Having hiked more than 18,000 miles over 15 years on a mission to circumnavigate the globe on foot, 46-year-old Karl Bushby was approached in 2013 by a pair of filmmakers with a crazy proposal: walk 3,600 miles in the wrong direction.
At the time, exactly halfway to his 36,000-mile goal, Bushby’s trek had come to an abrupt and disheartening halt in eastern Siberia. Authorities there had banned his visa after he mistakenly wandered into an off-limits security zone. “The question of why is not easy,” Bushby says, reflecting on his decision to walk around the world. Naturally inclined to explore as a child, Bushby’s time serving as a British paratrooper ultimately gave him the confidence and motivation to undertake such a tremendous journey. In 1995, Bushby’s marriage fell apart, and his wife moved with their five-year-old son to Northern Ireland, where British servicemen were strictly forbidden. Three years later, Bushby was striking north from southern Chile with intentions to walk all the way back to his hometown of Hull, England.
With the ban in place, Bushby would not be able to continue his journey home until 2018. While in limbo in Mexico, Bushby was approached by Beau Williams and Jordan Tappis, founders of Westward Productions, with an idea to walk across the continental U.S., from Los Angeles to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he could appeal his visa ban in person. And they wanted him to film the entire ordeal.
“It wasn’t my idea,” Bushby told me last week. “My immediate reaction was a kind of vomit reflex because it was such a ludicrous and stupid idea.”
Bushby’s acquiescence, and the ensuing 12-month journey across the U.S., is the subject of a new documentary, The Walk Around the World, which aired Friday night on the National Geographic Channel. The filmmakers equipped Bushby with an array of cameras and just enough money to make the trip. Through daily video diaries and retrospective narration from Bushby, the documentary portrays a man who, beset by a sense of futility while confronting a faceless bureaucracy, attempts to regain control of his life by embarking on a life-changing journey. We see Bushby grappling at every turn—at first by schlepping 20 miles a day with his handmade push-cart and, later, in confronting a string of personal hardships. Whether the journey is more restorative or more harmful is up for debate.
The seeming impossibility of gaining leniency from the Russian Embassy hangs like a cloud over the U.S. trek. Karl was told time and again that no one had ever seen a visa ban like his overturned, and there was a real possibility that the Russian government wouldn’t issue him a visa even after the five-year ban expired. “This is an absolute waste of time and money,” said Bushby, recalling how he felt at the beginning of the U.S. walk. “I can’t imagine anything changing their minds.”
But he pushes on regardless and, having dedicated an entire third of his life to the walk across the world, Bushby can’t accept quitting. “Quite frankly, it would be harder to actually stop,” Bushby says in the film.
In the background is Bushby’s strained relationship with his then-24-year-old son, Adam, whose childhood Bushby was largely absent for, and who, at the time of filming, is a soon-to-be father himself. Adam joins his father for a two-week leg of the journey; the men trudge along the highway, camp in the woods, seeing one another as individuals. “We never had a chance to bond like that,” Bushby told me. “It was amazing.”
In the spring of 2014, as Bushby neared the final leg of his U.S. trek, rising tensions between the Western World and the Russian Government over the annexation of Crimea doused the likelihood of Bushby regaining access to Russia. Just when it seems the journey is without hope, an article about Bushby in the Washington Post breathes new life into the mission. Tappis gets a response from the Russian Embassy to his hitherto ignored emails, encouraging Bushby to reapply for a visa. But on October 23, when Bushby receives a new visa, he is far from ecstatic.
“I’ve been moving my pieces in anticipation that I would be spending the next three years static," Bushby says in the film. "The three years [would] give me a chance to sort out some personal crap that really needed sorting out. Everyone’s put so much time and effort into this, I just feel incredibly guilty not wanting it almost as much as everyone else."
Currently in Berlin, Bushby has resumed his global trek, spending the last two and a half months walking across Russia. Only allowed to stay in Russia for 90 days at a time due to visa restrictions, he is currently looking for a summer route through Siberia. “Failing that, we’ll probably end up going back next spring.”
By the end of his next leg, Bushby hopes to reach the Road of Bones, a milestone that will mark the end of the Arctic, and the beginning of continuous paved roads all the way home to England.