felt completely normal and natural about this. I walked down to the light and found a large insect on a tree branch. Its abdomen was glowing, and the branch bobbed up and down in the wind.
I laughed out loud as I walked back to my tent, and suddenly a flash of light in the sky caught my eye. A shooting star! A few minutes later I saw another one. The next hour or so was a treat of meteors, stars, and glowing insects.
What happened next is hard to describe, but I'll try. Laying there in an olive grove in Italy, I felt like I was coming home. I had found a part of myself, something I had lost over the years.
Italy is famous for her natural and artistic beauty, but I've been guilty of neglecting the first of these. When I tour in Italy I tend to obsess on paintings and history, cold sculptures and crumbling chunks of marble. But those things get there romance and their magic from the natural world that shaped them and the people who made them.
The whole point of a bike tour in Italy is to breathe life and relevance into the textbook Italy we all think we know.
It took a natural light show in the olive groves of Benevento to show me the error of my ways.
Come to think of it, this is one of the most important reasons to go on a bike tour. It will get you out of your routing, your regular mindset, and show you what you've been missing out on.
I don't spend as much time in cars as most people do, but even so I'm fixed in my ways, just like we all are.
And there's nothing like a bike tour to take you out of yourself and show you the world in a new way.