Josh Knowlton had a cushy office job as a study abroad advisor at the Institute for the International Education of Students Abroad, in Chicago, helping college goers prepare to travel around the world.
The 2013 Waupun High School graduate discovered biking and said he “just fell in love with it as a way to get around the city.”
All of a sudden, Knowlton’s mind started pondering, “What if I could do this longer? And further? And push myself a little bit more?”
So after 2½ years with IES Abroad and wondering for about a year what he could do with a biking trip, Knowlton quit his job, moved back to his home town and set off with a goal of traveling the United States.
“I was into helping people travel and I wanted to do some traveling myself after helping people travel places,” Knowlton said.
Knowlton got back to Waupun at the beginning of the summer and prepped for his trip to begin in early May. His plan was to start biking in Waupun and end up in New York City, where he would fly a plane to Alaska and bike near the Arctic Ocean.
He first spent $3,000 on equipment (camping, a Surly Bridge Club bike and customized wheels). He then spent $150 on a plane ticket from New York City to Anchorage, Alaska. He also spent $500 on a plane ticket from Anchorage to Deadhorse, to begin his biking trip in Alaska.
“It was pricey,” he said.
Beginning of the trail
Knowlton started his journey in Waupun, biking the Wild Goose State Trail, which is a 34 mile, rail trail that runs along State Highway 60 in Clyman Junction to Fond du Lac.
From there, he kept going until he reached Chicago, where he stayed with some friends for a couple of days to rest. When he was done resting, Knowlton crossed over northern Indiana and Ohio before he got to Pennsylvania.
“I think it’s all the people that I’ve met,” Knowlton said. “That’s going to be the thing I remember the most. You meet people and they see this crazy person on a bike and people are curious about you. I would have people at cafes pay for my meal or just ask me questions.
“It was really cool and I got to meet other cyclists. When I got into Pittsburgh, this other cyclist was riding with bare feet and his shirt off, and was like, ‘Hey, I’ll show you around the city.’”
During this time, Knowlton said he would camp out in the wild while trying to limit what he spent to $10 a day.
“I was just stealth camping,” he said. “I would find a patch of woods that no one would mind if I stayed in and just set up camp there for the night, make some dinner and then be on my way the next morning.”
And he was gaining traction as the weeks went on. He said he’d always bike at least 10-15 miles a day, but most of the training he did was done during the trip.
“The first two weeks of my trip were tough, but thankfully that was in the Midwest where it was pretty flat,” he said. “I didn’t have any huge hills to go over. I got in shape as I went along.”
Knowlton biked through the Great Allegheny Passage, which is a rail trail system that runs from Pennsylvania to Maryland. It crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, which is the highest point, just east of Deal, Pennsylvania.
Knowlton said he backtracked between Pennsylvania and Maryland before reaching New Jersey and then New York. He didn’t reach New York for about a month into his trip.
“Then I had someone similar (to the guy in Pittsburgh) that helped me out in New York as well,” he said. “He saw this traveler and was like, ‘Hey, I’ll help you out and help you get around.’”
Flying to Alaska
From New York, Knowlton hopped on a plane to Alaska, where he said, “my biggest dream was to cycle the Dalton Highway.”
Knowlton’s plane touched down in Anchorage and then he hopped another one to Deadhorse, where he said he began his trek on the James W. Dalton Highway, which is a 414-mile road in Alaska.
“It’s extremely remote and really beautiful,” Knowlton said. Most of it is in the tundra and then once you pass over the Brooks Range, then you get into the forest and there’s lots of trees. It’s basically 500 miles long. There’s really only one stop between Prudhoe Bay, the Arctic Ocean and Fairbanks and that’s Coldfoot.”
Once Knowlton got to Coldfoot, he said one of his tires got a huge puncture, which forced him to stop for a couple days so a tourist plane could deliver a new one to him.
But he didn’t mind as he was enjoying the landscapes during his trip.
“It’s so gorgeous and beautiful up there,” he said.
Injured in Fairbanks
Once Knowlton got his new tire situated, he headed south to Fairbanks, in hopes of hopping on a ferry boat in Anchorage down to Seattle.
However, as he was making his way south, his journey landed him on a remote road with intense, 30 mph headwinds.
“I decided to turn around because I couldn’t face these headwinds because they were too tough, but then I had some crazy tailwinds blowing me everywhere,” Knowlton said. “Because my bags are basically like a sail, my tires started doing a death wall, off-sledding back and forth. Then I lost control of the bike going close to 35 mph.”
Knowlton landed hard on his left shoulder, breaking his left collarbone in the early morning. He said he was able to stand up, but he had blood all over his face and “I had my thumb up like a crazy person. A few cars passed me by, but then this one guy, going the other direction, said he would take me back to Delta Junction, which is on its way back to Fairbanks. I got in his car and he took my bike back with him too.”
All the while, Knowlton said he was happy that his bike wasn’t in need of repairs either, but he did have to take an ambulance from Delta Junction back to Fairbanks.
Once Knowlton knew he was safe and what was wrong with him, he then chose to call his parents to let them know there was an accident.
“I just told them, ‘Hey, this is a bump in the road, but I’m OK. I’ll be coming home for a bit again,’” Knowlton said.
The trip in Alaska took another month as he was back in Wisconsin by late June. But not without some problems at an airport in Seattle.
He was stuck there for two nights because Alaska Airlines cancelled his flight and then he missed his flight due to a random TSA screening.
“I had to spend two nights in the airport with a broken collarbone,” Knowlton said. “It really sucked. It was not fun, but I made it back.”
Being back home
Knowlton had a checkup on his collarbone on Wednesday. That’s when the doctor said he’d be able to get back on his bike in about four weeks. Then after some physical therapy for about 2-4 weeks, he’ll be able to go back for his trip.
In the meantime, Knowlton is staying with his parents, planning his next trip later this year.
Knowlton said once he’s able to continue his biking trip, he would like to start in Seattle and head south.
“I didn’t know if I was going to like doing this or not,” he said. “I didn’t want to give myself a goal that I couldn’t complete if I ended up not liking it. I didn’t put an end date or an end time. I knew I could probably cycle for two or three years with the money I had if I wanted to, but I didn’t initially think I would do that much. I was thinking maybe a year, but now I’m thinking I want to cycle as long as possible.”
Feeling of achievement
Knowlton said he’s already north of 1,600 miles biked so far between all the states he’s been to. He said he’s already planning his next route.
“I have an idea, for instance, I’m going south and I really want to go to Baja, California and Mexico,” he said of his next trip from Seattle to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “There is this route that’s called the Baja Divide that other cyclists have created based off these different roads. I know I really want to do that, but I like to keep myself open to different roads and possibilities.
“Some days, I might feel like, ‘Oh, I want to go this extra route.’ And other days, I might feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to go extra far today, I’m going to take a shortcut.’ I like to keep it flexible, but there are some roads that I’m going to do this week or for two weeks. Other times I like to try to keep it open and flexible so I can experience whatever comes my way.”
His idea of just biking the states has changed since he began his journey. Now he wants to bike all across the world because it gives him a sense of “real accomplishment” once he completes a task.
“It’s not something I learned, but it’s almost like I’m flexing my muscles with my determination,” he said. “It just gives you a feeling if I can climb this mountain, what is it that I can’t do? I just feel invincible in some ways, but in a good way. If you keep pedaling on, you can do it. A lot of times when I would be facing a tough hill or anything like that, and my muscles were aching, I just felt like every time my pedal goes around, that’s a little bit closer to where I’m going.
“I’ve just got to take the next pedal and keep going.”
Follow Mark McMullen on Twitter @mmcmull2 or contact him at 920-356-6754.