An Interview With Steven
How did your family react when you first told them that you were going to walk around the world?
My mother hated it. She went, “Oh, no, you’re not! You’ll die! There is no way you will make it alive around the world!” She was very much against it. My father just shook his head and really didn’t know what to say. He probably didn’t believe I would really do it. He probably thought I had gotten myself into something that was way over my head.
What did you think about while walking along by yourself all those thousands of miles?
Nothing. I thought about nothing. I was too busy observing all the little things of life going on around me, like the birds or the insects or the plants, or the way the clouds were forming in the sky, or the sounds that were going about me, or the smells in the air, or the people, to bother myself with thinking. I was simply absorbing everything-I was like a sponge on two feet.
What was the most beautiful land you walked?
Well, that is such a difficult question to answer because there is so much beauty I saw all over the world. I think that the most beautiful was the coastline of North Africa, particularly in Algeria. The olive growing regions and the grasslands of South Italy were so mystical and beautiful. Definitely Normandy, Britany, and France were extremely beautiful and lush, and very, very religious-like there with the mist and the fog and the religious crosses along the roads and the cemeteries. Northern India was very mystical also along the Himalayas, and it was very beautiful in Thailand in the rice paddies, and in Malaysia with their rubber plantations. Then in Australia, in the Outback, for half an hour when the sun sets, the temperature would become bearable and the flies would go away briefly before the mosquitoes came. It was very, very much like being on another planet, like on Mars or something-very mystical. I think perhaps overall, again, the most beautiful place in the world was my own country-the United States, particularly in the great Pacific Northwest, in the mountains there. Primarily, because for one, it was unpolluted. You could still drink the water. There was so much pure water flowing in the springs. Secondly, there was still a lot of wildlife and big game running free and loose, like deer and elk and cougars. Unfortunately, most of the world no longer has wild game because the land has been farmed to the point where there is no longer anyplace for the wild animals to live.
Did you ever get sick?
The only times I ever got sick were in Africa, in Algeria, when I caught a bad cold from spending the night in the tree with the wild pigs below, and in Australia, when I drank some bad water out of the rainwater holding tank on an abandoned ranch one very hot day.
Where did you wash your clothes? How often?
I washed my clothes about once a week, mostly in the creeks and the rivers just like the people in most of the countries. Now, that could be very difficult because, at times, the only clothes I had were the ones I was wearing, so I would have to find a nice, secluded spot in the creek or the river to wash my clothes, because I had to take them off. If I couldn’t find a secluded spot, then sometimes I had to wash my clothes while I was wearing them. I generally did it with a bar of soap-just washed them on the rocks right in a creek or the river, and then I would hang them on the bushes to dry or on tree limbs.
Where did you sleep at night?
I generally slept outside in the open grass if I didn’t have a family to stay with. But if there was inclement weather, or if it was windy, I would try to sleep in some sort of shelter-usually it would be under a bridge or in an old barn. I slept in many, many old barns all around the world, in the haylofts. And that, by the way, was the softest and sweetest place to sleep-in haylofts. And then, I also slept in places like old church buildings, old dilapidated houses, and conduits under the road. I even slept under a parked semi-truck, under park benches, picnic tables, and even on peoples’ porches-I would get up in the morning before they got up.
Did you use a tent?
Yes, I used a tent when I was going across the eastern part of the United States to Boston. And then in North Africa because I felt very frightened of the idea of sleeping in the open without any protection, because bandits might sneak upon me and cut my throat. I used a tent in Italy where it was raining a lot, and in Southeast Asia and then in India a lot because of snakes.
How many foreign languages do you speak?
I could speak Russian, Spanish, and English before I started, and on the walk I learned French, which I used, of course, in France and across all of North Africa. I also learned to speak probably several hundred words of Turkish while I was in Turkey.
Did you ever have anything stolen?
Yes. My camera was stolen twice-once in Pakistan, and again in India. Both times I went to the leader of the village and asked that my camera be returned. I explained that it had been stolen from my pack, and both times the head man of the village called all the people together and admonished them and told them that he wanted the camera returned very quickly. Both times the camera was returned within five minutes.I was very impressed.
What was the question most often asked about America?
The question most often asked was: “Why do we lock our parents away in other homes when they get old? Why don’t we care for them at home?” That was the number one concern.
How did you find the time to write all your stories and letters?
Well, one of the most enjoyable parts of my walk was how I wrote my stories. I had the “luxury” of writing long hand because I couldn’t possibly carry a typewriter or computer with me, and so I felt very often like Mark Twain or Charles Dickens, you know, the old-time writers doing it in long hand. And, for me, that added a great sense of romance and mystique to my walk-it seemed to make my stories more realistic to me and much more meaningful because I was writing in the old fashioned way that seemed to fit so well with the overall adventure that I was going through. As far as finding the time to write, well, that was very difficult because many times I had to write the story in a few hours before the post office would close in the town where I was, or the village, because the next post office might not be for the next sixty miles, which would be days away. Of course, I’d have a deadline to meet, and so I would have to hurry and write the story on the steps of some post office just sitting in the sun, or inside at a table.
How far did you usually walk in a day? How fast was your walking pace?
My walking pace was about three and one-half to four miles an hour, which was very casual for me because I have very long legs. If I wanted to, I could walk as much as five and one-half miles in an hour-I had to do that sometimes when I was in a hurry to get to the post office or the bank or something. But, overall, if you were to average out over the whole length of my journey my miles versus the time that I spent walking, it comes to about thirteen miles a day that I averaged. Now, on a good day when I was trying to make distance and trying to get somewhere up the road, I would always try to get twenty miles. I always thought that was a good distance to get. The longest I ever got was, I think, around thirty-seven miles or forty miles in the Outback one day, and there were many, many a day when I only got one or two miles-so there was no overall rhythm. One day I might get one mile, the next day I might get thirty miles.
How many pairs of shoes did you wear out?
I went through four pairs of Rocky Boots. I could have made it in three pair, but because there was so much publicity on the last part of my walk across the United States, I decided to put on a new pair of boots so I wouldn’t look so much like Huckleberry Finn.
Are you the only person who has ever walked around the world?
No, I am the second person to have ever walked around the world. The first person to do it was David Kunst from Waseca, Minnesota. David walked with his brother around the world. I am the first person ever to walk around the world solo, or at least the first one documented to have walked solo around the world. I know a few bartenders in Ireland who say they have too, but have no proof.
Did you encounter many people in other countries who spoke English?
No. I found that it was a great fallacy to think that most of the world supposedly speaks English nowadays or knows of English-that is the farthest thing from the truth that you could say. Ninety-nine percent of the people that I met in the streets throughout the world do not speak or understand English.
How did you communicate with people?
Generally when I came into a village or town, the people would rush off to find whoever it was in that village or town that did know some English (usually the postmaster or the police commander or a doctor or a teacher), and they would bring them to me or tell them about me. And those people would usually come to me, and would extend their hand and ask me to be their guest while I was there, which I would do-and then they would travel with me through the day and evenings, translating for me.
What was the most horrible food you had to eat?
I think the most horrible thing I had to eat was in North Africa. The Arabs have a very sour drink -I believe it was goat’s milk with curds in it, and it is very bitter and sour, and they love to drink it. It is very healthy for you-full of yeast and curds, and all this sort of stuff-but it tastes wretched, like somebody mixed rotten cottage cheese in sour buttermilk. They like to give a lot of that to their guests, and the first few times that I was in their homes, they would serve it in a big glass and give me a whole pitcher of it. I would force myself to drink it all, which they, of course, were very pleased to see.
The first few times I made the mistake of setting my glass or pitcher back down on the table, and they would fill it right back up again. I didn’t realize that in the Arab culture in North Africa, that unless you tell them that you don’t want anymore, or turn your glass or pitcher upside down on the table, they would automatically fill it. They considered it rude for the guest to have an empty glass or an empty plate in front of him. It was like a torture the first few times.
Did you ever think you were going to starve?
Yes, I remember a few times when I was very, very hungry, and actually became very sick and weak from hunger. Ironically, the time I probably was my hungriest of all happened, of all places, in Italy. I was in the countryside in Italy, and a religious holiday came over the weekend-there were four days where everything was shut down and hardly anybody was in their homes because they were all off to the beaches, to the coastlines for the holidays. I had no food at all with me in my backpack because I didn’t realize a holiday was coming up. After the second day, I was very hungry and very weak. I came to a huge pile of oranges and tangerines that had been thrown away beside this factory that made orange juice, and went through the oranges and the tangerines and got several pounds of them, and just cut off the little bad spots. I lived off tangerines and oranges for the next two days until the holidays were over, and I finally was able to go into a little store somewhere and get some food.
Do you ever hear from people you met?
Yes, I do. I get presents from them still on my birthday and letters from them often. After I got home, I got several letters from all over the world from families I stayed with who saw the homecoming in Bethel on their television sets, or read about me. I’ll never forget one letter in particular that I got from a family from Algeria in Africa, where the young son wrote that his mother cried when she saw me hugging my own mother on the front porch. I have found, too, that the lives of many people that I stayed with on my journey have, of course, changed since I was there. I was saddened to learn that Dr. Jaquith, who I stayed with in Marrakech in Morocco has since died. His wife, Rita, has moved back to the United States, and now runs a mission house in Las Vegas for the poor people and the destitute. Also, I remember one man I met in Pennsylvania-Ricky, a black hermit, who twenty-five years ago had given up trying to keep up with society, and had parked his truck beside the road. For the last twenty-five years, up to where I had met him, he had been walking everywhere. He lived in a little tin shack in the middle of a junkyard in Northern Pennsylvania, and he had for a sole companion a rooster named “Billy,” whom he named after Billy Carter because he would never shut up. And Ricky, I have since learned, ironically was hit and killed by a truck while he was walking along the road in Pennsylvania. Also, the Spanish couple I stayed with, Pepit Cruells and his wife Imma, have since divorced and gone their separate ways. Very sad. But I also hear very wonderful news from my friends around the world.
Did you ever get lost?
Oh, yes, I got lost many times. Always when I came to another country, I never knew exactly where I was going to be walking. Usually I didn’t have a map of that country when I came into it because I couldn’t be carrying a lot in my backpack-I had to watch every single ounce that I carried. There were some countries like Algeria where I had to make my way across the entire country by just asking everyday, and usually every hour, asking the people I met on the street-”Am I going the right way to Tunisia? Is Tunisia ahead of me?”
Besides the attack of the wild pigs, were you ever attacked by other wild animals?
Yes. I think the most frightening attack, besides the pigs, happened in Australia. I fell asleep one day under a scraggily, old, gum tree out there in the Outback. I didn’t know it, but I had fallen asleep on the pathway that these big ants use. They’re called bull ants and they’re as big as your thumb-the biggest ants in the world. They’re very, very vicious-the most vicious on the face of this earth. Well, I fell asleep on their pathway, and I woke up with a couple of them trying to eat my neck. They had a hold of my neck with their big jaws. I tore them from my neck and I looked down and there were thousands and thousands of these huge bull ants all around me, and they were starting to attack my legs and my barefeet, and I ran out into the hot sun and into the sand. They swarmed by the thousands and thousands all over my shoes and my cart, Roo, and all my gear, and I couldn’t get to it because they were holding me hostage. And, of course, all my water and supplies were in the shade where the ants were. So, what I ended up doing was, I had a cigarette lighter (although I don’t smoke I had a lighter in my shirt pocket) and I found a tree branch. I set it on fire and tried to jam it into the ants like they do in the movies because I thought that it would scare the ants away. But these ants were so vicious that they actually attacked the flaming stick! They would latch onto it with their jaws and would not let go but would burn with the stick. Well, finally I had to swish it through the ants and form a crude sort of pathway, and rush in and stick the stick into my boot, and throw the boots out into the sand away from the main body of ants. And then go out there and kill the ants off of my boots because they would not let go of my boots with their jaws. It took me hours before I was able to salvage all of my gear from those ants, and each time I would try to go near my gear, of course, they would swarm towards me. It was very, very frightening. By the time I was finished, I was so thirsty I thought my lips were going to drop off my face.
What was the hardest part of your walk?
The hardest part of my walk was coming across the Australian Outback because of the 140 degree temperatures, and the flies that would crawl up your nose and in your ears and into your eyes and mouth trying to get to the moisture in your body, and the incredible lonely distances. I mean hundreds upon hundreds of miles of nothing but barren scrub and sand and harsh white sky. A very, very harsh place to cross. Very lonely.
When were you most afraid?
In Africa, when I was walking across North Africa, because it was my first tremendous culture shock in dealing with poverty and oppressiveness and dictators, and the culture that thought totally opposite of me or very different. I was very scared there because I was an American in a land that had so little, and I knew that most of those people who were looking at me each day as I passed them thought that I was very rich. I was frightened that they might think that I had money in my backpack.
Did you ever think you’d be killed?
Oh, yes. I truly and honestly did not expect to live walking across North Africa, and also, I truly and honestly did not think I would live walking down through southern Thailand, particularly after the attack by the two bandits with the machetes, because I still had 900 kilometers to walk through Thailand, and I just knew that there were bandits with machetes waiting to kill me behind every bush or worse, bandits with guns. That is what was most frightening about Southeast Asia-that, because of vestiges of the Vietnam War, there were guns everywhere. I always knew I had no defense against a gun. But, like most frightening incidences, the one in Thailand turned into a very beautiful story because it forced me to go to the Buddhist monks each evening to look for shelter and safety, and I ended up getting a very intimate look at that special side of life.
Did you find people around the world very much alike?
Yes, very much. All around the world no matter what race, culture, or belief, religion, or lifestyle, everyone is very much the same. We all want very much to improve our lives, to be happy, to be free of pain and discomfort, to have friends, to have loved ones around us. We all worry very much about our family, and want very much to protect our family members. We all want peace. We all want not to see people suffer and to help other people who need help, and we all, all around the world, are searching for God and for truth and for justice.
Did you ever feel like you wanted to quit?
Many, many, many times. More times than I can count. It could be something as simple as waking up in the morning with a slug crawling on my face that would make me want to quit and go home. For instance, in Spain it seemed that no matter where I slept outside in Spain it was always rocky, and rocks are hard and uncomfortable. I always felt like I was in some sort of purgatory in a place like Spain. Or, it could be something as frightening as the bandit attacks, or the times I was arrested by the police on suspicion of being a spy. Or, something as sad as learning of my father’s death on Christmas night in New Delhi, India in 1984. All those times, I wanted to quit and go home. But why didn’t I quit? I think the reason why I didn’t quit was because I knew that as a writer and a journalist, I had responsibilities, and I knew from my journalistic background that if I quit, that would be the only part of my story that people would remember.
Did you drink the water in foreign countries?
I drank the water all the time in all the countries. I drank the same water as the local people were drinking right from their wells or creeks or rivers. And I never got sick from the water in any of the countries, except that one time in Australia from the old rain water holding tank on the abandoned ranch out in the Outback. And, the most amazing thing is that, unlike all other travelers to these countries, I had no immunization shots, no water purification pills of any sort, and did not boil my water. I just drank it cold like the people and I never got sick. Why I never caught anything or didn’t get sick is as big a mystery to me as it is to anybody else. I think one explanation for why I didn’t get sick, perhaps, is because I was walking and traveling very slowly, my system had a chance to adjust to all the various new kinds of bacteria or germs that were in the different water sources, unlike the normal traveler who comes right in from home where he is familiar with the water, and flies right into a place and is suddenly exposed to all those germs and bacteria.
How has your walk around the world changed you?
It has changed me very greatly. It has made me more patient with other people’s faults or philosophies. It has made me much more understanding of people. It has given me great confidence in myself because, by having done something that other people said was impossible, I have proven to myself that very few things in life are impossible once we set our minds to it. And also it has made me a much more fearless and courageous person, because I have seen firsthand by experience that most of the fears we carry around with us in our lives are totally needless and absolutely figments of our imagination. It has taught me most importantly to be a more loving person, a more kind person, because I have seen that most of the people in the world are loving people and kind people and that it is really not fair of me and even silly to fear people. I view strangers as friends, and then let them show me through their own actions if I should have any reason to be suspicious of them.
What did you miss about America?
What I missed the most about America was our great sense of adventure and freedom of expression. In most countries of the world, the people are very tightly controlled or are very single-minded, because they have one dominant philosophy or dominant religion, or one dominant form of government that they have had for thousands of years, or hundreds of years, and so life is very predictable and very stoic in some of these places. But in America, there is such incredible variety, and I think it is that variety in life that I missed so much about my own country. So many people doing so many things and all of us being encouraged to live our dreams no matter how crazy they may be. And yet in other countries, people are not encouraged to live their dreams, but are encouraged more to fall in line.
Knowing what you know now, if you were preparing for the Worldwalk for the first time, what would you do differently?
I think the thing that I would do differently, and which I truly regret not having done on this walk, was I would have carried a photo album of my family and my town with me around the world. I found that that was what most of the people that I stayed with around the world wanted to see and know about more than anything-my own family, my own friends, and my own town. I wish that I could have shared more of my life with them through photos.
What’s the most special memory of your Worldwalk?
That is a very difficult question to answer because there are so many special memories on this walk. I can say that because many times when I left a home or a town, I cried because of the love and the compassion shown to me. If I had to pick one special moment, it would have to be something very personal. I would have to say that perhaps the most special moment of my walk was when I came home. I can remember when I turned down North Charity Street and walked those last blocks to my home in Bethel, there was no way I could hold back the tears, because here was the last road, of all the roads in all the world that I had walked on, this was to be my last one, and sitting there at the end of it was the big, red brick house that had been my goal all along, every minute for four years. It seemed incredible to me then, unbelievable even, that I was actually seeing it again. And then, of course, going up on that porch, and giving my mom that big, long-awaited hug.
Now that you have walked around the world, what do you plan to do next?
My plans are to continue walking as a source of adventure, a source of learning, a source of teaching, and a source of stories for me as a writer. This fall I plan to walk the entire length of Japan-I’m very much looking forward to that. I’ll be leaving for Japan on September 20, 1987. Incidentally, I will be writing letters about my experiences in Japan for my column in Capper’s, “Letter From Steven.” Later, I want to walk the entire length of the Great Wall of China to study the people who live in the shadow of that ancient structure. I want to walk in the Soviet Union between Leningrad and Moscow, and also, perhaps years later, in places like South America and the Andes Mountains. Also, I very much want to walk through the Scandinavian countries because the Scandinavians have for many centuries enjoyed walking as a form of recreation, exercise, and relaxation-they appreciate walking very much there. Walking, I have found, is the best way to meet the people of the world, because you are so close to them and so dependent upon them that it is easier for them to trust you, and to let you into their homes and their hearts and their minds. For me, walking is a way of life.