THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, N.M. — He zipped by in a blur -- wild hair, wide smile and churning knees, two fingers flashing a triumphal "V." Bound by bicycle for Washington and Barack Obama's inauguration, Ryan Bowen had just crossed the nation's topographical spine, the Continental Divide.
But he did not linger to celebrate the moment -- a milestone that delighted wagon train parties and other early transcontinental trekkers. He just kept pumping.
"It's still a long way ahead," Bowen would explain later, pounding down a double burrito platter at a roadside cafe in Deming, N.M. "But today, that was huge."
A 22-year-old graduate of Occidental College and a resident of Highland Park, Bowen rolled out of Los Angeles in early December, driven by a desire to "do something special" to mark what he and many Americans see as a transformational moment for the nation.
"It just kind of popped into my head," Bowen said. He threw together the trip in a little more than two weeks, mapping his route, creating a website, www.bikingforobama.com, to chronicle his trip, and contacting friends along the way to locate places where he might bed down for a night.
Given the season, he plans to keep to the south all the way to St. Augustine, Fla., before turning up the Atlantic coast. Bowen hopes that by the time he reaches Washington he will have attracted an escort of 50 or even 100 cyclists.
"That would be my dream," Bowen said, "to roll into Washington with something like that."
So far, he has covered about a quarter of the 4,000-mile distance.
The day we caught up with him, last Saturday, turned out to be his best yet. He put in 120 miles, leaving Lordsburg, N.M., right after sunup and wheeling into Las Cruces just before dark.
Along the way, Bowen overcame three flat tires and a satellite mapping glitch that steered him into a wilderness of unmarked gravel roads and yapping dogs.
He also was given a bum steer about available back roads, and for most of the day rode along the shoulder of Interstate 10, passed by roaring big rigs and pushed through the high desert by a hearty tail wind.
A former college defensive back, Bowen already has dropped 10 pounds from his muscular, 160-pound frame. Hence, the burrito platter -- and the plastic bag of protein supplements he dipped into for dessert.
"Someone told me I need to take in 8,000 calories a day," he explained. "Basically, it's eat, eat, eat."
So why is he doing this?
Well, besides the fact that he can -- he's a happily untethered young man, fresh out of school, between jobs, single -- Bowen envisions his ride as something of an exploration, a journey that will take him not only across America but also, in another sense, into its heart.
"Really, it is very complex," he said. "I have this passion for knowing where people are at in these desperate times. We are pretty quick to call everything a crisis, but if ever we had one, we are going into one right now.
"So with the cliches of the Obama campaign -- not to put it down -- but the mantra was change, progress and hope. And so, how can this change and progress and hope happen when everything we read in the news is looking like we are not headed that way?"
So far, though, he hasn't had much time to stop and seek out answers. It's easy to underestimate the vastness of the West, and at this stage in his journey -- dwarfed by gorgeous empty expanses -- Bowen has been compelled to follow the famous advice of Donner Party survivor Virginia Reed: "Never take no cutoffs, and hurry along as fast as you can."