NJ Pen Q&A: Catching up with World Walker Tom Turcich


While Haddon Township native Tom Turcich is back home for a brief visit, we chat with him about his multi-year plan to travel the world on foot, what he’s seen so far, and where he’s headed.

By Matt Skoufalos | May 19, 2017

Two years ago last month, Haddon Township native Tom Turcich embarked on a five-year plan to cross the globe on foot. So far, his travels have taken him across the southeastern United States, through Mexico and Central America, all the way down South America to Antarctica.

Along the way, he picked up a traveling companion in his dog, Savannah, whose paperwork is subject to review before she can enter Europe for the next leg of the trip. While he was stateside, we caught up with Turcich, who chronicles his journey at The World Walk.

Tom Turcich and Savannah visit the Westmont Farmers Market. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

NJ PEN: It’s been a few years. Where has your trip taken you so far?

TOM TURCICH: Jersey down to Mexico. I entered on the east coast, and then down to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama.

I was following the Pan-American Highway, which is the one road you follow from North to South America.

Panama City to Bogota, into Ecuador, to the coast of Peru, which is all desert, through the capital city, Lima, down to Chile; more desert.

In North Chile, crossed over the Andes into Argentina, and then into Uruguay, where there were cousins and a place to stay.

Then I flew to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point in Argentina, and took a boat to Antarctica. Then two days on the boat in open ocean to Antarctica. Around Antarctica for eight days, and then a boat back to Ushuaia, flew back to Uruguay, and then came back here to get Savannah’s paperwork.

NJ PEN: Once your dog can enter Europe, what’s the next leg of the journey look like?

TURCICH: Ireland up to Scotland, down to England, and then over into the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, and then into Africa across the strait of Gibraltar.

Then the southern coast of the Mediterranean, which is Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Up to Italy, and then make my way towards Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia. Through part of China, either to Japan or straight to Australia, but once Australia’s done, we fly back to California and do a victory lap across the U.S.

NJ PEN: How long do you expect that to take?

TURCICH: Minimum three years.

Tom and Savannah spend their last day in Honduras on a cattle farm. Credit: Tom Turcich.

NJ PEN: You’ve traveled so far already. Have you ever been afraid for your safety?

TURCICH: Parts of South America felt more secure than Central America.

That was rougher and I was learning Spanish along the way.

Central America, especially the border of Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras, was really dangerous.

Everyone tells you, ‘Why do you walk around here? I don’t walk around here.’

El Salvador is in the middle of a gang war, and they have one of the highest murder rates in the world. Honduras is very poor and undeveloped.

NJ PEN: You’re exposed to everything when you’re on foot. How did you get through some of those sketchy situations?

TURCICH: I’m only walking. There’s no other option.

Colombia was a little tense. It’s a great country; the people are very friendly. But the older generation has lived through a lot. They lived through La Violencia; the two political parties were killing each other. They had a huge drug problem after that. The older generation has lived through this dangerous time for 40 years.

You get to a place and they tell you, ‘The people in the next town, be careful, it’s very dangerous.’ And you get to the next town, and they tell you, ‘Be careful in the next town, it’s very dangerous.’ Everywhere, they do the same thing. In Mexico, in Guatemala, a lot of the older generation just lives in town. They don’t travel as much; there’s fear of the unknown. The younger generation didn’t have it.

NJ PEN: What are people’s reactions when they hear about why you’re there?

TURCICH: Disbelief, I guess. It’s hard for people to wrap their head around, especially as I get further into Central and South America, and I tell people, ‘I walked from New Jersey; I walked from Bogota.’

NJ PEN: People just don’t understand how that’s possible.

TURCICH: It takes a little bit to comprehend the idea of doing it; that you push 20 miles and camp, and push another 20 miles and camp. You meet cyclists or people on motorbikes traveling, but walking is too rare a thing. A lot of people never heard of it before.

NJ PEN: Does being able to point to your website help that?

TURCICH: Sure, ‘Here’s everywhere I’ve been, here’s the map.’ On the road, when I’m walking, I try not to talk about it that much because it ends up being the same conversation over and over again. When my Spanish wasn’t that good, it really was the same conversation over and over again. You ask people about themselves and what they’re doing, and it’s a lot more interesting.

On their second day in Guatemala, a family housed Tom and Savannah overnight. Credit: Tom Turcich.

NJ PEN: Who are the most interesting people you’ve encountered on the road?

TURCICH: One of the most interesting guys was Matt Hogan.

He was the son of the former governor of Maryland; he owns [Finca Bellavista], this treehouse community in Costa Rica.

He’s a professional snowboarder who was in the first X-Games with Shaun White.

He found 600 acres that was being sold for oil, so he bought it to preserve the land, and then got the idea of building a treehouse community on it.  For two years he lived under a tarp with his wife building the first one.

NJ PEN: How did you get hooked up with him?

TURCICH: Pure chance. I happened to be out at a café. I was talking to people and camping out that night. I got an email from this guy Mateo who said, ‘I own this tree house community, and wanted to offer you some respite if you’re into that.’ I looked up the website and thought, ‘This can’t be real.’ And it worked out where I was three miles from the location. That never happens.

NJ PEN: What was it like?

TURCICH: Treehouses 90 feet high in the jungle; a huge river running through it. Waterfalls. It was incredible.

You get to a place and they tell you, ‘The people in the next town, be careful, it’s very dangerous.’ And you get to the next town, and they tell you, ‘Be careful in the next town, it’s very dangerous.’ Everywhere, they do the same thing.

–Tom Turcich, The World Walk

NJ PEN: When you left, you said part of the reason for making the trip was feeling the scale of the world underfoot. Has that happened for you?

TURCICH: Walking all the time, you’re exposed to everything. Really, I felt it the most in the deserts of Peru and Chile. I would go three or four days without a town, without anyone. For months on end, it was me and the desert and this open scope of road, and I would lie down at night with a million stars overhead.

NJ PEN: How do you budget your food and your water, when you’re doing that?

TURCICH: Trial and error. You have to figure out what you need for each day. I had been walking for a year, figuring out what I needed to buy to feel good. It depends on every country. They have different food. Nuts, peanut butter; some protein, fat, and sugar. Those are the staples because they really last, and there’s not a lot of calories for a lot of weight.

Tom and Savannah at Tikal temple ruins in Mexico. Credit: Tom Turcich.

NJ PEN: Has the trip changed you?

TURCICH: I’ve thought about everything in my life a thousand times.

I’ve thought about all the past relationships, every time I thought I made an error.

I’ve thought about everything from a thousand different perspectives.

Each kind of falls away and falls away until you don’t have any problems left.  I’m just very content.

I knew before that people are the same everywhere; that was confirmed. People just want to go to work and come back and hang out with their family.

One of the greatest understandings that has come out of the walk is the difference between each country. When you get to a border, the line is so stark. And it’s the exact same climate. They started with the same resources, and the only difference is the government.

NJ PEN: Have U.S. politics affected the reception you get overseas?

TURCICH: The first thing people think about when they think about America is the president. Before they used to say, ‘Obama.’ Now they say, ‘Trump,’ and they follow it up with a laugh. You have different conversations than I was having before.

NJ PEN: Do you think you’ll have any trouble traveling being an American abroad?

TURCICH: I’m pretty insulated as an American, luckily. I think the first visa I need is in Algeria, and then in Tunisia, and once I get up into the eastern European countries. Through a lot of Europe, I’m going to get one passport stamp, and then I’m good for Europe.

Tom and Savannah at the Mexican Border. Credit: Tom Turcich.

NJ PEN: You didn’t set out on your trip with a dog. Why did you get Savannah?

TURCICH: The first four months of walking, I’d be camping, and then I’d hear something, and I’d wake up and have this shot of adrenaline.

I’d be sitting there with my eyes wide to try to see something in the dark.

I thought it’d be really nice to have a dog. The original purpose we evolved together is so we could sleep and they could listen.

NJ PEN: How has traveling with Savannah changed things?

TURCICH: She was great. I was pushing her in the cart for a while through Texas, and then in Mexico, she would start walking all the time. Some days we do 30 miles together, and she still has energy at the end of the day. Any hassle at the border is well worth it for the times we’re together. And she’s protection.

NJ PEN: Has she had to be protection for you, or is she more of a deterrent?

TURCICH: She fought off something in a Costa Rican jungle, and she definitely would scare people off at night. In Central and South America, people are afraid of dogs, so in most places the first question they ask is, ‘Does she bite?’

I sleep way better [with her around]. It’s nice to have a companion. It’s good to have someone to talk to in the middle of the desert even though she doesn’t respond. It provides a certain peace of mind.

I’ve thought about everything in my life a thousand times; all the past relationships, every time I thought I made an error. I’ve thought about everything from a thousand different perspectives. Each kind of falls away and falls away until you don’t have any problems left.

–Tom Turcich, The World Walk

NJ PEN: Towards the end of your most recent leg of the journey, you ended up in Anarctica. Even when you’re walking around the world, that’s got to be a highlight.

TURCICH: It will never be topped. I was out there in a kayak and there’s huge snow-and-ice covered mountains on the side of you. Icebergs sliding by, whales coming up. Penguins jumping over the water. It’s so quiet, so peaceful. Not a trace of humanity there. It feels like you’re on an alien planet.

NJ PEN: You slept on a boat with other tourists during the day. Who else is traveling to Antarctica?

TURCICH: It takes a big commitment. It’s a lot of money, and it’s extreme. You’re not going to get the Disney World family on their way to Antarctica. It’s professionals who have money who’ve been to five or six continents already, and this is a last check in the box. Amazing people. There were maybe 80 of us tourists on the boat, and everyone had some interesting background to them.

Tom Turcich after kayaking in Anarctica. Credit: Tom Turcich.

NJ PEN: Who was the most interesting person on the boat?

TURCICH: This 24-year-old German kid, Johannes Becker. He’s a professional photographer and has a million followers on Instagram.

I’d never taken photographs with anyone else; to finally be with someone else, and pick his mind, and go shooting with him.

He’s a great guy, and I’ll probably meet up with him in Germany.

NJ PEN: What’s been your biggest takeaway of the trip so far?

TURCICH: I left thinking about Argentina or Peru, and you can’t even imagine what it’s like. I have all these memories attached to these places now. When I go to Italy or Kazakhstan, I can have conversations with understanding behind them. That’ll be the biggest thing, putting these people and places behind the country on the map. I have a much better understanding of the world outside of newspapers and the news.

NJ PEN: You set out with no experience whatsoever. Do you think that your journey will be an example to other people to try doing something like this?

TURCICH: People follow and see me go through these places, and it creates the idea that this can be done. I have Philadelphia Sign backing me, but it’s me and Savannah; I don’t have this team.

It’s a good example to show what’s possible. It’s a lot easier for people to travel now than it was 50 years ago. If you come from the U.S. to South America, you can live on $7-10 per day pretty easily. The world’s shrinking and this kind of thing will become more and more common.

Savannah takes a rest outside the World Walk cart. Credit: Tom Turcich.

NJ PEN: And you’ve had good weather most of the time, which helps.

TURCICH: I was very fortunate for most of it. I walked through minimal rain for a year from Mexico down to Chile.

It wasn’t until Argentina that I got caught in some massive, massive storms, where I would wake up and basically be in a swamp when I had settled on dry land before.

NJ PEN: So when you leave for Europe, what are you bringing with you?

TURCICH: I get a new cart; the same gear. I’ve got it pretty down to exactly what I need. One-man tent. Sleeping bag, sleeping pad. Short-sleeved shirt, long-sleeved shirt (I wear LuluLemon metal tech because there’s silver thread in it. It never smells). Wool shirt, down jacket, rain jacket, shorts, pants, rain pants. 100-watt battery provides portable power and I can recharge it. Camera, plastic tub that I put the food in. Dromedary bags for water; sunscreen, bug spray, wet wipes. Phone, computer.

NJ PEN: You’ve been writing this whole time, too. Has your work changed with your experiences?

Tom Turcich checks out crabeater seals in Anarctica. Credit: Tom Turcich.

TURCICH: When I was in Bogota, I gathered my writing for the first year and tried to compile a book of short stories, but the writing was so bad.

Before this, I never wrote about myself or my perspective. I was always writing fiction.

I think my writing still comes from a thick fiction perspective. I might be changing the format to be more photo-based.

It could be more journalistic in that sense than just pure 2,000 words of narrative. I’ll probably still be doing more of both, but I’m going to start experimenting with this type of format.

NJ PEN: Would you share some of your writing with our readers?

TURCICH: Here’s a little snippet from my most recent post on Antarctica.

Chunks of ice bob around your yellow kayak. Mountains covered white and as tall as the Rockies jut to the sky from the near-frozen water. You feel small.

In the distance is your ship—an old Russian sonar ship, the Akademik Ioffe—and as you look at it, you realize just how far you are from everything. You think you appreciate your smallness among the towering Antarctic environment, but then you think, ‘What if it were only me here?’ No ship, no zodiacs, just a fleshy creature standing on the shore. The creature would be very small indeed.

You pause on that thought, but picturing yourself alone on the shore still doesn’t do the scope of the place justice. The landscape is too enormous and too remote for the human mind to grasp fully.

You’re brought back to scale when you hear the kayakers around you shouting. They’re pointing. There was a whale a moment before. You didn’t see it, but you know it was there because of the fishy stench lingering in the crisp air.

A moment later, the whale resurfaces. Your grip tightens on the paddle. The whale is so close you can see the scars on its back. When you look to your compatriots, they look back to you. They’re all beaming. You haven’t had such a strong hit of dopamine since that night with that festival girl.

You’re in Antarctica. You’re in fucking Antarctica, and the whale is swimming directly beneath your kayak. Yes, you’re scared, but you’ve also sort of accepted the fear. There are things bigger than you. If you’re going in, you’re going in.

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