George Meegan stands on the rear porch of his home in Rainham, Kent, telling a humorous story. He overlooks a modest-sized garden, and a large tree planted after his parents were relocated here from local tenement housing in 1962. One of his hands grips a cup of tea, freshly made from a reused bag. The other rests at head height against the doorframe. At 65 years of age and of average height, Meegan still cuts the rakish figure of the man who emerged from Central America in 1979 weighing just 51 kilograms, albeit much healthier. Just this morning he was at the dentist dealing with the long-term consequences of scurvy. Delivering his punchline, Meegan throws back his head, shaking with laughter.
The man and his dream
From the age of five, Meegan dedicated himself to the life of an escape artist. ‘We were expected to be factory fodder,’ he says of his state education school days. ‘But I made a break.’ He was a voracious reader of 19th century adventure stories. While running an errand for his mother on a sweltering spring day, he remembers wondering how he would possibly survive the ‘deserts of the world’. Age 17, he escaped Rainham and set sail for seven years on the world’s oceans with the Merchant Navy. Age 24, he landed in Tierra del Fuego with Yoshiko, his Japanese girlfriend, to attempt what would become the longest unbroken journey ever completed on foot.
It didn’t take long for Meegan’s romantic ideas of patriotism and adventure to be tested. In his epic account The Longest Walk, the reader winces as the affable young adventurer collides sometimes farcically with the rough reality of the New World. A hundred yards after departing from the world’s southernmost city, Yoshiko burst into tears. An error in translation led her to believe they would be completing the journey by bus. While comforting her in a damp bush, they were set upon at gunpoint by a robber. The couple escaped calamity with the same serendipity that saw Meegan safely through multiple attempted murders by soldiers in Argentina and Peru, and a Panamanian knife gang. ‘Don’t worry Yosh,’ he consoled her afterwards, ‘only another 30,000 kilometres to go.’
The lexicon of dreams and freedom were Meegan’s rallying cry through much of South America, but it wasn’t necessarily a dream for Yoshiko. While Meegan walked, Yoshiko would drive ahead in a car, pitch camp and wait. ‘George was always torn,’ Yoshiko would write in the prologue to her husband’s book, ‘between family, and thrilling adventure in his heart.’
Meegan’s obsession saw him relentlessly walk to the next road-side kilometre marker before retying his shoelaces or removing stones from his shoes. His worldly possessions were pulled behind him in a cart. When entering a building in a new town during his unbroken walk, he would be sure to exit by the same door. After eight months on the road, the couple married in Mendoza during the military dictatorship’s ‘dirty war’ of dissident abduction and execution. Yoshiko then returned to Japan to give birth to the daughter she named Ayumi (Japanese for ‘walk’). Absorbed by his journey, and increasingly short of funds – Meegan would not be reunited with his family for another year and a half in Panama.
On the edge
As Meegan approached the equator, his journey took on a different meaning. ‘Some have envied my freedom,’ he wrote of the interminable distance to Alaska, ‘but few could see the prison I had made for myself.’ Like a pencil being shaved ever closer to the nub, he was wearing out his monetary, mental and physical resources. Hungry in Equador’s Cajabamba, he struggled to pay for his ‘daily fix of an onion’. Lonely in Guayaquil, the patriotic ex-sailor boarded a British ship, only to be rebuffed fiercely by the crew who had no interest in his story. Desperate after being attacked in the Darién Gap, and soaked to the skin in a squalid hut, he spent the night sniffing at a bar of soap, ‘hoping the smell would somehow keep me in contact with a real world I knew must exist somewhere outside’.
Speaking some 35 years later in the garden where he grew up, Meegan explains that his adoption shortly after birth resulted in an indebted feeling of gratitude. Somehow he felt he had to ‘pay back’. Writing and dedicating a book to his adoptive mother, he felt, would provide his restitution. There was never any question of giving up the journey and the depravations he experienced are never glorified in his account. When Meegan recalls them today, it’s with a grim shake of the head. Clearly there’s a gulf of emotion between the laughing raconteur and the same dogged man who sought sleeping quarters in kennels.
The responsible adventurer
On reaching the English-speaking world in Texas, Meegan’s brother, Anthony, presented him with a pack of condoms. Meegan had been reunited for five months with his wife in Panama two years earlier, before she returned – pregnant once again – to Japan. Anthony’s unceremonious greeting was intended as a wake-up call. North America was where the responsibilities of adult life, and the need to provide for his family post-walk, began to catch up with Meegan.
Nevertheless, frustrated failed attempts to find sponsorship for the rest of his walk still distracted him from precious time with his family. He remembers finding the process of selling himself ‘repugnant’ and ‘against the form of the British people’.
This British form is also one he believes has changed. ‘The spirit which inspired me so strongly…doesn’t exist now in Britain, except in a pre-packaged kind of way. There’s an element of fakeness to it,’ he says, of the adventures aired today on television.
The North American chapter of Meegan’s journey was a mash-up of emotions. Spooked into a sense of impending doom by the assassination of John Lennon, he rushed into a lap of the US. In 1981, he met Jimmy Carter in his home in Georgia, shared his story with national publications in Washington and signed a book contract in New York. 1982 saw him push across southern Canada towards the Alaskan Highway. Fast running out of land and with the Arctic Ocean up ahead, Meegan was accompanied by his wife once more for the last stretch in the summer of 1983. Striking his flag into the tundra in September of that year, having completed a 19,019 mile walk from Ushuaia, he felt ‘not an inkling of the glow of victory, only sad, sad loss’.
For the next six years of his life, Meegan appears to have drifted between successful appearances on US chat shows and frustrated attempts to get his book published. After returning to the UK, the man who had walked the Americas couldn’t get the British press interested in his story. The initial New York book contract fell through when the publisher unexpectedly folded. ‘There were no connections,’ reflects Meegan today: a result, he believes, of his state school education. He is not bitter about it, only sad. It wasn’t the fame that seems to have mattered to him but disappointment that this intimate exploration of the Americas held little cultural currency once back in Rainham.
Meegan’s journey, starting from the dot of Tierra del Fuego, rising to form the curved head of a question mark through the United States and Canada, is unlikely to ever be fully repeated. In May 2018 however, 58-year-old Holly Harrison from North Carolina completed a more direct route in just 530 days, shaving more than five years off Meegan’s record. The two were in contact with one another during the journey, with Meegan encouraging Harrison that he was probably the perfect age to be able to weather the physical and mental challenges involved. The question mark that hung over the rest of Meegan’s life after completing his dream saw him live and teach in Japan, fight for the protection of indigenous language and culture in Alaska and propose and write a radical culture-based school curriculum. The latter became a pillar of his 2010 general election campaign for the seat of Gillingham and Rainham.
Today, the British adventurer remains active, having recently run with the bulls in Pamplona. ‘There’s a slowing down of the gyroscope,’ he says, ‘but there’s still something there. I feel very blessed, especially when I meet the school friends I knew 60 years ago. I made a break. A break into myself, I suppose.’