19,000 Miles Later, George Meegan Says His Way Is No Longer the Highway

updated 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On Sept. 18 George Meegan walked down a lonely gravel road on the Alaskan tundra. Pulling a little cart behind him, he stepped forward to the water's edge and let his boots touch the ripples of Prudhoe Bay. Then he began to cry. "I've just lost my best friend," he said. "I've run out of road."

With those words, Meegan, 30, ended the longest continuous walk on record—19,019 miles, from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. He marked the completion of the six-year, eight-month trek by planting 18 flags: one for each of the 14 countries he had traversed; three for his family; and a Union Jack 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," adds Meegan, who himself was briefly jailed for vagrancy in Argentina. "I hope my trip reminds them that freedom exists."

Meegan took the first of his estimated 31 million steps on Jan. 26, 1977 when he set off from Ushuaia, Argentina—the southernmost community on earth, except for Antarctic scientific stations. He was accompanied by a woman friend, Yoshiko Matsumoto, then 26, whom he had met in 1975 while traveling in Japan. Their destination was Point Barrow, the northernmost point of land in Alaska. (Last July Meegan recharted his course to Prudhoe Bay when weather experts informed him that the tundra to Point Barrow would be mushy and too difficult to cross.) The pair, who at first could only communicate by means of a Japanese-English dictionary, fell in love and were married in September 1977 in a police station in Mendoza, Argentina. Yoshiko, who couldn't 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," recalls Meegan. "We'd flash tiny flashlights at each other over the distance. We had a happy reunion every night."

So happy, in fact, that Yoshiko soon became pregnant. She returned to Japan to give birth to their daughter, Ayumi (whose name means "walk"), and Meegan stayed with poor villagers he met. "The barrios will always take you in," he discovered. "You're one of them, in the muck." After rejoining him in Panama nearly two years later, Yoshiko became pregnant with their second child, Geoffrey Susumu (whose middle name means "keep going"), and returned to Japan. She and the children sporadically rejoined Meegan as his route took him through the Southern U.S., up the Eastern seaboard and across Canada to Alaska. Along the way, the publicity he'd begun to attract brought Meegan and his family—who in the final stages accompanied him in a Mazda bought with part of a book advance—a succession of free motel rooms and meals. "I could never have imagined the giving nature of so many people," says Meegan.

The trip grew out of a wanderlust that took hold at 16, when Meegan left his hometown of Rainham, England to sign on as a merchant seaman. By the time he was 23, he had stopped in 60 countries and set foot on every continent except Antarctica. Hooked on adventure, he decided to challenge the marathon hiking record of 18,500 miles set by a man who had walked from Singapore to London in the '50s.

On the last leg of Meegan's trip psychological disaster struck: A Canadian newspaper reporter informed Meegan that an Argentinian chiropodist, Tomas Carlos Pereira, had, in 1978, walked 29,825 miles over five continents. "I was shocked," says Meegan. "I debated giving the whole thing up, but then when I thought about it, my journey meant so much more than one silly record." Besides, Pereira's journey had been interrupted by oceans; Meegan's is the longest walk unaided by any form of transport.

It also became, along the way, more than a personal adventure to Meegan. "I was in Mexico in 1980," he recalls, "when I read about a Russian MiG-25 pilot who in 1976 had flown his plane to Japan. He had escaped from that crappy, crumbling system because his spirit was crushed. I'd had the privilege of marching to the horizon for so many years. 'My God,' I thought, 'my journey is a celebration of freedom.' "

Fulfilled for now by his accomplishment, Meegan plans to return to Rainham, write a book about his adventures and spend some sedentary time with his wife and children. "I feel I've damaged these children with my unsettled life. I've got no job, my family has no home. I've stepped out of normal life for seven years, and now I'm ready to step back in. What the next seven years will bring is a mystery." He is, however, sure of one thing. "No one," he says, "could tempt me with another walk."

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