[This post contains a description of a sexual assault. The national sexual assault hotline is 1-800-656-4673.]
On May 2, 2014, with $12,000 saved, Angela Maxwell left her best friend’s home in Bend, Oregon, to start a five-year walk around the world. There’s no pre-approved path for the small ranks of pedestrian circumnavigators, the dozen or so people who’ve claimed they’ve walked around the world—so Maxwell devised her own route. She traveled the 175 miles to Portland, and then across western Australia. She next headed to Vietnam, where she hiked 60 miles from Da Nang to Hue and then spent three weeks recovering from dengue fever. A year into her circumnavigation, she arrived in Mongolia. One night, a two weeks’ hike from Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar, in a valley surrounded by mountains, a stranger entered her tent and raped her. “It was the moment that every woman is afraid of before they go out into the world,” the 37-year-old former business consultant says.
After the attack—“it was over in minutes,” Maxwell says—her assailant left. Maxwell packed her gear, hiked a few miles to put distance between herself and her attacker, and sat down next to the cart that she used to carry her supplies; she worried that if she set up her tent again, she might be spotted. The next morning, she walked a day and a half to a nearby village, paid for a room in a family’s home, and sought out local authorities. She also called her best friend in Oregon, whose front door Maxwell had walked out to begin her trip. “I needed to actually say to someone I trusted that I had been raped,” Maxwell says. “We wept together, she wept for me, and after we felt that pain and that horror, she said, ‘I need to give you a pep talk. You knew this was a possibility. To walk alone in the world, as a woman, is to become a vulnerable target—not to most people but to those who wish to do harm. And now that this has happened, you have faced your worst fear. So now is your time to be the woman you set out to be. To be brave.’”
Maxwell says she never considered abandoning her trip. Instead, she took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow and then flew to the country of Georgia and walked from its capital, Tbilisi, to Turkey. Over the next three years, she pushed ahead. She traveled back and forth to Australia, where she had developed a relationship with a rancher. She ping-ponged from Sardinia and Sicily to Scotland, to New Zealand, to England, and then back to Italy to avoid overstaying her Schengen visa. But she struggled to keep her emotions in check: “I blamed myself,” she says. “I had disdain for anyone around me for the first month. I had images of Kill Bill–style cutting the guy’s head off.”
As time passed and Maxwell began to tell her story—first on social-media posts, and then in a TEDx talk at the University of Edinburgh in February 2018—women who had experienced abuse reached out to her. Maxwell still remembers the first email she received after beginning to publicly share the outlines of her attack. “It was from a woman in her twenties, who had grown up being abused by the men in her life,” Maxwell says. “She found herself staying in her comfort zone, even though she wanted to go on an adventure.” Maxwell encouraged her to travel. “She sent me pictures from the Camino de Santiago,” Maxwell says. “And I realized it was my responsibility to answer all of those emails and help these women through it.”
This summer she made her way from Virginia to New York City to Ohio, and after a one-month break in Georgia, she has returned to the road to finish her circumnavigation, with a final push from Columbus, Ohio, to Denver and then up and over the Rockies and back to Bend. When Maxwell arrives back in Oregon, likely sometime in early 2020, she will have walked nearly 24,000 miles. Most people change over the course of five years, and those changes are especially pronounced throughout an expedition across a dozen-plus countries. The attack in Mongolia, though, shaped and channeled those changes in Maxwell: if she left Bend an adventurer, she will return to it as an advocate. Maxwell has dedicated this U.S. portion of her journey to raising $25,000 in support of Her Future Coalition, an organization devoted to creating a safe haven for survivors of gender violence and human trafficking. (She’s raised $8,600 so far.) She is pitching a television show about women at work—whether as firefighters or farmers—in communities around the world. And she has become a digital pen pal and supporter of women who’ve suffered abuse but dream of traveling the world as she has.
Before she left, Maxwell’s parents had beseeched her to stay home. Her father and stepfather warned her against the perils of her trip. Both men died during her walk, her biological father from a heart attack in August 2016 and her stepfather from lung disease earlier this year. Now Maxwell meets parents whose daughters want to travel the world, and she strives, she says, to balance candor with encouragement. “That was the challenge. How can I talk about this so I don’t make people more afraid?” she says. “I say to them what I said to my own fathers: ‘I’m less afraid of being attacked than I am of being resentful of you for holding me back.’” In this, Maxwell has created a high-wire act of delicacy—to be an example of a woman who has encountered violence in the world and to also be an example of going forth anyway. “It is a tricky place to walk, and I’m still navigating it,” she says. “I won’t diminish what happened but neither will I let that be the memory I take away from this time in my life.”