George Meegan's 6-Year Walk Across The Americas Left Him Dispirited And Enlightened

The world can be a pretty rough place, especially if you're George Meegan, a starry-eyed 20-something British adventurer setting out in 1977 to walk on foot from the southernmost tip of South America to the northernmost point of Alaska, toting all his possessions on his back. It was a particularly dangerous hike. He was held at gunpoint outside Tierra del Fuego, assaulted in the Darién Gap, and menaced at knifepoint by a gang in Panama.

For Meegan, the first person to complete a journey on foot across the length of the Americas, it was a harrowing trip — one that sorely tested his body and mind, as Meegan himself recounted to Geographical in 2020.

The entire walk stretched for 19,019 miles and took Meegan 2,426 days, ending on September 18, 1983, according to Guinness World Records. It cost Meegan 13 pairs of boots and, briefly, his freedom when he was thrown in jail for vagrancy in Argentina (per The Independent). As far as scary hiking stories go, it sounds intense. But the record-setting traveler maintains that his journey was ultimately a testament to what it means to be free.

Setting out to prove himself

For George Meegan, the cross-continent adventure was both a way of proving himself and a way of paying back his adoptive parents. They took 1-year-old Meegan under their wing after his biological mother died and his biological father abandoned him, per "The Longest Walk," Meegan's memoir about his journey

"All this was longer ago than I can remember, however; the clearest and most enduring memories of my boyhood are of carefree days as the son of the best mum and dad anyone could want," Meegan wrote in his memoir. "Like many an English lad, from earliest childhood I cultivated a passionate admiration for the great travelers of history ... The idea for my own journey came to me when I was a raw merchant seaman, although at first it was little more than an idle fantasy. But ... once I thought I could do it, I had to do it — for I knew that if I didn't, I would be haunted by the omission forever."

As a gesture of thanks, Meegan had always planned to write and dedicate a book to his adoptive mother. After he got back from his trip and wrote his memoir, though, he ran into some trouble publishing it.

Writing a book for mom

As George Meegan recounts in his memoir, no sooner had he secured an agent than a U.K. publisher basically slammed the door in his face and took the extra step of calling G.P. Putnam in New York, the U.S. publisher. According to Meegan's memoir, Putnam then backed out of the project. Meegan was a bit at sea until he met a man, John Walker, with CIA connections, who put him in touch with another publisher.

But the project hit the skids again when Meegan's editor and champion of the book, Alan Klots, passed away suddenly before the book had seen print. Klots' firm — Dodd, Mead — went bankrupt, according to Meegan, and it wasn't until 1989, when a trade paperback version of the book came out through Paragon House, that his memoir appeared in print. Unfortunately, Meegan's mother died before seeing the book published.

Still, she lived to see her son complete his epic journey, and it ultimately proved to be an enlightening one, despite its moments of darkness. "What years they were!" Meegan writes in his memoir. "What wonders. Oh, the magnificence of a world seen by this stranger in strange lands, a man with nothing in his pocket, but nonetheless a dream in his heart."