“We’re given so many hours. So many days and months,” says Kentuckian Joe Bowen. “We can choose to sit in front of the television, or we can choose to partly live it, or we can choose to live it to the hilt.”
Bowen has chosen the latter option over and over again throughout his remarkable life. After serving time in the Air Force in hopes of seeing the world—but instead seeing an isolated vessel base in Southern California for four years—he was inspired to tour the country on his own. His vehicle of choice was a bicycle.
“I left California with forty-three dollars and eighty-five cents in my pocket to do a 14,000-mile trip on a bicycle,” says Bowen. “Had the American people not helped me, I would not have been able to do it.”
Bowen is a people person by nature, and he found traversing the country on a bicycle gave him the opportunity to meet lots of people and learn their stories.
“You never run out of material, because this country is great,” says Bowen. “And there are still great people in this country today. Incredible people today that are doing great things.”
Bowen went on to top his own feat, crossing the country via a less efficient mode of transportation. He broke the world stilt-walking record by walking from California to Powell County, Kentucky, using the feat to raise money for muscular dystrophy research. He continued from there to New York City and was awarded an Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor alongside American heroes like Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali.
“In the very beginning, I thought I was going to die,” Bowen remembers. “It hurt so bad. The blisters on my feet would look like small tomatoes. I would get up and put the shoes on and put on the stilts and I was in horrible pain, and I remember, I wanted to quit, but I’d made a commitment.”
His inspiration in the tough times came from a little boy with muscular dystrophy who he’d met in California.
“I would go back in my mind and I would remember that little California poster child that rode on my shoulders and he had those little aluminum braces on his legs,” says Bowen. “Every time I would get down on myself, I’d think, he will never take his off. I can take my stilts off, but he will never take those braces off. And I decided then, somewhere in those first four or five days, if I have to crawl across the country, this will be done.”
Bowen wanted to re-create his bicycle journey on the 40th anniversary of the original trek. However, when his knee started giving him trouble, he opted to do it on the 38th anniversary, in 2005, before his joints had a chance to deteriorate further. The 2005 trip was sponsored by the state of Kentucky to promote the new state tourism motto introduced by Gov. Ernie Fletcher, “Unbridled Spirit.”
“Governor Fletcher made me the first Unbridled Spirit,” says Bowen. “All I had to do was ride the bicycle and talk to the public about Kentucky and how great we are, and it was incredible.”