I don't know where I was hiding on the day in September 1983 when George Meegan finished his journey, but for all the gentle hoopla that accompanied his arrival in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, his achievement passed me by completely.
George had walked, in 2,425 days, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska – a distance of 19,019 miles. A complete traverse of the Western Hemisphere, barring only the polar regions; the longest unbroken journey ever completed by a human being. And a substantial athletic achievement at that – it took him almost seven years, and he got through 13 pairs of boots.
Without money or special equipment, and accompanied in the early stages by a Japanese friend who became his wife in an Argentinian police station, Meegan relied, throughout his journey, on the kindness of strangers. Like many before and since, he found greater acceptance among the poor; at least until his growing celebrity started to precede him in the US and Canada.
Yoshiko, who could not keep up with Meegan's 25-mile-a-day pace, began hitchhiking ahead and waiting for him in a tent at night. "Looking for that tent at night kept me going," recalled Meegan. "We'd flash tiny flashlights at each other over the distance. We had a happy reunion every night." And, by journey's end, two children.
Whereas our first reaction to his mega-walk might focus on his spectacular endurance, George saw it as an expression of freedom; understandable in the geopolitical and often turbulent context of the time – and possibly a retrospective view, but on arrival at Prudhoe Bay he planted 18 flags: one for each of the 14 countries he had traversed; three for his family; and a union flag for his native England.
Why did he walk?
"Britain has a history of lone people doing these things," he explained. "But this journey is not just for Britain. It's for the people of all these nations. I want them to know I've never forgotten them. I've met desperate people whose only horizons are prison walls," added Meegan, who himself was briefly jailed for vagrancy in Argentina.
"I hope my trip reminds them that freedom exists."
Of course, Meegan should be more famous than he is. Perhaps he was not what we would now call media-friendly, and as with many off-beat achievements, it is hard to know how best to categorise what he did. A travel story? Adventure? Sporting exploit? Odyssey?
Even taken simply as a straightforward walking story, his journey has so many aspects and raises so many questions that it is hard to frame – and that is without reflecting on the parallel journey of the soul or the multiple narratives of personal experience and development that must have unfolded as he progressed from one end of the planet to the other.
Ihaven't read his book, The Longest Walk: An Odyssey of the Human Spirit, but I have ordered it. Just thinking about his journey intimidates and inspires. The greatest value of his achievement and others of similarly undramatic, slow-burning ilk is the perspective they put on ours – and not in a negative sense.
His average daily distance was just under eight miles. Some days, Meegan would walk 25 miles; on others, none. Perhaps nothing he did on any of the 2,425 days was beyond me or you. Think about it.
Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine. www.walkingworldireland.com