August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

On Jan. 26, 1977 America was watching Roots on TV. The prime rate was at 6¼ percent, and Jimmy Carter had been President for less than a week. In Rome, Vice-President Mondale was getting ready to confer with Pope Paul VI. In London, gold was fixed at $132.15 per ounce. And in Ushuaia, Argentina—at 54°49′ south latitude, the southernmost nonscientific settlement on earth—a slim young Englishman and his Japanese girlfriend turned their backs to Cape Horn and began walking northward. Their goal: Point Barrow, Alaska, by a roundabout 18,600-mile route, to complete the longest recorded walk in man’s history.

Why would they undertake such a pilgrimage? Four and a half years later, as he approaches the U.S.-Canadian border, George Meegan, 28, contemplates the 13,000 miles he has already slogged. Then he pulls from his rucksack a stanza by the poet Robert Service: There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,/ A race that can’t stay still;/ So they break the hearts of kith and kin,/ And then roam the world at will. “The English have a tradition in this sort of thing,” says Meegan. “As a boy, I used to look at ships on the river Medway as they went out to sea. I always knew I wanted to go, too. None of my family has ever been to university or anything smart like that. I consider my walk a Ph.D. in living.”

In fact, Meegan’s life has long been devoted to one quest or another. A few months after he was born, his mother died of cancer and his father disappeared. “I once tried to trace the man,” Meegan says, “but failed because he didn’t seem to have much of an identity.” The boy was raised in the Kentish village of Rainham by his maternal uncle, Geoff Meegan, a career army man who had served in Egypt and India, and his wife Frieda, a Swiss-born auxiliary nurse who had once been a domestic in the household of psychiatrist Carl Jung.

At 16, George left school and signed on with a tramp steamer company. By the time he was 23, he had landed in 60 countries and stood on every continent except Antarctica. In 1976, George remembers lying in his steamer bunk: “There on the bulkhead was a map of the world. I thought: ‘What’s not been done on this earth?’ ” Long fascinated by marathon hiking, Meegan learned that the all-time record belonged to David Kwan, who had meandered 18,500 miles from Singapore to London in 1957-58. Meegan promptly decided to break it.

As George began mapping a route, he wrote about his plan to Yoshiko Matsumoto, whom he had met the previous year in Japan. She was working unhappily in an office and trying to escape a marriage her parents were arranging. Boldly, Yoshiko flew to England. “She imagined the journey I was planning would be a bus trip,” says George. “It came as quite a shock that I was attempting this walk.” Undeterred, she decided to accompany George anyway, though neither could speak the other’s language. “We couldn’t hold a conversation,” George remembers. “It would just be broken words and ideas. I’d want to tell her something, but first I had to find her dictionary and then point.” Their training consisted of three hikes, the longest only 16 miles. Finally George and Yoshiko made their way from Rainham to the remote island of Tierra del Fuego, and set out on the adventure that would shape both their lives.

But it almost didn’t happen. Just 300 yards up the road, Yoshiko suddenly stopped, sat down and started to cry. Scarcely had that crisis of confidence passed than the couple was accosted by a man brandishing a gun. Miraculously escaping unharmed, and with the $400 that constituted their treasury, George and Yoshiko spent three weeks walking to the Strait of Magellan, which separates Tierra del Fuego from the Argentine mainland. Once across, Meegan calculated they had to cover 1,200 miles in three months or be marooned by the snows of the South American winter.

It was too much for Yoshiko, who began hitchhiking ahead across the desolate plateaus. “We’d go 100 miles and there would be nothing,” Meegan recalls. “Just three villages in a stretch the length of Great Britain.” Surrounded by this physical emptiness, Yoshiko would pitch camp. And wait. “Looking for that tent kept me going,” says George. “I would near it in the dark and we’d shine tiny flashlights at each other over the distance. We had a happy reunion every night. We fell in love. It’s as simple as that.”

They crossed Patagonia on schedule, but all those loving reunions bore fruit. In August of 1977 the couple married in the city of Mendoza, and decided that Yoshiko should bear their child in Japan. “She’d been with me eight months, we’d been married for five days, and then I was alone,” George remembers. “When she went through the airport gate, it was the only time I ever broke down in public.” Feeling the solitude during the remaining 800 miles of his trek through Argentina, he became increasingly aware of the military. “One night I was sleeping in a barn,” he says. “The door was kicked in and I was dragged off to jail. No reason was given. I was jailed just for being there. The average person in the street was deeply good, helpful and friendly. The people who scared me or attacked me or robbed me were either police or soldiers.”

By contrast, Bolivia, to the north, was a delight. “In the dull lives of the villagers there are few entertainments,” says Meegan. “A man walking through is information from the outside. Whenever I went into a market, people would gather round. Then they would collect a great pile of coins and give it to me. It only cost me $98 to walk through the country.” Crossing the Andes into Peru, Meegan was confronted by unspeakable poverty and its bleak human cost. “In one village,” he recalls, “I went into a hut to get water. In the corner was a box, and in front of it were two beer bottles with lit candles. Inside was a little dead baby about 1½ years old, with its eyes wide open and staring at me.” Meegan instantly thought of his own child, whom he had yet to see. “I asked, ‘How did the baby die?’ They said, ‘No known reason.’ They told me they lose one-third of their children before their first year.”

Meegan pushed on to Ecuador, then into Colombia. In his path lay the 250-mile-wide swamp known as the Darien Gap. Halfway across, says Meegan, his guide became “satanically depressed” and attacked him. Somewhat discouraged himself, George restored his own morale by tearing the wrapper off an unopened bar of Lux soap. “I held it to my nose and breathed it like oxygen,” he recalls. “This was the smell of civilization.” The next morning he fired his guide, and hired two new ones in a remote hamlet known as Port of America. “It suddenly occurred to me that the money on me was probably equal to the earning power of that village in a year. It seemed so logical, in the loneliness, for them just to chop me up with their machetes. I was sure this was the end.”

Not until he reached Panama City, however, was Meegan waylaid by a robber, who slashed at his chest and stole his watch, camera and exposed film. Unwilling to despair, George telegrammed Yoshiko to join him and postponed crossing the Panama Canal until she was able to fly in from Tokyo. On July 29, 1979 the Meegans, with daughter Ayumi (Japanese for “walk”), crossed the canal en famille, then spent the next three months becoming reacquainted. That fall Yoshiko, again pregnant, returned to Japan, while George ventured further into Central America.

In Honduras, Meegan was overtaken by ill health and depression. “I was slipping down a greasy funnel,” he says. “I was so fed up with filth, poverty, hate. I was in great physical pain because of a kidney infection, and I was urinating blood. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. My money was running out, and the worry was wearing me down.” Antibiotics beat the infection, and his adoptive brother, Anthony, a weapons technician, donated emergency funds. But the only cure for Meegan’s mental malaise involved forcing himself back on the road. Revived, he hastened onward through Mexico, and on Aug. 3, 1980 crossed the Rio Grande into the United States.

Meegan’s growing family was waiting for him in Brownsville, Texas. The star of the reunion was Geoffrey Susumu Meegan, then six months, whose first name honors George’s late adoptive father and whose second means “keep going.” But the six weeks George and Yoshiko spent together proved frustrating. “We were hardly ever alone more than 20 minutes because of the two babies,” says George, “and we had our first row because I was jealous that they were getting all the attention from my wife. I couldn’t believe what hard work babies are.” When he and his wife parted again, Meegan was doubly impatient to finish his walk. “Since 1975 Yoshiko and I have been together for one year and four months, which is pretty sad,” he says. “Sometimes I think of her and the two little people who are mine, and how they are totally unsupported by me. Despite what I’ve achieved, that’s awful.”

Striking east across Texas, Meegan spent last Christmas with a Cajun family in Louisiana, and in March he reached Plains, Ga., determined to shake a special hand. “I started walking the week Jimmy Carter was inaugurated,” he says. “When I got to his house he was in the backyard with Chip, moving a playhouse of Amy’s into a truck. I asked for a photo, so he took his apron off and said, ‘Chip, come here and get this picture.’ Click. That was it; he went back to his woodwork. But the photograph means a lot.” Continuing up the Atlantic coast, Meegan paused in Washington in an as yet unsuccessful attempt to meet President Reagan, and last month passed through New York heading north.

After a year in the U.S., with 13 states behind him, George has formed some definite opinions. “The cleanliness, the efficiency are impressive,” he says. “I can trust people finally. And everybody I talk to has an uncle or grandparent or friend living in England.” But he has also discerned a dark side to the American dream. “I find more unhappiness in your suburbs than in any other part of my journey—even among people living in filth and poverty who don’t have much to be happy about,” he observes. “When I’ve stayed with families, so often there is tension. There they are sitting behind three locks. Junk television programs break up any conversation, and even the great communal activity of doing dishes doesn’t exist because of the dishwasher, which is deafening—like the Concorde. Even having dinner as a family—people just don’t go for it. No time. There seems to be so much dividing people in American homes.”

With the exception of Guatemala, Meegan believes, there is more fear in America than in any other country he has visited. “If I come into a town at night, and need to ask directions, I’ve got to stand under the porch light so people can see I’ve got nothing in my hands,” he says. “Slowly they will look through the peephole, then unlock the door—often holding a pistol. It’s frightening. You’ve got an armed populace. Mind you, I’ve only seen American goodwill, but I’m very exposed, and you’ve got this maniac fringe which is probably more than a fringe.” The shooting of John Lennon, he says, persuaded him to cross the continent through Canada, not the U.S.

Though he has relied heavily on good Samaritans to provide him with a meal and a place for the night, Meegan has already spent the $11,000 he saved for his journey. Disappointed that his travels have brought him no backers, he has stayed with families, in churches and sometimes in free motel rooms. His diet since reaching the U.S. is heavy on Coke, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Planters peanuts.

After wintering in Ontario with Yoshiko and the kids, George plans to spend next summer walking to the Pacific. “Then, in the summer of ’83, I’ll make a dash up to the Arctic Ocean,” he says. “I’ll plant a Union Jack, and also the flags of all the countries I’ve walked through. Will I have made my mark? No, I really don’t think so. But I do hope it will lead to something productive.”

Inevitably, one thing it will lead to is the conclusion of Meegan’s personal journal. “A trip without a book is like a marriage without children,” he says. “Mine isn’t really a ‘walk’ story. It’s a story of the common people I’ve met who have helped me—perhaps so they could become part of somebody else’s dream.” When his trek is finally ended, he says, he and Yoshiko, 31, will settle in Japan. But no matter where he finds himself, George Meegan—an eccentric in the grand tradition—will probably never surrender the two postcards he has carried every step of the way. One is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The other is a reminder of where his life’s journey began, a photograph of the village of Rainham.

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