All I wanted was to leave. I just wanted to get on my bicycle and ride away on a journey 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.
Check back here every week or so, and you'll find a new installment. Or better yet, subscribe and I'll email you whenever a new chapter is up, and give you links to the versions on YouTube and elsewhere. Best of all, when you subscribe you'll get a free copy of my travel notes.
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.