Cheeky Bit of Ocean There, What?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1997

Cheeky Bit of Ocean There, What?
Exactly why are two young Brits pedaling, pedal-boating, and cross-dressing their way around the globe? Splendid question. They're still trying to come up with a logical answer.

By Brad Wetzler

A casual scan of the World Wide Web suggests that practically everybody has hit the road on a personal journey of great import and is posting hyperlink-enhanced reports for us deskbound folks to "surf." This spring, for instance, you could snack on regular updates from the first all-women snowmobile assault on the North Pole. Any day now, one half-expects to find pages posted by the first squadron of helium-addicted circus freaks to cross the Kalahari on mopeds. But one such endeavor seems to soar above the rest, in terms of both its epic nature and the entertaining material it generates. It's called Pedal for the Planet, and a closer look reveals that the expedition's two British creators, 29-year-old Jason Lewis (pictured with a beverage on the opposite page) and 30-year-old Steve Smith (at far right), may be on to something. Consider it a new, more highly evolved form of exploration. "This is no longer a journey to try to get somewhere," Lewis explained in a recent phone interview from Mexico City, sounding a little like the cosmically confused band members in the cult classic This Is Spinal Tap. "Because we're already there. This is now an expedition about expeditioning. About life." Wow, man.

It wasn't always so free-form. The project began four years ago as a rather earnest attempt to circumnavigate the earth by means of pedal power, primarily bicycles and a uniquely equipped paddleboat distantly related to the kind you can rent at a city park. The point was to creatively protest humans' addiction to fossil fuel and, Lewis and Smith admit, to see the world on somebody else's dime. (As well as to escape the workaday "sausage machine," as Smith puts it. He was working as an environmental research scientist; Lewis, as a singer in a band.) The plan worked. Sponsorship money began arriving ù not much, but a free computer and decent pocket change aren't bad. For the first leg of their westward traverse, they crossed the Atlantic and North America without encountering utter disaster. Next month they plan to embark from Peru on a year-long pedal to Australia. Then Asia, Africa, back to Britain, and after that, who knows? Says Lewis, "I don't ever plan to leave the road."

What inspired you to undertake such an adventure?

Jason: Obviously, we were bored with post-Victorian English mediocrity. Sitting in pubs, complaining about our lives.

Steve: We wanted to see the world up close and personal, as you might say. And it's worked. I think we have a better idea than anybody just how big the Atlantic Ocean is. And Jason, having Rollerbladed over them, has a fair understanding of how high the Rocky Mountains are.

Rollerbladed? Wasn't the plan to pedal bicycles around the world, except for the oceans, which are negotiated in a pedal-powered boat?

Steve: Sort of. We originally planned to travel by bike and boat, but so far we've actually employed four different modes of transport. Jason Rollerbladed across the U.S. and kayaked the Sea of Cort‰s. I think we plan to add more as the expedition progresses. The more modes the merrier, I say.

Jason: That's right. As long as it doesn't require wind or motors.

Would you recommend a pedal crossing of the Atlantic to your friends, or was it, as one would suspect, terribly boring?

Steve: You nailed it. It's a friggin' liquid desert. The routine was murderous. One of us would pedal, and the other would sleep or fish. The thrill for me was the Mars bars. We had ration packs, which we opened every 24 hours. Each day's sack included one Mars bar. I always saved mine for the middle of the night, when I was on pedal duty. It was really the only thing that kept me going. Although there was that time you almost got rid of me, Jason. That was exciting.

Jason: Oh, yes. Steve was upstairs on deck, and the boat capsized. His foot got stuck in the boat's water purifier, and he was dragged like a water skier behind the boat. It could have been really disastrous if he'd been cut loose, because the boat has an atrocious turning radius. I don't think I could have circled back for him.

Is there a patron saint for this trip? Your brutally honest road reports are vaguely reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured this country in the nineteenth century. Listen to this passage: "In Americans I witnessed the inclination toward extremes, which only descendants of pioneers have freedom to evolve. Otherwise, the only sweeping generalizations I can comfortably hold are that Americans are open, honest, and overweight." Have you read de Tocqueville?

Steve: De Tocque-who?

Never mind.

Steve: I would say our patron saint is Hermann Hesse. He wrote about freeing the heart through a life on the road.

Jason: I believe people on this planet need more space. Lack of personal space is a huge problem. Besides, on the road you can adopt new identities, names, clothes, and nobody calls you on it. Personally, I spend a lot of time running around in women's clothing. I'm quite keen to cross the Darien Gap in a dress and high heels.

You're pulling my leg.

Jason: I've never been more serious in my life.

What do you most loathe about life on the road? What do you fear?

Jason: The Darien Gap, for one thing. And, I suppose, all cities. I think we both dread cities. The traffic. I was hit by a driver outside Pueblo, Colorado, and both my legs were broken. Later, the police asked the guy why he didn't stop, and he said he thought he hit a deer. Meanwhile, my backpack is sitting on his wife's lap. But despite the setback, we did meet a lot of great people. Plus, the doctor let me recover in his really brilliant mountain cottage. I spent nine months there.

Steve: The accident renewed our trust in people. We've actually decided to include more people in the expedition now, as sort of a symbol of how dependent we all are on human power, each other.

Jason: This expedition is like a rock concert. Everybody has taken such good care of us that I feel like we're being passed about a very big mosh pit. It's very touching.

Are you ever mistreated by people you meet?

Jason: Not really. Well, there was this incident in Alabama. I went to a store to buy another pair of shorts for Rollerblading. The place only had culottes in stock, with red and white checks. I bought them, but not long after I was pulled over by a cop, who apparently thought I was whacked out on drugs. (I do have quite long hair.) He threw me in the back of his car and was going to take me to the station. I had to think of something. So I told him I was Scottish and that I was wearing a kilt for Hogmanay ù you know, the New Year's holiday in Scotland. Turned out his great-granddad was from Perth. We had a big laugh, and he let me go. We really bonded.

What are you going to do when you finish? According to your itinerary, that will be in the year 2000.

Steve: Tough question. I think it's going to become totally obvious once we get there.

Jason: Yes, splendid question. For me, this has become less an expedition and more a way of life. The road is my home now. Right here, right now. Which reminds me, I don't know if I've ever really thanked Steve for such an important part of my life. Thanks, Steve.

Steve: You're welcome, Jason. And thank you.

Brad Wetzler wrote about adventure physiology in the July issue.

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