Circumnavigation: Magellan did it in a boat. John Glenn did it in a spaceship. Hell, Phileas Fogg even did it in a hot air balloon in the film Around the World in 80 Days (though, strangely enough, not in the novel on which it was based). But few have attempted the journey as Jason Lewis did when, in 1994, he left his London home on a bike and set out to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe using only human strength.
It took Lewis 13 years, and he writes about his adventure in his new book The Expedition, which he discusses this Saturday at Collected Works.
“People had rode across the ocean, bicycled or walked across continents before, but none of them strung the whole thing together,” Lewis tells SFR. By the way, even over the phone, his thick British accent naturally calls for a certain type of we’re-not-worthy reverence that makes you acutely aware of the last time you did any sort of real physical outdoor activity.
Lewis says that a friend from university, Steve Smith, approached him with the idea for the trek, which he estimated would take about three or four years to complete. Lewis says, with a classic air of nonchalance, “I had some time to spare. And I go, ‘Hey, you know, three or four years, that sounds a rational amount of time.’ So, I signed up.”
In between gaining sponsorship for the trip’s funding, the twosome planned their means of transportation. They figured that a pedal boat would get them across the oceans; a kayak across smaller bodies of water (smaller meaning the 1,700 miles of ocean between Australia and Singapore); a bicycle and hiking boots would carry them over most of the land; and they’d use roller blades (yes, roller blades) to cross North America.
But neither Lewis nor Smith anticipated the setbacks, hurdles and genuine disasters that would stretch their timeframe.
Lewis completed the circumnavigation in October 2007 after surviving alligator attacks in Australia, a near-deadly lead-poisoning in the middle of the ocean, an arrest in Sudan and being hit by a car in Colorado—but he says that if it weren’t for those “mishaps along the way,” he probably wouldn’t have had the moral strength to reach the finish line.
After only a year of traveling, the expedition came to a screeching halt when Lewis, on roller blades, was run over by an 82-year-old drunk driver with cataracts, “which is rather comical now, in retrospect,” he says.
Since Smith opted to bicycle across the continent, taking a more southern route, Lewis was left stranded in Pueblo, Colo. with two shattered legs and no one he knew. (A bizarre headline from The Pueblo Chieftain reads, “Sticks and stones may break his bones, but a car really did some damage.”)
It was during the nine months of recuperation after surgery that Lewis gained a greater perspective on the importance of his journey. He spent time visiting local schools in Pueblo, where he met with teachers and discovered the educational opportunity in his hands.
“After that initial adrenaline thrill of traveling around the globe had worn off, the educational issue became my way to want to keep up with the circumnavigation and actually complete it. That, in a way, became my reason to keep on going.”
The reason for the roller blades in the first place? “I thought it would be a unique way to experience the country. I figured in-line skates were the way to meet people and get a feel for the real underbelly of small-town America.”
Lewis’ newfound strength through connecting with people on the road came in handy soon after he resumed the expedition. After Lewis and Smith reunited and pedal-boated to Hawaii, a traumatic near-drowning encounter with a rogue wave led to Smith’s decision to resign from the circumnavigation.
Now the sole traveler, Lewis recruited locals for various legs of the journey so that others could benefit from “a little adventure they wouldn’t otherwise do. They would take two or three months out of their normal life to come and do something unique. It was a really powerful part of the expedition.”
Whether he was pedal-boating across the Pacific Ocean or cycling through the Himalayas, it was perhaps the people he met along the way that made the world a whole lot smaller for Lewis. After a mind-blowing 13-year adventure and the completion of the man-powered circumnavigation, his worldview became both truer and more simple.
“We’re all quite tribal, in the regard that we’ve all been conditioned in terms of our beliefs and religions and languages [so] that many people feel intimidated when you switch on the news,” Lewis says. “But you know, if you actually go to a village in Sudan or in Tibet or wherever, and you meet people, you learn that there aren’t many differences between people—the world is just one big village. These differences that people use to divide other people are really almost illusions.”
Jason Lewis Lecture
7 pm Wednesday, Nov. 17. Free.
Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse,
202 Galisteo St., 988-4226