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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.

His words sprouted a diagram in my mind: I envisioned life as a series of squiggly, branching lines. We make choices, and nearly all of us start out incubating some grand, youthful ambition. We want to write novels when we grow up, or scale unclimbed peaks. But then we do grow up, and we become practical. We choose lines that are easier, more conventional. We limit our adventures to what fits in the vacation schedule, and eventually, well, we do end up getting that minivan.

Karl Bushby refused to part with his grand plan, and the diagram of his life reflects that decision. He has experienced moments of triumph, to be sure, but he has also paid dearly for his stubbornness, as have others around him. When he set out on his hike almost 14 years ago, he left behind an eight-year-old son. Along the way, in Colombia, he met “the only woman who ever mattered to me.” They’re no longer together, though, and now Bushby passes the time in limbo here in Melaque. He is responsible to nothing but his dream. But does this make him the ultimate inspiration for adventure visionaries? Is Karl Bushby a latter-day Thoreau who’s dared to live deliberately? Or is he instead a sad case of arrested development: a freeloader who has failed to see that even the best hikes must end?

We kept walking. “Even the clouds here in the tropics are dynamic,” Bushby said now, looking up. “At a certain time of night, right at dusk, when the light is a certain way here, I feel like I’m in a dream state.”

Every long hike has its dream-like episodes—moments when the wilderness shines out and life seems exquisite in ways that it can’t amid the din of the civilized world. One winter night early in his journey, when Bushby was wending north through the Andes, he woke up in a tent covered with ice. Freezing rain dripped down on him from nearby trees. He broke camp and began climbing a mountain road, hauling his gear-laden cart—The Beast, he called it. “Up ahead of me,” he writes in his 2006 memoir, Giant Steps, “the clouds of fog meet the warmer air and explode into huge spirals, moving so quickly they look like giant flames, before they evaporate into nothing. On the hills to my left, huge dust devils are whipped into mini-tornadoes, sending columns of dust hundreds of meters into the sky.”

A headwind whipped up against Bushby. He kept climbing, his legs burning. When he reached the peak, finally, he was “absolutely destroyed.” Blowing sand stung his face. But he’d ascended more than 6,000 feet in three hours, and he was able to gaze out at the Atacama plateau and at the snow-capped peaks to the east.

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