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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.

And that night, as he sat outside his tent in the wind, eating pasta from a pan, he says he was “awestruck” by how clear and dark the starry sky was, looming above him, and also deeply content. “I was a very keen naturalist as a kid,” he explained to me in Melaque. “I used to bring wounded birds into the house and nurse them back to health. I gathered up dead animals and then glued their skeletons back together. But then when I went into the army I had to put all that aside. On this walk—on days like that one in Chile—I’ve been able to connect with nature again.”
Joining the military as an adolescent had changed the trajectory of Bushby’s life, and it seemed this walk was his attempt to reroute it. “I was a skinny, small lad,” he told me. “I was very immature, physically.” Still, his father, a star paratrooper in his day, convinced him to join the British Army’s paratrooper unit at age 16. “I was trying to enter a division of the army where 80 to 90 percent who try out don’t make it,” Bushby recalled. He took the entrance test five times, and then, he said, “They cut me some slack. They let me in. It was the worst thing they could have done.”

As a paratrooper, Bushby was often required to parachute out of a plane and then run 10 miles in an hour and 45 minutes with 30 pounds on his back. “I had anxiety attacks,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I woke up in the medical center with IV’s in my arms.”

Bushby stayed in the army for 12 years, but always, he said, “I was considered the weak link in our unit. I was an outsider. All the other guys had pictures of motorcycles and guns by their bunks. I had a poster of the solar system over mine.”

It’s unlikely Bushby ever imagined anything like Melaque when he lay in his bunk, gazing at the stars. The beachside town is a winter haven for Canadian snowbirds. In the summer, when I visited, it was steamy hot, and dead. Mangy dogs could lie on the pavement of side streets, unperturbed, for hours. At La Flora Café, a rail-thin American Buddhist, who revealed only his first name, Renee, sat alone every morning, sipping his coffee and staring contemplatively into the distance. When I asked him where he was from, he said, “Well, right now I’m living in this chair.”

In Melaque, Bushby was just another wandering soul, albeit more sociable than some. He was living here with just three t-shirts and two pairs of pants (his gear was stowed in Fairbanks) and mostly waiting for a call from Hollywood. A well-connected two-man production team was pitching TV networks a reality show starring Karl Bushby as a bumbling, endearing everyman explorer. “They’re very close to signing the contract,” he told me. “I should know by the end of the month.” (At press time, Bushby was still in the dark.)

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