In May 2015, Holly Harrison – known as “Cargo” to most of his buddies – was hiking along the Appalachian Trail and taking stock of his situation. “You know, trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” he said.
He was 55 years old at the time and had always dreamed big. He wanted to do something no one before had ever done, maybe something no one would ever be able to match. But he felt time was running out.
“I just had this thought: I wonder if anybody’s ever hiked the entire Western Hemisphere,” he said, “from the bottom of South America to the top in North America.”
He’d discover that one man had, in fact – the British explorer George Meegan did it four decades earlier, taking 6 years 236 days to walk from Patagonia to the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska – but Harrison thought just maybe he could do it faster.
Seven months later, he set out on his journey, making it only about 1,700 miles, not even past Chile, before tearing a tendon in his left foot. He flew home, and for the next nine months, he stewed, thinking about his mistakes and plotting his corrections. He sold his house in North Carolina to finance another attempt, and in December 2016, he again found himself at the southern tip of South America, in the Argentine city of Ushuaia, commonly regarded as the southernmost city on the planet.
What followed was a 14,481-mile journey along the Pan-American Highway with twists and turns that Harrison never could’ve anticipated: dog attacks in South America, a life-threatening heart attack in Nevada and a bear attack in Alaska. He passed through 14 countries and used crutches for added support over the last 2,000 miles, pushing through physical pain and emotional turmoil. He hadn’t known this at the outset, but it would turn into a journey of self-discovery, too.
He’d spent a lifetime preparing for the adventure. Harrison had been an Army Ranger in the early 1980s, later worked as a program manager for the Girl Scouts and spent years as a camp director. When he was 15, he hitchhiked across Nebraska. He hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2011 and had also trekked through Yellowstone and Yosemite, seeing much of the country’s natural beauty up close and personal.
Trudging through Patagonia and hiking across Argentina and Chile was no easy task. He could go several days without seeing a building or even a tree. At times, Harrison carried four or five days’ worth of food and water. Litter was prevalent, and he’d collect and drink from discarded water bottles he found along the road. When he happened across a town, he might sleep in a hostel, but most nights Harrison slept outdoors.
“My primary directive was always to keep myself safe,” he said, “and in the country that meant that I had to hide. Every night I would have to find a hiding place, whether it was under the road or in a grove of trees or behind a sand dune.”
Large drainage pipes beneath roads became a preferred overnight dwelling. “I would call them my hotel under the highway,” he said, “and I would rate them, like a one-star to a five-star.”
His goal was to cover 30 miles or so each day. He’d do as few as five and as many 51. But with few exceptions, every day, Harrison woke up and kept moving forward.
“I didn’t have a day where I ever questioned what I was doing out there,” he said, “because I knew what the consequence was of quitting and I knew that I would just be miserable. So I told myself, ‘You know, no one said it’s going to be easy, dude. It’s your choice coming out here. Suck it up, buttercup. Let’s go.’ “
He ate what was available in the small shops along his route, which usually meant bread, cheese, bologna, hot dogs, maybe some canned tuna. He traveled light. Harrison designed special hiking poles that doubled as storage. The bulk of the poles were made of plastic bottles and fiberglass, hollow and measuring 3½ inches in diameter, big enough to hold his tent poles, clothing, phone charger and other necessities.
As the weeks and months passed, so did the terrain: deserts, mountains, rain forests, jungles, swamps, rivers. There’s a system of roads that goes almost the entire route, with the exception of the Darién Gap, the famously dangerous jungle on the border of Colombia and Panama. “Plenty of things here can kill you,” reads a 2016 account in Outside magazine, “from venomous snakes to murderous outlaws who want your money and equipment. “
It’s less than 100 miles long and required Harrison to enlist the help of a hired guide. For much of that stretch, he splashed his way through shallow river waters, the safest passageway. The jungle should have been the most perilous part of his journey but turned out to be among the most beautiful stretches, he said.
The scariest point of his hike up the hemisphere was still ahead, waiting 4,000 miles to the north, just south of Reno, Nevada. For weeks, he’d been traversing a desolate and lonely stretch of desert through Arizona and Nevada. Harrison covered 31 miles one December day but awoke with a sharp pain in his arm and couldn’t fall back asleep. He walked in a daze to the next town about 10 miles away where he found a motel room. The next day the pain was much more pronounced and Harrison knew he was in the midst of a heart attack. He was taken by a medevac helicopter to Reno and immediately went into surgery. Doctors put a stent in his heart.
“They were real sympathetic and apologetic, really, like, ‘We know what you’ve been trying to do and it’s too bad you’ve got to stop,’” Harrison recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I didn’t say I was stopping.’ “
He wanted to test out his heart and after four days in the hospital, he went for a walk – for five miles. The next day he made it 11, and then 17 the day after that. The doctors wouldn’t give him a green light to continue his journey, but he wasn’t waiting for one. While he covered the first 11,000 miles solo, Harrison’s brother-in-law joined him in Nevada with a van to provide road support, and he hit the road again.
He started sleeping in the van but still woke up each morning and started his hike where he left off the previous night. The walk provided endless opportunity for reflection – “trying to reconcile certain events in my life,” he said. Somewhere along the way, he decided “it was time to confront an issue that had plagued me for so many years.” So while in Nevada, he met up with a daughter he hadn’t seen in 20 years, not since she was a 9-month-old baby.
“We have a beginning,” he’d later post on Facebook. “That’s what I had hoped for.”
In March, with 12,400 miles behind him and Canada’s snowy Yukon and all of Alaska still ahead, Harrison pulled a hamstring. And then, compensating for the injury, he re-tore the tendon in his foot that had wiped out his previous attempt to hike across the Americas. But he’d gone too far to quit this time, and bought a pair of crutches to help him cover the remaining 2,000 miles.
After a few days, he said, he found his rhythm and was back to covering 25 to 30 miles each day. He even used his crutches to pick up aluminum cans along the road – using the recycling money to help fill the van with gas.
With the end in sight, his brother-in-law had to depart, and Harrison was again sleeping outdoors and battling the elements alone, tucked into a sleeping bag in freezing temperatures each night.
The locals kept telling him that a stretch of Canada’s Stewart-Cassiar Highway was known as “Bear Alley,” but while Harrison had seen moose, bison and foxes, he never spotted a bear – not until one spotted him first.
In late May, just days from the finish line, Harrison awoke to a noise. He’d stored his food about 10 yards away from where he slept that night, beside a small structure that protected him from the wind, and a grizzly bear had found his stash. Harrison thought he could scare the bear away, so he leaped out yelling and clacking his crutches together. The bear was not frightened or amused.
“Instead of turning and running, he just came right at me,” Harrison said. “He ended up stopping right in front of me. He half sat up and started swatting at me, snorting and shaking his head.”
Harrison swatted back and struck the bear in the nose with one of his crutches. Finally, the bear retreated. With adrenaline still pumping, Harrison recorded a short video that he later posted to Facebook: “When he turned and started running away, he was pooping everywhere. I think I actually scared the crap out of a grizzly bear,” he said.
Finally, on May 31, Harrison set out for last day of hiking. A crew from NBC’s “Today” show joined him as he walked toward a frozen Prudhoe Bay. “It doesn’t even seem like a finish line, you know?” he said at the end. “Look at it. I could keep walking. It’s ice.”
Harrison walked 14,481 miles in 530 days — an average of more than 27 miles a day. He bettered Meegan’s mark by more than five years.
“It was just exhilarating,” he said. “You know, physically I was just totally beat up. Emotionally and in a lot of other ways, it’s kind of sad that it was finally over.”
In the month since, Harrison trimmed his hair, and both his foot and leg have mostly healed. He’s traveled to see family and friends in Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Texas. He also visited an Alaska tattoo artist he’d befriended on his journey and had all of the Western Hemisphere tattooed across his stomach and midsection, a map of the Americas he’d been obsessed with for the previous three years.
He still doesn’t have a home of his own, and after a year and a half of walking as fast as he could, he’s not in much of a hurry to settle down. For now, he’s starting to write down his memories from the road, and then who knows? “I don’t really know what I’m going to do,” he said. But in some fashion, he’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other.