Joe Bowen is officially an “Unbridled Spirit,” but “determined spirit” may be a better description. The retired grandfather has left his Powell County farm to re-create a bicycle trip that took him through 14,000 miles of America’s back roads in 1967.
In the 38 years between journeys, Bowen walked on stilts from California to Kentucky to raise money for muscular dystrophy, walked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon three times, and worked in construction.
Those years were also devoted to family and learning. Bowen earned a college degree in humanities at age 35 while working full time, raised three children, and now enjoys nine grandchildren.
Students across the country have been following his current adventure through a Web site, www.ridejoeride.org (click on the bicycle icon), that links his trip to educational material and information about eastern Kentucky. This month, at age 62, he begins the final leg of the sequel.
Bowen’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. He holds the world record for the longest stilt-walk, according to Guinness World Records. He also received the Commonwealth’s first Unbridled Spirit award last March. Governor Ernie Fletcher made the presentation before a crowd of elementary students in Frankfort.
“Joe Bowen exemplifies the Unbridled Spirit Kentuckians have for their home state, and he will serve as a wonderful ambassador who will tell our story throughout the country,” said Governor Fletcher.
Other awards include the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his charity work in 1986, the same year civil rights leader Rosa Parks was honored. Bowen reconnected with Parks a final time when he rode through Montgomery, Alabama, last fall upon her death. He watched as horses carried her hearse to St. Paul’s AME Church.
Bowen also met President Jimmy Carter on his latest journey, and even attended Carter’s Sunday school class before pedaling his way out of Plains, Georgia.
Adventure is nothing new to the Powell County grandfather. “I came into this world an adventurer,” Bowen readily admits. As a child, he rode two horses at the same time, standing between galloping stallions with a foot on the back of each horse.
But it was a love of reading, not adventure, that led to his first cross-country trip. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley inspired him to discover America by taking the long way home when he was discharged from the Air Force. He left California with $43, a bicycle, and the desire to explore his country before returning to Kentucky.
Bowen’s current trip is called the Rediscover Bicycle America Project and has a high-tech touch. The Appalachian Heritage Alliance (AHA), located in Campton, is coordinating an educational component that teachers and students can access via the Internet.
AHA Education Director David Musser provides the educational and technical links of the project.
Elementary teachers in Menifee, Powell, and Wolfe counties are incorporating Joe’s trip, stories, and experiences into their classroom curriculum via his Web site; when Bowen is on the road, he provides a daily update with his laptop computer. Students can use the trip, for example, to hone their math skills by calculating speeds and distances, along with geological, historical, and cultural lessons.
The first part of his re-creation began on the 38th anniversary of the day he left downtown Lompoc, California, 10 miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where he had been stationed. He embarked on both trips at exactly 9 a.m. on April 8. From April through November, he rode about 60 miles each day, logging 9,938 miles before coming home to Kentucky for the winter.
Along the way, Bowen lost 30 pounds and his experiences ranged from the sublime and philosophical to dangerous. He watched a coming-of-age ceremony for an Apache girl as the sun rose over a reservation in Arizona, encountered a black bear eating dandelions in British Columbia, and narrowly missed a landslide in Montana.
He also received encouragement online and during his daily stops. “Joe had breakfast at my store, Daylight Donuts and Café in Pagosa Springs, Colorado,” wrote Linda Lee in an e-mail message. “Everyone enjoyed his bubbling self. What a wonderful representative of Kentucky and humanity.”
His trip has also inspired some soul-searching among other retirees. “There were three men at a McDonald’s in Marietta, Georgia,” he recalled. “One of these guys, who was 68 years old, said, ‘When I was a young man there were things I wanted to do that I didn’t, and I regret it.’ ”
Between November and March, Bowen and his bicycle spent much of the time visiting schools in Kentucky and talking about his odyssey. One of the first stops was at his grandson’s elementary school in Powell County, Bowen Elementary (named for Bowen’s great-great-great-grandfather, Frederick Bowen).
This spring, he will set out on winding back roads for the remaining 4,000-plus miles. This leg will take him through Washington, D.C., and the Midwest before Kentucky’s bicycle ambassador returns to his 12-acre farm and other retirement projects.
He is raising money to build a statue of Kentucky Governor Bert Combs in Powell County, and is also promoting the development of the Eastern Kentucky Heritage Monument, which will honor Kentucky’s musical and Appalachian heritage along the Mountain Parkway.
“I hope the state of Kentucky is pleased they made me the first Unbridled Spirit,” Bowen said of the Common-wealth’s honor. “The Unbridled Spirit is, to me, a positive way to say there’s a lot that’s good about Kentucky.”
And Joe Bowen.
FOLLOW JOE BOWEN’S BIKE ADVENTURE
Check in on Joe Bowen’s 14,000-mile bike adventure on the Web at www.ridejoeride.org. He’ll complete his final 4,000-mile leg of the adventure this spring.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: GOVERNOR BERT T. COMBS PROJECT
To read about Joe Bowen’s fund-raising effort to honor Bert T. Combs, whose efforts built the Mountain Parkway in eastern Kentucky, click here: Bert Combs.