The Beast is parked at a Motel 6 just off the Las Vegas Strip. Karl Bushby’s earthly possessions ride on its bicycle tires, in an old storage bin strapped with video cameras, camping gear and a baseball bat he picked up after a strange man lurked outside his tent with a hockey stick. What’s inside the bin? “Everything,” Karl says. In the spirit of the Pulp Fiction briefcase, I never get to see exactly what that means.
We start walking. The Saturday morning traffic whips by, drivers oblivious to the incredible story of this sunburned man and his humble chariot. He’s not homeless. He’s on an epic quest that began November 1, 1998. That’s when Karl took his first step on the tip of South America. He was 29, divorced and retired after 12 years of service as a paratrooper in the British Army. He felt he had something to prove to himself and the world, so he vowed to cross it—one step at a time, in an unbroken path that would make history, defy odds and one day lead him back home to Hull, England.
Fifteen years after that first step in Punta Arenas, Chile, Karl has completed about 18,000 miles of his planned 36,000-mile route. He has weathered skin-peeling winds in Patagonia and treacherous cold in Alaska. He has navigated the swamps and guerrilla squads of the Darién Gap, the “missing link” of road-less jungle between Panama and Colombia. He has survived a stomach infection, a gashed artery, exhaustion and terrible hunger, not to mention a bus full of bottle-hurling passengers that ran him off a road in Mexico (he punched the bus). Without significant sponsors or a support team beyond his devoted father coordinating things from back home, he has left boot rubber on three continents. It’s an impressive scrapbook, but there are scars. No love that he’s found along the way has withstood the inevitable distance. He has seen his family only twice since 1998, including a son whose life Karl has essentially missed. All because he committed to not seeing home again unless he walked there.
The sticking point was supposed to be the Bering Strait, a punishing stretch of fast ice flows and frigid water that had never been crossed on foot. With Dimitri Kieffer, Karl made the first crossing from Alaska to Russia in 2006. After sauntering into a coastal village unannounced, they spent 58 days detained on suspicion of espionage. Russian officials eventually granted Karl permission to continue, but his subsequent visas were only valid for 90-day windows, forcing him to fly in and out by helicopter to reapply and draining his resources (and patience). The last progress he made was in 2011, when an inadvertent violation of an internal security zone got his visa banned for five years, with no guarantees after that.
Karl retreated to Mexico to live cheaply and write letters to Russia’s powers that be as well as potential sponsors. Over the years, he says some heavies have given the expedition serious consideration, but its unpredictability and the global economic crisis did him no favors. From the start, he’s gotten by mostly on his own tenacity and the kindness of strangers. The day he went broke, producer Jordan Tappis and screenwriter Beau Willimon signed on.
Despite how desperate Karl was, “the guys,” as he calls them, had to sell him hard on their idea—a grand detour called The 3000. Karl would walk about 3,000 miles, from LA all the way to Washington, D.C., documenting the trip, which would culminate in an appeal to the Russian Embassy.
“When they first came up with the idea I almost laughed myself off the chair. Why would I want to go 3,000 miles in the wrong direction? … For someone who’s been fixated on making progress on the mission for so many years, one kilometer out of my way is unimaginable,” Karl says. “But I’ve got to play ball, ’cause the guys are the only real chance I have right now, and they know what they’re doing.”
By “play ball,” he means constant tweeting and Instagramming and detouring from the detour to get footage for a 12-minute “sizzler” video that could translate to a TV special on a major network that might build the kind of public support Russia can’t ignore. He left LA on September 3, traveling about 20 miles a day. By October 14 he was rolling the Beast down Las Vegas Boulevard, with Robin Leach in tow. Leach facilitated a media blitz anchored by Caesars Palace, putting Karl through the luxurious ringer of fine dining, spa treatments and photo ops with local celebs. He’s enormously grateful for the support. But he admits that his quest is starting to feel more like a job.
The GPS on the iPhone the guys gave him is his new best friend, but his face softens when he talks about the days of paper maps and plastic Instamatic cameras. He doesn’t fancy starving like he did in the early years, but he can’t help smiling to think of his sad attempts at stalking farm animals. His homemade bow and arrow didn’t even scare the sheep from their grazing, and he says that his machete literally bounced off a cow. His fortunes were volatile back then, but nothing got between him and the mission.
“Now it’s about business. … It’s about me performing in front of the camera,” Karl says, adding in the same breath that the guys have been great, that they've kept his mission alive. He just needs to focus on the next marker.
It’s a trick he learned long ago. Otherwise he might have lost his mind in the desolate stretches. I ask what he thinks about. He'll say he's not well educated, yet he quotes Carl Sagan and riffs on physics and genetics. He hopes to join the fight for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education someday, putting the emphasis on “inspiration” so young people don’t see it as a chore. He listens to books on tape and movie soundtracks when the scenery starts to blur, and he fantasizes about the next cup of coffee, his one confessed addiction.
We pass a couple of homeless drifters on Maryland Parkway, and I ask if he feels any kinship. “I have purpose and a mission. I’ve always got someone backing me somewhere. I can pull out of this at any time and go home, ultimately, whereas these guys are at the very bottom of life. It must be incredibly hard to live so isolated,” he says. “Even at my worst times in South America, where I had no money and I was eating trash and sh*t like that, it really hit home, the fact that there was always that get-out clause at the end of the day.”
I get the sense he’ll never take advantage of that clause, though Karl doesn’t come off as some obsessed eccentric or puffed-up outdoorsman. He's thoughtful and wry. He says he’s not an athlete or a survival expert and would fare only slightly better than average in a post-apocalyptic world, but he has tested and intimately knows his limits—and that confidence is powerful. When I call his walk an extreme sport, he scoffs. “Extreme sports are snowboarding, biking down mountains at a 90-degree angle, heli-skiing and leaping from the edge of space and all that stuff. But this, this goes on forever,” he says, drawing out the last word like a kid who’s sick of doing his homework.
He makes a lot of cynical jokes, yet he may be the most wildly optimistic person on the planet. You’d have to be to make it this far with so much working against you. Mother Nature and resources and politics and inexperience aside, Karl has his demons. He struggled in school due to dyslexia that wasn’t diagnosed until he was a teenager, pushing him to join the military when he was just 16. It took him five tries to make the elite Parachute Regiment, and he always had nagging doubts about whether he measured up. Finishing this walk is personal, but Karl mostly talks about the wonderful people he’s met along the way. One family drove eight hours just to feed him roadside, and a friend from Las Vegas buried water along the highway so Karl could make it north from Searchlight when he came through back in 2003. Life on the road has left him believing that humanity is mostly good.
Of course, there was the time someone stole the Beast outside a Montana bar on New Year’s Eve. And the loneliness goes deep. Karl, now 44, says it bothers him more as he gets older. A Colombian woman he was in love with and dated for seven years finally walked away because of his absence. And his relationship with his son Adam—now a grown man expecting his own child—is a “permanent, ongoing internal crisis.” Karl carries more burdens than the Beast lets on, but his eyes dart away. He’s quick to make light of things. It’s a defense mechanism more essential than the baseball bat.
We stop for breakfast after about four miles, and Karl eats every bite. He’s fueling up for six more hours of trekking to the outskirts, where he’ll camp before hitting Hoover Dam on his way to Colorado, where the mountains will provide the contrasting winter shots the guys are hoping for. “The more I suffer the happier they are,” he says, chuckling. The wilderness can be brutal, but to Karl, it’s the “real world.” Cities make him nervous, especially Las Vegas. “It’s a sustainability thing. … It’s human beings gone mad. Rushing ahead, putting so much time and resources into building stupid stuff that’s not really a priority,” he says. But he can’t deny that it’s nice to be somewhere he and the Beast don’t stick out. He’s just one more weirdo.
I ask if he’ll ever really get home. After so much time, can he stop? He reminds me that he never looks that far down the road. The one thing he’ll admit is that he doesn’t see himself in England anymore. This marathon has actually made the world feel smaller, its mysterious corners more reachable. He’s excited to see what opportunities come when he’s in the homestretch, where he’s bound to get asked what this has all been about. “People naturally assume that you do these things for a cause—cancer or dolphins, saving children and water. But I never did ’cause that wasn’t what it was about. It was a purely selfish endeavor. It’s a challenge,” he says. At the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Patrick Lane, I hug him and wish him luck, and he walks away.
A few hours later, I get a text from Karl, saying he didn’t quite make it out of the city despite taking more than 30,000 steps. He’s at a Wendy’s powering up, with plans to camp across the street under some scrubby trees when it gets dark. When it does, I feel compelled to drive by the parking lot, and the Beast is there. I show up at Karl's table with a Frosty. He smiles and calls me a stalker.
He tells me about the old days, when practically everyone he met took him in and became a friend. It’s different now. He’s older and more jaded, and so is the world. In his book, Giant Steps, Karl mathematically calculated his homecoming would be sometime in 2012, with the caveat that Stage 5—the Arctic—would be unpredictable. At this point, he figures it may not be before 2020, provided the Russians even open the door. But he doesn’t seem uptight about the timeline. This was never an event that could be planned around the comfort levels of sponsors or post-production whims. This is Karl’s challenge, and it changes with him.
“I can look back at what I’ve done and say I’ve got nothing else to prove, really. I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I’ve proved everyone wrong so far, and I’ve got farther than they ever thought … Even if I never made it home, it wouldn’t matter that much anymore,” he says, eyes unconvincing. At my request, Karl signs his Wendy’s bag and writes that he hopes to see me down the road.
Looking at the real-time GPS map of his progress, I worry about the blue dot in so much empty desert. He’s been alone in ways I can’t imagine, but Karl has this quiet, plodding determination and willingness to bend with the wind that make me believe he will finish what he started. He’s the first to say he’s not the only person capable, but he might be the only one willing to try.