It was an inauspicious start to walking around the planet.
Andrew Siess felt tired, back in July 2012, discouraged and pretty stressed right off the bat. He’d spent the years since high school (2008, Cretin-Derham Hall High School) in almost constant movement — working in Venezuela, biking solo to the tip of South America and back, canoeing down the Mississippi — and it caught up with him.
“I was thinking that I might not see my friends for two years,” the now 25-year-old traveler said. “I thought I might die, thought about taking out a life insurance policy. There was a lot of uncertainty. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, financially or physically. I was afraid, and that’s what appealed to me. A little bit of fear is good. Plus, you have to do what you say you’re going to do.”
Siess did what he said he’d do, joining a small and loosely defined club. A quick search of world walkers on the Web reveals a variety of routes, budgets and time frames, but a common, dogged determination to feel the vastness and the proximity of our planet. In May 2012, he left from Virginia as a crew member on a sailboat, started walking in Sorrento, Italy, and completed the circumnavigation this past April. The total budget for his nearly three-year trip was about $6,000.
Recently, Siess arrived at Claddagh Coffee in St. Paul by bike because he doesn’t own a car, wearing the same red shorts and wild hair he’d sported in 22 other countries. At first, he was idealistic about the looming question of why?: “For fun, to see the world. There’s an infinite amount of things to learn: Languages, geography, history. It was like a social science experiment. I like a challenge, I like to push myself, and I like nonmotorized transport.”
But once he got talking, it became clear this was no gap year walkabout. “I wish I could say I was totally at peace and relaxed the whole time, but I wasn’t. It seemed like I was always pushing myself to cross a country before a visa would expire, or to get out of the oncoming winter. The deadlines just never ended, and the money got tighter and tighter, so it was tough. I just had to keep reminding myself that no one will let you die. If I really needed food and water, people helped me out.”
This goes a long way toward explaining why so few people have accomplished such a feat, and toward understanding the delicate balance between happiness and suffering, idealism and realism, that Siess walked for at least 17,000 miles.
Sleeping rough by the side of a road, being cold-hungry-lonely, always being a stranger — this is what most people want to avoid. It’s tough to understand why someone would willingly endure these discomforts. His parents had the sentiment.
“Andrew was not adventurous in the way of wanting to travel,” said his mother, Carol Wolff. “In fact, after going to St. Mark’s for elementary school, I encouraged him to look at the public high schools, but he didn’t really consider them because his friends were going to Cretin. He was very determined though, and active, loved sports. And he has a high tolerance for discomfort.”
Wolff said the family was not outdoorsy, and had camped once that she could remember. They’d never been out of the country as a family. Siess enjoyed a typical middle-class, college prep childhood, took the ACT and SAT, but instead of going off to college in the fall 2008, he went to work at a mission in Venezuela for six months. Wolff, a teacher in the Minneapolis schools, is “reluctantly supportive” of her son’s nontraditional path. Although she hasn’t helped pay for Siess’ trips, she did pay for a dental visit when he passed through the Twin Cities.
Aaron Colantti, a friend and creator of the Andrew’s Great Adventure website, saw Siess’ trip as a way to advocate for alternative transportation and lifestyle.
Another friend, Dan Docherty, spent four weeks walking with Siess in Japan. He thought maybe his friend’s walk was a way to continue to up the challenge from previous adventures. Docherty recalled one incident that was uncomfortable for him but he realized, pretty routine for Siess. “We had 40K to go to get to a couch-surfing host in Yokohama. It was snowing when we woke up at 6 a.m., and by noon there was almost a foot of snow on the ground, and it was hard to push the cart with our stuff in it. We didn’t have a paper map and the cellphone battery was close to running out, so we couldn’t check that very often. By about 4 p.m., we were wet and cold, we didn’t have any food, and I started to think, ‘This could be kind of dangerous.’ There was a 7-Eleven there, so we went in, got some food and warmed up. We had about 10 miles to go. It took us eight hours. We got kind of frustrated with each other because we didn’t know really where we were going. We got to the host’s place about midnight.”
Ewa Bujak met 7-year-old Andrew as a violin student at St. Joseph’s School of Music, where she still is an instructor. She was struck by his quiet intensity and strong inner sense of self. “He wrote me a lovely e-mail [while on his round-the-world trip] thanking me for being his teacher, for giving him this way to connect with people, and to make money,” she said. “It meant so much to me, that he could see the value of music, and use it to do these amazing things.”
Siess spent 18 years building and perfecting the mind of a pure traveler, for whom seeing the world is the one and only priority. In 2008, he loosed himself on the world, and hasn’t stopped since. Here’s what he had to say about how he accomplished a global walkabout (Some of his comments are edited and condensed):
Hard-core walker, biker, paddler? Not necessary.
Siess said his only training was the walking and biking he does normally as a means of transportation. He learned enough to get on a sailing crew online in a month. He’d never done a long bike trip before taking off for the tip of Argentina. His mom said they didn’t think he’d actually do it until he made it through Iowa. And paddling down the Mississippi? Learned as he went, which included tipping the canoe and losing all his equipment and food at least once. By walking sunrise to sunset, he easily covered 34 miles in a day.
How did he fund his trip?
“I saved $6,000 to $7,000 working construction, and never had more than $8,000 in the bank. In Boston for about a month before I left, I stayed on a friend’s floor and played violin in the street about 10 hours a day. Made about $100 a day. People said I should look for sponsors, but this trip was unsponsorable. I didn’t use any fancy equipment, wasn’t raising awareness for any disease. Some people just wanted to help me out and that was great, but I didn’t want to have to answer to a big sponsor. Along the way, I played violin for money. Really, I just relied on the generosity of strangers.”
How did he plan his round-the-world route?
“You need food and water, so I had to follow roads to get to towns. Most of the world is owned by someone, so you’re not bushwhacking, you’re walking through somebody’s property. There is no Appalachian Trail around the world. In planning my route, I mostly looked into visas — if you can’t get into the country, you can’t walk across it. Central Asia was a real headache with regard to visas. I chose a Northern Hemisphere route over Southern Hemisphere because there’s more connected land in the north, there are few roads across Brazil, and in general, the Southern Hemisphere is less safe than the Northern. Safety was an issue. I didn’t walk across Pakistan because it seemed unsafe.”
How did he find his way?
“I knew English, Spanish and some Portuguese before I left, and learned some Italian on the trip. I had paper maps with me that I’d bought online. If I didn’t know the language, I would point and say the name of the town I wanted to go to. I was never really lost — a little unsure sometimes, particularly in Mongolia where I was just following dirt tracks. I had a compass but never used it.”
What did you carry with you?
“The violin was the most important thing. It’s hard to run out of money if you’ve got a violin and a street … hey, there’s a good quote! And even if you don’t make money, you can make friends and maybe a place to stay. The wheelie was second most important. In the beginning I had a backpack, but it’s really hard to walk with that. The best wheelie was actually a beach chair with wheels given to me by a German family on vacation in Croatia. I went through about five wheelies. I had a toothbrush, toothpaste, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, extra clothes, cooking pan, a multitool. I had one of those tiny stoves but I didn’t cook anything for the first two years because I didn’t have water to spare. I drank five to six liters per day; any water I had was for drinking. I had some books and my journals, some medicine, and a few trinkets that people gave me to remember them by.”
What does $5 a day look like?
“I mostly lived on $5 a day; in Japan, probably $10 a day. South Korea was also very expensive. I never paid for transportation (except air travel), and spent under $100 over the whole three years on accommodations. Couchsurfing.com is great; it saved me. I’d go to the library or an Internet cafe and look up hosts for the next two weeks. Warmshowers.org is actually for cyclists, but I used that, too. If I didn’t have a place to stay, I camped. ... I’d buy bread, dried fruit, nuts, cookies, enough to last to the next town (100 miles takes three days, but I could do it in two if I had to). I picked figs, plums, peaches from trees — never paid for fruit. I got water from taps. A few times I splurged on a restaurant, but it was exceedingly rare. People gave me food, water, clothes, shoes. Someone welded the axle on my wheelie for $10.”
“Probably in Croatia. It was over 100 degrees, and I ran out of water. I kept waiting for a town to appear. I had a purifier, but it wasn’t working. Anyway, I passed out from dehydration and had to go to the hospital. It was early in the trip so I had a long way to go, people weren’t helpful, the police harassed me. I pulled out of it because I had to. I didn’t have the money to stay in the hospital or a hotel, so the only thing left to do was keep going. It got way better in Turkey when people started helping me out.”
“The last three months from Portugal back to Sorrento [Italy]. There were people with me almost the whole way — friends from home, people I’d met along the way, my family.”
“I never had anything stolen. It helped that I looked like I didn’t have any money, but on the other hand, people sometimes called the cops on me because I looked like a bum. So that cut both ways. Dogs are always an issue. I just threw rocks at them. Kazakhstan and Mongolia are similar in terms of geography and livelihood, but Mongolian people are not very nice: They were often drunk, wanting cigarettes or alcohol. I think the difference is that Kazakhs are Muslim — their religion says to treat strangers like guests of God. For the most part, being white and American was helpful. I was in South America during the Bush years, and then, America was the evil empire. The world is a friendlier place for Americans since Obama has been president, I’ll tell you that. In some Muslim countries, they thought Obama might be Muslim. I went along with it — sure, why not?”
Impressions of countries?
“I was surprised by how safe Kazakhstan was. I would go to war with Monaco; it’s the worst country I’ve been to so far. It’s a police state, the people are filthy rich, they don’t tolerate any differences, they don’t allow you to walk across the country. Portugal has great abandoned buildings, and the police never stop you. The people are smart — they all know at least three languages. Portugal is cheap and beautiful. China is cheap and polluted, tons of coal trucks. By the way, it’s easier to get into China than the U.S. I was harassed more at the border in North Dakota than anywhere else. It’s the only place where I was taken into an interrogation room for a half-hour while they searched through all my stuff. It made getting into China seem like nothing. I had a lot of hostile encounters in Alaska and the Yukon; I think the remoteness attracts a disproportionate amount of odd people. It was, though, the most beautiful place in the whole world. Of course, I got stopped by police a lot here in the U.S., for walking, or because I looked homeless.”
Other things you learned?
“There are way too many people and cars in the world, in my opinion. Most people enjoy traveling but don’t do it because they don’t have enough money. People are constantly afraid they don’t have enough money. It’s all a mindset: I barely have any money, but I’m happy and I travel. How am I different? I guess I’m less of perfectionist now; it’s unhealthy. Nothing’s perfect.”
“Around Thanksgiving, I’m going to start in Colombia and canoe to the Atlantic. It’s about the same distance as down the Mississippi. (Siess got a Skyscanner.com flight to Colombia for $175, and plans to buy a canoe once he gets there.) Some friends have said they’re going with me, but you never know ’til you get there. I really love the Twin Cities. Eventually I’d like to have a house here so I can host couchsurfers.”
Sarah Barker is a freelancer writer. She lives in St. Paul.