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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.

Early in 2011, the pair laid out about $30,000 to send Bushby from Melaque to Chukotka, Russia, with a video camera, so he could shoot two months of lonely ice road travel. Now they were hopeful that the footage would sing to Hollywood titans. “Karl has a great story,” said Willimon when I called him. “He’s a down-to-earth guy, and he’s gone through everything in his travels. He’s been imprisoned, he’s fallen in love.”

The tragedy of this romance was a topic that Bushby kept returning to. Bushby met Catalina Estrada when he walked through Colombia, and he returned again and again to see her, even as he traveled north. With me, he spoke of walking the streets of Medellin with Estrada wrapped in his arms. Mostly, though, the love story is a tale about craving the impossible. For three years, Bushby tried in vain to get Estrada a visa, so she could visit him as he hiked. Finally in 2008, she wrote Bushby from Medellin: “Don’t come back here. We can’t do this any more.”

They have not seen one another since, but when I called Estrada in Madrid, where she currently lives, she spoke of Bushby with a sweet wistfulness. “When you see a person like Karl, you can think, ‘This guy is absolutely crazy,’ or ‘It is incredible that a person could fight for his dreams.’ Karl makes me think that the human spirit is big. Karl is the big love of my life. When I was with Karl, I cried for seven years; I was so happy for seven years. It is very difficult to love a person who isn’t there.”

As we dined on the plaza in Melaque one night, Bushby acknowledged that he’s hurt people by refusing to live a settled life. “There are moral questions involved in what I’m doing,” he said, “and my son has paid the highest price. He grew up without a father at home. I don’t know the guy. I don’t know my own son.”

Bushby is hardly the first explorer to prioritize his adventures over his parenting. Ernest Shackleton blithely left three young children behind when he sallied off on his last—and fatal—Antarctic expedition in 1921. Captain James Cook famously spent years at sea during his voyages. He had six children. Today’s adventure obituaries are filled with climbers and skiers who have left children fatherless. Still, Bushby felt guilty as he told me that, throughout his adolescence, Adam was depressed. “I bear a lot of responsibility for that,” he said. “And he’s still lost.”

Adam, now 22, works at a record store in Belfast. He has a tattoo of the grim reaper on his forearm, and he plays bass in a metal band. As his father sees it, Adam lives in a “soul-sucking, culturally deprived environment. He doesn’t know what he wants in life.”

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