By Katie Stjernholm
Biking, rollerblading and walking across five continents; pedaling, kayaking, rowing and swimming across the “big wet bits,” Jason Lewis traveled over 46,000 miles to complete the first human-powered circumnavigation around the globe. In addition to overcoming several near-fatal incidents along the way, Jason visited over 900 schools in 37 countries to promote world citizenship, mindfulness and sustainability to the next generation. Beyond garnering four world records, the author, adventurer and activist has committed to a new expedition: using this feat to bring attention to our interconnectedness and shared responsibility of preserving an inhabitable planet.
Human history has been shaped by our adventurous ancestors — who forged overland expeditions and voyaged across uncharted waters with the prospect of new lands and the hope of survival. Now that people can travel to every corner of the earth with apps and guidebooks, the notion of a ‘true explorer’ is nostalgically reserved for the age of sepia-toned Old World maps.
“Sharing his messages about environmental sustainability, the value of a ‘questioning mind’ and the universal truths he gleaned from his adventure.”
It’s increasingly difficult to conjure up authentic ‘pioneering feats’ yet at age 26, Englishman Jason Lewis traded his roles as a window cleaner and lead singer of a garage band to set out on an unprecedented expedition: traveling around the world fueled only by his human power.
Totaling 46,505 miles, Jason biked through Europe, crossed the Atlantic in a pedal-powered boat, rollerbladed across North America, cycled through South America, pedaled the Paci␣c, mountain-biked Australia, kayaked the islands of Indonesia, biked through Southeast Asia (tired yet?), hiked the Himalayas and ventured through the Middle East to return to the starting line in Greenwich, England.
These physical milestones do not account for the unforeseen challenges: fracturing both legs, surviving a crocodile attack in Queensland, contracting septicemia (i.e. blood poisoning) while crossing the Pacific, getting arrested on the Sudan-Egypt border, running out of water on the Arabian Sea, running out of money on the island of Tarawa, celebrating a birthday with a tent full of leeches in Tibet, or having to backtrack 1,000 miles due the El Nino reversing the currents on the coast of South America.
What was intended to be a 3 year challenge evolved into a 13 year journey — proving that strength does not come from physical capacity but from indomitable will, adaptability and the commitment to a cause bigger than one’s self.
Jason has since put down roots in my hometown of Pueblo, Colorado – perhaps a peculiar landing spot for a Guinness World Record holder who voyaged through 38 countries. But this modest town is not an unfamiliar locale to the adventurer – as it is where he was struck by an elderly driver while rollerblading and shattered both his legs in 1995. Ending up in the intensive care unit, having rods put in both tibias and needing nearly a year of rehabilitation, this was just one of many possible ‘trip-ender moments’ for Jason. However, as he had never put on rollerblades before skating from Miami to San Francisco, he approached his recovery with the same mindset: “If I can do a mile on these things, I can do four thousand… given enough time.”
It is with this same diligence, humility and determination that Jason is embarking on his current exploit: authoring The Expedition trilogy, operating a start-up publishing company with his partner Tammie, raising funds for an educational outreach program and sharing his messages – particularly to young audiences – about environmental sustainability, the value of a ‘questioning mind’ and the universal truths he gleaned from his adventure.
I had the chance to catch up with Jason at the ever-inspiring Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, Colorado. With contagious conviction and a sincere and gentle charisma, he shares the ups and downs of the expedition, the importance of global citizenship, his perception of human impact and what each of us, individually, can do to leave a smaller footprint behind.
BFM: Let’s talk about the origins of this adventure. What prompted this around-the-world challenge and why human power?
Jason: I had absolutely no experience as a so-called “adventurer.” I’d travelled before but never far off the beaten track. In 1992, I reunited with my old college pal Steve Smith; the conversation began over a few beers on the kitchen floor of his flat in Paris. At the time, I was singing in a grunge band in West London and paid for my music habit with a window cleaning business. Steve was an environmental scientist and had become disillusioned while working a desk job for the OECD. He’d been hoping to make a difference by writing reports for politicians to integrate environ- mental sustainability into their economic development policies, but the reports fell on deaf ears.
Having studied geography and biology at London University, Steve and I shared a common interest in humans, the societies they create, and the natural world ultimately sustaining both. We were both alarmed that the population was forecasted to increase to 10 billion by 2050! With these humans aspiring to the same lifestyle as an as-seen- on-TV Westerner, we’d need at least eight additional Earths to meet these demands!
We wanted to take a stand and do something with travel, adventure and on a big scale. Steve had done his research: the world had been circumnavigated using everything from sailboats, to airplanes, to hot air balloons. Yet the purest, most ecologically sound method of all and doable for centuries, without using fossil fuels, was still up for grabs.
The idea gave me goose bumps: to travel as far as you can go over land and sea, to the very ends of the earth itself, under your own steam. No motors or sails. Just the power of your own steam to get you there and back again.
On July 12, 1994, we set out on our bikes from London to Portugal. I left with £319.20 in my pocket, the sum total of my savings to circumnavigate the world.
BFM: With no prior ocean experience, how did you manage to pedal 5,641 miles for 111 days across the Atlantic?
Jason: A naval architect named Alan Boswell drew up the blue- prints for a twenty-six-foot, two-man ocean pedal boat, powered by propeller, that we named Moksha. It had enough storage space to sustain two people with food and provisions for up to 150 days without resupply.
We set out from Lagos in Portugal and after a few days of experimenting, we settled on two-hour pedal shifts during the day and three at night. The person on break could slide into the no-frills sleeping compartment with dimensions comparable to a snug coffin. Water was the biggest concern, as space on Moksha was too limited to carry enough for the entire voyage. A handheld desalination pump converted seawater into freshwater – an hour of pumping producing a little under one gallon.
Getting across the ocean was less physical as it was a mental challenge. The body is capable of immense feats of endurance but only if the mind buys into it. Without motivation, our legs were useless while pedaling across the ocean. We had to learn to sustain enthusiasm when our target, in this case Miami, and the process of getting to it was often so interminably dull.
BFM: During the expedition, you experienced several ‘trip-ender’ moments – breaking both legs while rollerblading, severe illnesses, lack of funds and losing Steve as your expedition partner [to name a few]. When you look back on the trip in its entirety, which moments stand out and what kept you going?
Jason: Mid-Paci␣c, I contracted septicemia when a pathogen entered my body through the salt sores on my body. I also caught malaria twice – once in Indonesia, again in Laos – and then faced altitude sickness in the Himalayas coming over Lalung Pass.
Most extreme was getting run over by the car in Colorado. The sense of force was incredible, but I couldn’t feel any pain. When I stood up, I saw my skates pointing backwards and I was standing on the stumps of my tibias jammed into the dirt. I relied on the support from doctors and the Pueblo community; it took nearly a year of rehab before I got back on rollerblades and skated to California. I’ve since realized how lucky I was not to have been killed.
An ongoing setback was the continuous struggle to raise funds along the way. Many critics asked what it would do for me in the long run ‘for my career’ if it wasn’t a pro␣table endeavor. It really turned out to be the ultimate human challenge, requiring every ounce of physical, emotional and spiritual strength to succeed. I had set out to ask the deeper questions about life and how to live it. I knew that I needed to keep going to see the whole picture.
Each time I’d be close to throwing in the towel, I abided by two rules:
1. Find a way to keep moving forward. 2. If all else fails, refer to Rule # 1.
BFM: You were living and breathing ‘globalization’ before the term was fashionable. Can you speak about the expedition’s educational mission?
Jason: The original plan in 1994 was to interview youngsters along the way about environmental problems they thought the world would face after the year 2000 and what steps should be taken to combat them. The completed film would be translated into different languages and distributed to schools to inspire the decision makers of tomorrow.
We initially spoke to schoolchildren about human overconsumption and how our boat worked: the pedal system, solar panels, wind generator and so forth. While recovering from my accident in Colorado, I met a teacher named April Abril who helped shape The Video Exchange Program into more of a cultural awareness tool. She had the idea to have kids film 10 minute videos of themselves – allowing children to ‘step into the world’ of their global neighbors.
What I really wanted to convey is the importance of global citizen- ship and that geographical and cultural differences are only on the surface. If you can sit long enough in the quiet of the wilderness, the layers fall away and there is a universal-self underneath that isn’t biased in any way. If a kid in Tibet or Australia sees their con- temporary in Colorado or El Salvador and recognizes that maybe there isn’t THAT much difference, we could help spread empathy, compassion and tolerance.
The journey became the means of distribution for these films. We had an expedition website, but few people were using the Internet in 1996 and video streaming was certainly a fantasy. We physically carried VHS cassettes in our bike panniers through Central America!
BFM: Can you talk about your theory of ‘slow travel’ that you mention in your book? After traveling through 38 countries, what tips do you have for those who want to have a more immersive, authentic experience while traveling?
Jason: More than setting a record, I was interested to see how different modes of human power altered the experience of travel. My theory that was that the slower you move and the more unorthodox the locomotion, the richer the journey will be.
One thing I’ve noticed is the difference between people on holiday versus people on a journey. People on holiday tend to get on a plane to go somewhere where they’ll sit in a hotel surrounded by their own kind eating and drinking familiar food. The money spent rarely benefits the local community. They’ll learn little about the local people other than fawning waiters in uniform; even less about the local environment, less still about themselves.If you want to drill down through the layers and understand your surroundings: you have to switch off the devices. Keep a loose itinerary. Avoid people from your own country/culture. Make an effort to learn some of the local language before you go – even a few butchered words will make you instant friends. Travel light, with minimal gear. People will often see this vulnerability and invite you into their home; you’ll learn more in one evening than you would from an entire encyclopedia of National Geographic.
If you don’t have much time away from work or family you may have to get on a plane but then buy a bike. Take a bus to the out- skirts of the city and start walking. Stepping into the abyss of not knowing is the key to real adventure and a more authentic travel experience.
BFM: Let’s talk about the perspective you gained about human impact, sustainable systems and the environmental issues we are facing?
Jason: Living on a crowded planet is similar to living on a small boat and Moksha became a powerful metaphor. Just as the boat was isolated by thousands of square miles of empty ocean, the earth is cut off by the vastness of space. If our provisions ran out, neither of us could jump ship and there was little chance of resupply. Unless we managed our resources responsibly, life aboard could get ugly pretty quick.
During our Atlantic voyage, we had gathered our non-biodegradable rubbish to recycle once we reached land. In the Caribbean Islands, we saw our ten bags of plastic and cans get hauled off for ‘recycling.’ Only later did we find out that it was towed out on a barge and dumped in the ocean with all the rest of the garbage! Steve and I couldn’t believe it – all those nights rolling around in the stern compartment with piles of rubbish, thinking we were do- ing the right thing not polluting the ocean. About 6.4 million tons of human refuse reaches the world’s oceans each year, three times as much as the weight of ␣sh caught!
Sustainability is THE question of our time. If you overdraw your bank account long enough, you go bankrupt. This is what is happening on an environmental level and we are about to make our lives very, very difficult. It’s time to balance the account before it’s too late. Survival depends upon living within finite means: consuming less, conserving more, reusing, recycling and so on.
We must start understanding the larger earth as a scaled-down closed system that is affected by every action we take, no matter how small. It is the accumulation of all these tiny actions and effects over the lifetimes of millions that has caused the problem we now have. I feel very privileged to have done a human-powered circumnavigation, one that has levered me out of my tribal niche and allowed more a birds eye view of the world situation.
BFM: With such large-scale problems, it’s easy to feel disillusioned by our individual ability to make a difference. What can we do in our day-to-day lives to live more simply and sustainability?
Jason: We can learn a lot from previous generations about what we need to do differently. Much like our grandparents during WWII, imagine you and your family are subject to rationing. Imagine that the less you consume, the more you contribute as a responsible citizen to the war effort. Instead of fighting another country, we are fighting for the survival of the planet on which we all depend.
What sacrifices are you prepared to make for the greater cause? Try turning off lights and appliances when you’re not using them. Consider using public transport, walk or ride your bike. Try adding more clothes instead of automatically turning up the thermostat. Consider your real needs versus what you think you need.
The world is a big place and the processes driving it are immensely complicated. But the most effective tools for creating change are a questioning mind and a critical eye. The Critical Eye is a way of looking at the world with a fresh perspective, making it your duty to scrutinize the world around you and seeing beyond the blindfold.
Examine your habits and ask, ‘Can I do this differently? Can I do this better? Can I do this more efficiently? How will my lifestyle choices affect my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren?’ There isn’t an easy fix. It’s not perfect and you can always do more, but it’s ultimately the small decisions that make a difference.