Keith’s Incredible Journey: A Record Breaking Bike Tour From Alaska To Argentina

A few months ago my mother gave me a truly heartfelt gift – a hardback book titled, Keith’s Incredible Journey.

The book, which was published in 1984 and is essentially a collection of day-by-day journal entries mailed home at various times throughout the author’s travels and later compiled into one large text, tells the story of a young American man named Keith Jackson who successfully cycled from Alaska to the southern-most tip of Argentina.

At the time of Keith’s bike tour through North and South America, he was the youngest person known to have accomplished this route alone; The trip was done in the shortest known period of time – approximately nine months; He was the only person known to have gone through the three hundred miles of dense jungle, known as the Darién Gap, instead of going around it or flying over it; And his was the longest solo trip by bicycle ever recorded – 18,000 miles.

Others have since surpassed Keith’s various records, but the feat itself is still quite impressive.

Keith’s mother wrote the forward to the book, and her input is especially touching – considering what became of the young Keith Jackson after the completion of his impressive bicycle tour.

Keith Jackson, the author, was the fourth of his parents’ eight children. He was born October 28, 1955, weighing in at 9 lbs. 2 oz., with fists already clenched, ready for the challenges he would face.

An active fellow with an indomitable spirit, he was found at five years of age selling plastic Easter eggs to the elderly in a retirement community near his home in Lakeland, Florida. At nine he was selling handkerchiefs, knives and pens to executives and staff in the downtown office buildings in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where his family had relocated. Active years in Cub Scouting and Scouting resulted in his Eagle Award, admission to the Order of the Arrow and receiving the God and Country Award.

He was a thoughtful, caring, adventurous and courageous son and brother. His private school experience both enriched his life and frustrated him. The orderly schedule of daily events did not always set easily with his love for freedom and spontaneous decisions. However, he was graduated from the Principia, a Christian Science boarding school, in June 1973, at age 17. College was also regimented and the author became more and more restless and ready to roam. He devised a way! With countless conferences he was able to convince the professors and college deans to allow him credits for a trip he’d long planned as he studied his world map on his dormitory wall.

He would ride a bicycle alone from Alaska to the tip end of Chile! It was agreed upon. Clearance through the various countries was a tedious task. His desire to travel with a dog was supported by his special friend, a veterinarian, Dr. Bert Kalet, of Winston-Salem. The kind and size was suggested and found with the exact specifications needed. Alas, their desire was thwarted. One country en route would not allow the dog in and out of their country. He still would take the trip.

After much extensive and careful preparation of his bike, his tent, his back pack, his maps and his food, he was to add two books to his pack. His Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy. They were to support and guide him safely through the headhunting jungle, lost trails and a serious foot infection.

With caring farewells, he was to fly alone to Alaska to start his journey. The journey described herein was sent home on all kinds of writing materials such as oatmeal boxes, cardboard pad backs, menus, etc., and mailed from available cities. None were lost.

Tom Sieg of our local newspaper, The Sentinel, was a staunch supported of Keith’s trip and gave it loyal coverage in the newspaper.

Keith’s arrival home by plane – the honor guard of Boy Scouts through which he walked, the mayor of Winston-Salem greeting him and reading the Proclamation announcing Keith Jackson Day, being presented the impressive Brass Key to the City, greeting family and friends once again – all made “Keith Jackson Day” on June 28, 1975 a memorable occasion.

In November 1976, the tragic loss of his life resulted when the car in front of his motorcycle had mechanical trouble and suddenly stopped. He was post humorously graduated from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte in May 1977.

To this special person, my son, I proudly dedicate this foreward.

HIS MOM – Winston-Salem, North Carolina – June, 1984

I tear up every time I read that.

The forward, written by Keith’s mother after his death, may be more powerful than anything Keith was able to write himself.

Keith’s Incredible Journey is not the polished book Keith would have likely presented to the world. Instead, it is a collection of short journal entries, gathered after his death and turned into this 152-page book.

Because the book is essentially a journal, it’s not a book that everyone will enjoy. Instead, it is a book for those that don’t mind reading another person’s personal (and frequently mundane) thoughts… and for those who understand the feeling one gets when heading out on your first big adventure – of striking out into the unknown, pushing yourself further than you ever though you could go, realizing you are stronger than you ever though possible, looking forward to the finish, and then being unable to smile when you do ultimately reach your goal.

Keith’s daily musings are occasionally funny, positive, inspiring, dry, mechanical and tame. Much emphasis is placed on distances covered, meals obtained, money spent, and repairs made to his bicycle along the way.

The bicycles of the past were surely not as well built as they are today, for Keith had all sorts of problems with his bike throughout the trip. It seemed to me that in almost every entry Keith had something to say about his bicycle – damning the thing one moment and then building it up as his best and greatest friend in his next breathe.

This is a theme any bicycle traveler will be familiar with – the cursing of one object, moment or experience, only to realize just how much you appreciate that thing when it is later taken away from you.

To hell with the pavement! I’d rather go back to our rock trails. A paved road connects two places. Our trails simply existed. Riding on the dirt, one is involved. Each mile presents something new. There were no motors, exhaust fumes, telephone lines, horns, people or trash to contend with. My reasoning is poor. I cursed the gravel because of its demands, and now I curse the pavement for its establishment and all that is a part of it.

One of the most interesting parts of Keith’s Incredible Journey is when he decides to walk through the Darién Gap – a dense 300-mile stretch of jungle connecting Panama and Columbia. Most travelers either fly over this dense, road-less jungle or go around it in a boat. But Keith, wanting to cycle every inch of the way from Alaska to Argentina, was determined to make his was through the Darién on foot.

After weeks of gearing up, waiting and negotiating with several guides to take him through the jungle, Keith picked up his heavy bicycle and loaded it onto his back, carrying the massive beast for several weeks before finally hitting pavement once again in northern Columbia. This is probably the most interesting and impressive part of Keith’s entire journey.

Like most long adventures, much of the magic is in the beginning – the first few days, weeks and months on the road. As the days go by and the struggles of life on the road become routine, much of thrill and wonder that was so prevelant at the very beginning of the trip begins to wear off. The same was true for Keith on his 9-month-long Pan-American bicycle journey. As he neared the finish of his ride, his journal entries became shorter and less profound. His goal toward the end was to simply reach the finish and to finally go home to the people and places he had left behind so many months before.

When Keith reaches the southern-most tip of Argentina, he sits down on a rock and ponders what it means to have reached his destination, to be finished with his goal, and to have no more road ahead of him.

The pressure of saying something notable is great. I search for words – for feeling. Finish is a hard thing to accept.

Keith’s Incredible Journey is a difficult book to find. The book is no longer in publication and I suspect there are few copies of the text left in the world. I was able to obtain a used copy of the book on, but good luck finding one there today. If you’re lucky enough to find this book available online or at a used bookstore in your area, I recommend you grab it quickly, read it through, and then go out and live that adventurous life you’ve been dreaming about.

Keith’s Incredible Journey is an inspiring tale of adventure by bike, but more importantly, a tragic reminder that the road in front of us all will eventually come to an end.

6 thoughts on “Keith’s Incredible Journey: A Record Breaking Bike Tour From Alaska To Argentina

  1. Phiona says:

    Thank you for letting us know about this book.. I’m on the hunt for it and I’ll find it ( am stubourn like that ) .. For those of us with this manic urge to travel far distances by bike finding one of these books is like finding water when your out in the desert. They renew us.. Let us see that ‘yes we are not the only completely insane person who NEEDS to live on their bike…

  2. Pat Rodden says:

    Amazing travel he very simply accomplished what very very very few people ever do during there entire lifetime. I was in a very similar situation here I fell from 15 feet while working on the inside of my house and I spent 19 months living in the Seattle Washington Hospitals. This all took place in 2009. My previous bicycle ride was ridden in 2006. Riding my bicycle quite literally might have saved my life…

    Please feel free to contact me if there is anything I can do for you.
    All the best,

    Pat Rodden

  3. Carol Duvall says:

    Thanks for the write-up. I am Keith’s youngest sister and I was just searching to see who still has the book. We only have a few left. The making of a documentary style movie is currently in progress. I hope his story is shared often.

    • Rhonda Bullard Harmon says:

      I can’t believe I found this! Keith was my first love, and I will go to my grave still loving this wonderful person. At the age of 16, he hiked the Appalachian trail alone. I recall to this day, when he called me to tell me about his trip from Alaska to Chili. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t believe it possible, but with Keith, you knew he would do it and in a big way. He was a true free spirit and one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I’ve ever known. Gone too soon is an understatement. So glad he was a part of my live and an inspiration to all future free spirits!
      Rhonda Bullard Harmon

  4. Jan Gapper says:

    I met Keith a year after he returned from his journey through mutual UNCC friends a few months before his 21st birthday. We fell in love and enjoyed the fall of 1976 together riding my horses and his motorcycle. I spent years working on a screen adaptation based on his journal. He captured my heart and soul forever. Along with his journal notes, Keith took hundreds of slide photographs. Amazing young man. Wish the world could have cherished him longer. His story is more complex than the journal reveals.

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