After Shedding 140 Pounds, a Yu-Gi-Oh! Card Champion Gets Ready to Walk Around the World

Ryan Newburn
Everything to see here, as Ryan Newburn starts a four- to five-year stroll around the world Hayley Hochstetler

Go West, young man, advised Horace Greeley without ever specifying just how far in that direction one should venture.

Ryan Newburn is a young man: he celebrated his 24th birthday last Monday. And while the Omaha, Neb. native is not familiar with the 19th-century author, he has charted a maniacally westward course. Beginning today on Cape Sata, the southern-most tip of Japan, Newburn will embark on what he plans to be a four- to five-year expedition, on foot, circumnavigating the globe.

One lap around Planet Earth. Walking westward. A world tour. An adventure the magnitude of which is usually never undertaken by anyone except The Amazing Race contestants or platinum album-selling rock bands. And, now, Ryan Newburn.

Go to school, get a job: I feel as if that mindset is implanted in us since birth, and that’s wrong” says Newburn, who in the last month quit his job and went all-in on this terrestrial Magellan quest. He has sold or raffled off all his earthly possessions. “The only person you should conform to is yourself.”

Newburn will set off with one pair of hiking boots and three pairs of moisture-wicking socks. In his backpack he plans to stow about 50 pounds of gear, including two toothbrushes but no toilet paper. “I hear if you use smooth rocks,” says the muscular six-footer, “it works wonders.”

You may be curious about the course Newburn has plotted. On Tuesday, the day after his birthday, he set off from Omaha to Osaka (with stops in Dallas and Los Angeles) via American Airlines. There he will attend a friend’s wedding before heading to the southernmost of Japan’s three islands, Kyushu.

From Cape Sata, and with approximately $16,000 to his name—but not in his pocket—Newburn will walk the length of Japan, south to north. He will then fly to New Zealand and perambulate that country, north to south.

“Japan and New Zealand are among the safest countries on earth,” says Newburn, who is single. “I thought it would be a smart way to start the journey.”

Next he will traverse Australia, and then up through Southeast Asia until he reaches China. “I’m basically going to be avoiding winter for two years,” says Newburn.

And you thought he was crazy…

Upon arrival in Beijing, where Newburn might have an interesting discussion with locals about the ancient Chinese proverb “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step,” he will board the Trans-Siberian Express. Newburn will travel by rail across China and Russia to Moscow, since visitors in the latter country are not permitted to remain for more than 30 days continuously (at least those not named Edward Snowden). The train trek should last 10 days and then, as Newburn says, “I’ve got 20 days to hightail it from Moscow to the Russian border.”

Ukraine, Turkey, Greece… Italy, Switzerland, Germany… France, Spain, back through France… the United Kingdom and then Ireland. A flight across the Atlantic to Washington, D.C. Then the last leg of the odyssey, from the nation’s capital to Point Reyes, Calif., via the American Discovery Trail, the country’s only non-motorized coast-to-coast trail.

“And then I’ll fly home to Omaha,” says Newburn, as if the five-year hiatus from everything that he has ever known is just a week-long business trip.

Newburn plans to march 20 miles per day, a blistering pace figuratively and literally. As for shelter, he has no specific plans. “I can just find some bush to sleep under.” As for protection, he will carry a hunting knife and perhaps some pepper spray. If he runs low on money, he plans to stop awhile in places such as New Zealand or Australia and get a job.

“I figure I can live on $15 to $20 a day on food,” says Newburn, who also speaks a little Spanish and knows a few Japanese phrases.

You might be wondering why Newburn is doing this. Of course you are. Did he watch Forrest Gump one too many times? Not exactly.

First, Newburn found confidence. An avid player of a popular Japanese card game known as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Newburn finished third in a field of 1,200 players at a national championship in Pittsburgh in 2009. He flew to Japan—heretofore the only country he has stepped foot in outside the U.S.A.—to compete in the world championship, where he lost to the eventual champion.

“I began thinking, What’s stopping me from doing anything else I want to do?” Newburn says.

Next, he found inspiration. Not too long ago, Newburn was obese, carrying 320 pounds on his six-foot frame. He took it upon himself to shed the weight and dropped 140 pounds before taking up powerlifting. He now carries 205 pounds on a chiseled frame.

“I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, and I’ve always wanted to be a travel writer,” says Newburn. “I want to meet extraordinary people from all walks of life, all over the world, and writer about them.”

Newburn would not be the first. George Matthew Schilling, an American, is reputed to have circumnavigated the globe on foot between 1897 and 1904. The first person whom the Guinness Book of World Records verifies to have done it is David Kunst, also a Yank. Between 1970 and 1974 Kunst trod 14,450 miles across four continents.

Newburn says that he has never spoken to anyone who has accomplished this feat with their feet. He mentions Karl Bushby, a British explorer who set out on foot from Puntas Arenas, Chile (near the southern tip of South America), on November 1, 1998 in the hopes of becoming the first person to perambulate an unbroken path around the globe. Bushby crossed the Bering Strait on foot in 2006 and had hoped to reach his “home” in Hull, England, this year, but his path has been blocked by Russia. After issuing Bushby a series of 90-day visas over the years, it has now banned him from entering until 2018.

And Vladimir Putin does not come across as the type who caters to special requests.

Newburn says the question he has been asked most frequently since he confided to friends and family seven months ago that he wanted to do this is, “What would make you come back?”

“I’d come back if someone in my immediate family got terminally ill or died,” says Newburn, “or if my older brother, Danny, got married. That’s it.”

And what if he were to meet some striking beauty in an exotic land? Might that give him pause?

“You have no idea how many times I have been asked that,” says Newburn. “If she’s the one, she’ll travel the world with me.”