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Why he rode: Continental cyclist A.J. Rowell returns home to Sylva after nearly 10,000 miles on the road

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

On June 1, 2007, A.J. Rowell left Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and began pedaling a bicycle across North America. Just before 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday (Dec. 19), the Jackson County native pulled into Sylva, seven months and nearly 10,000 miles later.

Over the past 210 days, Rowell cycled through 14 states, three Canadian providences and 22 national parks. His trip fell just 500 miles short of 10,000 miles. Poor road conditions caused Rowell to nix New Orleans from his list of towns and return home just in time for the holidays.

A small audience — his mother Rena, his father Jim, his sister Heather and a few family friends — greeted Rowell with signs that touted “Nothing pedals like a Rowell” as he turned the corner onto Main Street. At the bottom of Jackson County Courthouse hill Rowell stopped to greet his cheering party.

“I just don’t think it quite set in,” he said as he pulled off his bike helmet and got off the bike.

“It’s been a long ride now,” the 25-year-old said while leaning his TREK bike, which now bears several stickers and an Alaskan license plate that says 6TBELO against the fountain wall. He found the license plate while biking through Alaska.

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“It’s my most favorite find and stayed on my bike all the way,” he said as he showed it to friends.

The license plate was just another addition to his bike, which weighed about 100 pounds because of gear that included a tent and sleeping pad, a camping stove and emergency tire repair kit, and a mini computer he used to keep an online journal of his trip.


The Journey

Rowell’s passion to help others would posses this Western Carolina University grad to embark on an almost 10,000-mile bike trip.

Rowell decided to use his journey across the continent to raise money for several major nonprofit organizations. All money raised from the bike trip will benefit Heifer International, the Conservation Fund, Teach for America, the United Methodist Committee for Relief and the United Fund of Jackson County. Rowell promoted his effort through word of mouth and local interviews at various media outlets. Those inspired by Rowell’s cause were then able to make donations when visiting his Web site,

“I wanted people to have the option of where they donated,” he said.

As of today, Rowell has raised about $5,000 for the charities. Those who also visited his web page were able to follow his trip across the country, which he documented with a digital camera, camcorder and a mini computer.


Travelin’ Man

One of the most memorable parts of the trip for Rowell was traveling through the small towns and meeting the people along the way. “I met so many nice people along the way that it helped keep me going,” he said.

Traveling through remote areas and being alone for an extended period of time can be hard on one’s peace of mind.

“The mental aspect of the trip was the most challenging,” he recalled of the longest day of his trip when he pedaled 141 miles through West Texas.

But Rowell says the trip has been a life-changing experience; from meeting all the vagabonds that venture along the United States highways to learning the true meaning to life — keeping things simple.

“I have so many stories just from the first two weeks of the trip,” he said.

Another life-changing experience was seeing the changing landscape of North America. One of his favorite places was the ice field parkway in Alberta, Canada. The parkway’s 140-mile stretch stunned Rowell with amazing mountain views.

“I had my camera out along the way,” he said.

He also managed to bike around the rim of the Grand Canyon — 384 miles from the North Rim to the South Rim.

Being out on the open road and living off the land made a huge impact on Rowel’s life.

“I overcame a lot of adversity,” he said.

Rowel says he now has a deep appreciation for things that one normally takes for granted like having a roof over your head and a bed to sleep in.

“I think from now on I am going to keep things simple,” he said. “I don’t think I will ever want to own an SUV that has 14-cup holders. That doesn’t mean anything to me.”


Now What

After traveling on an adventure of this caliber, what’s next for the aspiring cyclist? Another trip — maybe this time to South America?

“I’m going to take a break for a while,” he said. “But I do have this passion to keep on pedaling.”

“There’s a lot of crazy people that bike around the globe,” he continued. “I love to tour, and I’m going to take it one continent at a time.”

During his down time, Rowell is pondering the possibility of writing a book about his experience. “That just something I am thinking about,” he says.

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