March 30, 1987 12:00 PM

One thing his mother knows: When Steve Newman says he’s going for a walk, you don’t hold dinner. That’s because the last time Newman set out from home to stretch his legs was on April 1, 1983, when he bid goodbye to his parents in Bethel, Ohio and began ankling his way east. Next week—five continents, 20 countries and 21,000 miles later—the 32-year-old former marathoner and sometime journalist will finally return to the family’s front porch, becoming the first person ever to complete a solo walk around the world.

Newman’s father, unfortunately, won’t be there to greet him; he died while his son was in India. But his mother, Mary, 59, will, along with Bethel Mayor Roger Hardin, an expected 2,000 well-wishers and probably, by way of a Gipper-to-walker phone call from Washington, You-Know-Who.

Newman says his motive for the four-year jaunt “was a great curiosity to see what the common people of the world were like. Walking is the best way because you are one-on-one with people. We also hear so much about how dangerous the world has become and how it’s falling apart socially, morally, whatever. I had this deep urge to find out if it was really such a terrible place as everybody was saying.” And? “They were totally wrong.”

Well, maybe not totally. Newman admits that he was arrested four times during his journey, attacked twice by armed bandits, stoned by students in India (who thought he was English) and beaten by a drunken construction worker in the Australian outback. He was also accosted by wild boars, bull ants, a poisonous snake, fleas and disgruntled bison.

To prepare for his trip, the former Casper, Wyo. newspaper reporter had spent several months camping in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming. Then, outfitted with hiking boots and an 80-pound backpack, he began his march from Ohio, boarded a plane in Boston and hit the ground walking when he landed in Ireland. There he took his first misstep when his meeting with a local mayor was suddenly interrupted by a bomb scare—caused by a bag of dirty laundry that Newman had left on a windowsill before entering the town hall.

Later incidents weren’t so easily defused. One night Newman stepped off a ship in Tangiers and into a scene that seemed almost surreal. He noted in his journal “crowds of staring men dressed in hooded robes, unlit streets clogged with garbage, ragged beggars stretching forth gnarled hands, crackling campfires smoking beside grimy cement dwellings. And piercing the smelly air, a din of donkeys braying, voices screaming and music blaring. Nowhere had I seen so much activity and ugliness squeezed into one small area so late at night.”

As Newman made his way through the crowd, beggars grabbed at the zippers on his pack. Then one jumped in his path and brandished a switchblade. His face “was horribly scarred, and the left eyesocket was sewn shut,” says Newman. “He wanted money, he hissed, or I would die.” Newman fended him off with a hunting knife, he says, then temporarily abandoned his walking tour for a bus ride out of town.

In Yugoslavia, his camera, tape recorder and maps looked like the tools of espionage to government soldiers who held him for six hours of questioning. Turkish authorities went further and put him under house arrest. Convinced that his life was in danger because of the violent anti-Americanism of the police commander, Newman says he slipped out an unguarded door and then hid for four days in the closet of a sympathetic school janitor.

There was no hiding in Thailand the night that Newman walked into a bandits’ ambush. As he picked his way down a dark country road, headlights from a distant truck lighted up two figures crouching in the weeds in front of him. Even now, Newman remembers the attack—and his unexpected rescue—only in erratic flashes. There was “the dull glint of the machetelike parang knives,” he says, “my flight down the black road’s center line, footsteps rushing up, someone striking my pack’s frame, my folded umbrella striking out desperately, a voice inside me screaming. In almost no time a truck is skidding past, a door is flying open, and arms are grabbing at me, hauling me into a cramped cab. Then we are speeding away, with my feet and legs still dangling outside.”

While highwaymen couldn’t slow Newman’s progress, occasional health problems did. After wild boars in Algeria kept him treed for an entire night, Newman fell ill for three weeks. “I thought I was going to die,” he says. “It was probably a form of pneumonia.” While staying with a farm family in Algeria, he picked up a box filled with chickens and watched his hands and arms darken with fleas. Within days, his skin began to shrivel as if from age. The rash “spread up my arm,” he recounts. “There were no decent medical facilities. It was very frightening, but I kept on walking. It finally started to recede after about three weeks.”

Despite such hazards, Newman insists that he’s “very much in a turmoil” now that his trip is ending and “very sad at the thought of all the wonderful people that I’m leaving behind.” Among them, he says, is a French poetess with whom he fell in love (“I have since written to her”). Another is the Montana schoolteacher who followed his exploits in the newspaper dispatches he wrote to supplement the $20,000 in savings that financed his trip. After receiving a valentine from the latter’s third-grade class while he was in Australia, he went 500 miles out of his way to visit them—and her—during his windup march across the U.S. The lure of the road proved mightier than romance, however, and now “we’re separated by the miles,” says Newman.

Judging by his post-trip plans, affairs of the heart will be left on hold even longer. Newman intends to draw upon his meticulously kept diary and photographs to produce two books and a videotape about his travels. There are plans for novels as well; after all, says Newman, “I feel I have enough color, characters and anecdotes to fall back on.” In the fall he will hit the road again, this time in Japan, on a 2½-month walk-for-pay to promote the Ohio boot company that provided his footwear during the past four years.

Before any of that, the world’s new king of the walk will have his reunion with Mom, his greetings from the governor, maybe even that call from the White House. And, says Newman happily, a chance to do the one thing he’s been longing to do: go for a drive in his Jeep.

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