You might say that Alex Boylan traveled 45,000 miles to see his third-grade friends in Cottage Grove.

The star of "Around the World for Free," an interactive Internet program, arrived Wednesday morning at Hillside Elementary School with hardly a penny in his pockets after students tracked his journey through 16 countries.

There he was, not speaking to them on video from a foreign land but appearing in the flesh, a blue backpack slung over travel-hardened shoulders -- and the kids couldn't wait to meet him. An attempt at a long introduction in the school's cafeteria fell short when the assembled third-graders spotted Boylan standing behind them.

"The kids are about to lose their minds so we're going to turn it over to Alex," said Tammy Hanson, a parent and school volunteer who suggested the idea to mesh his travels with school curriculum.

Teachers got on board.

They worked Boylan's journey into math, social studies, geography, language and other subjects. Students sent him e-mails every week since last fall asking questions.

Suddenly he was in front of them with a smile as white as new-fallen snow, and the students roared their approval. Cottage Grove was his second-to-last stop on a journey that began Sept. 18, and the students wanted to observe his accomplishment in style.

Eight-year-old Alyssa Metcalf sang a song she had composed for Boylan, then another she'd prepared for his fellow traveler, photographer Zsolt Luka. "I was very nervous, myself," she confided later.

Boylan invited several students to try to lift his backpack. And after he finished talking about his exploits in far-flung lands from Puerto Rico to Kenya to Southeast Asia -- all familiar to the students from their weekly lessons -- he stood for a boisterous group photograph as students clamored to stand next to their hero.

Got a water beetle to spare?

Tyler Muellner, 8, rose to hero status himself when he won a drawing to invite the world travelers for dinner at his house Wednesday evening. Boys mobbed him, offering their congratulations, before Tyler called his mother to tell her.

She "didn't freak out," he said, and dinner was set for 5:30 p.m.

As Luka filmed every word, Boylan then visited four classes of third-graders, where he posed for photos, signed autographs, offered more hugs and kept students enthralled with tales of favorite and worst experiences.

"The idea was to see the world in a real pure way, be with locals everywhere," Boylan explained later.

He's no stranger to adventure. He and a childhood friend won "The Amazing Race II," a CBS program in which they covered five continents, eight countries and 52,000 miles in a month.

Boylan, a Boston native who now lives in Los Angeles, has hosted and produced TV programs and created his own production company, "Footprint Films," which sponsors "Dropping In," a program where surfers travel the globe searching for mystical religions, hidden cultures and perfect waves.

In "Around the World for Free," Boylan embarked Sept. 18 from New York with no money, depending on Internet publicity and random acts of kindness to pay his way. One family fed him baked guinea pig; sometimes his meals consisted of grasshoppers and water beetles. And on a six-day bus trip, he ate only twice.

But he had adventures that kids dream of, too: Courageous encounters with crocodiles and great white sharks, paragliding in Peru, roaming beaches on idyllic islands, taking a 650-foot bungee jump.

"Your heart pounds, you just don't think about it, you jump," he told the third graders.

Boylan and Luka covered 45,000 miles, keeping blogs and producing 155 clips for their website.

"We said, 'Let the audience be our guide,'" Boylan said of the meandering journey where little was planned and surprises on the road kept viewers coming back for more. "Boats to cars to buses to planes, anything to keep us moving."

Viewership varied widely, he said, ranging from 1,500 hits to more than 100,000 per clip.

Boylan leaves the Twin Cities today for New York, where he'll appear either Friday or Saturday morning on the CBS "Early Show" to talk about his trip.

Parent Hanson said that students hustled to raise more than $200 to pay for Boylan's plane ticket.

Traveling without money of his own gave him a new perspective on life, said Boylan, who keeps a change of clothes packed in a bag hardly bigger than a football.

"It's one of those incredible experiences of a lifetime," he said. "Sad it's over."

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554