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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.

“I’m 42 years old and I’m broke and I’m homeless,” Karl Bushby lamented as he trudged along through the coarse brown sand of a beach in Melaque, Mexico, where I caught up with him last year. “I’m a professional parasite. I’m a professional hobo. I’m sleeping on other people’s couches. I’m 42 years old, and I have to walk other people’s dogs, just so they’ll feed me. My job is picking up dog shit!”

Bushby paused now, and when I looked over at him he was faintly smirking, charmed by the dolefulness he exuded as we made our way through the twilight toward the tiny village on Mexico’s west coast. There was a sparkle in his blue eyes, but a fleeting one. Since late 2008, mostly living in Melaque (pronounced muh-lah-kay, population 8,000), Bushby had been undernourished, subsisting on less than 2,000 calories a day as he cadged lodgings from friends and did them occasional favors in return. His skin was pallid, as though he were back home in the north of England, where his mother still works in a confectionery factory, and his movements were restrained—sluggish, even. “I’ve shut down the extremities. These days I’m just preserving my core,” he said. His tone was at once morose and faux dramatic. “I’m at the mercy of other people’s kindness. I’m a nobody. But in a matter of months, of course, I could be conquering the world.”

Well, not exactly conquering the world, but slowly plying his way across it. From 1998 to 2006, Bushby averaged about 2,000 miles a year. Not noteworthy by thru-hiker standards, but no one will question the pace if he completes the journey. The unprecedented length, along with potentially deadly obstacles like the Bering Strait’s shifting ice, make it a hike no one will likely ever repeat.

The expedition began, he said, as a bad bet. “I had something to prove to my paratrooper mates.” He also had something to run from—in 1998, he was still embroiled in the aftermath of a nasty divorce. He flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, with $800 and a wheeled cart full of gear.

Strangers fed and sheltered him. He scored a few meager sponsorships, and he just kept plodding along. Bushby walked up South America’s Pacific coast, battling wind in Patagonia and long waterless stretches in Chile’s northern deserts. He crossed Central America’s Darien Gap, a guerilla-ridden jungle region where he backpacked into a no-man’s land against the advice of the Colombian military. He walked through sizzling heat in the Southwestern U.S. and numbing cold in Canada and Alaska. Then, famously, he crossed the ice to Russia in 2006. And then, not so famously, he retreated (by plane) to this beach town in Mexico, where he could look for sponsors—film producers were nibbling—as he conserved funds. The unemployed Bushby had a grand total of $700 in his bank account when I visited him and he couldn’t even access that money, having lost his bankcard. The replacement was still en route. As we walked through the sand, Bushby cracked open his wallet to reveal a single 20 peso bill, worth about $1.70. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s all I have at the moment.”

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