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The Long Way Home

When Karl Bushby set out to hike 36,000 miles across four continents, he vowed he would only return to his native England on foot. Which could be a real problem if he ever wants to get there.

In spring 2006, Karl Bushby crossed the Bering Strait from Alaska to Siberia, walking on shifting ice floes and swimming gaps of open water. It was an audacious endeavor, to say the least. Bushby and his partner, Dimitri Kieffer, towed 200-pound sleds through a rubble heap of fractured ice. They skittered up 30-foot-high pressure ridges, scrambled along thin shelves of ice, hoping they didn’t crack, and laboriously dog paddled through 32°F pools of salt water that were often clogged with frozen slush. At one point, Bushby and Kieffer got swept 52 miles north as they tried to push west, because the ice floes moved with the wind. They ended up traveling roughly 150 miles over 14 days to cross the 53-mile-wide strait. Near the end, the pair had to jettison every ounce of excess weight in order to complete the journey. “My expedition was on the line. So we threw the supplies overboard—the shotguns, the radio…” Bushby recalled later.

The BBC and other media covered the successful traverse with fanfare. And not only because the pair was following, almost literally, in the footsteps of prehistoric travelers who crossed a land bridge between Asia and North America. The feat also marked the most challenging stage of Bushby’s Goliath Expedition, the singular campaign that has consumed him since 1998. He aims to complete the world’s longest hike, becoming the first human ever to walk and ski an unbroken path around the globe—or, more accurately, from the tip of South America back home to industrial Hull, England. Before setting off, he’d done nothing to suggest he was capable of such a trek. But when he reached Russia—with the technical crux behind him, and some half the distance done—it appeared that the one-time British Army paratrooper might actually finish the 36,000-mile journey.

But what should have been the expedition’s high point quickly became the low. Russian authorities arrested Bushby and Kieffer for entering the country illegally and deported them back to the U.S. Kieffer, who had joined Bushby only for the Bering Strait crossing, didn’t plan a return to Russia. But Bushby’s efforts to resume his journey have been repeatedly hampered by visa and financial problems. Over the following six years, Bushby managed nothing but sporadic stints on the Siberian tundra, which is only passable on foot in subfreezing conditions. On his spring 2011 visit, he inadvertently strayed into one of the off-limits “security zones” Russia maintains near its borders. Authorities barred him from returning to Russia for five years. He enlisted a lawyer to lobby Moscow’s visa czars, but the Goliath Expedition appeared stalled, perhaps indefinitely.

Still, Bushby had accomplished much simply getting this far. Few would have called it a defeat if he abandoned the journey. Every hike has an end, right? But Bushby didn’t go home. Nor did he go forward. He simply disappeared from the adventure stage. Which is when Karl Bushby became captivating in a whole new way. Where had he gone? What happened to the record-setting hiker who couldn’t keep hiking?

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