Dottore Pascuale Grello was incredulous when I showed up at his office unannounced one morning and told him what I wanted to do.
"Impossibile!" he insisted, pronouncing the word with long vowels: eem-poh-SEEEEEE-bee-lay!
Nobody knows how many millions of nobles, senators, philosophers, soldiers, merchants, prisoners, slaves, poets and bandits have followed the route of the Appian Way from Rome to Brindisi or vice versa. They've been doing it for 1,300 years, on foot, in litters, by wagon, buggy, horse, pony, mule, and more recently in cars, motorcycles and trucks.
Surely one enthusiastic biker could make the journey.
Dr. Grello is, as far as I can tell, the chief archeologist for the Parco Reggionnale dell'Appia Antica on the outskirts of Rome. If you try to sneak out of Rome behind the Coloseum, through the ancient walls at the Port of St. Sebastian, you're at the start of the Appian Way, and you'll soon see these park headquarters on your right.
Even if you're not planning to ride the via Appia by bicycle, if you're in Rome this park is well worth stomping around a bit. They close the road to motor vehicles on Sunday, and you can usually find someone offering bikes for rent near the Colosseum.
I went to the park headquarters and asked in uncertain Italian if I could talk to the leader. A young woman barely set down her lipstick-stained cigarette as she directed me to Dr. Grello.
When I explained that I wanted to bike the entire length of the Appian Way, and he finished assuring me that it could not be done, 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 the Mediterranean, ancient history, and the desperate need we have (I think) in the USA, to rediscover some common roots. Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there's always still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places.
I want to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn, and remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as a civilization and too weak as individuals, the power the barbarians came to understand when the Romans had forgotten and the Greeks were just a memory.
When you travel by bicycle 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're exposed to the people and the energy of the place. You drink in the nectar of the world, and anything is possible.
Halfway through my rant, Dr. Grello understood. You could see it in his face. And here's a secret to communicating with Italians. Even if you don't know the right words, if you speak with passion and move your hands around in big circles most Italians can read your mind and they'll usually produce whatever you want on the spot.
My new archeologist savior was already pulling out topo maps, old photos and drawings, and giving me a stream of directions and names and numbers in rapid Italian. He told me that a lot of the Appian Way was on private property, covered over by new roads, even freeways. He mentioned floods and swamps and mountains. Also many places where people simply don't know where the via Appia ran.
I frantically scribbled as much as I could understand in my notebook. I wasn't looking for perfection, just adventure and fun and new learning and experience. If I couldn't retrace all of the Appian Way, I would still see most of it, do the best I could.
Dr. Grello assured me once again that I was attempting something impossible. The he shook his head, shook my hand, and solemnly wished me good luck.