She attended Our Lady of Peace elementary school. But the weeks she and her siblings spent each summer at Bass Lake Sierra Camp, just outside Yosemite, had a disproportionate influence. Subsidized by wealthy great aunt Irene, the trips plunged Lowery into the outdoors.
The highlight of each summer, Lowery says, came at 3 a.m. on some clear morning, when counselors quietly roused volunteers and led them to the shore. In the pre-dawn chill, she and her fellow campers sloshed into the water. With canoes and rowboats keeping space, they swam several miles across the lake, stroking steadily as the sun came up over the trees.
Lowery also discovered backpacking at camp, but it was the horseback riding that would inspire the first major test of her resolve. Back in the Valley, she persuaded a neighborhood carpenter to help her build a stable, and by the time she was 12, she spent afternoons galloping up a nearby wash on Crackerjack, a palomino purchased with baby-sitting money.
In the late 1950s, though, exuberant self-confidence was not a girl's best friend.
The girl's mother, a nurse, was "strapped with seven kids and trying to make it all work," Lowery says. Her father, a writer for television's Ralph Edwards Productions, and later TV Guide, watched his daughter blossom with concern. "I stood out in a crowd," Lowery says. "I was too tall and had buckteeth. My father didn't think I was so pretty."
As she hit adolescence, he figured he could ease his daughter out of her tomboy phase by sending her to the Carolyn Leonetti Modeling School in Hollywood. Even now, Lowery's blue eyes moisten as she recalls that year of painful Saturday mornings.
Feelings were not something her family could discuss, she says. So, confronted with a society that seemed oddly intent on limiting a girl's options, she set out "to find my own way to have my own life."
On the basketball court, on the softball field, at the volleyball net, her size served her well. Other girls admired her talent, and that respect helped Lowery as she matured into a campus leader and activist.
Immersing herself in books, she grew fascinated with novelist Ayn Rand's rugged individualist heroes. But even as she devoured the cranky libertarian's sermons on self-interest, Sister Constance and other teachers nurtured her compassion.
By graduation in 1963, Lowery thought she knew which path to take. She applied to the Carondelet religious order. The sisters rejected her. "They thought I was too independent," Lowery says.
Shaken, she enrolled in the University of Portland, a Catholic school with little in the way of women's athletics to bolster her confidence. Friendships failed to materialize. Dating tormented. "That year was the most disheartening in my life," she says. "I was physically long. Awkward. I could have been real damaged."
She saved herself by drawing on those long dawn swims and basketball practices. "I had learned at some point that pain is part of achievement," she says. "If pain is something you feel shouldn't be a part of your life, you're not going to be a good athlete."
That realization led to another: "At some juncture you decide whether you're going to be a victim or a survivor."
Decision made, Lowery returned to Los Angeles. For the next two summers, she directed summer camps. But she heard echoes of another calling.
When the Medical Missionary Sisters in Philadelphia accepted Lowery into their order, she figured she had found her way. She moved into a small room in the convent, where a steady flow of nuns--all doctors and nurses--congregated between assignments in Vietnam, Africa, the Philippines.
Inspired by such "incredible, dynamic women," Lowery threw herself into a nun's life: Pulling on her habit, she headed each day into Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods.
But after a year of social work and hard meditation, Lowery realized that she had become fixated on the train tracks running past her window. Fishing out a $20 bill she had hidden under her bed, she at last confronted her ambivalence.
"I didn't like the facade," she says. "Even in the barrio, everyone came to me as if there were a veil between us. I realized that I had always looked at nuns as somehow other than human. . . . Now people were looking at me the same way. I didn't want to be separate from real life. "
The lanky young woman began testing a variety of trails, moving back and forth between Los Angeles and far-flung places, between individual accomplishment and a compelling need to connect.
She earned a psychology degree from USC; marched for civil rights in Mississippi; bicycled and hitchhiked across Europe; got typhoid; picked up a master's in rehabilitation counseling from USC; went to work for the state; became disenchanted with the inability of "rigid bureaucracy" to nurture a person's individual strengths.