“Be assured you are in some danger, as the people of this country will kill you for your possessions or for their resentment of your presence in this country, or both.”
That was the warning the U.S. Embassy sent Dave and John Kunst at the Afghanistan border as they began the Asian leg of their walk around the earth. It was the summer of 1972 and the Kunst brothers were two years into their journey. They had already endured extreme temperatures, pestering foreigners, and dangerous territories, particularly in Iran, where they were forced to rely on a police escort for safety.
That letter ended up being prophetic. A few weeks later, on a moonlit night by the Kabul River, bandits shot both Kunst brothers. John died that night and Dave spent the next four months recuperating from a chest wound in America before returning to Afghanistan. He resumed his trip from the exact spot where John was killed, this time accompanied by his older brother Pete.
The next two years took them to Singapore, across the Australian outback, and then to California, where the last stage of the walk brought Dave full circle to Waseca in 1974. His feat was included in the 1991 Guinness Book of Records and he recorded his tale in his book “The Man Who Walked Around The World.” Earlier this year, HBO announced plans to produce a movie of the same name based on the Kunst brothers' Odyssey.
Their journey began in 1970, when Dave and John walked out of Waseca, Minnesota with a mule named Willie Makeit (read: will he make it) and every intention to circle the world on foot. After 20 million steps and 21 worn out pairs of shoes, Kunst proved that if you set your mind to something, you can walk around the world.
“It was such a fantastic learning experience, adventure, and achievement, I can recall all the major parts,” Kunst says. Highlights of the walk included leaving his hometown, John's death, meeting his future wife Jenni and walking back into Waseca to finish his journey.
Kunst's friend first suggested the trip to him at a time when Kunst was seeking adventure in his life. Kunst took the idea to heart, convinced John, and they set their departure date. “We didn't have what you might call serious plans,” Kunst admits in a phone interview. “We got out the world map, picked major countries, major cities.” They estimated the trip would take three-and-one-half years. They carried a scroll for signatures of the mayors of every town they passed through, as proof that they were there. They also asked well-wishers to donate money to UNICEF (note: they were not collecting the money themselves – that was too dangerous).
Setting the date and meeting it was the single most important part of the trip. “If we hadn't left that day I'm sure we would have put it off forever,” Kunst says. His advice on how to start any adventure is to “set the date and then tell everybody, because then you're embarrassed if you don't do it.”
The Kunst brothers walked into each country blindly, with no reservations and only got a map once they reached the American consulate. They also only spoke English so there was a language barrier in every region. While in Paris, they went five miles out of their way because their guide thought they meant “merri (beach)” when they asked for the “mayor.”
Kunst also accomplished many smaller feats during the walk. He and John met Princess Grace of Monaco, brought the first mule into 200 years in Venice, and he and Pete were escorted through the Khyber Pass by a Pakistani tribal prince.
Kunst was devastated after his brother's death but something John had said to him earlier in the trip convinced him to continue: “I love this walk and if I die walking round the world you tell Mom and Dad that I died happy.”
Kunst met his future wife during the Australian leg, when Jenni offered to tow his wagon across the Outback in her car, a journey of more than 1000 miles, and in first gear so that he could walk beside it. This did some serious damage to her car but they fell in love and he returned to Australia to marry her after the walk.
Kunst was ecstatic when he heard that the film was finally being made. “He has to have the neck for playing the guy who walked around the earth,” Kunst says of who should portray him. Kunst will be a consultant in the movie and says he cares more about a strong script and great actors and director than who is involved. If it meets those standards, he believes it'll be a good movie.
Kunst is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the completion of his walk by driving from California to Manhattan with his wife. He has made this drive thirty times; they have also driven across Australia four times. At age 70, he says, “the walking's over.”
Kunst lives in Newport with his wife Jenni; they have been married 40 years.
See photos from Kunst's personal collection on the next page.