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Chapter X: The Sad and Perpetual Compromise

This happened in my backyard in Illinois, it happened in the redwoods where I went to college, and it’s happened to many of the best places where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One:

Have you ever had to watch as one of your favorite places disappeared or changed forever?

Once there was a tiny bar near a bus station in Rome, where an old man made the best cappuccino in the world. He would drop the saucer on the counter at an angle, making it spin for a few seconds, rattling faster and faster as it settled in front of you. 

He whipped the steamed milk with a loud, clattering flourish, folded it into your coffee with a wire whisk, and poured out the last bit of foam into spiral shapes that would turn into a heart, a smiling face, or the colosseum.

Any barista could use this kind of showmanship to mask a mediocre coffee, but this guy didn’t need to. The cappuccino itself was even better than the performance. Rich flavors arose from a perfect balance of espresso and milk. There was a subtle sweetness, and the temperature was always just right.

This place was too far from my apartment for a daily visit, but I know the owner had a lot of regulars. The maestro would greet many of his visitors by name, and get into long, interesting conversations.

I loved to sit and listen in as I sipped my cappuccino. And I could do it, too, because this was one of the few bars in the center of Rome that didn’t charge you extra for sitting down.

Today the old man has long since retired, and now his bar is just another random place to get average coffee. I’m telling you about it because maybe you also know a magical place or two like my bar. Cherish these places, because they won’t last forever.

I could write an entire book about old bars, cafes, crafts shops, and art galleries up and down the coast of California, places where friendly people laughed and shared jokes, places that have gone out of business. I’ve danced in crowded rooms to live music that you’ll never hear on any radio station, in buildings that are now banks or corporate headquarters.

This is all a smaller ripple in the trend that is reshaping our planet. In my youth I hiked and played in wild forests. I saw the trees cut down and the ground criss-crossed with roads and construction. This happened in my backyard in Illinois, it happened in the redwoods where I went to college, and it’s happened to many of the best places where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled. 

In Minturno I had a favorite place, a place that was vanishing. What’s different is it became a favorite even before I ever got to see it first-hand.

A book called The Appian Way: A Journey  contains a photo taken in the early 1970s. The picture is in black and white, but you can see the sparkle of the sunlight. It's easy to imagine the bright colors of flowers basking in the sun. You can practically feel the breeze, and hear the stalks and leaves whipping in a gentle wind. It’s wild. It’s raw.

But a skeletal arch looks like it's ready to fall down. Broken pieces of marble are hiding in the tall weeds. The earth is slowly absorbing the familiar basalt road bed of Via Appia. 

This is the site of the ancient Roman city Minturnae. 

People lived here. They felt and experienced many things. They loved, labored, suffered, thought, and dreamed. Now all that's left of their life is a stone boneyard in a field of wildflowers, and that won't last.

The photo shows the effects of ecological succession. Bits of grass take root in the cracks. They die, decompose, and turn into soil that can hold deeper roots and nourish slightly larger plants.

The weather goes to work on the rock, releasing minerals into the soil. The birds and the wind carry in the seeds of bigger plants. The plants become a habitat for insects, which become a food source for birds and other animals.

All of this biological activity produces acid and moisture, which slowly wear down the rock and widen the cracks.

The land changes from the ground up. Plants, bugs, birds, and their droppings decompose and form more soil. A forest grows where there was once a city. Every trace of human work is slowly dissolved by the ages. 

I’m a big fan of this regeneration. It gives me hope for our future, for the millions of species who share the world with us. But I wanted to see this lonely, man-made city before nature reclaimed it forever.

The Appian Way: A Journey talks a lot about the natural decay of human monuments. The authors, Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Loeb Grunsfeld, spent years driving and hiking along the Appian way. Their verdict on Minturnae, in the 1970s: “It will not last another decade.”

Their photos of Minturnae charmed me into dreaming up a bike tour down via Appia. I have to see it, I told myself. Even if all that’s left is a half-buried pillar like the skeleton of some giant reptile, I have to see it. 

But I may already be more than thirty years too late.

I was in a hurry, but I stopped in Formia for a shot of espresso. First things first. 

I went to lean my bike against the wall outside a cafe, where three old men sat around a table playing dominos. The drink in their glasses was definitely not coffee.

“Posso?” I asked permission, before leaning my bike against the wall very close to their game.

“You can leave it here,” one of them joked, “but only if you stay for three more hours.”

“But I have to go sooner,” I told them in the best Italian I could. “I'm looking for the via Appia Antica.”

This caused a flurry of inebriated laughter.

“Ragazzo,” insisted one of the men, “la via Appia Antica e' proprio qui!” and he swept the back of his hand towards the busy street a few yards away. “Via Appia is right here.”

Inside the bar, I bought five tomato and mozzarella tramezzini, triangular sandwiches made of white bread with the crusts cut off. The tomatoes were still green. An Italian had once explained to me that green tomatoes keep longer, and they don't make the bread wet. Best of all, they're crisp as lettuce. 

I wanted to sit down, talk to the old men some more, and eat my sandwiches here. Everyone I met in Formia was super friendly, like the town didn’t want me to leave. But I was impatient to keep moving. 

This quiet little village offered peace, companionship, and good food. This was the real charm of Italy, the country I had called my home for several years. But I rode right past the towers and churches, and didn’t even notice one of the world’s largest Roman cisterns. I was oblivious to the coastline. 

Formia is one of the highlights of Via Appia, but I was in such a hurry to reach Minturno that I barely stopped for a coffee.

That photo of ancient Minturnae, that fear of missing out, that’s why I zipped through Formia and rode hard enough to make my quads burn. I was so close, and I was certain the last glorious marble columns of Minturnae would melt away forever in the next two hours!

By the early afternoon I reached a campground outside Minturno, the modern town near the ancient city. The couple who ran the campground offered me a coffee and asked about my travels. 

“This is a very beautiful trip,” the husband said. “But tell me, why are you traveling alone?”

This is a question that always jabs me in the side. It feels like they think I’m not capable of finding like-minded friends and companions. This isn’t totally wrong, but it’s only part of the truth. 

Most of the time, I prefer to travel alone. I like to be spontaneous and go wherever I want, eat when I want, and not have to tie myself to someone else’s schedule. When I plan any kind of travel, I usually picture myself being alone most of the time. 

And let’s face it, how many people do you know who would be happy to spend their vacation sweating on steep hills, sleeping in a tent on the ground and mostly eating nothing but bread and olives? 

There might be something pathological about wanting to travel alone. Am I afraid to share my best and most interesting moments with someone else? Am I really just bad at making friends?

I was anxious to find whatever was left of Minturnae, and I didn’t want to answer the man’s awkward question. His wife could sense this, and as we finished our coffee, she changed the subject and told me we were close to the river that marks the border between Lazio and Campagna. 

Italy is divided into 21 regions, in the same way the USA is divided into states. Lazio is one of these regions, from the ancient “Latium,” the land of the Latins with Rome in the center. The region of Campagna, which just means “countryside,” is probably best known for Mount Vesuvius. (To be fair, Campagna is also the home of Naples, one of Italy’s finest cities)

The Garigliano river separates these two regions, Lazio with the Eternal City and a center of civilization, and Campagna the home of nature in all her savage glory.

Over the ages, Italians have built half a dozen bridges across this river. The ancient Roman bridge is now underwater. Today, via Appia runs across a 19th century bridge that was destroyed in World War II and restored in the 1990s. The bridge is suspended by thick black chains, and guarded by a pair of stone Sphinxes.

Just to the west of this bridge, you'll find what’s left of Minturnae.

Via Appia at the remains of Minturnae

In the early 1980s, the locals decided to do something about the burglars who were carrying off the remaining stones of ancient Minturnae. Today, the site is enclosed in a tall steel fence. Skilled and caring hands have restored and protected the place.

It turns out the writers who brought me here were wrong in their prediction. As I followed the river to the site of Minturnae, marble columns and a large amphitheater saluted me from above the shrubs.

Minturno has seen decades of economic growth, along with a growing interest in preserving ancient historic sites.This has led to improvements, not destruction. The Appian Way runs on through an expanded and restored Minturnae, which is carefully guarded and proudly promoted.

I gladly paid a few Euros towards the cause, and bought a ticket to walk inside among the ruins. Clean basalt and sun-baked travertine gave off their warmth. Insects scurried along the stones of the amphitheater. I walked the old Appian Way where it passed through Minturnae, complete with deep ruts carved by centuries of wagon wheels.

I should have been thrilled. But I wasn’t going to escape disappointment so easily.

Here’s the problem. Today we enjoy a level of comfort and convenience that most people couldn’t have imagined a century ago. But as a result, we’ve become too insulated and protected. Many people feel the loss, and miss the randomness of the real world.

I think this explains the popularity of mountain bikes, surfing, and games that force you to use your wits and reflexes. 

Bike tours are my way of escaping the comfort zone and entering the unregulated universe where anything can still happen. To enter a beautiful, chaotic place is to experience the real world. The real world is unpredictable and dangerous, but going there is a necessity if you want to feel alive. 

Reconstructed Minturnae has been tightly insulated from the real world. Gone are the gorgeous, tragic scenes of the old photo images. Instead, ropes and chains guide you along a pathway through the site. They dictate exactly where you can walk and what you’ll see. 

Minturnae would have been gone in a decade without this preservation and restoration, and I’m glad that they saved her. But when I planned this trip, I had pictured muddy treks in search of unfettered ruins. I had imagined seeing ancient walls and arches without the benefit of a guide or a guardrail. 

“What, do you want to be Indiana Jones?” an Italian once taunted me when I tried to explain my feelings. I answered “Yes,” without pausing even a second to think about it.

Ancient Minturnae really is gone forever. All we have now is an outdoor museum. I love museums, but I have to report a sad conclusion to Hamblin and Grunsfeld’s story: Their prediction was thankfully wrong, but the second-worse outcome has happened, perhaps inevitably. Minturnae has fallen victim to the sad and perpetual compromise between freedom and security. 


After I left the archaeological site, a carabinieri gave me an impromptu tour of the bridge across the Garigliano River.

The Italians give the carabinieri a hard time. They are accused of being the most thick-headed dullards in all of Europe. Any Italian can tell you a dozen jokes about the stupidity of the carabinieri, but most of these officers don’t deserve this maltreatment.

It turned out this man was an expert on local history. He told me the story of the great bridge in front of us, called the Ponte Borbonico, or “Bourbon Bridge.”

The "Bourbon Bridge" over the Garigliano river

It was the first suspension bridge in Italy. About a hundred years after they built it, the government decided the Ponte Borbonico was too old for modern usage. They built another, mightier bridge out of steel and concrete. It was promptly destroyed by a storm, while the proud old Ponte Borbonico stood her ground. People used the old bridge once again, while they waited for the government to repair the modern one.

“Look at the old bridge,” said my impromptu tour guide. “It is far superior! These chains were used on ships that sailed the Bay of Naples. The lions were carved out of volcanic rock from Mt. Vesuvius.”

“It looks like the best way to cross between Lazio and Campagna,” I said.

“It’s the only way to cross it,” said the policeman gravely. “This bridge represents the Imperial might of Roman Latium, combined with the earth and labors of Campagna!”

The man clearly had knowledge and passion, so I decided to ask him about the legendary “Ponte degli Aurunci,” the Aurunci bridge. This was an old, hidden bridge named after a vanished Italian tribe. It was supposed to be a short distance away from here, near a crossroad, covered in vegetation and mystery.

“Ah!” he said. “Non e’ facile.” It’s not easy. “La ponte degli Aurunci e’ tutto nascosto.”

It’s completely hidden. I got excited chills at the thought of an upcoming adventure that would make up for the mild disappointment at Minturno.

It turns out I would have my fill of muddy adventures in the unknown before the week was finished, but not in Minturno. If you, too, wish for ruins in the wilderness, via Appia will not let you down.

This is the 10th 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. Here's the next chapter:

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