A happy wanderer gives meaning to moon walk

January 29, 2001|By KEVIN COWHERD

IF YOU WORK in this business long enough, you get a lot of these calls, mainly from highly caffeinated PR people.

This guy is bicycling across the country to raise money for cancer research - wanna talk to him? This woman is swimming the English Channel as a vow she made to her late husband - don't you think that would make a nice story? This kid wants to be the youngest to walk the entire Appalachian Trail backward - call me if you want an interview, babe.

But when Bert Simon called on his cell phone to say he was in the midst of a three-year walk across the United States, and had previously walked from India to Spain and all around Germany and Australia, and was planning to walk 226,000 miles in all, which is roughly the distance from the Earth to the moon, and would I like to hear his story, I said sure.

Another guy with a screw loose, I figured. But a column's a column.

We met at the Popeye's at the corner of Orleans Street and Broadway, up near Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had finished walking 20 miles the previous day. But the place was closed at 9 in the morning, so we went to Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point. There, the 30-year-old from Munich, Germany, ravaged a plate of pancakes, eggs and home fries and told his story.

Eleven years ago, while in the German army, he visited a missionary friend in the Philippines and was struck by the all-encompassing poverty he saw. In a shantytown in Manila, he saw hundreds of street urchins living literally on top of a garbage dump, a sad city of sick, diseased kids with all the hope gone from their eyes.

"It was like something you'd see in a medieval movie," Simon recalled. "They were born in the dump, lived in the dump and died in the dump."

Something inside Simon stirred. At the airport for his return flight home, he noticed a world map. It occurred to him that one could literally walk from Germany to the Philippines, with a couple of hops over water, bearing medicine for the sick children he'd seen.

"This was a symbolic thought," Simon hastened to add. "Sometimes you have weird thoughts. [But] sometimes it's the vision - what you can develop out of the vision."

Well, maybe. But sometimes the vision is sort of weird, too.

Back home, he envisioned a project called Walk to the Moon. It was a wild, pipe-dream kind of thing where he'd walk 226,000 miles and take photographs during his travels, which he'd sell to magazines and show at school slide shows, and he'd donate the money to charities for kids.

A flabby guy, 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, he started running and dieting and lost 100 pounds. Imagine the training sequences in the first "Rocky" movie - that was Bert Simon, minus firing jabs at frozen slabs of beef.

In October 1994, now out of the army and using $10,000 from his military pay as a stake, he began his first extended walk, India to Spain, 14,000 miles. It did not start swimmingly.

Bombay was in the midst of a plague epidemic, and the city was in a panic. In the state of Punjab, he was hospitalized with hepatitis and malaria, which would visit him for the next three years.

He stayed in hostels and temples, but few homes; children in rural areas would scream and run at the sight of this gaunt, white traveler. Twice he was beaten with steel rods and robbed.

"I had my own collection of morphine pills for the pain," he said ruefully. "A car would squeal up, doors would open, and I'd get a steel rod across the neck. I'd wake up a few hours later."

He walked from India to Pakistan. Iran refused to let him in the country, so he flew to Turkey and resumed the walk. Through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France, he walked, and finally into Spain.

"I was never lonely," he says. "My life was so busy and full. I saw so many things." In Santiago de Compostela, in the famous pilgrimage church filled with huge baskets of incense, his walk finally ended. It was June 1996. He'd been walking for two years. He'd raised $20,000 for charity.

"I felt empty, like a bottle," he said. "The first night, I cried hard."

Three months later, he began his second walk, 7,000 miles through Germany. It took a full year. In 1999, he began a 7,000-mile walk around Australia that took a year and a half.

"That was very dangerous," he said. "In some parts, there were only kangaroos. Lots of empty spaces. Three hundred miles between some towns."

Again, there was so much to see. In Sydney, he saw hail the size of oranges falling from the sky and sea gulls lying dead in the streets. "I was riding in an RV with a friend when the hail hit. I never heard anything like this! I thought they were throwing flower pots at us!"

In Broome, on the northwest coast, he witnessed the full fury of a Category 4 cyclone with 120 mph winds that sheared off the tops of trees and ripped traffic signs out of the concrete.

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