Revelation #1: Fear of the unknown is all consuming; fear of the known is manageable.
The alarm went off at 4AM, but I had already been up for hours. After having committed to the idea of cycling from Rome to Palermo weeks ago, this was the first time I felt pure fear. Previously I had felt butterflies, excitement and anticipation, but as I lay in the plush hotel bed all I felt was an uncontrollable fear. Thoughts of doubt consumed me. I hadn’t even ridden the brand new bike that was waiting in the basement for its maiden voyage through Rome. What if the panniers were too heavy? What if a car hit me? What if I couldn’t find a place to camp? What if I couldn’t do it?
My mother hugged me goodbye at 5 AM, and left for the airport after our two week vacation in Italy. I added pangs of sadness to my already unstable emotional makeup that morning. Weeks ago I had decided to continue exploring Italy by bike after she left. The plan was to make my way from Rome to Palermo and even though I didn’t really research a route nor have much cycling experience, it sounded like a good idea at the time.
After a bleary-eyed breakfast of yogurt doused in honey and granola, I pocketed a banana from the fruit basket and descended the stairs to pack. An hour later I was attaching the panniers full of supplies to my first-ever, still unridden bike. I smiled and nodded, still petrified by fear, as the owner of the hotel took my hand, looked me in the eyes and told me to be very careful. I found myself praying to a god in which I didn’t believe.
After pedaling down the first cobblestoned street, I felt better. Once I knew what I needed to be afraid of, the feeling was more manageable. I needed to make sure my tires didn’t get caught between the cobbles; I needed to make sure I looked out for incoming cars from side streets; I needed to cross a highway. I settled on focusing on these small hurdles and bit by bit, I progressed.
A couple times throughout the day I questioned my endeavor, especially on unpleasantly busy roads. But I’ll never forget my first act of encouragement from an oncoming car. It was as subtle as it gets – a simple thumbs up. I carried the feeling that small gesture gave me for a long way. That first day I cycled through Rome and then farm lands and small towns out to the sea. At Lido di Ostia, I turned south and pedaled along the coast until I came to northern Anzio where I found a campground. Rome was currently a winding 90 kilometers behind me, and I was ready to dismount.
Revelation #2: Kids are annoying
After setting up camp, I went to buy fresh groceries for dinner. Riding through the campground, I noticed that the other campers were all set up for what looked like month-long holidays. There were very few other tent campers, and the many camper vans had welcome mats at the door or had decorated their site with plants and flowers. I later found out that August was the Italian holiday season. While I was gone, some mischievous children of the camper vans had removed all the shiny orange pegs from my tent, and it looked sad and deflated. I was worried about theft, as I had left my panniers inside the tent with all of my supplies. Once I understood what had happened, I took a child’s bike hostage in order to get my pegs back. The culprits soon appeared looking for their bike and happy faces turned into expressive concern when they saw me at my site with their bicycle. My shiny orange pegs reappeared very quickly. I threatened to find their parents if they set foot on my campsite again. They solemnly nodded; I gave them back their bike, and they rode off shouting in Italian. Probably conspiring about their next prank.
Revelation #3: To cook, you need fire.
My status at the campground now established, I took my bottle top propane stove, quinoa and a beer and went to the beach to cook my dinner as the sun set. Settling into the sand, I thought about how perfect a place this was to cook dinner after a long day. My smile faded when I realized that I hadn’t bought a lighter. I had absolutely no way of lighting the propane. Shaking my head in disbelief of my own stupidity, I opened the beer and took a massive swig. My stomach growled as the sun melted into the Mediterranean Sea.
After the last glimmer of sunlight, I rushed on my bike to the general store of the campground to buy a lighter, which, unfortunately, they did not sell. Matches? Big lighter? Small lighter? Nothing. I went to the bar next door and was equally unsuccessful. Though, luckily the bartender took pity on me and offered her own personal lighter. She wouldn’t take money.
Revelation #4: A one-person tent only fits one person
After cooking my dinner on the ground in the dark, as picnic tables aren’t a thing at Italian campgrounds, I evaluated my sleeping situation. Initially, I thought that I’d put much of my belongings in the tent as I slept for fear of theft, especially after the episode with the campground children. However, as I snuggled into my one-person tent, or inflated sleeping bag, I quickly understood that there was only enough room for me and my front bag that held my most significant belongings. Tired from the emotions of the morning and stress of ironing out the kinks in the first day, I zipped myself into my one-man tent. As I lay down on my half-inch inflated mattress, I realized that I had also overlooked investing in a pillow. Fed up with the situation, I bunched my sweater up into a ball, and I hoped out loud that, by tomorrow, I’d have my shit together.