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Joe Bowen
January-February 2005 Newsletter

Joe Bowen: The Journey of a Lifetime (Round II)

by Patrick J. McCormick, Communications Director LAB

Few adventurers are satisfied with achieving just one grand goal in life. Like climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel or riding in the Iditabike race in Alaska. Many are driven to relive their feats or tackle new challenges. None, however, wait 38 years to relive their greatest adventures. League member Joe Bowen, of Taylorsville, Ky., is going to do just that.

On April 8, 1967, after he left the U.S. Armed Forces, Bowen rode out of Lompoc, Calif., embarking on a 14,000-mile bicycle ride that took him throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico over the course of 16 months. For perspective, 14,000 miles is more than half the circumference of the earth at the Equator (24,900 miles). In a 2002 article for the Kentucky Explorer, he wrote, “I pedaled up the Pacific Coast Mountain Highway of California and Oregon. I climbed North America’s mighty mountains in the Cascades of the Northwest; the Rockies from Alberta to Mexico; the Great Smoky Mountains; and the Appalachians of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.” On April 8, 2005 — 38 years to the day he set out on his first great North American bicycle odyssey — Bowen will start his journey again. This time, his purpose will be to foster awareness of the stunning Red River Gorge National Scenic Byway near his hometown of Bowen, Ky., where he will conclude the trip. The Byway is renowned for its proliferation of natural stone arches, which frame forested areas, ridges, and cliffs (see www.byways.org for more information.)

For his 2005 journey, Bowen says he plans to follow, “almost the same route. It’ll change a little bit to visit people I didn’t know back then.” He will be forced to add a number of detours, some as long as 200 miles, to get around some interstate highways that did not exist in the sixties, but he has secured permission from Montana and a few other states to ride short distances on their interstates.

The entire trip will cover 14,000 miles again, but he expects to finish it in 12-14 months. In 1967-1968, he had to work all sorts of odd jobs along the way, for days and even weeks at a time, to support his trip, because, “I left Lompoc, Calif., with only $43 in my pocket to visit with America.” This time money will not be as much of an issue, though Bowen said he “may work for nostalgic reasons.” He has already been invited to stay at a number of homes, but expects to camp or stay in hotels most nights.

Bowen regaled League members and staff at the BikeFest/National Rally of Cyclists in Jasper, Ind., September 3-6 with tales of his 1967-1968 tour, including a number of adventures off the bike. Bowen reveled in the constant interaction with people and surroundings that long distance bicycle touring allows — and sometimes forces on — those who enjoy it.

In bike touring, the journey is always at least as important as the destination, and speed is seldom a consideration. Had Bowen merely wanted to drive through North America, he probably could have covered the entire 14,000 miles in less than a month. But then, would he have experienced America or would he have just seen it flashing by his windshield, unable to touch it or be touched by it? Instead, he wrote, “I let the easterly winds help push me across the Great Plains, the endless Southwest deserts, and the corn and wheat fields of the heartland. I met her people, stayed in their homes, ate at their tables and told bicycle stories to their children.”

Bowen was in regular contact by mail with the League, which periodically sent him membership brochures to give to people he met along the way. Mrs. Joseph L. Hart, then secretary of the League, wrote him that, “the League is indeed proud of the magnificent job you are accomplishing on your 14,000 mile trip — something almost unheard of — and your reports that have been coming in are something to be envied. Do keep up the good work.”

In 1967, at the Grand Canyon, Bowen walked down the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom, spent the night there, and hiked back up along the Kaibab Trail. He walked to the top of Pikes Peak and back in eight hours. Bowen met the governors of four southern states, including Alabama’s George Wallace, who was then running for President, as well as Elvis Presley, who was shooting a movie in Sedona, Ariz. Bowen later recalled the moment: “Almost magically, there he stood, the man I had combed my hair like in a DA when I was a teenager. There stood the hero of the century, Elvis Presley. I pinched myself to see if I was dreaming.”

Perhaps his most astounding exploit was water skiing behind a floatplane on Lake Powell. When the plane’s pontoons lifted out of the water, he said he felt like he was being, “slung out across the lake like the rocks I used to throw and skip across the old fishing pond back home. I was going so fast, I just kept skipping across the water ... It was the thrill of a lifetime. My ski was barely touching the water every 20 feet. The little white plane was gracefully flying about 50 feet above the bluish black waters of Lake Powell. The red cliffs were towering in the background below a blue sky. I’m skipping along about 60 miles an hour on wakeless water with the wind blowing across my body... It is still a thrill to think about it after all these years.”

While Bowen doesn’t plan to repeat his waterskiing feats during his 2005-2006 journey, he does plan to carry schoolchildren from Eastern Kentucky — specifically from the Bowen Elementary School in his hometown — right along with him on his voyage. Once per week, using the Internet and video technology barely imaginable in 1967-1968, he will teach the children a class on the history and geography of the places he visits along the way. No doubt, Bowen’s course will also offer lessons on pursuing your dreams and living life to the fullest.

To contact Joe Bowen, write to him at P.O. Box 566, Taylorsville, KY 40071. We wish him luck on his 2005 bicycle odyssey and hope to include dispatches from his trip in the 2005 and 2006 issues of the magazine.

Story courtesy of League of American Bicyclists magazine


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