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

If you’re still with me, it’s time for a bit of history before we go on.

The man responsible for building via Appia bent the rules whenever he wanted, broke the rules when he could, and made a big show of serving the people whenever it served his own ends. Appius Claudius was a prick.

Still, many people revere him for what he said almost two and a half millennia ago: 

“Every man is the architect of his own fate.”

When Appius said this, he was responding to the Greek general Pyrrhus, who wanted to trample over Rome with a team of war elephants. Appius Claudius made a deliberately public response, not only to tell Pyrrhus that the Romans would never surrender, but to ensure they never would.

He was urging his fellow Romans to take the initiative, to be the architects of their own fate, to stand up to Pyrrhus and his army of 25,000 hoplites and his archers and his cavalry and his elephants.

Does the speech with its outcome make Appius Claudius a hero? You could argue he was only doing it for politics, for the chance to gain something for himself. I’m willing to agree with you. 

But say what you will, Appius Claudius lived by his words. When he became Censor in 312 BCE, he was determined to be the architect of his own fate. He immediately invested the taxpayer's money for his own glory. Then he did something genius that may have decided the course of Western history.

In the time of Appius Claudius, the Romans didn't have an empire. They didn’t even have control of the Italian peninsula. There were powerful enemies just a few days’ journey away. Appius Claudius helped establish colonies in Latium and Campagna, the territory around Rome and farther south.

These colonies acted as a buffer, protecting the city of Rome from direct attack. They provided shelter, food, and support to the Roman armies. More importantly, when a colony was attacked, Rome had a convenient excuse to move her armies farther into contested territory. 

During this time, there were three major powers in Italy. One of these was Rome herself. But the lands south of Rome were populated by the fiercely independent Samnites. This league of tribes hated the Roman colonists who violated their borders, and resented the encroachment into Samnite territory.

Beyond the Samnite lands, there were well-established Greek cities. Many famous ancient Greeks, such as Pythagoras and Archimedes for example, were really inhabitants of Sicily and southern Italy. This region was called Magna Grecia, or “Greater Greece.”

Greece was not a single country, but a land of independent city-states. These cities would sometimes fight each other, Greek against Greek. But they were united by a common language, which made it easier to unite against a powerful enemy like Rome.

With the Romans, Samnites, and Greeks crowded together in the Italian peninsula, it was just a matter of time before one of them tried to dominate the others. When Appius Claudius pushed the Senate to establish more colonies, it wasn’t just a strategy. It was a provocation.

And then there was the road. 

In those days, a road was just a track of dirt. Maybe the more important roads had a few logs or some gravel to get through the muddy season.

Then Via Appia came along, paved with gravel and protected from floods by a system of gutters and drainage ditches. And then this gravel was topped by two layers of basalt, a tough volcanic rock so durable that the stones look essentially the same today, thousands of years later.

The first layer of basalt was made of tens of thousands of hand-carved hexagons, all a uniform size, that locked together like pieces of a puzzle. The second layer created traction. Thick rectangles of basalt, all the same size and dimensions, were laid out in a staggered position like a horizontal brick wall, and this went on for miles.

All the work was done by hand, all the cutting and carving and digging and laying out. There was no other way. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before, and the cost of the road nearly bankrupted the Roman treasury.

Now, you would expect a road like that to go somewhere important, wouldn’t you? Well, it didn’t! It pointed a  straight line to the wilderness, towards lands occupied by Rome’s enemies. Via Appia didn’t merely say, “we’re coming to conquer these lands.” It was the infrastructure that would make this conquest inevitable.

Without Appius Claudius, Western history could have been dramatically different. Appius Claudius took the first step that made the Roman empire possible. He invented Rome as we know it. Would the world have been any better or any worse without him? Who can say?

I’m not a big fan of Appius Claudius as a person, but I admire his ambition and the lessons you can learn from it. For example, if you have big plans or dreams in your life, think about Via Appia. Are you moving towards your goals on a dirt road, or have you built a Via Appia to get you there?  

Appius Claudius did a lot to bring the situation in Italy to a head, but he is remarkable for many other reasons. He is one of the first ancient Romans who made sure to set his words down in writing. Because of this, he's one of the earliest Roman individuals we know anything about.

Keep in mind, this was long before Hannibal invaded Italy, centuries before Spartacus led his rebellion, nearly three hundred years before Julius Caesar. But we still know a lot about Appius Claudius.

We know, for example, that he grew flummoxed whenever anyone mispronounced Latin consonants. He particularly hated the use of the letter 'z,' when a 'c' or an 's' would be perfectly sufficient. The problem irritated him so much that he wrote a long treaty on Latin grammar.

If Appius were alive today, he might condemn the modern Romans, who stylishly cut off the final syllable of many words. He would surely be outraged by 21st century Italians as a whole for using words like “pizza,” “anzi,” and “zabaglioni” with impunity.

Appius Claudius tried to give power to people who were usually barred from politics. For example, slaves who were set free didn't have the right to vote. Appius Claudius couldn’t help them directly, but he arranged for their children to become full citizens. Their descendants would have a say in the government forever after.

Appius Claudius was also one of the first politicians to fight for transparency in government. He published the legal proceedings of the Senate, so they could be examined by the public. Nobody had done this before him.

But as I said before, he was mostly just a power-hungry elbow swinger.

Critics say Appius Claudius worked to win the trust of the people so he could abuse it. He packed the Senate with citizens who would embrace him as their patron. These tactics got him elected for the office of Censor in 312 BCE. 

These tactics also annoyed the hell out of his colleagues.

The Censor was a sacred office. The job was to oversee the activity of the government, especially the finances. In order to prevent corruption, there were supposed to be two Censors. But the co-Censor working with Appius resented all of the political manipulation, and resigned in frustration.

This made Appius Claudius the only Censor, and he didn't hesitate to push the limits of his authority. He allocated funds to build Rome's first aqueduct, and named it after himself: Aqua Appia. But of course this isn't his best-known project.

As I followed his road towards Brindisi, I realized that it’s possible to dislike someone and also list them as one of your heroes. 

This is the 4th chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me from a Life of Quiet Desperation. If you want to read it from the beginning, here's the link to Chapter I. 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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-v-jupiters-childhood-secret/

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.

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. Click here to read the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/fulfill-your-bucket-list-while-your-bucket-is-still-full-chapter-ii/

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.

A few thousand years ago, something happened at a place in southern Italy called Maleventum. 

Roman soldiers facing a charge of elephants at Beneventum--Public Domain
Pyrrhus' elephants. Public Domain

Maleventum means a bad wind or a bad event. At Maleventum, the Roman republic had its final confrontation with Pyrrhus. 

Pyrrhus was a conqueror who wanted to turn the Italian peninsula into his own private dictatorship. He beat the Romans in several battles.

Pyrrhus was the only thing that kept Rome from realizing her vision for a true republic.

The Romans never defeated Pyrrhus, but at Maleventum they put up enough resistance to convince him that conquering Italy wasn’t worth the cost. He packed up and left for greener pastures.

This is the origin of the term “Pyrrhic Victory,” and Maleventum was renamed to Beneventum, or “good event.”

Your own personal Pyrrhus

You have a personal Pyrrhus that is holding you back. Pyrrhus is the obstacle that is keeping you from your destiny. 

Your Pyrrhus could be your self-talk. Your fears and insecurities. It might be a real, tangible disadvantage. 

Your Pyrrhus could be something you were born with, or something that happened to you. Your Pyrrhus probably seems like something you can never overcome--and that’s the key.

You can fulfil your destiny as soon as you realize you don’t actually have to defeat Pyrrhus.

How to rise above any obstacle

In 279 BCE, Pyrrhus sent envoys to Rome, demanding they surrender. 

Appius Claudius delivered Rome’s answer, and it’s one of the most memorable things he did. In a public speech that promised Rome would never give up, Appius Claudius said, “Every man is the architect of his own fate.”

Romans were inspired to rise up, to be the best that they could be. So they kept on fighting Pyrrhus, but they also kept on building roads and aqueducts, growing crops, trading and farming and legislating. 

They became so good at being Romans that Pyrrhus eventually didn’t matter. The battles he won didn’t have any significant impact on the lives of most Roman citizens. So Pyrrhus left, undefeated but ineffective.

You, too, can rise above an unbeatable obstacle. Do the best you can, be the best you can, wherever and whenever you can. Your problems won’t go away, but they will become far less important. 

You obstacle might be a huge stone that refuses to budge. But you can become a surging river, flowing right over and around the immovable stone. Does the river even notice the stone?

Your Pyrrhus doesn’t matter. It has no power over you.

When you discover you are no longer held back by Pyrrhus, you are having your Benevento Moment. You have endured and prevailed. You have found your fire.

My Benevento Moment

Arch of Trajan Italy bike tour

Benevento is the crossroads where I had to make a choice and a commitment.

One of the most famous monuments in Benevento is Trajan’s Arch. It commemorates Trajan’s victories and accomplishments, but it also marks the beginning of a new road that branches off from the Appian Way.

This new road is the via Traiana (Trajan’s Way), and it follows the Adriatic coast to Benevento. This is a flatter, shorter, and easier route. The way is better known and more clearly marked. There are more places to find food and lodging, and you’re never far from a beach!

I was tempted to take via Traiana the rest of the way. It would mean a safer, easier, possibly shorter route. 

I’m a timid traveler. I usually favor comfort and security over the unknown. But my goal for this journey was practically the opposite. Did I want to shorten my trip, get back to Rome a few days early, just to wander around old paths I’d been down many times before, trying to relive my youth and my past?

It only took a few minutes to move beyond the temptation. I continued on the most uncertain and remote part of the Appian Way, into the Apennine Mountains. This choice led to some of the most memorable parts of my journey.

A decision awaits you at your Benevento moment. What choices will you have to make? You may be tempted by an easier, safer path. Will it bring you what you want?

1

It's about following through on your dreams, no matter how late and slow you are, and no matter how foolish the dream. That must be it. Be the architect of your own fortune, better late than never.

In trying to publish a book about the via Appia bike tour, I'm following James Altucher's Ultimate Guide to Self-Publishing.* He has a checklist of 20 items meant to get you through the whole process, from the idea to the finished product.

I'm hung up on step 2.

The first item on the checklist is, "Write every day." Over the past six months, I've been close. Now I have a calendar in front of my computer where I get to put a yellow slash each day I write, and the number of days in a row.

It's heartbreaking to get to 30 or 40 days, then skip a day and have to start over again at zero. This keeps me motivated. This might be a good training tip, come to think of it. If you're getting ready for a bike tour, and you want to exercise every day, you could use this same process to stay on track.

But that second item on the list is a killer, at least for me: "Decide what the book is about."

There's an easy answer, or at least an obvious one. It's about a bike tour of the ancient Roman road, the Appian Way. But I want the book to be about more than just this.

The book is about pursuing your dreams. Pyrrhus shows up a lot in my story, because he had a dream of becoming rich and powerful by conquering sections of Italy. He was essentially stopped by Appius Claudius, the builder of the via Appia who famously said, "Every man is the architect of his own fortune."

Appius Claudius had a dream of building aqueducts and roads that would make his name immortal. He achieved all this relatively early in his career.

Claudius and Pyrrhus were notorious for their ability to "just do it." When they had a dream, they would go for it.

I'm not a Pyrrhus or a Claudius. I first stumbled onto via Appia while trying to walk off a hangover after a night of partying in Rome. That very day I fell in love with the road and the idea of taking a bike tour along her entire length.

It was seven years before I did anything about it.

But it turns out it truly is better late than never. I did follow my dream, however belatedly, and I made that first bike tour seven years after I first got the idea.

Now the new dream is to write a book. Or rather, to publish it. I've been writing for years. A lot of the manuscript came directly out of a journal that I kept during the bike tour, a bunch of papers held together (ironically) with rubber strips taken from old inner tubes.

I think I've got a decent manuscript for the book now, but what is the book really about? I want it to be meaningful for someone who never plans to do a bike tour in Italy.

It's about following through on your dreams, no matter how late and slow you are, and no matter how foolish the dream. That must be it. Be the architect of your own fortune, better late than never.

Step 3 in Altucher's Checklist is simply this: "Write it well." Fair enough. I think the first draft is decent, and I've generally gotten good reviews along with a lot of constructive criticism from people who've read the manuscript.

But can I really write it well if I'm not clear on what the book is about?

It feels like I'm at the beginning of a steep hill at the start of a long bike tour. I'm in the lowest gear standing in the saddle, just to get past steps 2 and 3 on the checklist.

There are 20 items I need to check off in total. Maybe in another seven years I'll be able to tick them off and be a self-published author.

Here's the good news. Becoming the architect of your own fortune is just like pushing yourself forward on a difficult ride. You'll get there.

I can almost guarantee you'll get there faster than I will.

This was a rant about my new book on biking down the Appian Way. If you would like to read the entire book, or even join me on a future bike tour of via Appia, subscribe below and I'll keep you up-to-date. Your email will not be published, and I will never share it with anyone.



*I didn't include a link to James Altucher's guide at the top because it's not as simple as going to Amazon. As far as I know, James will give you the book for "free" but you have to pay for a subscription to his newsletter. Alternately, you can download the checklist at no cost in exchange for signing up for his email list. That said, I'm a paid subscriber and a big fan of James Altucher. If you're interested in quitting your job and having more time for bike tours and other things you love, I recommend reading his stuff. Just be ready for a sales pitch. Here's the link (Once you're there, scroll down a bit if you just want the free checklist.)

1

You can upgrade yourself and your situation by simply deciding on a new "normal." There are probably things you're not happy about, but you've been silently accepting them for a long time. They've become normal. What happens if you chose a new "normal?" Right away, you start thinking about how to make improvements. Things you took for granted are no longer acceptable. All kinds of clever ideas pop into your mind. And you feel a surge of energy to start implementing some of those ideas.

If you've done much bike touring, you're probably able to travel great distances on your own power. Very few people would consider this normal. You've changed the rules, and you're in good company. This is the secret to many great accomplishments.

Gravina in Puglia bridgeWhen Appius Claudius built the Appian Way, he had to take power by redefining normal. He broke so many rules that Roman historians complained about him, and his co-consul resigned in frustration.

But we still know his name today. And he set the stage for game-changers like Julius Caesar.

In fact, all of the extravagant debauchery of the later Roman emperors was made possible because each emperor went beyond what was considered "normal."

How to Change Your Life in 5 Seconds

You can upgrade yourself and your situation by simply deciding on a new "normal." Your brain is an incredibly powerful problem-solving machine.

There are probably things you're not happy about, but you've been silently accepting them for a long time. They've become normal. What happens if you choose a new "normal?"

Right away, you start thinking about how to make improvements. Things you took for granted are no longer acceptable. All kinds of clever ideas pop into your mind. And you feel a surge of energy to start implementing some of those ideas.

Here are three steps to help you get started:

Step 1: Define your new Normal

About a year ago, I asked myself, "Is it normal to sleep less than 6 hours a night and try to keep functioning by constant caffeine infusions?"

I had been reading about the bad effects that sleep deprivation can have on your brain, your memory, reflexes, the immune system, muscle growth, speed, and even hormone levels.

At the time, sleep deprivation was my Normal, and a good-night's sleep was the exception. I had to reverse this.

Step 2: Enforce the new Normal

For a month I made sure I slept for 7-8 hours every night. Some chores went unfinished. Some friends and family members may have felt neglected. But I was creating a new Normal.

When you enforce the new normal, you won't have to be a fanatic about it forever. Just get it established at the beginning.

Step 3: Don't stress the exceptions

Now I can go without sleep once in a while if I need to get things done. It's the exception, not the rule. The next day I'll feel tired and weak, irritable and confused, sometimes even nauseated. But then I remind myself that I used to feel that way all the time. It was normal. Now it's just weird.

Let's say you decide to bike a century twice a week, or study Spanish for 2 hours every evening. Once it becomes part of your routine, you don't have to worry if you miss out every once in a while. It will be easy to get back into the swing of things, because you've made it the 'normal' thing to do.

Challenge the Normal

What do you consider normal that you should re-examine?

Roman monument on via AppiaIs it "normal" to have a job that keeps you from spending time with people and activities you care about? Shouldn't it be normal to give yourself a full month every now and then to go on an extended long bike tour? Is it normal to have back pain, to eat junk food, to watch TV shows that don't really entertain you?

Are you hurting yourself by what you think is normal? Is your Normal holding you back? Who told you this was normal? Are you required to spend your life according to someone else's Normal?

I challenge you to redefine your Normal. It's a beautiful and terrifying power, and it's yours. You can do anything.
I'm almost finished with a book about bike touring on the Appian Way. If you would like to read the entire book, or even join me on a future bike tour of via Appia, subscribe below and I'll keep you up-to-date. Your email will not be published, and I will never share it with anyone.



2

Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places. I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn, and remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as a civilization and too weak as individuals. Surely one enthusiastic biker could make the journey.

I have a gift for you, and a small favor to ask in return.

This post is the first chapter of my new book on biking the via Appia. Do you want to read more? Do you have any suggestions on how to make it better, or do you think I should just scrap the whole project? Please leave a comment at the end of this post, and tell me what you think. Roman monument on via Appia

Chapter One: Impossibile

Once upon a time, a happy nation of farmers and artisans and philosophers were all going to die.

A ruthless Greek general was trampling over Italy with an army of nearly thirty thousand warriors, horses, and elephants. Fields were burned, slaves were taken, and one by one the tribes and colonies surrendered to him, or even joined him.

But in the nick of time, one grumpy old man stood up to the bully and called his bluff.

Old Appius Claudius wasn't usually a hero, and the history isn't as black-and-white as I'm presenting it. But in the speech that rallied young Rome against her enemies, he said, “Every man is the architect of his own fortune.”

This book is mostly about you and me and becoming the architect of your own fortune. But I promise I'll get back this story and tell you more about the general, the elephants, and especially Appius Claudius.

Above all, there's one thing you need to know about Appius Claudius.

The speech was one of his last public acts, but he is better known for one of his first. When Appius became Censor, he nearly bankrupted the treasury to build a road into the uncertain wilderness of the south. And as the keystone of a career that was built almost entirely on sheer chutzpah, he named the road after himself.

Two thousand, three hundred and seventeen years later, on that same road, every motor vehicle in Italy was trying to mash me into pesto.

Just after the via Appia leaves Rome through the Porta San Sebastiano, the shoulder disappears. Two brick walls guard the road, turning it into a roofless tunnel where every cyclist is at the mercy of every driver.

Commuters in Fiats, late to work, pronounced vulgar curses against my ancestors. Produce trucks threatened to scrape me against the walls, an olive between two millstones. Tour buses nearly crushed me like a bunch of newly harvested grapes.

Soon I would be ground apart and made into pesto, olive oil, and wine. 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 with the fact that a sweaty American, wearing shorts and clutching a bicycle helmet, would enter his office this early on a weekday.

In my best Italian I told him I wanted to ride the via Appia Antica from Rome to its end in Brindisi. From the surprised confusion in his face, you would think I had just volunteered to be a nude model for his next marble sculpture.

"Impossibile!" he insisted, 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 biker could make the journey. I had already decided to make the trip, with or without anyone's help. But I wanted some advice from an expert, if I could get it.

I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn, and remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as a civilization and too weak as individuals.

Dr. Grillo assured me that it could not be done. Much of via Appia was buried on private property. He mentioned floods and swamps and mountains. Also many places where we simply don't know where 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 the Mediterranean, ancient history, and the desperate need we have (I think) in the USA to rediscover some common roots.

Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places.

Grillo understood. Or at least I think he had stopped deliberating whether 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're exposed to the people and the energy of the place. You drink in the nectar of the world, and anything is possible.

Italians all gifted with a powerful intuition. Even if you don't know the right words, if you speak with passion many of them will read your mind and give you exactly what you want. As I spoke, my new archeologist savior was already opening drawers and pulling out topo maps, old photos and drawings.

When I finished, he gave me a stream of directions and names and numbers in rapid Italian. I frantically scribbled as much as I could understand in my notebook. I wasn't looking for perfection, I told him, just adventure and fun and new learning and experience. If I couldn't retrace all of the Appian Way, I would still see most of it, and do the best I could.

Dr. Grillo assured me once again that I was attempting something impossible. “Le machine ti pestaranno,” he warned. The cars will pound you into pesto. That's good. I'll use that.

He shook his head, and shook my hand. “In bocca al'lupo,” he said. In the mouth of the wolf, a Roman way of saying “good luck.”

“Creppi lupo,” I replied.

There’s something in human nature that won’t let us stare too long at an unclimbed mountain, an uncharted wilderness, or an unanswered challenge. This is why people skydive and sail across oceans.

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.

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, “You’ll destroy your arse in the first 10 kilometers.”

A crotchety old park superintendent muttered “E tutto nascosto.” It's all hidden.

Everything they told me was true. The Appian Way is fraught with peril, a 400-mile gauntlet of knee-grinding climbs, bone cracking pot holes, 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. You’re going to find the secrets that are tutto nascosto, hidden away in your own heart.

A journey like this is going to change you. It must. There are too many lonely miles for it not to happen.

If you enjoyed this and you think I should write the rest of it, please let me know! I'm also open to suggestions on how to make this book better.

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Thanks for reading!

Jacob