“You can walk to the Russian embassy in DC from LA,” was my producers’ response to a five-year visa ban that had just been slapped on me by the Russian government. It was 2012, and my 36,000-mile, 16-year-and-counting journey on foot from the southern tip of South America back to my home in the UK had just been abruptly stopped dead in its tracks by bureaucracy.
“Are you serious?” I scoffed.
This was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. I had just spent the past 16 years doggedly transfixed on a single route, from which a deviation of even 100 meters always felt like a tragic waste of energy. Walking 3,600 miles off the path was unthinkable. The very idea made me nauseous. Did my producers, from their office chairs in LA, understand the effort required to cover 3,600 miles on foot? They had been helping me document my journey for the better part of five years, but had not actually spent a day of it on the ground with me. This was insane.
Not to mention it would never work. We were dealing with the Russian security apparatus. On several occasions the Russians made it clear they didn’t want me around, telling me to my face they believed I was an agent of the West, “a recon specialist” in their terms. Not that I entirely blamed them; I had been a British paratrooper for 12 years before beginning my expedition in 1998.
It took some time, but I finally came to embrace what we called the “3000,” a yearlong journey, on foot, from Los Angeles to the Russian embassy in D.C. to prove to the Russians my commitment to finishing the longest continuous walk in history. Maybe, just maybe, it would convince the Russian government to change its mind and let me back in.
As we planned for the 3000, the idea continued to grow on me. I was not new to North America. I had walked more than seven years up from the southern tip of Chile, some 16,000 miles to Alaska, over the Bering Strait and into Russia. I had fond memories of my ascent through the western U.S. I had grown to love the deserts despite that first trip having occurred in summer 2003, with temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I was eager to see it all again, and the rest, since this time I would be headed west to east.
The U.S. trek was conceived with a few goals. Russia was the primary focus, but the entire endeavor had been funded by National Geographic with the understanding that I would live as I always had—on the side of the road and off the kindness of strangers—and document the journey in as much detail as possible. I was instructed to take my time, meet people and soak in the terrain, all of which sounded rather appealing. So, armed with a fist full of cameras, a laptop and a solar charger to add to the hefty load I carry in my pushcart, The Beast, I set out from Venice Pier on September 3, 2013.
Another goal during the 3000 was personal, one that was not so overt. I have a deep interest in promoting STEM and scientific literacy among young people, and this trek provided me an excellent opportunity to bounce off a number of important STEM-based learning institutions and programs. Along the way, I was able to speak with a variety of educators and student groups and learn a good deal about the “fight on the front line” in the U.S.
If there’s one thing about America I came to appreciate during the 3000, it is the vast diversity in both terrain and culture. We engineered the route to take advantage of that diversity. I descended the Los Angeles Mountains into the Mojave Desert where I crossed Death Valley. I passed through Vegas, the point at which the 3000 route crossed my route north from 10 years earlier. From Vegas I moved down into Arizona and visited the Grand Canyon before turning east into the Rocky Mountains, which I climbed in the dead of winter; the producers were committed to making this documentary an exciting one. From there I walked down into northeast New Mexico, across the Texas panhandle and into the heart of the Bible Belt—Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. From Atlanta, I swung north through the Carolinas, Virginia, and walked east all the way to the coast just for the hell of it. After all those miles it was worth the extra effort to walk from the proverbial “sea to shining sea.” Finally, I pushed northwest into D.C., where I arrived exactly one year and one day after I had left LA.
In addition to stunning landscapes and an endless stream fascinating people, the U.S. journey brought me the opportunity of a lifetime, the opportunity to walk with my son for the first time. Adam, 24 years old and a brand new father himself, joined me in North Carolina for a few weeks. It was the first real chance we had had to bond as adults. It was the first time he saw the world from his father’s perspective. It was a very important period in both of our lives and, needless to say, one of the highlights of the 3000.
As I reached the eastern U.S. and the population density increased, our campaign for the Russian visa gathered momentum. My producers and I had formulated a media plan, which we executed in each and every state I visited. In North Carolina the Washington Post Magazine sent a reporter to spend a few days with Adam and me on the road. This interview led to a cover story, which seemed to be the tipping point in getting the Russians’ attention.
Until the story broke, all attempts to contact the Russian embassy had been met with silence. Suddenly, only weeks outside of D.C., we received a call instructing me to visit the embassy and re-submit my visa application when I arrived. I had my suspicions. I was sure a snag would arise somewhere along the line and crush my hopes. Ultimately, my suspicions were unfounded because only days after I turned in the paperwork, I was issued the visa. Miraculously, the ban had been lifted. My dream, my life’s work, could continue. To Russia, I am grateful.
The yearlong walk across America not only achieved the less-than-likely goal of overturning the visa ban, but it also became the foundation for a television special, which premieres on National Geographic Channel on Friday, May 15 at 9/8c. What’s more, during that year I became a grandfather, reconnected with my son, lost a girlfriend of two years, interacted with the wildest variety of people, and made countless new friends. My producers’ ludicrous idea had blossomed into a truly worthwhile journey-within-the-journey, which resurrected my seemly doomed global endeavor. I write this from Yakutsk, Russia, back on track, headed southwest, in the right direction.
The Walk Around the World, chronicling Bushby’s years-long trek, will air on Friday, May 15 at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel. It is produced by Beau Willimon and Jordan Tappis.