Friday, May 28, 2010

3mph The Adventures of One Woman's Walk Around the World

by Polly Letofsky

On August 1, 1999, Polly Letofsky left her home in Vail, Colorado, and headed west. She traveled across 4 continents, 22 countries, and over 14,000 miles by foot to become the first American woman to walk around the world. As an awareness campaign for breast cancer, survivors and well-wishers around the world came out to walk with her. Every day strangers welcomed her into their homes and shared meals. Across four continents she had dinner conversations with poets, politicians, country singers, olive growers, pig farmers and the female bomb maker in Australia. The world had embraced her. But in the middle of Polly s five-year journey, the world suddenly shifted on its axis when September 11 flung us all into a crossroads in world history. To rapt audiences, she richly details her journey with humor and honest reflection, the good times and the hardships. She tells of how she took on the challenge of a life-long dream and learned quickly how to adapt to a swiftly changing world and to always live on the edge of her comfort zone. Sometimes serious, sometimes funny, always inspirational, Polly s program personifies the spirit of commitment and perseverance that will compel you to conquer life s challenges one step at a time.

Lessons from the Road:

The world is a pretty good place -- despite what we hear on the 6 o'clock news. Of course there were difficult times, I knew there would be. But the bumps in the road were the fabric that made up this journey, and just like our trek through life, it's the tough times that make us who we are, the character builders.

There's no greater education or means to personal growth than a walk around the world. Personally, I would like to see every political science, journalism and business major ditch their college thesis and instead spend their senior year walking across a country. Any country. Their assignments would be to talk to local farmers and businessmen, talk to locals at the "Ma and Pa" café, talk to local developers and mayors and the policemen that stop and ask what you're up to. When you're walking village to village talking to the local families, educators, politicians and road workers, and you sit around their dinner tables every night, you learn how various policies affect them, having to consider an entire set of elements that wouldn't be the case for the neighboring village, city or country. And incrementally you become a seasoned critical thinker.

knew this journey would be an education, but I was thinking more along the lines of languages, geography, history, but who could've guessed I'd learn so much about mango farming, the international trucking industry, or become knowledgeable about city planning, architecture, and not just languages, but the history of languages. My brain is stuffed silly with useless information I may never use again. (An upside is that recently the New York Times Crossword had the clue, "Smelly fruit in Malaysia" and without missing a beat I filled in D-U-R-I-A-N. It would hardly get me a job -- and it was the only answer I got -- but I stood proud if even for a moment.)

People often ask how this walk has changed me. I'm sure these five years have affected me in ways I'll never fully comprehend, but there are obvious changes, like the way I bond with strangers instantly, the way I react to a seemingly overwhelming task, or how I compartmentalize a difficult situation and just keep putting one step in front of the other until I'm past it. But I've also noticed changes full of contradictions.

When people frequently ask, "What were the best of times? The worst of times?" It's my observation that they were the same things. For example, I loved learning the languages and trying out a new word, marveling that the funny sounds coming out of my mouth actually communicated an idea, a mood or an action. On the other side of that, there were nights when I was so tired and grumpy, I just wanted to ask where the campground was and understand the answer.

Likewise, meeting locals from around the world was priceless. Staying at their homes, hearing about their lifestyles and the issues of their day in their industry, their country. The other side of that is that sometimes at the end of a long day I just wanted to sit in a hot tub, turn on CNN and not answer the questions, oh God, the incessant questions.

My biggest education by far, though, has been in my discovery of America. My patriotism surprises me because I don't recall giving two hoots about being an American or otherwise prior to leaving. But to travel through various cultures, particularly through what was this turbulent crossroads in world history, and discover the real meaning in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, free to be whoever you want to be, and to have equal rights protected by law, to discover my own roots and how this country helped shape who I am, those are my walk's greatest lessons.

The definition of walking around the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is that you have to walk at least 14,000 miles, and you need to start and finish in the same place and walk across at least four continents, and they say that when you get to the end of a continent you can fly. The numbers speak volumes about the lengths Letofsky went 14,124 miles across 22 countries in North America, Australia, Asia and Europe. Walking at an average of 15 miles per day for 1,825 consecutive days, or five years, she fundraised more than $250,000 for 13 breast cancer organizations and burned through 29 pairs of shoes.

Born on March 1, 1962, Letofsky first heard of and became fascinated with a global walk at age 12, when she read about David Kunst s 15,000-mile, four-year trek around the world. In her 30s, after having traveled the world in more conventional ways, the urge to walk around the world was still burning in the back of Letofksy s brain. For two years she struggled to find sponsors, while working part-time at a hotel. One day, in the middle of this stack of reservations I see this...piece of paper and on the top of it, it says, Definition of commitment: When you find a way over every hurdle in your path and nothing but success is an option. It took another year and a half before she secured enough sponsorships like New Balance Shoes and The North Face to provide products and services but never money before she was ready to hit the ground walking. On August 1, 1999, at age 37, Letofsky started in Vail, Colo., and on July 30, 2004, after selling her condo to help cover the costs of the last leg of her trip, she returned, having accomplished her goal.