If you're reading this from anywhere in the United States, you know what's happening.
We’re approaching the event horizon of an election that’s going to be a black hole of poisonous rhetoric. Let’s at least have some fun with it.
Here’s what I propose: Civilized political trash-talk. Here's how it works.
Choose a willing friend who strongly disagrees with you on a divisive issue. You shouldn’t have to look too hard: Trump/Trounce Trump. Mask/No Mask. BLM/ALM. You get the idea.
At least once a week between now and the election, post a strong political statement on your Frenemy’s timeline in your favorite social media platform. They will do the same for you. Your post can be a meme, a link, your own content, or anything else you choose. Preferably something creative or funny.
There’s only one inviolable rule: You can comment on the stupidity of a person’s words or actions, but not the stupidity of the person themself. You don’t insult any individuals directly. Not even presidential candidates.
We all know how divided the USA has become. I’m hoping this is a way we can start to get along again. If you want to do this, reach out to a politically challenged friend of yours and get started.
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.
This story has stayed with me over the years, and now I pass it on to you because you should always regard your work as important. When you think about the importance of your work, when you care deeply about the results, you will show up every day full of passion and ready to give 100%.
I was about to start teaching English to a group of kids in southern Italy, but first the director of the school insisted on sharing the local drink and a gem of wisdom.
The people of Puglia make their own limoncino, using the peels of fresh-picked lemons and the strongest grappa they can find. They serve it in a tall, narrow shot glass that looks like a test tube. These glasses are kept in the freezer, along with the limoncino.
The glass was glazed with frost that stuck to my lips for a second. It was like kissing a snowflake, until I tasted the limoncino.
Imagine a box of the finest high-quality gourmet lemon drops you can find. Now dissolve them in vodka. That’s what limoncino is like.
After my shot, I couldn’t stand up for 10 minutes. Which is good, because the Director of the English School had something to tell me.
“Jacob,” she told me, “we have a story here in Cerignola. When we began construction on our duomo, a Cardinal came here to bless the work. While he was here, he spoke to the common people working in the olive groves and the wheat fields.
When he saw three men building a wall for the duomo, he stopped and asked them what they were doing.
“The first man told the Cardinal, ‘I am laying bricks, Monsignore. It is tiresome work.’
“The Cardinal blessed the worker, saying, ‘May the Lord grant that you never carry a load beyond what you can bear.’
“The second man said, ‘I am earning good silver coins so I can buy a donkey and two goats and give my family a better life.’
“The Cardinal blessed him, ‘May your honest labor bring prosperity to you and your family.’
“Finally the third man put down his trowel. He stood tall and said with great pride, ‘I am building a cathedral for the glory of God and the pleasure of His servants.’
“The Cardinal smiled and said a great prayer for this one, ‘May the Lord give you the power to fulfill the great visions you hold in your heart.’
“Now, Jacob,” she continued, “you have seen the great Duomo we have in the center of Cerignola, the Chiesa del Carmine. It is very big and beautiful for a city as small as ours.
All the men in our story worked on this cathedral, but only one of them understood the importance of his labor.
“A few weeks after the Cardinal’s visit, this third man was pulled aside by one of the engineers. The engineer began to teach him the basic principles of construction.
“Soon he was directing small groups of men in their labor. He earned more money, and was able to go to Naples to study.
“By the time this young man was 35, he was a well-known architect. Important people hired him to oversee the construction of roads, bridges and palaces all over Puglia.
“Do you see, Jacob? All of this happened because he understood that his work was important. Never forget this. Even when you are just teaching children to say ‘Hello’ in English, you are building a cathedral for someone.”
This story has stayed with me over the years, and now I pass it on to you because you should always regard your work as important. You don’t need to be blessed by a Cardinal.
When you think about the importance of your work, when you care deeply about the results, you will show up every day full of passion and ready to give 100%.
Do this enough, and you can build a cathedral.
By the way, this story is why I'm writing a book about misadventures along the via Appia. I'm planning to release it in the second half of 2018, but I could use your help.
You see, I want to offer my favorite readers some incentives for buying my book. I wish I could just give you an all-expense-paid trip to southern Italy. But I'm basically a starving writer, so that's not possible right now.
Instead, what would you like to have as a special bonus? I'm open to almost any ideas. Leave your suggestions in the comments, below.
If you want to read Bicycle Freedom in Spanish, click here. If you want to know why, read on.
This isn't strictly about biking, but it goes along with the theme of pushing your limits.
When I first went to Italy, I only spoke a limited version of Italian. But I quickly learned by creating situations where I had to do it. I called up landlords with an English/Italian dictionary in my hand, and rented a room using only Italian. I dated a girl who didn't speak a word of English.
In fact, whenever I needed a can opener or thumb tacks or a pair of scissors I had to whip out the dictionary and figure it out. (This got me in trouble once in a while, like when I tried to buy my first bicycle pump, but that's another story.)
So now the next big "ride" of my life is learning to communicate with the largest population in Los Angeles, get closer to the family of my sweetie, and hopefully do a bike tour of South America in the next few years.
This means learning Spanish. So I've set up a subdomain en espanol and I'm going to start writing in the language. Someone will no doubt say, "I didn't know you could write in Spanish."
I can't! Which is all the more reason to start doing it. Remember how you first learned to ride a bike. You get on it and ride, and then you fall down. You get back up and ride again, and fall down. At some point you ride your bike more than you fall off it.
My Spanish blog is going to be a joke at first, riddled with horrible mistakes and errors. If you speak Spanish, feel free to laugh. Better yet, correct me and help me learn it.
For me, bike travel, bike touring, and just riding a bike in general are an analogy for all the growth and change you can go through in life. I suspect that nobody ever reaches their full potential. We just don't live long enough for that. So keep on pushing your limits, do the things you can't do until you can.
The first thing I saw was the pavement. It seemed to be 90 degrees away from where it belonged, and very close to my ear. A car was rolling towards me, and it looked too high up. I could see the concrete underneath both wheels.
Then I staggered up, noticing that my arms and legs were weak and shaky. A pair of arms pulled me off the street and onto the sidewalk, then the guy brought my bike to me.
I've never used a lot of safety gear. Lights and a helmet are prettymuch all I do. But maybe I'll start using rear-view mirrors now, especially since my bicycle commute is about to get a lot longer. During that second or two that I turned around, my front wheel hit a pothole that sent me sprawling.
This was on a clunky part of South Highland, for any L.A. bikers who want a heads up.
"Thanks a lot," I said to the man who pulled me out of the street.
"No problem bro," he said. "I always try to help people when they're down."
"I appreciate that," I told him.
"Good. Maybe you can help me out with some spare change."
Whatever your dreams are, don't put them off. If you want to tour the Appian Way (or anyplace else), you'll always manage to find a place to sleep. Unexpected help (and adventure) will come to you along the way. And the lessons you'll learn--about Italy, about Italians, and most of all about yourself--are priceless.
I mention Dottore Grello again because I've been thinking about him a lot. Without knowing it, he forced me to stand up for myself and my dreams. I convinced him on the spot, and this gave me that last little boost of confidence I needed to make it happen.
3 tips and 2 books for touring the Appian Way
I'm writing this post because I got two more emails this week from people who want to tour southern Italy by bicycle. If you're ready to explore the Appian Way, all I can say is, "You can do it!" It's not terribly hard as far as bike touring goes--you're crossing the Apennines, not the Rockies.
Whatever your dreams are, don't put them off. If you want to tour the Appian Way (or anyplace else), then learn a bit about the terrain, get your bike and your gear in order, and jump in.
You'll always manage to find a place to sleep. Unexpected help (and adventure) will come to you along the way. And the lessons you'll learn--about Italy, about Italians, and most of all about yourself--are priceless.
Two books that changed my life
Dr. Grello gave me a chance meet the author of one of the most motivating books about the Appian Way. It didn't work out, but the book itself was worth many times the price.
On the surface, it looks like Ivana Della Portella put together a "coffee table" sort of book. If that were all, it would be good enough just for the bragging rights. Some day your friends will open it up to an impossibly gorgeous landscape shot and you'll tell them, "I was right there, sitting with my back against that pillar, eating olives."
But the real value of The Appian Way comes before you even set out. I always like to start out with a constellation of points I'd like to go to on my bike. Once you're on the road, connecting the dots is the most exciting part of the journey.
Since it's light reading with a lot of photos, Dr. Portella sets the scene in her book--she gives you a roadmap by not giving you a roadmap.
If you're serious about touring via Appia, I recommend The Appian Way: A Journey by Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Grunsfeld. This is the book I referred to the most on my first bike tour in Italy, and I slowly became an expert on the Appian Way by reading through all the references they include in the back.
Most of all, it's hearwarming to read the authors' concerns about ancient Roman ruins that were disappearing due to vandalism and neglect when the book was written. Heartwarming, because 30 years later you get to ride your bike to these very places and see them restored and protected.
I plan to outdo these authors with my own book (which I'll post on this blog one chapter at a time starting in January 2011) but in the meantime I think this is the most thorough, informative, and entertaining book about the Appian Way available in English.
3 bits of advice
I promised some advice about a bike tour through southern Italy. But what I realized as I started writing this is that the advice I would give you is the same for any bike tour, anywhere. But here goes:
Talk to the locals. You're guaranteed to dispel loneliness, at the very least. But more often you'll learn about the best places to eat, hear an interesting story, see things that aren't in any guidebook, and maybe even get invited for dinner.
Keep your itinerary and schedule open. If you're planning a 10-daybike tour, make it a route you can do in 7 or 8 days. This leaves you time for delays problems, and also for the unexpected discoveries that are more likely still
Just go for it.
If you really need more information before you're ready to down your first shot of limoncello, check out the rest of my blog.
If you're among the committed "inner circle" of bikers interested in bike touring through southern Italy, you've already heard the news.
Over the last few months a number of my business clients have been unable to pay me. These are good people, but they're waiting to get paid by their clients, who in turn are not getting the cash flow they need from their customers.
It's the same old story you've heard more than enough times over the last couple of years. "Shit rolls downhill," is how one of my clients describes the phenomenon.
I'll be okay, but I realized that I'm in no position to do the planned via Appia bike tour this spring. Alas!
Embrace the uphill struggle
The downhill metaphor has reminded me of the joy of an uphill climb. These are tough times, but it's good to feel the resistance of the road, the strength of your quads in defiance of gravity, the heady confidence that you're almost at the top. It's good to be climbing.
Now that I've had to postpone my ambitious international bike ride, I'm taking time to explore more of the biking possibilities right here at home. There's a strong biking community in LA, and lots of great places to ride. This spring I'll be riding close to home, but I'll still be touring and traveling, even if it's just a trek to the next county.
Life has its hills and headwinds. Rejoice in it, for they make you stronger. I'll see you in Italy next year, but in the meantime, enjoy whatever steep heights you're climbing.