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Bicyclist Arrives Home, His Quest Completed

by Matthew P. Blanchard, Phila. Inquirer Staff Writer

(August 19, 2002) - There was just one more obstacle to conquer before the entire punishing ordeal would be over: the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Philadelphian David Sylvester already had pedaled his 6-foot-3-inch, 260-pound frame for 55 days from Oregon to New Hampshire, in a 4,000-mile bicycle odyssey to honor a friend who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Yesterday, he came into Camden from the north and threw his tree-trunk legs into action again to climb the Ben Franklin Bridge, about to reenter his beloved home city on his 21-speed bike.

Then, he suddenly stopped dead, midspan, and dismounted.

"Just one thing," he muttered, lifting the bike above his head.

"Whooooooo hoooooo! What is up? What is up?" he cried, pumping his arms at the jumbled lofts and office towers of Center City. "Coast to coast, baby! Coast to coast!"

Sylvester, a 37-year-old fitness trainer, set out from Astoria, Ore., with 50 others on an organized tour, America by Bicycle, on June 24. The group averaged 85 miles a day in daytime temperatures that often hung around 104 degrees.

He did it all to honor his lifelong friend Kevin Bowser, a 45-year-old Philadelphian who died in the Marsh & McLennan offices on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center, and to raise money for a scholarship fund created in Bowser's name.

The last leg of that journey yesterday took him from a Days Inn in Bordentown, N.J., over the Delaware River and through Philadelphia to his childhood home at 48th and Kingsessing.

Inquirer columnist Michael Vitez told Sylvester's story in June, when Sylvester had made it 1,300 miles to Casper, Wyoming.

The following 2,700 miles were just as bizarre as the first leg of his trip, Sylvester said yesterday, as this African American raised in the city explored the wide open and occasionally weird interior of the nation - handing out 200 Philadelphia pins and keychains to strangers all the way.

"I'll never forget the first other black guy I saw. It was in Oregon. He looked at me and said, 'What are you doing here?' " Sylvester laughed. "I said to him, 'What are you doing here?' "

Everywhere, people were kind. In Wisconsin, he found himself ushered into someone's 25th wedding anniversary party, fed, and asked to sign the guest book.

At a lake in Ontario, Canada, three women demanded to know where he had come from.

"I'm from Philadelphia," he said.

"Where the hell is that?" they replied.

Soon they were teaching him how to fish and cut bait. Someone else lent him a canoe for a spin around the lake - something Sylvester had never done. Then he passed around Philadelphia pins and keychains and climbed back on his bike.

Later, in Massachusetts, Sylvester was the first to respond to a motorcycle accident, sitting by an unconscious man until the ambulance came. That same day, three police cruisers converged on him after residents of a rural road called police to report a "suspicious man on a bike."

But the police were cool, Sylvester said, and he reached Portsmouth, N.H., on Tuesday, where he wept at the sight of the Atlantic Ocean and bid goodbye to his 50 riding companions.

He then rode south - now traveling with Dr. Anne Burke, a liver specialist and friend - to New York City and ground zero, where he left a photo of Bowser among the memorabilia.

"The vendors. They're selling pictures. They're selling watches. That part really left a bad taste in my mouth," he said. "This should not be a money-making opportunity."

Growing up on Kingsessing Avenue, Sylvester was the tiny tyke who tagged along with the older boys. Bowser, nearly 10 years his elder, treated him like a brother. The two men remained friends until the day Bowser left for work in New York and didn't come back.

Through physical exertion, Sylvester said, he has cleansed his grief, consecrated it. By driving his body onward, Sylvester said, he had regained some measure of control in a chaotic world.

"If you can control your body, you can to some degree control your own destiny," he said. "I'm not afraid to spend 12 hours a day on a bicycle. I can't be stopped."

Riding through Philadelphia yesterday, Sylvester came upon the outskirts of his neighborhood, Kingsessing.

Dilapidated homes lined the empty streets. A few children blinked at him as he passed by.

The streets were silent.

But as he rounded the final corner near his father's house, the sound of drums exploded like a sudden summer thunderstorm. Standing in the street was the Kingsessing drum corps, pounding out a rhythm as a crowd of dozens closed around Sylvester.

"Welcome Home David, A Job Well Done," read a sign.

In the next few minutes, he was paraded down his block behind the drum corps, and television news reporters asked him to describe his lowest moment of suffering on the trip.

But first, Sylvester stepped out of the crowd and once more clean-jerked his bicycle high above his shoulders.

His head hung down as if in prayer, his eyes cast down to the road that brought him here, and the drums thundered on around him.

The Kevin Bowser Scholarship Fund is set up to provide college tuition for students at Bowser's alma mater, Bartram High School.