“I remember lying in bed and feeling hollowed out,” said the now 27-year-old Tom Turcich, who lost his dear friend, AnneMarie, when he was just 17 years old. “I sat on a lawn with some friends and everyone was crying except me. I didn’t understand it. In an instance, she was gone. Before then, I never realized how fragile our lives were.” It was in this moment, with a newfound understanding of the world, that Tom was filled with a need to make the most of the time he had.
Fast-forward almost a decade and the New Jersey native has found the ultimate way to carpe diem. He would embark on a five-year, seven continent journey around the world. But there was a twist: he would be doing the whole thing on foot.
For Tom, this desire to trek around the globe wasn’t an idea that sparked overnight, but nearly a 10-year long fantasy. With $1,000 in his bank account in high school, he began searching for cheap ways to travel. It was then that he stumbled across Karl Bushby, the first brave soul to undertake the challenge of walking the world in a completely unbroken path. He was hooked -- and the idea of following in Bushby’s footsteps stuck with him throughout college.
“I don’t think I’d be walking around the world right now if Karl Bushby hadn’t done it before me,” he says. In fact, Tom’s route today (pictured here) mostly resembles that of the British adventurer’s (as well as another walker, Steve Newman). “The route is rough and subject to change whenever it pleases me,” he says. “I didn’t give myself rules, so if a country is suddenly in turmoil, I’ll allow myself to find a path around it.”
After attending college, paying off his loans, and saving while living frugally, Tom was finally able to make his dream a reality. He had pocketed enough to bleed out until he reached Uruguay. But then, even better news hit. The Philadelphia Sign, a signage design company, reached out to Tom and offered to sponsor him before he hit the road. “The owner and CEO knew AnneMarie and wanted to support me,” he says. “They gave me enough to see this thing through and donate a dollar a mile into AnneMarie’s scholarship fund.”
To date, Tom has conquered 10 countries, 6,300 miles, and 466 days. He’s climbed mountains in Guatemala, sprinted through deserts in Honduras, learned Spanish from podcasts, and slept in the rainforest in Costa Rica, but one incidence in particular stands out from the rest.
“Certainly the starkest moment in my mind is cresting a hill and coming upon my first sight of Lake Atitlan. I screamed -- actually screamed -- at how beautiful it was,” he says. “I’d never been that viscerally struck by a place before.” That being said, the experience hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies.
“Physically, Costa Rica was a nightmare,” he says, attributing most of the grueling experience to the intense humidity in the jungles. Starting around 4 a.m., Tom would walk until 10 a.m., find shade through 2 p.m., then head back out for another four hours. “My feet were swelling up like mad. I lost three toenails to blisters and was practically limping most of miles,” he says. “The road was so hot at one point that the soles of my shoes melted off.”
Then, there was that time he got a shiv to the neck in Panama City. Early one morning, while sitting outside a shop and texting his dad happy birthday, Tom felt something chill on his neck. He looked up to find a man with a knife in his hands. Jumping up and backing away into a mini-market, the man, who Tom describes as “tall, with long black hair, and nasty skin,” continued to follow him. After a little more confrontation (the storeowners also got involved), the man abruptly took off and Tom was safe.
But most days don’t bring these kind of jarring encounters. "Mostly, I’m amazed how generous people are," Tom says. "I’m brought in by strangers far more often than I ever imagined."
As for what an average day looks like, Tom wakes up around 5 a.m. and starts with a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and some stretching. He'll get on the road at first light. After walking for an hour or two, he’ll then find a spot to sit and eat. This is followed by more walking, lunch around noon, and then -- yep, you guessed it -- even more walking. When it gets hot, around 1 or 2 p.m., he'll take cover in some shade. Two hours before sunset, he begins the search for a place to spend the night. If it’s a densely populated or mountainous area, he’ll crash at a hostel. Otherwise, it's time to pull out his tarp (or a tent, if there are mosquitoes) in the desert and call it a night. He usually caps off the day with some writing, photo editing, and reading.
Through it all, Tom keeps a light load, which includes camping gear, a tarp, an isobutane stove (which he actually left back in Lake Atitlan since it was only used for coffee), and a cart with other essential items.
For now, Tom is sticking to a schedule. “Initially, I planned on flying straight to Portugal and walking the world laterally, but I wanted to see South America and lay eyes on Antarctica. The boats to Antarctica stop at the beginning of March, so I need to be in Uruguay by then to catch it,” he says. To make that timeline, he likes to get 24 miles in per day, which averages out to about eight hours of walking.
But even though he’s sticking to a loose routine, it’s a definite change of pace from his life back home, which he refers to as “straightforward.” His days in the Garden State were filled with working at an insurance company, performing monotonous scanning tasks, and waiting tables at an Indian restaurant.
Luckily, he’s not tackling the trek alone. “There were some sketchy nights out there by myself and I kept thinking how great it would be to have a dog,” he says. So when he was in Austin, he made a pit stop at a shelter and adopted Savannah, his new travel buddy.
Since Tom met Savannah at four months old, she has adapted to life on the road. “When we first started, she was so afraid of cars and would freeze when one drove by,” he says. “For a while, she’d walk a few miles, then I’d put her in the back of my cart. Gradually she gained endurance. Now we’ll do 30 miles in a day and she’ll still run around at night.” Turns out, with the right paperwork, crossing borders with a pup is easy.
The two continue to walk side-by-side -- mostly on roads with a good shoulder and an occasional back road here and there. “I did walk through an incredible sand back road in El Salvador and saw an even more rural side to the country than I already had,” Tom says.
So far, there has been no shortage of experiences to write home about. But as for what he wants to take away after five years, he says, “Oh man, I’m not sure. I just want to be alive and so far the walk has certainly done that.”
All images courtesy of Tom Turcich.
Now watch this video of Tom's inspiring story >>