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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.

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.

After Benevento, nobody knew the way. Even in ancient times, Via Appia ran haphazardly through the southeast. The exact route depended on the outcome of battles, the terrain in question, and the politics of local cities and villages. Sometimes the way was too rocky and steep to build a permanent roadbed, and in other places the land was so flat that a permanent road didn't seem necessary.

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

In most of the historic towns of Italy, if you head uphill you’ll automatically get closer to the castle, the duomo, or whatever was the most important building a thousand years ago. Modern Italian cities grow outwards from their ancient core.

As I climbed through Benevento, the streets grew more narrow and the buildings began to look older. There were important sites here that I wanted to see, so I parked my bike outside a bookstore and went in to buy a book on the history of Benevento. One of the owners was a well-informed amateur archeologist.

“This bookstore,” he said, “was built over a pagan temple. It was the cult of Dionysus. We have one of the original pillars built into our wall, over here.”

There was a little alcove in the wall with a column of marble exposed inside. I had thought it was a replica sitting on a shelf, but I could see now that it extended down below the floor. They had put up the wall around it.

I love to stumble upon old reminders of the ancient world, and I could tell the bookstore owner was a kindred spirit. He showed me where he thought the entrance to the temple would have been, and where the altar would have been placed.

He tapped a spot on the wall and said, “Every year, on the spring equinox, the sun touches right here.”

Before I left he told me where to find the Roman amphitheater, the famous Arch of Trajan, and his favorite gelateria.

The stones of the amphitheater radiated warmth in the afternoon sun. There weren’t many people around. I jumped from step to step, and listened to my ocarina echo through the site. An archeologist showed me the place where the ancient Via Appia ran right past the stadium entrance.  

A warm drizzle of rain fell on me, but it stopped in a few minutes. The moisture added a sparkle to the bright orange tufa bricks and creamy travertine of the amphitheater.

This is what I had come here for. To follow the path of the ancient Appian way, as well as I could, to seek out and enjoy every possible trace of ancient Rome, to finish the journey yet be open to any experience that came up. I was fully enjoying this beautiful moment. 

I never get tired of ruins from the ancient Mediterranean. I'll bask in their sad, warm presence, every chance I get, until I die. 

I was reluctant to leave Benevento, but I had to make some plans.

Up to now, I had followed a clear path through territory that was mostly familiar. The original ancient Appian Way had been laid out well down to Benevento. I knew where to go, and I had visited much of the area before.

After Benevento, nobody knew the way. Even in ancient times, Via Appia ran haphazardly through the southeast. The exact route depended on the outcome of battles, the terrain in question, and the politics of local cities and villages. Sometimes the way was too rocky and steep to build a permanent roadbed, and in other places the land was so flat that a permanent road didn't seem necessary. 

We know the via Appia certainly went to a few specific towns, and there are others where it probably passed. But the “road” could have been just a gouge in the rocks, a swath of grass cut once a year, or a length of paving stones that farmers carried off later to grind their flour and olive oil. 

I would try my best to connect the dots between the few places which we know were part of Via Appia. But after Benevento I would have to find my own way. 

Or would I? 

I had another option, which I turned over in my mind as I rode towards another important Benevento monument, the Arch of Trajan.

Rome built this arch to glorify the benevolent, magnanimous side of the emperor Trajan. It shows him meeting peacefully with barbarian kings and giving bread to poor Italian children. There are symbols of the Roman Empire, along with symbols of victory and loyalty and the four seasons.

Trajan’s Arch also marks the point where the Via Traiana branched off from Via Appia. This was a shorter, more certain route that followed the Adriatic coast. The emperor Trajan built it to speed up travel to the ports at Brindisi, Bari, and Lecce.

I thought about taking the newer Via Traiana, and spent a long time staring at the Arch while I decided what to do.

There would be more traffic along Via Traiana, and fewer historic sites. But there would be more campgrounds, and I could probably get to Brindisi a few days earlier. That could turn out to mean more time with Gisela!

There was very little risk of getting lost on Via Traiana. But if I took Via Appia, I wasn’t sure where to go after Benevento.

It was the uncertainty that decided it for me. Which route would lead me through more oak forests, over steeper hills? Which way was I more likely to enjoy a conversation with strangers?

My goal was not to get to Brindisi as fast as possible. It was all about the journey. The Appian Way held more promise of discovery and adventure, and that’s what I wanted from this trip. 

I left Benevento heading southeast, my best guess on the route of Via Appia, roughly in the direction of Venosa. 

The ancient Roman poet Horace had written an account of his own journey, “Via Appia With Stops.” Venosa was Horace’s home town, and Via Appia definitely passed through here. The town of Venosa was on the other side of the Apennine mountains, but this was now the only direction I had.

 I rode into the evening, though I didn’t know the way. I didn't know where I would sleep that night, but something told me to just keep riding.

The road meandered back and forth through scrubby hills, then weaved through dense forest. The blinking light on my handlebars made a dim circle on the pavement in front of me. Besides that, I could only see the dark silhouettes of trees.

I was puffing hard now as I climbed ever-steeper slopes. There weren’t many cars, but when they passed, the  headlights cast gorgeous shadows from the branches and leaves. I rode past small villas and buildings that looked deserted.

Then I reached an especially steep hill. The road seemed to dive bomb into a dark forest, winding down and farther down. I could only see a few feet ahead of me, and I wondered if I was destined to go over the edge of a cliff. I could feel the temperature rise. 

Finally the ground leveled out, the sky cleared, and stars winked at me overhead.

It was a warm night, and I felt like I was coming home, like I had been there before. Everything seemed oddly familiar, though I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. It felt good to just keep riding through the night. 

Finally, I found a wide, rutted dirt road leading uphill away from a turnout. It looked like it hadn't been used for a while. I walked my bike along this track, which soon became more like a field. There were pine trees on my left and olives on my right. Up at the top of the hill, I saw the silhouette of a house.

There were no lights on, but I was going to try to ask permission before I camped. I left my bike and walked up the lumpy field that had started out as a road. Soon I was trudging through soft earth, walking between young olive trees and grape vines. The “house” turned out to be a row of tall sheds. Nobody was around.

I gave up, and walked back down to my bike. But after a few seconds I stopped cold as I saw a small, pale light in the distance. I called out a friendly greeting. There was no answer, but what I saw was unmistakable.

Someone was down there in the trees, waiting quietly between me and my bicycle.

This is the 14th 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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-xv-somewhere-south-of-maleventum/

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.

"If everybody tried to be the greatest possible person," he went on, "can you imagine the world? We would solve all our problems!"

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

In 73 BCE, gladiators in Capua broke free and started a slave revolt. 

They were led by a man named Spartacus, a name that everyone knows today. As his rebels fought their way across Italy, thousands of slaves joined their ranks. They defeated four Roman armies in battle, and outwitted the Romans for two years.

In the end, the rebels became the victims of their greed. They had the chance to escape over the alps and enjoy freedom for the rest of their lives. Instead, they marched south in search of loot. A coordinated effort by two Roman generals led to their capture, and their fate has a gruesome connection with my journey.

As a warning to others, the Romans crucified the Spartacus rebels along via Appia. 

The real Capua, where gladiators were trained to fight, is the modern town of Santa Maria in Capua Vetere, a few miles away from modern Capua. This was where I was ultimately headed. But I had an important reason to stop in Capua first.

Sometime during my quest for the Ponte degli Aurunci, I broke a spoke on my rear wheel. Now I crossed a bridge with strong, solid arches like immovable soldiers, and wobbled into town, looking for a bike mechanic. 

The bike shop was literally a hole in the wall, a 10-by-20-foot space excavated into the side of a hill. A man who introduced himself as Zio Mario had my wheel off and the tire removed before I thought to ask how much it would cost.

There were no windows in the shop, but Mario did most of his work right out on the street. It seemed like he was constantly rolling cigarettes. He would work with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, sometimes lit but often not, while he chatted with people who passed by.

“This guy is from California,” he bragged to a lot of these folks. “And he rode his bike all the way here from Rome.” 

These distractions didn’t stop Mario from doing a great job on my bike. He carefully inspected my wheel when he was done, and took the time to carefully adjust the spokes until the wheel was true. He put a new lining around the inside of the rim, and when he replaced the tire he lined up the label over the valve stem. He checked the pressure with a gauge that was designed for bicycles and not cars, and he wiped down the entire bike with a clean rag.

When he was done, I took out my wallet and I thought I heard him say “Venticinque.” 25 euros. Not cheap, but I didn’t have much choice. I should have expected some price gouging. 

But when I handed him the money he asked, “Wait. How much did you hear me say it would cost?”

He had actually said, “Viene cinque.” It comes to 5 euro. I was amazed. He was charging about seven bucks for a first-rate professional job, parts and labor included. He wouldn’t even let me tip him.

“We are not in Rome,” he said as he handed most of my money back to me.

I have no words to tell you how much I love Rome. A week-long vacation in Rome turned into a 3-year stay, and I never stop thinking or talking about it. 

But whenever I’m there, I watch my back. There are people in Rome who will try to rip you off, usually in petty ways, especially if you’re a foreigner. The people in smaller towns are more trusting and also much more trustworthy.

I suspect this is true in every country. Cities offer great opportunities for work, a social life, and to pursue almost any ambition. I moved to Los Angeles for all of the above reasons. Many gifts of society are only possible when you have a large concentration of people in one place. But what have we lost in exchange?

Both the old and new Capua are on the edge of Caserta, a major transportation hub. The area surrounding these cities is heavy with traffic. As I reached Santa Maria in Capua Vetere, the traffic got worse.

The amphitheater and other Roman ruins are worth seeing if you’re ever near Santa Maria in Capua Vetere. But overall this is possibly the most difficult, dangerous, and unattractive part of the Via Appia bike route.

With nowhere to camp, I checked into a cheap hotel. My room had a concrete floor with a gritty, non-stick paint that reminded me of a swimming pool. After a shower I was anxious to get out of my room and into town.

I grabbed some pizza al taglio and gelato, but there wasn't much to see. A few hours after sundown, every place in the city seemed to be closed. I felt like the only person on the street. I missed Mario and his friendly stream of patrons.

My phone buzzed with a call from my dad. As we spoke for a while, he asked “What’s bugging you? You don’t sound as happy as you should be.” 

Before I left on my bike tour, I spent several days in Rome preparing for the trip. I also had a long list of Italian friends, former neighbors, students and acquaintances whom I would have loved to see. I could have called or visited at least a few people. What stopped me? 

Did I really want to get going on my road trip, more than I wanted to see all those people? How many of them would have wanted to see me? 

It’s the unavoidable irony of traveling alone. It’s easier to meet and talk to people on a solo tour, because you don’t have anyone else to talk to. You’ll almost always come back with stories of interesting people, local experts, and fellow travelers. 

But even when you’re enjoying the solitude and the freedom it brings, your enjoyment will be tempered by the feeling that maybe you should be spending this time with your family and friends. I always carry a small weight of guilt with me on these trips.

My dad was encouraging. Before we hung up he said, “It's better to be lonely by yourself than to be lonely with other people.”

After the call, I noticed the smell of fresh-baked bread. It was out of loneliness, more than hunger, that I walked into what seemed like the only open pasticceria in all of Santa Maria in Capua Vetere. 

The light was on, and the door was propped open. There were pastries in a glass display case, and behind the counter a scrawny man with greying hair was sliding a sheet of confections into a huge oven.

I greeted the baker with a smile and the usual “Buona sera.”

“It’s okay, I speak English,” he answered. He had an accent that didn’t sound Italian. He also sounded tired and annoyed.

“What part of America are you from?” he asked, as he handed me a warm cornetto.

“How did you know I’m American?”

“You’re wearing shorts. You have an American accent. The way you walked in here screams ‘American.’ I lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. There are a million things I can see in you.”

He spoke slowly and intensely, and he warmed up a little bit when he found out I was following via Appia on a bicycle. I learned he was Greek, but he married an American woman and sold real estate in Sherman Oaks, California, for several years. It didn’t make him happy.

“Now I stay up all night and sell cornetti to Italian kids. But I found the secret of life. Do you want me to tell you?”

How could I say no?

“Listen,” he said slowly, even more slowly than he had been speaking already. “All my life I was a salesman. I know how to read people. I know what they want before they do, and that’s how I can sell to them. I know you are searching for something. I seen a million people like you, from every country in the world.”

He paused dramatically. He put his fingertips on his temples, looked down at the floor, and took a deep breath. I half expected him to start singing “The Gambler,” but he didn’t.

“The secret of life is to learn as much as you can. Find something important to you and get very good at it.” He kept looking down as he said this, his elbows propped on the counter and his head in his hands.

I waited for more. I could hear a car driving past in the street outside. Finally he looked up at me. 

“You have to learn and experience as much as you can. Keep traveling. Keep reading. And find one thing to be very good at.”

“Yes,” I said. “I agree with you. It’s what I’m trying to do.”

“So am I,” he said. “But I am a Kassandra. Do you know about Kassandra, from Troy?”

I nodded. Kassandra was a woman who had been cursed by the Greek god Apollo. She was given the power to predict the future and see the truth, but nobody would ever believe her.

“People don’t want to know the truth,” he went on. “If everybody tried to be the greatest possible person, can you imagine the world? If everybody tried to learn and be great at something. Everybody! We would solve all of our problems. We would cure the cancer. Everybody would be happy if they tried to learn more and do better.”

He said all of this quietly and slowly, and he sounded terribly sad. 

I munched on my pastry as he stared at the counter without blinking. Finally I broke the silence by saying the dumbest thing possible: “Most people would rather just watch a football game and eat their cornetti.”

He put his head down on the counter, like he was going to fall asleep.

“Go away,” he said wearily. “You know everything. Now go away.”

This wise old baker who knew the secret of life didn’t seem especially happy or fulfilled. I fled his lair, walking quickly past a row of glass windows. The mannequins were dressed in the latest Italian fashions. In Italy, the female mannequins have erect nipples pointing through their clothes. I’ve always found this amusing and a little bit weird.

Lamps lit up the street. I saw another person walking alone in the distance.

It was too dark to really see any details about the other person. I was clearly getting sleepy, because when the walker turned and looked at me it looked like he was dressed in a toga. I imagined I was looking at Cicero.

Cicero regarded friendship as one of the highests, greatest blessings any human being could ever enjoy. What would he say about me? Here I was, free to travel the world, but Cicero would have pitied me. He would have only seen a friendless vagabond in a silent town.

I thought about what Pyrrhus might say. “Setting off on your own, seeking adventure and conquest and achievement--that’s the way to really live!” I used to agree with Pyrrhus.

Old Appius Claudius would probably also agree with his enemy Pyrrhus on this point. Appius Claudius never seemed concerned about other people unless they were useful to him. 

Nobody’s going to name a road after me, but most of my goals have centered around achievement, mainly achieving things that make it possible to have more experiences like the journey I was on now. I was becoming a petty caricature of Appius or Pyrrhus. 

Years ago, I stumbled on via Appia and lusted after the chance to follow it all the way. I thought it would give me bragging rights. I thought it would be fun and glorious all the time. Maybe someday I could write a book about it. 

 But most of the time I’m so fucking full of myself that I miss the best part of the journey.

This is the 12th 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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-xiii-a-fatal-decision-at-the-caudine-forks/

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.

Your plan is probably dumber than a box of tape, but make yourself do it anyway.

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

Whatever lay beyond this rocky gate, I was part of the story now.

Just below Terracina, a finger of the Apennine mountains sticks out into the sea, pointing at Africa. For about four hundred years, travelers had to go over this rocky wall by way of the Campo dei Paladini. There was no alternative, unless you had a ship.

Then in the first century AD, the Emperor Trajan ordered engineers to cut a pathway through the stone. Thousands of slaves and laborers removed an astonishing volume of solid rock, using nothing but carts, pickaxes, and other hand tools.

As you leave Terracina, look to the left for Roman numerals carved into the rock. The diggers marked the depth of their work at intervals, and you can easily spot the C, CX, and CXX which mark the final 100, 110, and 120-foot cuts.

This Herculean feat saved half a day’s travel in ancient times, and the work was built to last. The modern Appian Way, SS7, takes advantage of the improvement. Travelers leave and enter Terracina through a narrow, man-made canyon cut with hand tools. So did I.

The road climbed back into the foothills, and soon I was making zig-zags up through a glittering jewel box of flowers and oak trees. When I met a farmer selling black olives on the roadside, I bought half a kilo and devoured most of them on the spot.

Late in the afternoon, I wheeled into the hill town of Fondi. My notes showed a campground here, but when I called, the person on the phone seemed confused. After some back-and forth efforts at directions, I was passed to a man who spoke English. He asked, “OK, where exactly did you say you are?”

It turns out the campground was in another town called Fondi al Lido, or Fondi on the Beach. I was up in the hills, miles away.

I could have easily set up camp anywhere, just like the night before. But I wanted to take a shower, and I’m certain the whole province of Lazio would have preferred this as well. Who wants to look and smell like a bum in such a beautiful country?

Still, I couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel every night. When I budgeted for my trip, I had planned to stay at campgrounds that typically only cost a few Euros.

Right before I left, I had bragged about how easily you can travel anywhere you want, even if you think you don’t have enough money. Now I was arguing with myself over the price of a hotel room.

I had come to Italy with the vision of long rides through sweeping vistas, and hikes among the marble-littered ruins. Most of all, I pictured myself spending my evenings enjoying a passeggiata and sipping grappa with the locals. 

Instead, it was starting to feel like I was looking for a place to hide every night. Maybe the journey I meant to take didn’t really exist. 

These thoughts had been bothering me almost nonstop, ever since I bought my plane ticket. This whole trip was just a vain, personal orgy of self indulgence that I couldn’t afford. 

Every dream is going to have fear and doubt tied to it. This might actually be one of the biggest benefits of going on a bike tour, or any kind of journey that you didn’t properly think through. Sooner or later, some of your deepest fears are going to surface. 

Fear of failure. Fear of ridicule. The real fears instilled in you by others. There's the fear of what you'll miss out on if you try it, and the fear of what will happen if you try it and you don't succeed. 

Fear draws lines and tells you not to cross them. When you do, you’ll have to face the fear alone in a strange place.

Sometimes the fear comes from a simple, honest assessment of the truth. You can always find a perfectly reasonable argument against doing what you want.

But there’s a way to defeat this fear. Simply refuse to give yourself the option to chicken out. Your plan is probably dumber than a box of tape, but make yourself do it anyway.

I didn’t have a big dramatic moment in Fondi. I wish I could tell you that the skies opened up with a choir of angels singing. That I had made some bold, symbolic gesture that belonged in the script of an award-winning film that would make your mother cry. But breakthroughs don’t always require drama. 

All that really happened was I got back on my bike. I was already too committed to turn back.

However, as I left Fondi, I stopped listening to the voice that worried about how I was going to pay for everything. I stopped worrying about what people would think if I stealth camped for a few nights here and there.

I left behind a heavy anchor I no longer wanted to wear around my neck.

This is the 7th 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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/lazios-best-kept-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.

You're about to learn a secret about picking up Italian women. Or any women, really. This could probably work on men, too.

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

WARNING: Some of this chapter might qualify as Too Much Information. If you think so, you should probably skip it. You’ve been forewarned.

The man behind the bar had an eagle's head tattoo on one of his muscular arms. He stood beneath a “No Smoking” sign, rolling cigarettes and smoking them one after another. His name was Francesco.

When I told him about my journey, Francesco described the route to the Temple of Jupiter Anxur and the Campo dei Paladini at the top of a steep hill.

“Non e’ difficile,” he assured me. It's not difficult.

I munched on a greasy cornetto while I waited for my espresso. A young woman walked in and said “Ciao, Francesco.” 

Long, dark hair spilled down to her waist. She wore leggings designed with a pattern like a diamondback snake. Her breasts were practically spilling out of a bright green blouse with the top two buttons undone. It was hard to keep my eyes off of her.

Francesco introduced me to Irene (pronounced “ee-RAY-nay”) and told her I was a crazy American who was going to ride his bike all the way to Brindisi. When she walked to the restroom he nudged me and whispered, “Non e’ difficile” while giving her backside a long, appreciative look. 

When you’re in Italy, women will tell you that Italian men are lecherous pigs. But Italian men aren’t different from guys everywhere. Some of them are just more transparent about what they want.

I was ready to leave, but I didn’t. I get lonely on these travels, and it’s always a comfort to buy a few minutes of company for the price of a coffee. Anyway, it’s a good idea to talk to friendly baristas in Italy whenever you can. They spend their whole day drinking espresso and chatting with people, so you’ll almost always learn something interesting. 

Francesco had recently finished his obligatory military duty, and was studying to get a degree in politics. He told me the history of Terracina. It had always been an important location because it had access to the sea as well as high views of the Pontine Marsh and surrounding countryside.

I knew that the Romans, Samnites, and Volsci had fought over Terracina, and obviously the Romans were victorious in the end. Francesco told me that during World War II, a bomb blew open the side of a hill and uncovered the foundations of Roman and pre-Roman buildings that had been buried for thousands of years.

By the time Irene came back and joined us, Francesco had returned to modern times and was telling me about the local bands and local women. 

“Irene, do you think I can teach this American how to pick up Terracina girls?” Francesco asked.

She put her hands together as if she were praying, and said “O Dio mio.”

“Look,” said Francesco, “You’re traveling all through Italy. You should be like Zeus and make love to a girl in every city. Non e’ difficile. Here’s how you do it.”

For the next minute or so, Francesco tried to impart his favorite observations and techniques. All the time, Irene looked at me, wide-eyed, shaking her head and her index finger, and mouthing the word “no.”

I knew that if I stayed any longer, I would never leave. I would learn all about Terracina girls from Francesco. Then I would find an excuse to stay in town for a week, and spend the entire time chasing Irene.

Next, I would find a job in Terracina teaching English, and eat through a whole year of my life like it was a chocolate cream cornetto. I would marry Irene and we’d open up a pizzeria and make lots of bambini, and I would wake up 20 years later to find I was too fat and contented to ever finish my bike tour. Finis.

Besides, I was already in trouble over an Italian woman. We’ll get to that soon.

I got up to leave, and both of them wished me luck. “Just do it a little bit at a time,” Francesco assured me. “Non e’ difficile.” 

He winked as he said this, and Irene flashed him an angry look. It was a narrow escape, and it wouldn’t be my last.

In honor of history, I made the knee-grinding climb to the peak, sacrificing an ounce of my cartilage to Jupiter Anxur.

When the original via Appia went this way, it stopped in an area behind the temple called the Piazza Paladini. Campo (Italian for “field”) dei Paladini was a traditional rest stop for the ancient Romans along the via Appia. The old “high road” went up this way, skirting the city and coming to rest in a large square bearing this name.

The windy heights were a worthy home for a sky god. The city, the sea, and the Appian Way belonged to a different world, far below. Across a long flat distance, the tall mass of Mount Circeo stood out against the sea, the place where Ulysses went ashore and Circe the witch turned his men into pigs. 

And of course I could see two neat rows of pine trees flanking the Appian Way, a dark green line stretching back towards Rome.

I returned to town and found the archeological site Francesco had told me about, the ruins exposed by an exploding bomb. 

The place looked like someone had made a full-sized blueprint out of stone. They carefully lay down the outline of every wall in bricks, and painstakingly cemented the whole thing together, so than anyone who walked by could see exactly where the courtyard would go, where the people would cook, bathe, and sleep, and what it would all look like when it was done.

It looked just like someone had made this amazing, durable blueprint and  never bothered to construct the actual buildings.

People lived and loved here, passed laws, fought and made up, and died in these crumbled walls. I tried really hard to believe it, to feel a connection with this ancient life. But I was too distracted.

I went to the main piazza, where a trace of the original via Appia runs straight through. I had spent years looking at pictures and drawings and diagrams of it.

An ancient cathedral covers one end of the piazza, built over an ancient Roman temple. The piazza is an exhilarating mix of architecture and decoration from ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the 18th century.

I munched on a tomato and mozzarella panino, trying to find that same excitement I had felt when I looked at a photo of this very spot just a month ago.

Until this morning, Terracina had only seemed to exist in my mind. I had read about this place years ago. I'd lusted over pictures of Terracina in books and websites. Now it was real, finally a physical part of my experience. I should have felt like celebrating.

Yet, sitting there in the central piazza of Terracina, all I could think about was a young Italian woman not too far away. And her name was not Irene.

A tour leader for the Adventure Cycling Association once told me that most of the people who go on bike tours are looking for something more than just the ride itself. Distraction, a sense of meaning, a purpose in life--these are some of the treasures we seek on two-wheeled adventures.

Romance, or at least sex, is always near the top of the list. That’s why biking the via Appia was, among other things, a good excuse for me to come to Italy. I needed this excuse, because for the past few years, I had been in a confusing, long-distance relationship with an Italian woman. 

If you're interested, you're about to learn a secret to picking up Italian women. Or any women, really. It probably works on men, too. So here it is.

You see, in Los Angeles, I'm just an ordinary dude who talks too much. But in Italy I'm a foreigner with an accent.

When someone speaks to me in Italian, I have to try really hard to follow along. Sometimes the only conversation I can manage is an awkward smile while I nod and say, “si’.” If I need to say much more than that, there’s a long pause while I struggle to remember the Italian word for peanut butter or how to conjugate the verb spalmare.

Apparently my weak language skills come across as intense concentration. The awkward pause makes me look thoughtful. To Italians, I appear to be a good listener.

It turns out many women can't resist a good listener, especially if he has a foreign accent.

Using my Good Listener Foreign Accent Mojo (GLFAM), I had once met a young woman who lived in a small town in central Italy. We were kindred spirits. She had traveled, worked, and lived in a lot of interesting places. We’ll call her Gisela , although that’s not her real name.

About a week before I arrived in Italy to bike the Via Appia, I think that maybe she broke up with me during a phone call, although the conversation would have been confusing even without the language barrier.

Then, a few days before I was going to start my ride, we texted each other and I thought the plan was to meet for coffee, but the texts would have been confusing enough even without the language barrier.

Somehow I ended up riding a train to her home town, then following her texted instructions to take the train to another town, where the coffee date became dinner and a wild night followed by a confusing day together.

I think we broke up again but the conversations were confusing enough even without the jet lag, the bottles of wine, and of course the language barrier. (I think she still likes me, but I can't prove it.)

Now here I was, at the beginning of one of the coolest adventures of my life, and all I could think about was Gisela.

When I looked at Irene, and whenever I looked at just about any Italian woman on this trip, I was really thinking of Gisela.

All of the excitement of a new journey, all the beauty of Italy in springtime, all the mystery of ancient ruins--it was nothing. Nothing could compare to the excitement, beauty, and mystery of Gisela.

What would happen if I went back to Rome, called her up, and invited her to dinner? Maybe all I needed to do was alter my travel plans a little, and maybe I could rekindle an old fire. Would I go back to her? Or would I just keep going, and run away from another relationship?

It was a narrow escape, and it wouldn't be the last.

I didn’t know if I wanted to embrace another chance with Gisela, or walk away. She probably didn’t know, either. 

I want you to know the truth about my trip. This obsession over a girl  makes me wonder if it's even worth writing this story, if it's even worth reading, or if I blew it before I even began.

You see, I traveled across half of Italy with only half my mind and half my heart, because I could neither embrace nor let go of the relationship I was in. 

If you ever do a solo bike tour, keep in mind that your emotional baggage will color your adventure in unpredictable ways. 

This is the 6th 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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-vii-fear-draws-lines-and-tells-you-not-to-cross-them/

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.

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

The sun was setting, and I had nowhere to sleep. Prostitutes and their customers would soon be lurking about, and there were even worse things knocking around in my own head. 

I had food and water and a tent. I was surrounded by empty fields, bushes, and many opportunities for a good night’s rest.

But I pictured the carabinieri picking me up as a vagrant. Desperate criminals holding me for ransom. Worst of all, I imagined the Italians would think I was a pestilent, mouse-raping transient. When they saw me sleeping out in the open, the people of Lazio would surely turn away in disgust and say, “Che schifo!”  

Why hadn’t I planned better? Why did I waste so much time throughout the day?

After you leave the park of Via Appia Antica, you can follow the original ancient route of Via Appia just by sticking to the national highway SS7. But on the periphery of Rome, this road is full of traffic. 

In the 18th century they built a parallel version of Via Appia nearby, called the New Appian Way or Via Appia Nuova. It runs in the same direction, but you pass through a sterile urban landscape. This route is useful for commuters, but there’s nothing to see except endless apartment blocks and one short glimpse of some crumbling aqueducts. 

I stayed on SS7. Eventually the houses and shops gave way to more open country. I followed the road through suburbs, farmland, and acres of grape vines. 

A few miles farther down, a small sign said, “Via Appia Antica.” An arrow pointed off the road towards a gulch.

I followed this path to a stretch of the familiar basalt stones that the Romans used. For the next few miles I rattled past fields of tomatoes and artichokes. Grape leaves waved at me from thick vines as I rode by. Best of all, there were fallen pillars and the occasional remains of a wall.

Later in the day, after the old stretch of Via Appia went back to the main road, I passed through a pungent cloud of sulfur and saw an old man filling plastic jugs from a small fountain. 

“E' potabile?” I asked. Is the water drinkable?

“Si!” he said. “It's good for the bones.” He gestured for me to try it.

The smell was like a decomposing pile of manure from a cow with chronic diarrhea. Millions of tiny bubbles clouded the water. 

It’s worth noting here that Italy boils with volcanic activity. Vesuvius and Etna are the most famous Italian volcanoes, but there are many others. The Alban Hills just south of Rome erupted some 30-40 thousand years ago, creating the basalt that eventually paved Via Appia.

Geologists think an eruption will happen again. Occasionally a few sheep are killed by toxic gas, which is proof that something is still going on down there. 

There are many springs in Italy that provide water rich in dissolved minerals and gases from this geothermal activity. Apparently I had just stumbled upon one of them.

I thought about the sheep poisoned by gas from the volcanic earth. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I drank the old man’s clouded water. I’m not aware that anything bad ever came of it, but I probably need to put in a disclaimer here:

So… I hope you understand that I am not a doctor. This story is not intended as a recommendation to prevent, treat, or cure any disease. You should always consult a medical professional before you drink murky, foul-smelling water while traveling in a foreign country.

Some time after drinking from the volcano, I rode into Ariccia, an important place long before the Romans came to power. Every major art museum in the western world has Romantic paintings that show gods and nymphs in a wooded setting. Many of these scenes were inspired by the forests of Ariccia. 

Ariccia was also the first staging point along Via Appia. Messengers and important officials picked up fresh horses here. Travelers would stop in Ariccia to pick up supplies or stay for the night. 

I bought food at a small market, including a cylinder of goat cheese with a bitter smell. The shop owner insisted it would not spoil for many days, and he was right. When I combined the cheese with bread, olives, tomatoes, and a bottle of cheap-but-effective aglianico wine, I had a banquet. 

I should have either stayed in Ariccia for the night, or avoided the town completely. It took a while to get back on SS7, and there wasn’t much time left to ride. As the sun dropped low in the sky, I started to wonder where I was going to sleep.

I had my tent, and I had always thought I would just plunk down and camp wherever I found myself. But my own mind was determined to make things difficult.

When I was in college, I spent a few years living in the redwood forest above the UC Santa Cruz campus. This was a tradition at the time, and there were many “woods dwellers” living among the trees.  

I loved waking up to the sound of birds. I loved that I didn’t have to pay rent. I loved feeling like I wasn’t an ordinary muggle. When other students went back to their dorm rooms, complaining about the cold weather, I would hike into a dark forest to go to bed. I was proud to live a secret life.

But this pride was always mixed with private shame about being homeless. I had a job, clean clothes, and a shower almost every day, but I didn’t have an address. I was missing one of the cultural trappings that qualify you as a normal person. 

Over years of travel I’ve slept in cars, in boxcars, under bridges, and in trees. I’ve slept in the snow, in the rain, on concrete, on broken glass, on closed roads and in open pits. I’ve slept in backyards, freight yards, and even once in a graveyard. I can feel safe and comfortable almost anywhere. But I never escape the self-conscious shame of looking like a bum.

The shame felt a hundred times worse in Italy. I was a guest in this country.

However, I had to sleep somewhere, and there’s always one foolproof way to defeat the doubts in your mind: Don’t give yourself a choice. 

After the sun went down, I didn’t have many options. This made it easier to find a break in the bushes, wheel my bike off the road, and pitch my tent in a field. The rows of vegetables had been cut. Whatever crops the farmer cultivated were already harvested. I wouldn’t bother anyone here. Nobody would even see me.

As I set up my tent, my courage grew. I thought about Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who wrote a Guide to Happiness. Seneca was rich and important, but when traveling, in his own words, “I put my mattress upon the ground, and lay upon it.”

If stealth camping was good enough for Seneca two thousand years ago, then who was I to worry about it? 

I had olives and goat cheese and fresh bread in my panniers. I feasted in the field, watching the very last glow of daylight fade away. I made a truce with myself, and felt my confidence return. 

Today I drank from a volcano. I could go anywhere and do anything. Where to sleep was just a petty detail. This bike tour was my mattress, and I would lay on it. 

But before I went to sleep in my tent, my phone lit up with a text from Gisela: “Good night. TVB.” 

The last three letters stand for “Ti voglio bene,” an Italian way of expressing sincere affection. I knew that my inner peace wouldn’t last. Demons gathered, ready to haunt this reckless traveler soon enough.

This is the 3rd 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. Click here to read the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-iv-how-appius-claudius-invented-rome/

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.

1

Do you ever just want to leave?

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%. 

My first job in Italy, my boss gave me a success secret.

She shared it over a bright, neon-yellow liqueur called “limoncino.” (Quick note, in other parts of Italy they call it limoncello.)

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.Homemade limoncello
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.’
Chiesa Carmine 01
“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.

An ancient love story may help you in 2018. In 161 A.D., someone had a brilliant idea.

This story hides a secret to productivity. And it may also be one of the best examples of fiscal responsibility in the history of western civilization.

If you’re ever in Rome, you’ll probably (hopefully) visit the ruins of the Roman Forum.

There, you’ll see a well-preserved temple dedicated to Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Near the top of the temple you’ll see two lines inscribed in travertine marble:

Divo Antonino et
Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.

The story goes that the emperor, Antoninus Pius, deeply loved his wife. When she died, he asked the Senate to make her a goddess, and he built a lavish temple in her honor.

He spared no expense. You can still see the marks left on the pillars by looters who tried to steal the rare cippoline marble. 

But they couldn't tear the building down.

In fact, the temple was built so well that it survived through the centuries and was even made into a church. The church was dedicated to San Lorenzo, who may have been martyred on the alter at the base of the temple.

But I'm getting off topic.

On the front of the temple, Antoninus Pius carved the first dedication, “Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.” This means “The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree.”

Sanlorenzoinmiranda-rome
Some years later, when Antoninus passed away, the Senate was left with the burden of making him a god just like his wife. Her temple had been costly, and the emperor’s own temple would have to be its equal or better.

But then someone had a brilliant idea.

Instead of building a new temple, they simply added a new inscription above the old one: “Divo Antonino et.” The translation: “The God Antoninus and.”

Now the full inscription read:

The God Antoninus and
The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree

The immortal emperor and empress are together for all eternity, while the Roman taxpayers were spared the cost of shiploads of marble and thousands of man-hours of labor. Everyone was happy, except the family who owned the marble quarries.

Build your house with bricks

There’s a lesson here, and it’s not about finding ways to cheap out.

If the Romans had build Faustina a cheap temple, Antoninus would have required a new, better temple.

In other words, this money-saving trick never could have worked if the original temple hadn’t been built as well as it was.

So, the real lesson: If you do something really well, it’s easily worth twice as much as if you do an “okay” job. Spend more time, money, effort up front and you’ll ultimately get twice as much done in half the time at half the price.

Whatever you do in 2018, challenge yourself to make it bigger and better than it needs to be.

It was like the battle of the Caudine Forks all over again. And I was about to get burned.

What’s your best New Year’s Eve memory?

One of mine is getting a spumante shower in Villa Borghese. But it was too late to save me.

If you were walking the streets of Rome tonight, everyone would greet you with the word, “Auguri!”

This means something like congratulations and good luck, rolled into one. Congratulations, I assume, because you survived another year in Italy. Good luck, because you still have to make it through the night.

You see, if you were walking the streets of Rome tonight, you would probably be trapped in a narrow cobblestone alleyway, packed like a sardine with hundreds of other people. It would be the battle of the Caudine Forks all over again.

While you crept forward, locked in a human glacier, people would throw fireworks out of the windows above you. One time, a firecracker hit me and burned my hair (and you thought I shaved my head to look cool).

At midnight, the Romans eat lentils and grapes. This is supposed to make you rich in the coming year. It hasn’t worked for me yet, but maybe that’s because I drink my grapes.

What about you? What are you doing tonight? Whether you’re cheering on the streets with all humanity, cracking your head at your favorite club, or staying warm and comfortable under a roof, I wish you all the best for an awesome 2018. I know you’ve got this.

Buon Capo d’Anno. And thanks for reading.

Auguri!

Jacob Bear

Shortly after I lost my hair, I took a long bike tour along the route of the ancient Roman road, via Appia. A book about these misadventures will come out in 2018, but in the meantime you can get my original travel notes, including a map that was hand-drawn by an Italian archeologist. Grab your free copy in the top right corner of this page (you might have to scroll up to see it). Thanks for reading!