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.