Five or 10 years from now, Karl Bushby could be illustrious, a celebrity chauffeured about London in a sleek town car, a bucket of champagne at his feet as he rides toward Buckingham Palace and a private audience with the queen. The 45-year-old former British paratrooper could be remembered as one of the most distinguished explorers of all time. Already he is more than halfway through hiking the longest path a human has traced on the world’s map — a contiguous, 35,000-mile line stretching between the southern tip of Chile to England.
Since 1998, Bushby has walked 18,000 miles — north through the Americas, west over shifting floes of ice on the Bering Strait, then on into Russia. He has 17,000 miles to go before reaching his destination, his mother’s modest home on the working-class streets of industrial Hull, England. He believes that this last stretch — through China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and, eventually, Europe — will be relatively easy.
Still, the road to glory is never smooth, and at the moment Bushby is ensconced in a niggling detour hike dreamed up by a pair of filmmakers who are making a one-hour documentary on Bushby for National Geographic. He’s walking more than 3,000 extra miles, from Los Angeles to Washington, and shooting selfie videos the whole way for Nat Geo. At his current pace, he’ll likely reach here just after Labor Day, and what happens in Washington could either end his global journey or vault it into a new, hopeful chapter.
At the moment, he is ingloriously mid-slog. He’s camped out in the viny, snake-ridden woods behind the Food Lion in Troy, N.C. He’s sleeping in a $26 Wal-Mart tent, having misplaced his better one, and his hand is smarting, thanks to the wasps whose nest he disturbed setting his stakes. For dinner, he is enjoying a cold, cellophane-wrapped roast beef sub from Food Lion. The bread is clammy white, the beef a film-thin strip of shoe leather. Perched on a log, Bushby is killing the taste by slathering the whole sandwich with mustard. “I was hoping that at least the Italian restaurant would be open,” he says, alluding to the only nearby dining establishment. “It is Saturday night.”
Bushby is wearing explorer’s garb: tan flyweight khaki trousers and a long-sleeve khaki shirt. But nothing about him says “Globe-Trotting Hero.” He is physically unimpressive (don’t bother looking for his six-pack abs), and his default attitude is sardonic self-deprecation. “This hike isn’t hard,” he says. “I’m just an average guy. I’m less than average, and I’m showing that anybody can do it.”
He claims no higher purpose, and when you suggest that his global hike might help prove the smallness of the world and possibly foster global peace, he bristles. “Who do you think I am?” he asks. “Jesus?”
What’s notable about this leg of his tour is that Bushby is traveling with his lanky 24-year-old son, Adam, who’s visiting for two weeks from his home in Belfast. Karl has seen Adam only twice since 1998, largely because Karl has shrouded his long hike in an array of arcane ground rules: He won’t allow himself to go home to England until he gets there on foot. (If either of his parents dies before he gets there, well, he’s reconciled to missing the funeral.) He takes long breaks from walking, and he has no qualms about jetting away from his hiking route in a plane. Since 2008, he has been mostly stuck in Melaque, Mexico, lacking either the funds or the visas to travel. He has been unemployed there — indeed almost inactive. When I visited Melaque in 2011 to write about Bushby, I tried to get him to surf with me, but he just lounged on the beach making wry remarks. “I’m sure if I tried, I’d end up at the bottom of the ocean — a corpse.”
Bushby’s humble charm has arguably saved him. In 2001, when he says he got ambushed by a gun-toting right-wing Colombian paramilitary squad, the soldiers quickly shed their fears. Indeed, they liked Bushby so much, they bought him a Coke before setting him free.
In 2010, when he was broke and desperately in need of sponsorship, the writer/film mogul Beau Willimon came to interview him for California-based Malibu magazine. Willimon — executive producer of “House of Cards,” the Netflix series about Washington politics — was transfixed. “Karl’s just a regular guy,” he says, “and he’s gone through everything in his travels. He’s been imprisoned; he’s fallen in love. And he’s inspired people — little by little, at 20 miles a day, he’s going after an impossible dream.” With a partner, Jordan Tappis, Willimon pledged to finance Bushby’s shoestring journey, which will end cinematically in Washington at the Russian Embassy. There Bushby will ask for a travel visa. It may well be a doomed mission.
In 2012, after having granted Bushby four travel visas between 2007 and 2011, the Russian Embassy met his new request with a five-year visa ban. It offered no explanation, but Bushby had been on shaky ground with the Russians since 2006. That year, he and fellow explorer Dimitri Kieffer entered Russia in an unorthodox manner, by leaping and swimming between ice floes on the 58-mile-wide Bering Strait. No one is known to have muscled his way into the country that way before. It was weird and troubling to the Russians. They seized Bushby’s laptop and found photos of the old military hand connoitering with U.S. soldiers in Alaska. They must have wondered: Is he a spy? Bushby and Kieffer were detained for 58 days.
Their deportation and fine were ultimately overturned by a Russian judge. Bushby was allowed to return to Melaque and even to travel over Far Eastern Russia’s ice roads, but, as he sees it, the border police “were just waiting to get me back.”
In 2011, they got their chance. Bushby lost his wallet in a remote Russian village, then, after he traveled two hours to the nearest cash machine, he inadvertently wandered into one of Far Eastern Russia’s many off-limits, militarized security zones.
“His chances of getting that visa ban overturned are about zero,” says Donald Jensen, a resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University.
“Mr. Bushby will be on a blacklist for a number of years,” adds John Lough, an associate fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a policy institute in London.
Bushby himself admits that his quest is a long shot. He has to try, though. “If I skip Russia and just start walking through China,” he says, “I’ve failed. I started out with one question: Would it be possible to forge a single footpath from Puntas Arenas, Chile, back to England? I’ve fought for this for 16 years. I’ve suffered stomach infections, and I’ve been robbed, and I’ve dragged a 300-pound sled through the Arctic. If I fail, I’m sure that I will find it difficult to deal with for the rest of my life.”
Bushby’s father, Keith, was a decorated Special Air Services officer, and he persuaded Karl to try out for the British Army’s elite paratrooper unit at 16. Karl failed the rigorous entrance exam four times, then, he says: “They cut me some slack. They let me in. It was the worst thing they could have done.”
Bushby was often required to parachute out of a plane, then run 10 miles in an hour and 45 minutes with 30 pounds on his back. “I had anxiety attacks,” he says. “I don’t know how many times I woke up in the medical center with IVs in my arms. I was the weak link in our unit.”
He found refuge, at first, in family life. In his early 20s, while stationed in Belfast, he met a local woman and had a child with her, Adam. In 1995, though, the marriage crumbled while the Bushbys were living in Hampshire, England. Adam and his mother returned to war-torn Belfast, where Karl, as a British soldier, was forbidden to visit. He found himself “alone, wondering where my life was going.” He created for himself the ultimate challenge: a journey that would show his paratrooper mates he was no runt.
When Bushby set out to hike 35,000 miles, he was carrying only $800. He had good luck, nonetheless. In South American villages, as word of his journey spread via local newspaper articles, he was greeted as a windswept blond god and offered free food and lodging. He met a Colombian woman, a civil engineer named Catalina Estrada, and spent several blissful summers living with her in Medellin.
Then he entered Russia, and, he says, “It was like hitting a huge vat of maple syrup and trying to walk through that.”
N .C. Highway 24 is an almost endless ribbon of asphalt where the road signs seem gargantuan when approached on foot, and the grassy roadside rolls on forever. On that first muggy morning, Karl pushed a 180-pound cart — “The Beast” — and Adam traipsed 20 feet behind, a thin and pale-skinned young man wearing dark sunglasses, a floppy sun hat, a khaki shirt and black earbuds. He was listening to Slipknot, an Iowa metal band, and hiking with his head down. “I just look at the floor when I walk,” he told me. “It takes my mind off it.”
Back in Belfast, Adam has not had steady work for three years. His girlfriend is a nurse, and Adam mostly stays home, caring for their daughter Harley, born in April. He’s an avid motorcyclist, and in 2011 he T-boned a car so severely that, he says, he was dead for 10 minutes. He now has a tattoo of the Grim Reaper on his arm and an undiagnosed hip problem. It hurts to walk far. Still, when Willimon offered to fly him stateside to hike, Adam began to train, walking a couple of miles a day and ingesting protein drink to muscle up his bony frame, recently a cadaverous 6-foot-3, 155 pounds. After 16 years of little contact, he was resolved to make the visit count. “I wanted to see what was between us. I wanted to know if we had anything left to save,” Adam said.
Just before my arrival, the Bushbys had spent three days at a hotel waiting for Adam’s pain to ease, and now he was walking slowly as his father lingered ahead, worried on several levels. “He has no job qualifications,” Karl said, “and now he’s a father — his options just closed a little bit more. I’m hoping that I can broaden his horizons. Is it too late? I don’t know.
“He’s my son, and I don’t even know the guy,” Karl continued. “I feel guilty about that.”
At times, the Bushbys were awkward and polite with one another, but more often a father-son bond prevailed. That first morning, Karl swiped off his sun hat using his right hand. Not one breath later, Adam copied the gesture unwittingly. And when we stopped to rest, and Adam pulled off his earbuds, Karl grimaced. “Listening to that music is like getting hit over the head with a brick,” he said.
“You know,” Adam said, “they did a study, and they found that listening to metal actually calms you down.”
“Who did that study?” Karl said. “Slipknot?”
As we walked on, Bushby talked about the visa ban. In April, he said, Willimon’s office wrote to the British Embassy in Moscow, beseeching the Brits to lobby Russia on behalf of a loyal onetime soldier. The request elicited a quick no, so Zach Guglin, a producer at Willimon and Tappis’s Westward Productions, has been writing to Yevgeniy Khorishko, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington. “All I’ve been getting is one-sentence answers,” Guglin told me. (I, too, received a clipped reply: “We do not give any comments on visa issues.”)
Still, in North Carolina, Bushby took heart from a telegram that Vladimir Putin sent President Obama on July 4, expressing hope that Russia and the United States could “successfully develop relations on pragmatic and equal grounds.”
Bushby said: “That helps me — maybe he’ll have some goodwill and give me a visa.”
“But you’re not even American,” I said.
Bushby dropped it (politics aren’t his forte), and we kept walking.
Six miles in, Adam’s hip was done for the day. We were on the western fringe of tiny Biscoe, where a McDonald’s and a Subway rimmed the vast parking lot of a Wal-Mart. It was 95 degrees out and muggy.
We cut right past the dumpsters and climbed a weedy hill into the woods. Then we set up our tents amid the drone of the Wal-Mart cooling system.
The next day, Adam could not move. The Bushbys spent eight straight hours at the Subway nursing cold cups of coffee. Each time Karl sent a text to an ex-girlfriend, he set the phone down and stared into space, waiting. He was capable, it seemed, of lowering his pulse to 26 or 28 and living for a cool eternity in the sterile confines of Biscoe’s Subway. Adam had the same gift. He cocooned himself in his music and scarcely spoke.
It is difficult to express how caged and restless I felt just sitting there. I escaped to downtown eventually, and when I returned, I found that, left alone, the Bushbys had begun searching for common ground. They were talking about the moments they shared in the British Isles before Karl began his hike in 1998.
“Do you remember visiting me in Dover, where I was stationed?” Karl asked.
“Is that when I got a Buzz Lightyear toy?” Adam asked. “It was still in the box and everything, and I was freaking out. Do you remember the flat we had in Aldershot?” In Hampshire, he meant, in 1995, when he was 5. “I can remember a god-awful sofa and some curtains, and I remember Kieran, the neighbor, and his two sisters. I remember going out in the woods behind the estate. I was missing a tooth, wasn’t I?”
“I’m freaking myself out here. I thought I’d forgotten everything, but I remember.”
“That’s where your mum’s and my marriage ended.”
“And do you remember when Mum was at the top of the stairs, yelling, and you were at the bottom, throwing books? I jumped in the car because I wanted to go with you. Do you remember that?”
“I do, clearly.” Then came the sort of moment all parents hope for, a moment in which your kid startles you with his wisdom and goodness. “Look,” Adam said, “what happened happened. I’m a father now, too. I understand.”
On the third day, Adam stayed in Biscoe. For 10 hours, he played a video game called Infection on his cellphone. Karl and I pressed east 14 miles. We moved at a good clip, and the motion set his mind free. He spoke of a stranger who appeared at his tent after midnight outside Death Valley, wielding a hockey stick with menace before disappearing, wordlessly, back into the desert. He talked about plowing through a blizzard in the Texas Panhandle. Then for maybe a mile we walked in silence. I asked him what he was thinking about. He said that the day before Catalina had written to say that she and her partner were expecting.
“I’m shocked and saddened by that news,” he said. When I’d met him in 2011, Bushby could not stop talking about Catalina, who was an ex even then. “You can’t have a relationship on the road. That’s the one thing that weighs heaviest.”
Another mile, and Bushby set the Beast down and pulled out an aluminum Thermos and slowly twisted off the lid. A breeze rustled the leaves in the trees as Bushby took a couple of gulps of cold water, and it struck me that this was how he had spent much of his life: out on obscure roads, alone, reflecting on all he had left behind in the everyday, settled world. I wondered what kept him going. Bushby would tell me that his military training had ingrained in him a deep sense of commitment. “When I started out, I told myself I’d do whatever it took to walk home, and I meant it.”
An 18-wheel log truck sped by so close that Bushby’s hat whooshed off his head. We stopped at a car repair shop for water, and when we reached our destination, Robbins, we learned that Google Maps had betrayed us: There was no Subway here — only a Shell station with a few red plastic benches by the front window. Bushby looked crestfallen. “I’m contemplating staying at this place overnight. Gas station food. Nothing but sugar ...” His voice trailed off.
As I rested, Bushby hitched a ride into the next town, Carthage. Adam and I soon got a ride ourselves and converged with Karl that evening. As we pulled into town, he was standing outside the McDonald’s. There were no electrical outlets to power cellphones there, and at the local Subway there was no WiFi. As Karl told Adam of the town’s inadequacies, he was forlorn. But he also seemed to revel in the hardship. “This isn’t the Grand Canyon,” he said. “This isn’t the Rocky Mountains. It’s the road.”
“It’s hell,” Adam said.
I n time, they began shambling away over the parking lot, toward the woods. I was happy to see them together. Though Karl can be a grumpy and bumbling ne’er-do-well, I was rooting for him, and now I thought of what Zach Guglin had said, discussing Bushby and the Russian Embassy: “How can they say no to the guy? He’s walking 3,500 miles to get a 15-minute meeting.”
If the Russians say no, Bushby will feel that sting familiar to all of us that comes when our dreams butt up again the indifferent machinery of power. His hike across America wouldn’t be a total loss, though: In North Carolina, on the abysmal roadside, he’d reconnected with a son who’d been lost to him for years. He’d learned anew what it was like to be a father, and he’d made that discovery after becoming a grandfather. Still, paternal joy would not be enough. Bushby is on a mission to see whether one flawed, standard-issue human being can cross the earth on foot.
So he kept walking east, toward the Russian Embassy, hoping for a miracle.
Bill Donahue is a writer living in Oregon.
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