How to Walk Around the World: An Interview with Polly Letofsky

At the age of 12, Polly Letofsky decided she wanted to walk around the world. Years later, as she was planning the trip, she made another decision – she would use this five year journey to raise awareness and money for breast cancer. Polly’s journey of 14,124 miles (1825 consecutive days walking) across four continents and 22 countries was successfully completed when she arrived in Vail, Colorado in 2004.

Here is a bit of her story.

What was your route?

I went across Colorado to South LA across New Zealand across Australia across South East Asia across India across Turkey, then across Western Europe to the British Isles and back across the Northern U.S.

Did you plan that ahead of time or did it come to fruition as you walked?

I made a blueprint, and then things changed. I wanted to go through China, and I kept insisting it would be wide open by the time I got there, but the reality was it was not, so I had to redo my route to go through India.

Another detour I had to make was after 9/11 because of the ensuing war with Afghanistan. I couldn’t get through Pakistan or Iran, so I carried on through Turkey.

Was there ever a time you wanted to quit? Like a time when you thought, “10,000 miles is enough” or “7,000 miles is enough.”

There was not a time I thought of quitting. Not ever, not once.  I did not expect things to go smoothly, and I knew there would be tough times I couldn’t predict or plan. If I was going to do this, then I had to accept the tough times as part of the education. I had to accept that I was going to be educated along the way.

That is not to say there were not terribly, terribly frustrating times. The question was always, “How do I get through this?” It was never, “How do I get on a plane and get out of here?” I never thought about quitting.

Can you talk about the emotional and physical hurdles of walking around the world?

The emotional was more about a lot of patience, frustrations and aggravations, and of course, there was also immense joy. I equate it to raising children. Raising children is the hardest job you could have, and it is also the best. It is a labor of love. You don’t do it for the money. It is a labor of love, and you have to be committed to it. If someone paid you to do this, halfway through you would think this is not worth the money.

Even in the very, very tough times – like trying to escape a flood and find indoors somehow – I remember thinking, “This is so much better than a day at work.” Over time I could see the ebb and flow of good times, bad times, good times, bad times. Even when there were tough times, I accepted them as the ebb knowing that the good times were coming, and with the good times sometimes I would think “uh oh.”

What shoes did you wear to walk 14,000 miles?

I wore New Balance Walking Shoes. Before I left I started wearing all kinds of shoes for six months, so I would know long term how they would fit. Over the course of time I figured out I needed New Balance shoes.

What about loneliness?

I hate to state the obvious, but if you are going to attempt a walk around the world you better enjoy your own company. Some people will say, “I could never miss the holidays with my family.” and well then, maybe they shouldn’t do this.

I think one of the traits you really should have; particularly if you are going to do this as a fund raising campaign as I did, is you have to be comfortable alone and you have to be able to make friends quickly. Of course, I noticed this half way through the trip.

Ironically the only time I got lonely was after 9/11, and I was in Malaysia, and I was with crowds of people every day. There were 50 to 100 people walking with me every day all day, but I was lonely because I could not talk about 9/11. Here were my people, if you could go back to the tribal nature of people, back in the US, and I didn’t know what was going on and you couldn’t talk about it because in Asia you cannot talk about your feelings. So ironically, the only time I ever felt lonely was when I was surrounded by groups.

What areas were most unlike your preconceived notions?

Europe, all of Europe – Greece and Italy -particularly Southern Italy. They were very unwelcoming, rough, aggressive and unfriendly.

Was it because you were American?

No, they didn’t know I was American. It blindsided me. It is part of my story, my speech and I talk about it in my book.

On the other side of the spectrum Malaysia and Thailand were so friendly. I think I spent a total of, maybe this is an exaggeration, 50 dollars in the entire six months I was there. People were so friendly. They would not let me pay for anything. Those are the two sides of that spectrum.

You are walking and then September 11th came, did you notice a discernible difference in how you were treated.

It is a difficult question to answer because in the areas I hadn’t been, I had not been pre-9/11. So I can’t compare apples to apples. I think it just exaggerated both sides. If you loved America before [9/11,] then you would stick up for it until the nines, and if you hated it, you would hate it even more.

A woman on Facebook that knew I was interviewing you wanted me to ask you, “What was the most interesting, strange or funny experience?”

I think they are funny now, but I don’t know if they were at the time. In India, in the tribal area, they don’t necessarily have any plumbing systems, so when they get up for the 4 am call to prayer, they line up along the street, squat and pooh. Of course, I was up early too because I wanted to start walking before the hottest hours. So I would get up, and the sun was rising, and there was kind of that orange glow in the sky, and all you see are silhouettes of people squatting and poohing in the road.

The funny one was, I was in Northern Australia in a very desolate area and a woman came running after me, she must have been 80. She said to me, “Are you that woman walking around the world?”, and she lifted her shirt, right there on the highway, and said, “I had breast cancer 40 years ago. Take a look at these!”

What do you say to that?

What about danger? I think so many people would have perhaps legitimate fear around doing this. Can you talk about the times where you felt like you were in legitimate danger?

When it came to people and dangerous situations, it was much more aggravation than fear. It happened about three times where people would try to grab me and pull me into the bushes, and those three times happened within an eight week period in Turkey and Greece. Twice the police were called, and the third time I did not call the police. I scared the hell out of all of them. [Laughing] I fought, and I fought well, and I was just pissed.

The times I was generally in fear was more when it came to animals. You can’t reason with animals; you can’t fight with them.

The scariest situation was when a pack of dogs in Iowa, one by one, surrounded me. Eventually there were eight of them. I had just read a story about this pack mentality. They eventually surround you and attack. They had surrounded me and I was in the middle of the highway.

As luck would have it, a car came around the bend, and I threw myself on the hood of the car. Thankfully it was going slowly. That was the scariest thing – dealing with the animals. I had pepper spray and the whistle, I had everything, but after awhile they just don’t care.

How did this change your ideas on fear? Fear of humanity? Common human fears? What did this teach you about that?

I certainly still have them. I take precautions. I am not an idiot. If I am at a speaking engagement, and after all this talk of walking around the world alone, I will ask someone to walk me to my car if I parked it in a parking structure.

There are different kinds of fear. There is the fear of trying something new. Let’s say holding my [self-publishing] classes. I don’t know if they were scary, but they were new. So I just thought I would make the plan and see the picture in my head of how it will go or reach out to people who have done it before and have them help. Fear is from the unknown but if you get to know it, then you can tackle it that much easier. Get to know it and ask for help.

Then there is the fear of embarrassment, and you overcome that by being prepared. I think fear is normal. It is not that I don’t have fear. I am just learning how to confront fear.

How did you deal with blisters?

Blisters weren’t an enormous problem – only when it was extremely hot and I was walking on uneven or rocky, sandy shoulders. India was awful for blisters because it was so hot and the roads were so bad, so I found myself rationing my second skin to get me to the end.

Did you ever run?   

No running. I wasn’t against it, it’s just that I had to push a 40 – 75 pound cart. It was not ideal for running.

Did you listen to music? 

Yes, I had a walkman disc [laughing] with a total of about 20 CDs. Boy, those songs got tiring: Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Van Morrison, Billy Joel. When I was in an English speaking country I listened to the radio or talk radio — which is a great way to hear about the culture of a country and what they’re thinking. I loved getting Armed Forces Radio across Europe.

Did your relationship with yourself change as a result of this?

I think it did. I don’t want to say I went out and found myself. I found myself a long time ago. This was not about going out to find myself. With the five years from your late 30s to your early 40s, there seems to be a switch where suddenly you just have more confidence. Anybody in that age group who does something for five years, as I did, is going to start to gain more confidence.

It may have been accelerated only because the learning curve I experienced was constant. If you get a new job the learning curve skyrockets for the first six months, and then it levels out. That was not the case with this walk. My learning curve went straight up for five years and never leveled out.

You just wanted routine and there was never routine. I think as humans we want routine. We don’t want to get in a rut, but we want a routine. We want the familiar to a degree. I was constantly living three steps outside my comfort zone and it really did get exhausting.

Do you think you would be treated any differently if you were a man doing this?

I wondered that a lot. I guess I always thought it would be a detriment being a man. I think it helped a great deal to be a woman. People felt more comfortable welcoming me into their homes and being with their children. They were comfortable with me, but I met men who did it and they were very welcomed too, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Do you have any desire to travel now?

No, I don’t. I really don’t. I think I am in a whole new chapter in my life. It is 10 years this summer I finished my walk. I thought the desire to travel would sneak up on me but – nope. I am just in a new chapter of my life.

Anything else you would like to add?

Look back at any time in your life when you were really successful – and follow the same policies for success now. If you were a great tennis player – you got up every day and you planned and you read and you reached out to your coach – those same practices and policies can be put into anything to be successful and that is what I did with my walk – even though I didn’t do it by design.

I made my schedule and my route. I looked at that thing every day. I would tick it off every day and I would constantly restructure and reevaluate and ask for help – usually from strangers in my case. And I do that now with my business. I make my daily, weekly plans and my quarterly goals. I do everything on my business that I did on my walk because that is what made me successful and I can do that in any area of my life.

Learn more about Polly here or buy her book.


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