A Review of The Road to San Donato

I recommend this book to my cycling friends and every father and son that I know. It’s a story of fathers and sons, a cycling adventure and the importance of family and community. Besides that, it’s a fun and fast read!


The Road to San Donato: Fathers, Sons, and Cycling Across ItalyThe Road to San Donato: Fathers, Sons, and Cycling Across Italy by Robert Cocuzzo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If life is a journey, then the best moments happen when we have the courage to take a different route. This is a story of a coming of age for three men. The author, Rob, convinces his dad, Stephen, to join him on a discovery bike trip through Italy with the goal of visiting their ancestral village, San Donato. Rob’s grandfather (“Papa”) is seriously ill and is near the end of his life. While Papa was part of a first born generation in the U.S., many of the people that settled in their Brighton neighborhood had come from the same village. Rob concocts the idea of a bike trip to understand Papa’s family background and vicariously provide a trip for Papa before it is too late.

While Rob seems to have a good relationship with dad, it’s obvious that Stephen is not your average father. He’s extremely independent, has obsessive habits and tends to love wild challenges, even at the age of 64. He also manages to commute to work on a “fixie”, which is a sure mark that he is already a badass cyclist. The image we get is of an aged-out hippie that is true to his core of beliefs who is a great father, but is not fully understood by Rob. With Papa slipping away and dad becoming a senior citizen, Rob sees the serendipity of the moment to enlist his father as his companion on a 500 mile trip from Florence to San Donato. As Rob says to Stephen, “We’ll go for Papa.”

While the experiences in the towns along the way are brief and somewhat interesting the real benefit is in overcoming the physical and mental challenges along the way. Once at San Donato, the revealing of the family history and the gracious hospitality there is an unexpected reward. Within a few days in the village, they have a change of perspective and a different appreciation for the importance of history and our ancestry. The village has a surprise story of courage and community during the days of Fascism that brings wonder and pride to both father and son.

I’ve taken a couple long distance bike rides over the past few years. Riding with others can be difficult because of the push and pull of each rider’s skills and conditioning. But, the reward is to discover more about that person, share your own personal story and to motivate each other. There can be no better pairing than father and son to benefit from this opportunity. Any son or father naturally looks back at the mystery of each other and desires at some point to know and understand more – even though that always has its limits. Each fact we discover inevitably reveals something about ourselves too.

The author has a casual style of writing which exposes a mixture of personal feelings and humor which makes for an easy and enjoyable read. The pace of the book and its subject matter is fast and complete as it goes from the start of the idea of the trip to its final conclusion and slightly beyond leaving a very satisfying ending.

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Walking with Walt

Learning life lessons from the Ambassador of Forbidden Drive.

It’s not uncommon to meet people along a trail when you are on a walk.  My theory is that there are almost always interesting people there to meet, if you care to engage. Walkers are not alike but we all understand the benefit of a good long walk.

Colleen and Me
Colleen and Me

Fellow FreeWalker, Colleen Griglock, and I, along with a couple dozen other FreeWalkers and EverWalk members were strolling a drop-dead gorgeous trail on a beautiful Fall day this past Saturday. It was  the last few miles of the FreeWalkers (13.1 half) Marathon Walk on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

The trail we were on has ironically been known as “Forbidden Drive” since the 1920s when automobiles were first banned from this gravel road. Now, it’s a popular wide trail that follows Wissahickon Creek Northwest of the city. It was recently named “Trail of Year 2018” by Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources. And, it’s a most inviting trail to pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians with plenty of room for everyone.

Used to be a busy bridle path
Forbidden Drive

We approached a gentleman walking briskly and confidently with a cane and struck up a conversation. There was something about his smile and energy that belied his years. (Hey, I just joined the Septuagenarian club and and am curious when I sense someone has a secret aging process going.) Walt Dinda is an 83 year-young, long time resident of the area and a regular walker on these trails. I would call him the Ambassador of Forbidden Drive.

Walt Dinda
Walt Dinda, the Ambassador of Forbidden Drive

As an attorney, he and his wife raised a family of 6 children which has now grown to 19 grandkids, with the hope of great-grandkids in the near future. I can relate to all this having 6 grandkids myself and looking forward to the possibilities.

Walt is wearing his Penn State hat he says he “borrowed” from his son. Everyone seems to be connected to Penn State here, including most of his family. As Colleen suggests, most fans make the pilgrimage to Happy Valley (Penn State) this time of year. Maybe, one not so big secret here is Pennsylvanians love their communities.

Walt began telling us about the trail and the area before greetings came from others along the way. It seems Walt has been walking Forbidden Drive for years. He even credits this particular walk for much of the good things in his life.

“Walking this trail has taught me more about life than any classroom or degree I ever got. And I continue to learn from it.”

Walt has met hundreds of people of all types on the trail over the years and he has gotten to know and care about them. Walt’s parents were Eastern European immigrants that came to this country and settled in the area. His father initially had a hard time finding work and his mother worked as a domestic for a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Walt goes on,

“I’m basically a conservative guy, but I have learned to accept and embrace others.”

It appears there are many regulars on the trail that he checks in on, or asks about. They are true trail buddies whose lives revolve around the trail.

Making friends along the way.
One of Walt’s buddies asks about the health of an 87 year old mutual friend.

So, the trail is Walt’s extended family. Add a couple dozen of these trail friends to his already large family and the complexity of relationships in his life is astounding. But, I believe it might be the secret to his longevity, or at least his happiness. Walt goes on to say,

“If only the rest of the world had more caring. Caring like we have with friends and family. Most of the problems of the world could be solved or would not exist if we saw each other as part of a family.”

I think it’s fair to say that Walt had a certain personal chemistry that attracted people to him. Or, maybe there was something about walking this particular trail. But, I was fascinated by his story. After talking to him about careers and kids for 15 minutes or so, his daughter in law and grandson showed up giving each other a great big hug. This is what we all want – love and understanding. Walt has earned it in spades and has reminded me how best to grow old.

Tammy, Connor and Walt
Tammy, Connor and Walt on Forbidden Drive