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Lewis and the arc

After circumnavigating the world, a British traveler settles in Pueblo and shares his discoveries



Things Ferdinand Magellan didn't have when he set off to circumnavigate the globe: GPS, bicycles, inline skates, kayaks, and an awesome, 26-foot, bright yellow, pedal-powered boat affectionately called "Moksha."

One thing he did have: lots of funding.

So in one important respect, the 16th-century explorer had it all over then-26-year-old Jason Lewis and his college friend, Steve Smith. They'd be leaving from Greenwich, England, with just enough money to get to Portugal.

And then there was this: Between them, the two Brits knew exactly nothing about seafaring. They weren't even particularly outdoorsy.

But they had insanity on their side, plus a plan to spread the word about sustainability and alternative power, and a desire to accomplish the last great "first" in world travel: to circumnavigate the globe using only human power. No sails, no motors, no cheating.

In July 1994, Lewis and Smith set out. The money would come eventually, through donations, school events, sponsorships and hard work. However, the journey that they planned on taking 3½ years, took a bit longer.

Smith left the expedition in February 1999. Lewis continued on — until October 2007, when he returned to Greenwich after 13 years and 46,505 miles.

He wasn't alone for those 8½ years. Volunteers, many of whom were students and educators, went along for parts of the ride, and the goodness of strangers reinforced his drive to continue. Even after being struck by a car in Pueblo and left for dead with two broken legs, Lewis found inspiration in the people who helped him — so much so that he'd return when seeking a place to settle.

He writes about the journey in his new book, Dark Waters, published last month by BillyFish Books as the first in his The Expedition trilogy. And he'll be talking about his experience at a trio of events in the Springs area during the next six weeks.

But first, here are excerpts from a recent Indy interview with the 45-year-old "Brit among Yanks," done by phone from his home in Pueblo. You can find more photos of Lewis and maps of his travels at

Indy: So you went around the world. How many pairs of shoes does it take to do that?

Jason Lewis: I don't really know. I went through about 180 wheels on the roller blades, though. I had new wheels supplied by sponsors, and they would send those ahead for prearranged pick-up. A lot of my path across the U.S. was based on post offices where we could set up delivery of Rollerblade wheels in advance. I didn't carry them — well, why would I? A hundred and eighty wheels would weigh too much. Can you imagine?

But for shoes, I can't really say. A lot? I know I went through quite a few.

Indy: Thinking back ... what went right? I know a lot went wrong, or not as planned, but what went exactly as you envisioned it would when you were planning all of this?

JL: The last day of the whole journey. That's what went right. [Laughs.] The rest was a monster that needed feeding. It took up every hour of every day to feed it, too. But, the last day, pedaling up the Thames — it was peace. ... We were on time for the first time during the entire trip. Everything went right for that couple of miles. It was really quite a nice experience.

Indy: In the book, you talk about being caught in the Doldrums on the way to Hawaii, and you're pedaling endlessly for what seems like forever. What did you do to keep yourself from going stark raving crazy?

JL: I sort of did go crazy a little. [Laughs.] Literally, I talked to the fish. Mahi-mahi — some people call them "Dorado" — were drawn to the Moksha. I started talking to them. After a while, I was having conversations with myself. Then I'd start talking in accents, a whole menagerie of characters who took on a life of their own. It must have sounded rather like a Monty Python sketch.

But you see, there was no base line. How do you define insane? Out there, it seemed perfectly normal. When I pulled up near Tarawa after 73 days, I had to make a conscious decision to not do that, I'd grown so used it.

Indy: Speaking of talking with yourself, think about doing it again. If you could go back to talk with your younger self, what would you say?

JL: Don't fucking do it! [Laughs.] A lot of things — the answers to my questions about myself — but look, you have to do the journey. Otherwise the answers won't have any meaning. I was too wrapped up in my own bullshit as a seeker. I've always been a bit of an outsider. Been that way my whole life, so it's no surprise that I was in a band, and it was no surprise that later I did this circumnavigation of the globe. But I always took myself too seriously, too self-absorbed. So, I'd probably say, "Don't take yourself too seriously."

Indy: Would you have listened?

JL: No, because I was an arrogant little prick. [Laughs.]

Indy: Is there one day you could go back to, and just do over and over again?

JL: [Long silence.] No one's ever asked me that, actually. ... Lots of arrivals that you think would be great, but were anticlimactic, so the catalog of errors and mishaps tends to be what gets remembered ... and trying to find the means to get to the next spot.

OK. It was arriving in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The Chinese had made it illegal to travel through Tibet by bike to Lhasa, so I had to do it at night. Crossing Tibet was incredible, a bit like crossing the ocean, only worse. I would wait to bike at night, and hope. We'd time it so that I would roll through checkpoints at 2 or 3 in the morning, when the guards were, hopefully, asleep, blasting through the checkpoint as fast and as quietly as possible.

A few days into the Tibet crossing, my camp stove developed a crack in it, and I couldn't get it to work. For five weeks I had nothing to eat but cold noodles. So when I arrived in Lhasa, I stopped at a market and bought a couple of apples. Those were the best ever. Yeah, I play that scene in my head a lot.

Indy: In your journey, were you ever tempted to cheat just a little? Did you look at a scooter at some point and say to yourself: I could just hop on the back of that thing for a bit and nobody would be the wiser?"

JL: No, not really. Circumnavigating the globe using only human power wasn't just a bullshit "first." It quickly became apparent that it was a personal thing. I owed it to myself — especially after the [broken] legs — to my family, and to me.

I did take a tow from the Coral Sea through the Barrier Reef. April was with me, and the currents and waves were making it so that the boat couldn't make any headway. This is a place that has eaten a lot of sailing vessels. I couldn't risk smashing up the boat and having us both die on the reef, so I took a tow for 11 miles to get everyone to safety and save Moksha. I had to, had to, go back and do it under human power, and it took several attempts. It's just knowing you have to do it.

I finally managed, even though on the last try I was attacked by a very big saltwater crocodile, which I had to beat off with an oar.

I wasn't the only person going for being the first person to circumnavigate the globe using only human power. There were others who I found out about. One was a Canadian who was more interested in beating me than being honest. He resorted to using a sail. I'd like to think I made the right decision in not doing that, not cheating.

Indy: You're an environmentalist — was this all done simply to raise awareness of environmental issues? What's the message?

JL: At first, it's all about the adventure with most people, but then, when you step back, it seems to resonate with the younger people up through maybe their early 30s. Middle-aged people are not so much about the tree-huggery. We've visited 800 schools, and there was a direct seed planted there. ...

Now there's a danger of going back and doing another adventure, but I don't want to get labeled as a headbanger and do it for the stunts. My job is to reinforce the [sustainability] message in the book series. We have to look at the big picture. We have to get our politicians to address — to just talk about — these things. Get away from habits and opinions and entitlements, and take a look at it. We have to try to encourage people to remove themselves from their bubbles and change — even if it's one or two things. Something's got to give.

Indy: Lightening things up a tad — you've got this adventurer and world traveller thing going for you. Do you find that you have more male or female fans? Who do you inspire?

JL: It's fairly evenly matched — so move aside, Fifty Shades of Grey. [Laughs.]

Of all three books [in the forthcoming series], the second book is where other people joined in. There were something like 29 people or groups who joined in on different occasions. A fifth-grade teacher [April Abril] from Rye, Colorado, joined on the last leg of the Pacific crossing. ...

When Steve and I "broke up," the solution was to travel with other people. Steve couldn't handle the sea and boat, and, in hindsight, I was really an ass. I have this problem with authority and father figures, and his leadership style reminded me of both, even though we were college buddies.

We didn't part on the best of terms, but now we're at least friends, or on speaking terms. For a long time, that wasn't the case. We went our separate ways. He joined me on the land crossings, usually.

Back to that. The solution was to get other people to help. It's always been about helping, really. In Australia, there were nine students and two teachers who joined me. It became a big outreach program, educational at its core. We'd all ride bikes during the day through the Outback, then the teachers would sit around the fire at night and would write curriculum and lesson extensions. Everything became more educational — which is all great, but it's also more expensive. By the time we got to Darwin [on Australia's northern coast], we were $135,000 in debt. I worked for 31/2 years on a bison ranch near Rye, Colorado, to pay down the debt on that.

Indy: You experienced many setbacks on your trip, and spent a lot of time raising money, finding sponsors, and even recovering from accidents. How do you regain momentum after taking those sorts of breaks? How do you get your enthusiasm back after the tedium?

JL: One thing sticks out: the single act of kindness that happened in Pueblo.

My surgeon, Dr. Ken Danylchuk, offered me the use of his cabin in Rye, for my recovery. It kept me going. If I hadn't been hit, I may have lost the power of momentum. This was a long way into the trip, and I'd begun to tire of it.

During recovery, I was able to connect with kids from the surrounding schools in Rye and Pueblo, and that kept me going, and wanting to continue on.

Indy: Did people open their doors like that to you a lot, or did you have to rough it most of the time?

JL: Once people found out what I was doing, they tended to want to help. Bureaucrats tended to forget their jobs. Kids, students and teachers helped along the way. The trip required a groundswell of people helping. We could only go to the next leg. It wasn't planned out as if it was funded the whole way. It was always a people-powered expedition.

Indy: Thirteen years is a long time. What's one important lesson you brought back with you from the journey?

JL: That Mother Nature will hammer you down and beat the crap out of you. Seriously. When you're under human power, you really have to go with the flow. It's humbling and has helped me become a better person.

I learned how to become a better world citizen, and came away with a sense of who I was. Umm ... you know, who I thought I was in the beginning, is pretty illusory. Who I am — that's got nothing to do with being English or religious. Who I am at my very core is what I learned, and it's more than either of those things. People identify with those things, but it's not who they really are, is it?

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