The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker

Modern Race WalkersCredit: Tomisti

Some of the greatest and most influential thinkers and philosophers of all time have walked many a mile to spread their teachings. Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed all made prodigious journeys on foot in pursuit of their goals. In addition, their followers from Paul the Apostle to the modern day makers of the hadj walked many a mile in deference to these great teachers.

The use of animals and modern mechanized conveyances has eliminated the need to walk long distances. Still, some intrepid travelers have found some more, ahem, pedestrian reasons to make these trips. Here are some of the more fascinating:


John Stewart (1747 -1822)

The Original "Walking" John

John StewartDue to the time period of his exploits, much of the information about this remarkable man is necessarily anecdotal. Still, enough of it is corroborated by reliable, external sources to make this extraordinary tale more than believable.

For his own benefit, the young Mr. Stewart was shipped by his father, for perceived intellectual deficiencies, to Madras in British India. Employed as a simple clerk, Mr. Stewart soon became dissatisfied and at age eighteen began an incredible journey to roam the world. In the next twenty-five years of his life, he is reputed to have wandered throughout Persia, the Arabian Peninsula and much of northern Africa and then to have visited every country in Europe, alone and on foot.

While his long distance wanderings were remarkable, Mr. Stewart’s philosophy was more so. He developed a simplistic notion of human nature and of life. He was, at once, completely self-serving in his intentions but with the best of intentions towards others. While most often described as materialistic, his philosophy is only really been made real by the contemporary regimes in Russian and Communist China.


Robert Barclay (1779 - 1855)

The Celebrated Pedestrian

Robert Barclay AllardiceCaptain Robert Barclay never strayed far from his home but “The Celebrated Pedestrian” was more than a simple source of amusement for his countrymen in Scotland. He made and won several legendary bets that started a fad known as the “Age of Pedestrianism.”

Similar to the later, 20th century, fad of “pole-sitting,” long distance walking had much to recommend itself to those without work or other more profitable pursuits. Captain Barclay simply became the best endurance walker of all time. His most notable foray in this redoubtable sport came in 1809 when he wagered, against a very reputable foe, that he could walk one mile every hour for 1,000 hours in a row.

For that bet, two goalposts, one half mile apart, were established and on June 1st, Captain Barclay began the bet. At the start, he would walk the prescribed measure in about 15 minutes. The distance and time was trivial at the beginning but as the entire trial too almost 42 days, the captain was sorely tested. By the end, Captain Barclay, catnapping at every interval, struggled to the final goal post. His achievement has never been equaled much less surpassed.


Plennie Wingo (1895 - 1993)

Look Out,! Look Out! Walking Backwrads Here.

The Master of Backward WalkingWhile not in the same league, in total miles traveled, as the other entries in this list, Plennie L. Wingo has actually established one of the few permanent records in the Guinness Book of World Records. During the Greta Depression, Mr. Wingo, starting in his home town of Abilene, Texas, walked to New York City, bound a steamship for Europe, debarked and then continued walking until Istanbul.

The total distance, excluding the ship ride was “only” about 8,000 miles but Mr. Wingo made it while only walking backwards. He even walked up the ship’s gangplank in reverse. In addition, he had very little external support using just some special eyeglasses and sign on his back that read “Look out. Look out. Walking around the world backward.”  By the way, Mr. Wingo was still at it, at the ripe old age of 81, when he walked backwards a distance of 270 miles from San Francisco to Santa Monica.


George Meegan (1952 - Present)

The Best Walker from the Bottom to the Top

George MeeganWhen looking at a globe, many have paused to consider what a trek from one end of the Americas of the other would entail, but only one man, George Meegan, has actually contrived to accomplish it. More astonishingly, he did it on foot, and at the tender age of 25.

Widely acclaimed for his this fantastic feat, Mr. Meegan achieved it without any special gear or funding. He simply set out one day, in 1977, from Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southernmost tip of South America, and commenced a grand experience that would take him through almost every country in the Western hemisphere and then conclude, six years later, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

At the conclusion of his “walk,” Mr. Meegan had traipsed across more than19,000 miles, several mountain ranges, through at least one massive rainforest and through one forbidding desert. He memorialized his adventures in an autobiographical account, Longest Walk: The Record of Our World's First Crossing of the Entire Americas. The book is a fascinating read but it does not do justice to this singular accomplishment.

If you are interested, here is great contemporaneous story about the man, the woman he met and married on his long trek and his many adventures that you are not likely to find anywhere else.


Phyllis Pearsall (1906 - 1996)

London's Premier Mapamker

London A to ZSomewhat of an aside, one of the more interesting stories of long distance walkers involves Phyllis Pearsall MBE, one of the preeminent London mapmakers of the 20th century. She recounted in her own autobiography that she had walked all of the city of London’s streets in preparation for producing her first street guide to the city. Purportedly performed in 1935, this astounding feat would have covered over 23,000 streets. Ms. Pearsall claimed to have spent 18 hours days over the course of a year to complete the project.

By all accounts, Ms. Pearsall was a wonderful lady who, very magnanimously, donated her substantial interest in her company for the benefit of the company employees. Unfortunately, she was also a better fabulist than long distance walker. Her maps were essentially identical, errors and all, to previously published ones. Nevertheless, Ms. Pearsall built and ran one of the largest map companies in England.