Life on Two Wheels: Wide hips, narrow shoulders on a trans-America bike tour with Monte Lowrance
June 26, 2016
Editor's note: For countless Summit County residents, a bicycle is more than a machine — it's a lifestyle. Every week during the summer, we'll ask our most adventurous residents, "Where has your bike taken you?"
It was an itch he couldn't quite scratch.
In 1997, Pueblo native Monte Lowrance had just left his job of 15 years and was recently divorced from his wife. He'd been living in Summit County since 1975 and working full time since 1983, when he was hired as controller for the accounting firm that oversaw Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Vail Resorts (then Vail Associates) paid him a severance when it took over, and, at 44 years old, he felt listless.
"It was a mid-life crisis thing I guess, wondering, 'What will I do with my life? Where will I go?'" remembers Lowrance, now 63 years old and living outside of Fairplay. "I knew I wanted to bike."
This wasn't exactly a spur-of-the-moment decision, nor was it a typical mid-life crisis, like buying yet another toy: a Harley, a Porsch, maybe a boat. No, he had enough of those, and since college, Lowrance had been an avid road cyclist. His ex-wife, Janet Anne, bought him a Trek 420 touring bike shortly before their divorce and he often spent lunch breaks pedaling through the cool, crisp air around Lake Dillon.
"When I got back to my office — watching the birds and chipmunks and everything — I thought, 'I shouldn't be in here,'" Lowrance remembers. "Really the most peaceful part of my day was on the bike. I thought, 'If that's when I'm happiest, why aren't I out there?' And it's because I had all these toys: a car, a Corvette, a home, everything."
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For months before the trip, Lowrance devoured books about travel and bike touring. He and Janet Anne went on a multi-day ride in France a few years prior and he found plenty of inspiration in Barbara Savage's 1983 memoir, "Miles from Nowhere: A Round-the-World Bicycle Adventure." But a global bike tour didn't fit his plans — "I decided I really didn't want to do that because I wasn't really a good bike mechanic," he says — and so he opted instead for the trans-America ride.
That was all it took. After a month or two on his sister's farm in Pueblo, he caught a ride with his parents to Texas in January 1998 for the first leg of his journey. At the time, he knew little about the route he would ride, other than he expected it to take anywhere from 2 to 20 years — time to truly enjoy the road and wherever it took him.
"What happens if I love Bend, Oregon?" he thought at the time. "I really can't tell you how the concept came to me, other than thinking I should spend more time on a bike."
On Jan. 15, 1998, he left southern Texas and rode west, passing through New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Utah en route to the California coast. The first few hundred miles were smooth enough, but, after about 10 days on the road at a pace of about 80 miles per day, he started getting discouraged. His bike was loaded to the brim with gear, all of it lashed to front and rear racks his brother, a metal worker, had fashioned just for the Trek 420. He was popping spokes constantly and it was slowing him down.
"I kept mailing stuff home as I was popping spokes," he says. "I thought, 'I don't need to go around America. I've gone for 10 days now. How can it be different?' It was just showing how ignorant I was."
After 3,000 miles of struggling with the load, Lowrance had his first chance encounter when another couple touring the country loaned him a bob trailer. He unloaded the racks, packed the trailer and set off, now feeling more confident about the next few months — or years — of his tour. He was still committed to looping the country, with stops in all 48 states, but the 20-year plan didn't seem as appealing. Armed with a road atlas — this is before cell phones and computers and Google Maps — he touched Oregon and Washington before turning east. Most nights were spent in hostels or camping on the roadside, with only the occasional hotel stay when weather turned nasty.
"Every day I would listen to the birds," Lowrance says of the middle stretch of the ride. "I'd pretend that they were cheering me on. You'd just see so much that you don't see from behind the windshield of a car."
As the miles added up — Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, the Great Plains — Lowrance found a comfortable pace, physically and mentally.
"I call it my moments of clarity," he says. "When I finally figured out that I'd be doing this every day, I realized that most people in America get in a rut, and even if they know they're there, they stay there because they're comfortable. I thought, 'So this is my rut: loading my bike every day, biking 80 miles, camping, and then doing it all again. If that's true, what can I do about this?"
A second chance encounter at a hostel left him with an audio recorder, and he started recording his musings for a 2001 self-published book, "Wide Hips, Narrow Shoulders: A Bike Touring Adventure." His mind wandered constantly, from religion to politics to his recent divorce.
"I would whittle it down as I was biking along until it became this moment of clarity," he says, admitting the name came from a jam band he saw at a random roadside stop. "It made me understand what Jesus was all about, what Buddha was all about, why this relationship didn't work, why people act the way they do politically. When I had these open fields, I could just focus on my moments of clarity."
Lowrance pedaled on through the Midwest — "Once I got east of Colorado I just couldn't figure out how people lived in the heat and humidity," he says of spending the early summer months in the country's core — and eventually reached the East Coast. Occasionally, he would look up old friends and extended family for a week of downtime, but, after a rest, it was back to the bike and trailer.
Heat aside, the weather that summer was nearly perfect. He hardly had an issue with the elements until he reached the Deep South — right as Hurricane George hit the Gulf of Mexico. He quickly passed through, pointing north to St. Louis after about eight months of riding.
On Nov. 7, 1998 — 10 months, one birthday and 11,800 total miles after leaving Texas — Lowrance rolled over the Colorado state line and returned to Summit County. So many people and chance encounters had helped him along the way, but he still credits regular calls with his ex-wife for making it all come together. The two are still good friends.
"She got my fat a** off the couch (and) I'd say she's responsible for me biking across America," he says. "I became Forrest Gump — I didn't cut my hair or trim my bird — and when I got into tough situations she was there. She was always on my mind."
And, in the spirit of biking, she still is. Lowrance was diagnosed with dementia shortly after a bike wreck in 2012 and admits he's now slowly feeling the effects: occasional confusion, a loss for words, trouble with new faces and places. But the bike is still there.
"When I ride my bike and I go skiing, I don't have dementia," he says. "My mind instantly clears. When I'm riding, all of a sudden the fog bank lifts. I feel so lucky that my two passions help me overcome this."
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