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 into Russia. He has 17,000 miles to go before reaching his destination, his mother's modest home on the working-class streets of Hull, England.
He believes that this last stretch – through China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and, eventually, Europe – will be relatively easy. (You can monitor Bushby's progress at www.bushby3000.com.)
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 doing 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 Washington just after Labor Day, and what happens there could either end his global journey or vault it into a new, hopeful chapter.
No higher purpose
At the moment, he is ingloriously mid-slog. He's camped out in the viny, snake-ridden woods behind the Food Lion in Troy, North Carolina. 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.
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 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, 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.
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 Malibu magazine. Willimon – executive producer of “House of Cards” – 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.”
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.”
North Carolina 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, and hiking with his head down.
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. 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.”
At times, the Bushbys were awkward and polite with each other, 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?”