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 refugees 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.