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Chapter XVI: Italy’s Petroleum

Whatever hills you need to climb, whatever strange paths and roads you need to navigate, every difficult act you do is a monument to your extraordinary role as a human being.

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

Freezing blasts of soul-crushing wind. Huge metal monsters swirling all around me. 

And somewhere in the blustery cold, I discovered my phone was gone. 

I should have known I was in for an eventful day when I woke up sore and aching in a misty rain. I hit the road and started climbing steep hills almost immediately. When I stopped for a hot cornetto and coffee at a bar, I started shivering.

The road wormed up and up, and then the switchbacks gave way to a punishing ascent in a ruler-straight line which ended in the lofty town of Aeclanum. This had been an important city in the past, but it was mostly destroyed by the Byzantines.

I knew there would be some worthy ruins, so when I saw a sign indicating an archeological site, I took a sharp right into the entrance.

Now the rain was like a shower of arrows. They hit my poncho with an endless pelting sound. I walked my bike to a modern building in the murky distance. Half a dozen men were drinking coffee inside. I asked if I could leave my bike there while I explored the ruins. 

First they wanted to know what a guy with a foreign accent and a loaded bike was doing in Aeclanum. And they insisted I have coffee with them, which I was grateful to do.

“America!” said one of them named Roberto. “The modern empire.”

I told him that our Empire was crumbling.

“Yes, but it will take a long time to fall apart.”

I spent the next hour trekking through the wet remains of Aeclanum. The archaeologists had reconstructed a section of the road, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of dark basalt hexagons. Healthy grass grew around this marvel in rich shades of green. The rain gave the stones a slick, shiny gleam.

Roberto drew me a map and gave me directions to several other archeological sites around Aeclanum. Most of them were too far off my route, but I'll get to them someday.

“Here, I will take you to the closest one,” he offered. By now the rain had stopped, and we walked through the mud to a beat-up blue Fiat with no seatbelts. I hoped he wouldn't drive too fast on these wet and winding mountain roads.

It was only a short way to a large excavation area. Walls of tufa brick emerged from the ground. 

“This is the past coming back to light,” Roberto said, “but this is also our future. This is our petroleum.” 

I nodded as Roberto lit a cigarette. “A lot of tourists would pay to see this,” I said.

“Eh! Si!,” he answered. “Italy is not rich in silver or iron. We have a lot of good food, but a modern economy can't survive on agriculture.” 

He pointed his cigarette at the compost of ancient Rome. “Archeology is Italy's petroleum.”

It’s been many years since I had this conversation with Roberto. The next time I went to Rome, I was upset to find that I had to buy a ticket to enter the Forum. I remember the year of the Jubilee, when it was essentially a park, and you could wander in for free anytime while the gates were open.

My frustration is mixed. Whenever I see a fence around a historical monument, I try to remind myself that Italy has finally understood the value of what she has.

Still, nothing beats an ancient relic that has become a part of the wilderness, unfenced and unregulated. One of the sites on Roberto's map was a broken Roman bridge that had once crossed the Calore river. His directions were longer than the way to the Ponte degli Aurunci, and twice as complicated. 

I had to descend the steep, straight hill that had brought me into Aeclanum in the first place. This meant I would have to go back up the hill again later that day. After this, I would find a winding road that went up and down more hills and eventually crossed a highway. A series of turns would take me to a footbridge that went over a stream. After this, I would have to take a dirt road, follow it to another dirt road, turn left and look around for the Ponte Rotto.

This “Ponte Rotto” (broken bridge) was near enough that I was willing to try to find it. 

I got through the first few twists and turns. The very last part of the paved “road” was little more than a one-way track just wide enough to accommodate a single car. As I grinded my way up a slope designed to disintegrate knee joints, I met a car heading the opposite direction.

The driver rolled down his window, glanced at my bike, and said, “Duro, eh?” It's hard.

I told him I was looking for the Ponte Rotto and he gave me his own version of the route. My dirt road was up ahead, only a short distance. When I came to the second crossroad I had to turn left. There I would pass two intersections and turn right at the second one. A road would branch off to the left from there, and I had to take this branch, make the next right turn where I could, and then turn left as soon as possible after that. 

He gave me these directions in Italian, with bits of a dialect that I struggled to understand. I don't know if it was the altitude, the strain of climbing so many hills, or too much coffee. I felt like I was in the middle of a weird dream. 

The dirt roads were a labyrinth between gentle hills and green grassy fields. Sometimes I would see a sign that said “Ponte Rotto” but indicated a direction opposite of what I had been told. Roberto had warned me to ignore the signs. “People move them every year. They tell you nothing.”

My left knee was throbbing from when I fell on it the night before. I did the best I could to ignore it as I counted the intersections, trying to remember when to turn and whether it was left or right. I burrowed deeper into the countryside, wondering if I would ever find Ponte Rotto. 

Then, as I rose to the top of a slippery hill, I saw a distant row of huge, sweeping arches that stopped suddenly at a line of alders and shrubs. It was still far away, but my road led straight past it.

I got as close as I could, left the road, and wheeled my bike through damp, waist-high grass to a gigantic arch made of orange tufa bricks. It sheltered me just as the clouds opened up with another downpour.

Tall grass flashed and flickered with thousands of tiny diamond drops of water. Colorful flowers peeked through the sea of green. I leaned against the orange wall and rested in the rain. 

This was the happiest, proudest moment of my entire trip.

There’s nothing more satisfying, more empowering, than finishing a task that seemed unbearably hard.  Whatever hills you need to climb, whatever strange paths and roads you need to navigate, every difficult act you do is a monument to your extraordinary role as a human being. 

I’ve led tour groups to the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Acropolis in Athens and the statue of David in Florence. For three years I spent almost every weekend and holiday visiting some of the most famous buildings and works of art in the world. But this broken bridge meant more to me than Saint Peter's Square. 

On my way back into town, I came to an intersection and couldn't remember which way to go. I searched the ground for my own tracks, but the rain had already obliterated them. I had to guess the way. 

You probably know that I chose correctly. If I hadn’t, I would be working on a farm today and sleeping under a broken bridge.

I got back to the main road and cruised through wooded mountains for a few hours. When I stopped for a slice of pizza at a roadside bar, a man driving a produce truck offered me a coffee. When I told him I had just had one he replied, “Well you'll have to have another one, then. Come on!”

He gave me a bag of oranges and beans that were still in their pods. “For the road,” he said. He showed me how to split open the pods and eat the large, pale beans inside. When I tried to pay him he pushed my hand away.

“It’s for the road,” he insisted.

I stuffed most of the fruit and beans into my pockets and panniers, but there were still three oranges that wouldn’t fit. I put them in a sack that dangled from a handlebar, swinging around whenever I turned.

It had to be afternoon by now, but the sun was hidden by the grey sky, occasional rain, and sometimes a thick fog. I was almost always climbing uphill, but I felt cold most of the time. A strong wind pushed me from my back, and sometimes I had to fight it head on. Usually the wind was blowing on my side. It chilled me and made it hard to keep my balance. Was this the Maleventum, the bad wind the ancient Romans talked about?

At one point, I came around a bend and heard a mechanical-sounding whirr, like an electric engine. It reminded me of a light rail train. This sound was joined by high-pitched squeaks about once every five seconds.

Away in the distance, I saw a towering grey shape through the fog. As I got closer, the sounds grew louder, and the grey giant was moving. It looked like a huge, deformed man running in place up in the sky. Was I about to be abducted by aliens?

A minute later a spinning sheet of metal flew out of the fog, and then I saw my monster completely. It was a windmill. 

A flat, green plain opened in front of me. There was almost nothing to see in any direction except the road ahead of me, endless grassy fields, and scores of windmills generating electricity. At least all of this wind was doing some good. It was a Beneventum after all. But I still had to ride through it.

For the next few hours I crossed an empty, green steppe. I was on a nearly flat plain, with just enough small hills to stop me from seeing what was ahead. I was riding steadily up a slight grade that never leveled off. The strong, shifting wind made pale waves on the endless fields of grass, and also made it hard to keep riding.

That’s the situation I was in when I realized my phone was gone. Maybe the constant pedaling had pushed it out of my pocket. I was lost, facing a cold demon wind, and had no communication.

It felt like I had been pedaling for several hours with no change. Just a numbing, grassy sameness to everything. I wanted the day to end, but I was worried about what would happen when it did. When the light began to fade, I thought about setting up my tent, but the wind would have made this impossible.

At dusk I came to a sign that indicated the way to Aquilonia. It was on a road that went up yet another steep hill and disappeared around a bend. I remembered reading something interesting about this town once, long ago. 

I had a map from Touring Club Italia. When I took it out the wind filled it like a sail and made a jagged rip where I held it in my hand. I had to fold it up and look at one small rectangle at a time. 

From what I could tell, there was no definite, main route through this area. But it looked like the road beyond  Aquilonia would eventually bring me towards Venosa, on the other side of the Apennine Mountains. That’s where I wanted to go.

Another blast of cold wind drove ripples through the tall grass. I needed shelter, and Aquilonia looked like my best option. 

For the last time that day, I rode up a hill towards what turned out to be one of the most memorable places of the entire journey.

This is the 16th 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.

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