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(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)

The sun was setting, and I had nowhere to sleep. Prostitutes and their customers would soon be lurking about, and there were even worse things knocking around in my own head. 

I had food and water and a tent. I was surrounded by empty fields, bushes, and many opportunities for a good night’s rest.

But I pictured the carabinieri picking me up as a vagrant. Desperate criminals holding me for ransom. Worst of all, I imagined the Italians would think I was a pestilent, mouse-raping transient. When they saw me sleeping out in the open, the people of Lazio would surely turn away in disgust and say, “Che schifo!”  

Why hadn’t I planned better? Why did I waste so much time throughout the day?

After you leave the park of Via Appia Antica, you can follow the original ancient route of Via Appia just by sticking to the national highway SS7. But on the periphery of Rome, this road is full of traffic. 

In the 18th century they built a parallel version of Via Appia nearby, called the New Appian Way or Via Appia Nuova. It runs in the same direction, but you pass through a sterile urban landscape. This route is useful for commuters, but there’s nothing to see except endless apartment blocks and one short glimpse of some crumbling aqueducts. 

I stayed on SS7. Eventually the houses and shops gave way to more open country. I followed the road through suburbs, farmland, and acres of grape vines. 

A few miles farther down, a small sign said, “Via Appia Antica.” An arrow pointed off the road towards a gulch.

I followed this path to a stretch of the familiar basalt stones that the Romans used. For the next few miles I rattled past fields of tomatoes and artichokes. Grape leaves waved at me from thick vines as I rode by. Best of all, there were fallen pillars and the occasional remains of a wall.

Later in the day, after the old stretch of Via Appia went back to the main road, I passed through a pungent cloud of sulfur and saw an old man filling plastic jugs from a small fountain. 

“E' potabile?” I asked. Is the water drinkable?

“Si!” he said. “It's good for the bones.” He gestured for me to try it.

The smell was like a decomposing pile of manure from a cow with chronic diarrhea. Millions of tiny bubbles clouded the water. 

It’s worth noting here that Italy boils with volcanic activity. Vesuvius and Etna are the most famous Italian volcanoes, but there are many others. The Alban Hills just south of Rome erupted some 30-40 thousand years ago, creating the basalt that eventually paved Via Appia.

Geologists think an eruption will happen again. Occasionally a few sheep are killed by toxic gas, which is proof that something is still going on down there. 

There are many springs in Italy that provide water rich in dissolved minerals and gases from this geothermal activity. Apparently I had just stumbled upon one of them.

I thought about the sheep poisoned by gas from the volcanic earth. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I drank the old man’s clouded water. I’m not aware that anything bad ever came of it, but I probably need to put in a disclaimer here:

So… I hope you understand that I am not a doctor. This story is not intended as a recommendation to prevent, treat, or cure any disease. You should always consult a medical professional before you drink murky, foul-smelling water while traveling in a foreign country.

Some time after drinking from the volcano, I rode into Ariccia, an important place long before the Romans came to power. Every major art museum in the western world has Romantic paintings that show gods and nymphs in a wooded setting. Many of these scenes were inspired by the forests of Ariccia. 

Ariccia was also the first staging point along Via Appia. Messengers and important officials picked up fresh horses here. Travelers would stop in Ariccia to pick up supplies or stay for the night. 

I bought food at a small market, including a cylinder of goat cheese with a bitter smell. The shop owner insisted it would not spoil for many days, and he was right. When I combined the cheese with bread, olives, tomatoes, and a bottle of cheap-but-effective aglianico wine, I had a banquet. 

I should have either stayed in Ariccia for the night, or avoided the town completely. It took a while to get back on SS7, and there wasn’t much time left to ride. As the sun dropped low in the sky, I started to wonder where I was going to sleep.

I had my tent, and I had always thought I would just plunk down and camp wherever I found myself. But my own mind was determined to make things difficult.

When I was in college, I spent a few years living in the redwood forest above the UC Santa Cruz campus. This was a tradition at the time, and there were many “woods dwellers” living among the trees.  

I loved waking up to the sound of birds. I loved that I didn’t have to pay rent. I loved feeling like I wasn’t an ordinary muggle. When other students went back to their dorm rooms, complaining about the cold weather, I would hike into a dark forest to go to bed. I was proud to live a secret life.

But this pride was always mixed with private shame about being homeless. I had a job, clean clothes, and a shower almost every day, but I didn’t have an address. I was missing one of the cultural trappings that qualify you as a normal person. 

Over years of travel I’ve slept in cars, in boxcars, under bridges, and in trees. I’ve slept in the snow, in the rain, on concrete, on broken glass, on closed roads and in open pits. I’ve slept in backyards, freight yards, and even once in a graveyard. I can feel safe and comfortable almost anywhere. But I never escape the self-conscious shame of looking like a bum.

The shame felt a hundred times worse in Italy. I was a guest in this country.

However, I had to sleep somewhere, and there’s always one foolproof way to defeat the doubts in your mind: Don’t give yourself a choice. 

After the sun went down, I didn’t have many options. This made it easier to find a break in the bushes, wheel my bike off the road, and pitch my tent in a field. The rows of vegetables had been cut. Whatever crops the farmer cultivated were already harvested. I wouldn’t bother anyone here. Nobody would even see me.

As I set up my tent, my courage grew. I thought about Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who wrote a Guide to Happiness. Seneca was rich and important, but when traveling, in his own words, “I put my mattress upon the ground, and lay upon it.”

If stealth camping was good enough for Seneca two thousand years ago, then who was I to worry about it? 

I had olives and goat cheese and fresh bread in my panniers. I feasted in the field, watching the very last glow of daylight fade away. I made a truce with myself, and felt my confidence return. 

Today I drank from a volcano. I could go anywhere and do anything. Where to sleep was just a petty detail. This bike tour was my mattress, and I would lay on it. 

But before I went to sleep in my tent, my phone lit up with a text from Gisela: “Good night. TVB.” 

The last three letters stand for “Ti voglio bene,” an Italian way of expressing sincere affection. I knew that my inner peace wouldn’t last. Demons gathered, ready to haunt this reckless traveler soon enough.

This is the 3rd 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 them out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in. Click here to read the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-iv-how-appius-claudius-invented-rome/

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.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)

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. Click here to read the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-iii-senecas-mattress/

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.

1

Do you ever just want to leave?

All I wanted was to get on my bicycle and ride away 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. Click here to read the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/fulfill-your-bucket-list-while-your-bucket-is-still-full-chapter-ii/

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.