Earth on a dollar a day
You don't need a credit card to travel the world.
Just jump on your bike, or hop in your boat. And go. Reviewed by Bill Vaughn
Pedaling to Hawaii: a human-powered odyssey
By Stevie Smith
The Countryman Press
Because I’m terrified of deep brine and the hungry beasts that dwell therein the only sailing I’ve ever attempted is aboard the Molly B, a wind-powered vessel I built that travels on railroad tracks. And so I read with growing hallucinatory anxiety Stevie Smith’s frightening, hilarious, hand-wringing account of his voyages in a ludicrous pedal-driven boat across both the Atlantic and the eastern Pacific.
Smith’s physical and spiritual journey began in 1991 on a summer morning in Paris. Then 24, the privileged and well-educated Limey found himself staring at the distant trees in the Bois de Boulogne from the window of his dreary office, where he appeared every morning in suit and tie to toil for the International Energy Agency. His job was to calculate the effect of vehicle emissions on global warming (yawn). Suddenly, he was struck with an epiphany:
Life Sucks. (Before the western world became urban many hayseeds finishing their day behind the business end of a mule came to the same conclusion.)
Most bourgeois men would buy a sports car or book a drug holiday in Southeast Asia. But Smith decided on the spot to chuck his predictable and comfy life in order to circle the globe under his own power. It wasn’t a completely original antidote to ennui—after all, scores of people have rowed the oceans and cycled the continents, or died trying. “But no one,” he writes, “has combined the two into a human-powered journey around the world.” Because he had no previous experience with boating or bicycle touring it would be modest to call Smith’s decision bold.
He soon found a willing accomplice in Jason Lewis, a boyhood friend. The pair spent three years failing to find a moneyed sponsor for the expedition. However, they succeeded in raising the cash to build a two-man vessel whose propeller was driven by the sort of chain-and-pedal contraption found on a Schwynn. When the thing was finished they christened it Moksha, a sanscrit word meaning freedom, which was also expropriated by Aldous Huxley in his novel Island as the name for a drug that helps people avoid repetitive behavior.
On the Moksha’s shakedown cruise in the swollen River Exe Smith and Lewis forgot to install the centerboard, the retractable keel fin that provides control for small boats by preventing side-slipping. As a result, the twenty-six-foot, 900-pound craft crashed into a stone embankment in full view of a throng of reporters, and was rescued from plummeting over a six-foot weir by a fisherman in an inflatable outboard. This sort of monkey business— sometimes farce and sometimes tragedy—would become a theme of Smith’s freedom tour.
Finally, as a band of schoolchildren sang a chanty, the hapless mariners lowered Moksha into the Thames. It was christened by Smith’s mother with a bottle of champagne as the Duke of Gloucester blessed the boat “and all who pedal in her.” Soon after the Moksha entered the English Channel for her maiden voyage the captains discovered two unpleasant things about their new love: First, she was as tippy and charmless as a wheelbarrow, and, second, pedaling her was not only physically demanding, it was goddamn boring. For all her strength, she was a slow and wobbly old girl who could achieve a top speed of only four knots. For thrills this would be like driving from New York to L.A. on a Rascal.
Normal people would have headed back to port and gotten drunk, which is exactly what Smith and Lewis did. In the pub at the King’s Arms later that night Lewis suddenly leapt to his feet. He’d promised a newspaper an interview live from the Channel. Rushing to the phone he reassured Smith that the reporter will “never know the difference.” Despite the obvious flaws in their scheme pride and momentum compelled these lunatics to go ahead anyway with what Lewis had allowed would be a “bloody nightmare.”
First, they illegally pedaled across to France through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, risking arrest by the gendarmes for violating the ban on “beach craft” beyond the “beach zone.” Then at high noon on July 12, 1994, after saying a teary goodbye to the friends and family they wouldn’t see again for years, they pushed off on their bikes from the zero longitude line carved into the courtyard of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Ten weeks later, road-hardened and penniless, they rolled into the seaside burg of Lagos, Portugal, where Moksha waited for them to ride her across the ocean.
After several weeks of bad weather a high pressure ridge settled over the eastern Atlantic. Now there was no reason to postpone the trip any longer. With little fanfare, the Moksha edged under a bridge and out into the open sea. It was at this point in Smith’s story that I broke into the same clammy sweat that fouled me when I read Peter Benchley’s Jaws. After an hour of pedaling Smith wasn’t faring any better: “ . . . I feel like I’ve had enough of the Atlantic. I just want to be still, to relax without my whole body being thrashed around from one side of the oat to the other. My neck is sore from the effort of keeping my head upright. My knees are burning and my back aches. I feel sick and so tired that I have to keep slapping my face to stay awake . . . . I swallow the lump in my throat and suddenly feel very scared and alone.”
Facing a 4250-mile caldron of seething brine separating them from the hero’s welcome in Florida they anticipated, the lads admitted something to each other they neglected to mention during the years of planning: Neither one had ever spent a single night on the ocean. Moksha seemed all at once like a ship drifting towards Mars piloted by people who’ve never even climbed into a plane. Spam in a can! The hubris! The horror!
But our heroes got their sea legs at last, and life took on a steady rhythm of pedaling, sleeping, eating, shitting over the side, and pumping the desalinator to make fresh water. On some days the 8,000 calories apiece they burned pushed them west another forty miles. Other days the winds and currents drove against Moksha so relentlessly that despite all the huffing and puffing the boat went nowhere, or sometimes even retreated. They developed painful salt blisters from the constant chafing of the boat against skin coated with brine. And all around was the heartless wilderness of sea and sky, a monotonous fever dream in blues and grays. Smith may have traded the daily grind for a life under the stars, and his suit and tie for pirate duds, but he was beginning to resemble a rat on a wheel.
Horrifying events no rat should ever see relieved the tedium. In the dead of night banks of lights that seemed miles away turned out to belong to a container ship, surreal in its massiveness, suddenly bearing straight at Moksha. It missed the tiny barque by a mere fifty feet. One afternoon Jason dove overboard to retrieve a bag he’d fumbled, and spent what seemed to me a lifetime trying to swim faster than the currents dragging Moksha away from him. In terms of feeding my hydrophobia the scene was a major cringe-maker that struck me with the same revulsion I experienced during the attempt by the hero in Robert Stone’s novel, Outerbridge Reach, to swim for his life after the sails of his boat filled while he was overboard.
On day 111, after leaving the Old World, the Captains Outrageous reached the New. They beached with a bang. Near Providenciales Island in the Caicos & Turks Moksha was slammed into a reef by the surf. The collision hammered the center-board through the hull, and she began to take on water. Somehow, she limped across the lagoon to safety. International headlines followed. Jay Leno quipped: “Haven’t those guys heard of the airplane?”
After repairs, the next port was Miami. Because of a botched press release Smith and Lewis arrived without fanfare. Still broke and still without a sponsor the lads acknowledged that they’d had enough of each other—a reminder that it is travel that puts the greatest demands on any relationship—and decided to tackle the next stage of the tour apart. Jason would voyage by in-line skates the 3500 miles to San Francisco, and Smith would make the trip on a bicycle. “We were once the best of friends,” Smith opined, “but that seems a long time ago.”
Smith made a new buddy, however, a gorgeous Irish college girl called Eilbhe with whom he’d been corresponding. He convinced her to fly to America, and together they rode off through the Deep South in the middle of the summer. When they entered the seamy side of New Orleans and asked for directions a cracker cop examined them like they were beef on hooks and declared: “Yo outta yo fuckin minds, right?”
Crazy in love, they survived Dixie and made their way into the Southwest as summer ended, picking up a few dollars here and there speaking at schools about their adventure, sleeping on the ground and in abandoned barns. Jason Lewis did not fare as well, however. In Colorado he was hit by a car, which smashed his legs. It would take him nine months to get back on his feet and walk again. While he recovered Smith and his Mick gal pal pushed on into California, discovering that the scariest bike ride of all was down the richest street in the world—Sunset Boulevard.
Expedition 360, as Smith calls his odyssey, stalled in San Francisco and wouldn’t get under way again for three years. It was a hiatus rife with misadventure, something like the marooning of Odysseus on Calypso’s Island, only not, like, heroic. Perennially broke, Smith made ends meet by scavenging in dumpsters for salvage, serving snacks on a harbor ferry, and posing nude for drawing classes. He was falsely accused of grand larceny by a clerk who turned out to be the culprit himself, and was bailed out by Eilbhe just before the jail is swept by immigration authorities, who would have discovered Smith’s lapsed visa and deported him. The Mokscha lost her drydock at a maritime museum and was impounded. Eilbhe indicated that she’d fallen out of love and flew home to Ireland.
Meanwhile Jason Lewis showed up. Limping, supported by steel rods in his legs, he arrived with a drunken woman, and announced three things: That he married this lush in Vegas, followed by a reception at Taco Bell, even though she’s married to someone else; that he’d sired a child, although the mother was not the woman he “married” but the wife of a friend, and that he intended to continue Expedition 360 without Smith.
Smith was stung by this last news, but realized that he’d grown tired of the whole thing anyway. “This expedition was created for a kind of liberation: liberation from the normal, the habitual, the material, the expected. And yet it has developed so much obligation and debt I feel less free than before.”
As Al Pacino opined in the Godfather, Smith tried to get out, but the thing pulled him right back in. After a series of changes of heart the lads decide that instead of reducing the size of the crew they’ll expand it, adding more friends and volunteers. But a planned voyage from South America to Australia was aborted in 1997 by epic El Nino coastal flooding. Returning to the U.S., they recruited an American student and a British naval officer to pedal the Moksha from California to Hawaii. After seven days at sea, however, the boat capsized. The recruits were rescued by the Coast Guard, who hauled them and the craft back to California.
Aghast at the heart-wrenching sight of his waterlogged darling squatting in a Stanford University parking lot, Smith decided that he just couldn’t abandon her, after all.
Schoolchildren sold candy to raise money for Moksha’s refurbishment. Standford engineering students redesigned her locomotion system. Then it was revealed that Lewis had sagely invested the insurance settlement from his accident in high-tech stocks whose dividends were enough to pay off the expedition’s debts.
The captains decide to return to the sea. Smith, who admitted that although he had have always been too lazy to attempt any physical training, stumbled on a way to get sort of fit: He lashed himself to dogs and let them chase deer in forests.
When getaway day arrived Smith and Lewis are, as usual before a departure, hung-over. Still, they managed to pedal Moksha out of San Francisco Bay and into the Pacific. Old salts, they crossed the terrible abyss with a calm and a confidence they didn’t have across the Atlantic. While losing considerable weight on the journey and experiencing recurrent hallucinations, they amused themselves by keeping the volume turned up. There was Blondie, for example, singing:
One way or another
I’m gonna find ya
I’m gonna getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha . . .
Two months and two-thousand miles from California the mists parted and the dazzling green behemoth of Hawaii’s Big Island loomed before them. Later, they walked across it 90 miles to the other side.
This would be the end of the road for Smith. “I have proved that I have the courage to do it. Do I also have the courage to not do it?” Lewis, however, would push on aboard Moksha with various friends to Australia, and then by kayak and bike as they island-hopped through Indonesia.
According to a note Lewis posted on April 13, 2006 at their website, expedition360.com, he has begun the next leg of the journey, by bike and hike, which will take him through Southeast Asia, across Tibet and down through India. Oh, plus, he reports, he has malaria. Stevie Smith became an ordained Buddhist monk, and returned to England to pilot a ferryboat back and forth all day across an estuary.
Although it would have been simpler for Smith to test his limits with a nice firewalk, say, or a day fighting in a paintball battle, his odyssey taught him a thing or two about travel and happiness. First, the life of the adventurer is spent “skimming along the surface of people and places.” This shallow existence is further debased by the need to carry everything, “which adds to the difficulty of developing specific interests.”
Also, you can’t rely on the accomplishment of goals or journeys to make you happy because achievements are only temporary gratifications. “Happiness is the acceptance of the journey as it is now, not the promise of the other shore.”
Easy for him to say—he’s enlightened. For me, as long as I’m on either this shore or the other, and not anywhere in between, I’ll do just fine.