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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.

The don’t-go-home rule is, of course, completely arbitrary, since he’s allowed himself to fly to and from Alaska, Mexico, Colombia, and other locations. But he won’t allow himself even the briefest return to England. The self-imposed rule has defined Bushby’s life—he exiled himself from his son Adam’s growing-up. He missed birthday parties and much more. He said he’s certain that, if his parents die before he walks home, he’ll skip their funerals.

In Melaque, I pressed Bushby several times on the logic of the don’t-go-home rule and it was almost as though he couldn’t think outside of it. “I made a commitment…” he’d begin. I sensed a fear of failure that’s been decades in the making. In Giant Steps, Bushby describes reaching his late 20s and feeling “frustrated and unfulfilled.” And it wasn’t just his unhappy military career and ill-advised marriage. As a youth, he often felt weak and ineffectual. In primary school, he was made to stand on a chair in front of the class because he couldn’t spell (he was later diagnosed with dyslexia). His happiest childhood moments were spent outdoors, walking through the fields, exploring. So when he began contemplating a transformative experience for his post-military freedom, the answer came naturally. The world’s longest hike, the biggest test he could imagine, would be his chance to prove himself in a way no one could ignore.

But Bushby had a hard time transforming himself from army misfit to world explorer. Early in his trek, he sometimes ran out of food when the distance between towns was vast. He got so hungry, he says, that he hallucinated. “Everything looked like food. I’d see food in the bushes.” At times it was so windy in Patagonia that he had to walk tilting forward at a 45-degree angle—a posture that ravaged his ankles joints. In Alaska, he had to overcome snow and cold the likes of which he’d never seen. During one three-day stretch, trudging along through soft powder in a -40°F wind chill near Dunbar, Alaska, he covered only a mile.

Despite these trials, Bushby led a charmed life during much of his travels, receiving aid from strangers along the way, and from his parents back in England, who managed grassroots fundraising efforts. In South America, especially, Bushby found a warm welcome everywhere he went. In tiny villages, he was greeted as a windswept blonde god.

“South America was like a boy’s adventure story,” Bushby said. “It was the happy experience I should have had in my teens—it was the best time of my life.”

Every morning I was in Melaque, Bushby checked his email, hopeful for a note from his producers. The correspondence was spare, though, for Jordan Tappis and Beau Willimon are busy fellows. Tappis produced the recent documentary, God Bless Ozzy Osbourne. Willimon is a playwright whose 2008 drama, Farragut North, was the basis of a recent film, The Ides of March, starring George Clooney.

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