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Historic Feet and a Lot of Sole

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was over beers with a friend after the late show at the State Theater in Waseca, Minn., that David Kunst hatched his audacious plan to walk around the world.

His marriage on the rocks, bored with his job as a Waseca County surveyor and looking for adventure, Kunst, 30, enlisted his 22-year-old brother, John, to join him on the adventure of a lifetime.

On June 20, 1970, several thousand well-wishers gathered in front of the State Theater, where David moonlighted as a projectionist, to see the brothers off. And then, with a mule dubbed Willie Make It carrying their supplies and the high school band playing “King of the Road,” the two brothers simply walked out of town.

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Four years, three months and 16 days later, David Kunst walked back into town and into the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the first person verified to have walked around the world.

Along the way, the Kunst brothers met with Princess Grace in Monaco’s royal palace, had breakfast with Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in his home in northern Italy and became the first people in 200 years to bring a mule into Venice.

They also endured subzero temperatures in eastern Turkey, 128-degree temperatures in the Desert of Death in Afghanistan, blistered feet and dysentery--and they depended on the kindness of strangers, who frequently gave them free lodging and food (most memorably sheep’s eyeball soup in Afghanistan).

Then tragedy struck.

While camping on an isolated mountain pass in Afghanistan one night two years into their walk, the brothers were attacked by bandits. John Kunst was killed instantly, a bullet piercing his heart. David Kunst was wounded in the chest and left for dead.

After recuperating for four months back in Minnesota, Kunst returned to the exact spot where his brother had been murdered. With his other brother, Pete, accompanying him for a year, Kunst continued the walk that ended in Waseca on Oct. 5, 1974.

In the process, David Kunst walked 14,500 miles, crossed four continents and 13 countries and wore out 21 pairs of shoes. He also generated worldwide media coverage and, in 1979, co-authored a book, “The Man Who Walked Around the World.”

Twenty years after taking the first of an estimated 20 million steps, Kunst, now a Newport Beach resident, is still getting a lot of mileage out of the global adventure that also landed him in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”

Indeed, a feat as dramatic as circumnavigating the earth on foot is not something you just walk away from.

For the past 12 years, Kunst has been telling his globe-trotting tale at schools, women’s clubs, PTA meetings and retirement and church groups throughout Southern California. And, more often than not, a reporter from the local newspaper will turn up to write yet another story about Kunst’s dramatic adventure--after Kunst has called to inform the paper of his upcoming speaking engagement.

If there’s one thing Kunst learned while circumnavigating the world, it’s how to generate publicity.

During an interview in his Newport Beach townhouse shortly after the 20th anniversary of the start of his walk, Kunst flipped through a stack of newspaper clippings chronicling recent appearances in Glendale, Escondido, Poway, Ridgecrest and Burbank.

The seemingly endless interest in his walk--even two decades later--is no surprise to Kunst, whom the press dubbed the “Earthwalker.”

As he says, the story of his walk is filled with “adventure, intrigue, romance and tragedy--just about everything. Also, I think it’s my excitement. Twenty years later, I still get excited when I start talking about it.”

Turning to his parents, Al and Augusta Kunst, who were visiting from Clear Lake, Iowa, he said, “You’ve heard my programs. Do I get excited about it?”

“You’d think he finished yesterday,” his mother said with a laugh.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of Kunst’s walk, the 1990 edition of the “Guinness Book of Records” in England featured a color spread on Kunst in the section on “Endurance and Endeavour.” Kunst also has received congratulatory letters from Sen. Pete Wilson, First Lady Barbara Bush and a deputy assistant to President Bush.

So how did the Earthwalker himself celebrate the 20th anniversary of his record-setting walk?

“I went sailing,” he said.

These days, Kunst does more talking than walking.

Now 50 and about 20 pounds heavier than when he was a “lean, mean walking machine” treading 40 miles a day, Kunst limits his walking to 30-minute strolls around Balboa Island in the evenings with his wife, Jenni Samuel, an Irvine elementary schoolteacher.

Samuel is the “romance” part of Kunst’s around-the-world walk: They met at a party in Australia during the walk. And after Kunst’s mule died of a heart attack, Samuel hitched her car to the 200-year-old wooden Turkish wagon Kunst had acquired to carry his supplies. Driving in low gear alongside Kunst, she accompanied him for 1,000 miles of his walk across Australia. When his walk ended in 1974, Kunst returned to Australia and later married his “Australian schoolteacher.”

Actually, Kunst celebrated the walk’s anniversary by serving as honorary chairman of the Newport Beach Public Library’s 70th Anniversary Celebration Walk two weeks earlier. He figured that was close enough in time to commemorate his own walk.

“Plus,” he said with a laugh, “I figured I could do that walk: It’s 2.2 miles.”

Despite his globe-trotting reputation, Kunst seems to have settled into somewhat of the same kind of middle-class rut he abandoned back in Waseca 20 years ago.

Since moving to Orange County in 1978, Kunst has managed a small apartment complex and delivers a newspaper from 3 to 6 every morning in Newport Beach, where, after flying from Australia in 1974, he struck out at water’s edge and began the last leg of his walk.

The early work schedule, he said, “leaves the days open to do my loves, my programs.”

Walking around the world is a story he never tires of telling.

Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the loquacious Kunst is the same man who froze up the first time he was interviewed on television. As one reporter wrote, Kunst speaks in capitals, the words just tumbling out.

Once he begins talking about the walk, it’s hard to stop him. He has no sooner begun recounting the crush of people that would swarm around his wagon while walking through India than he’s reminded of the time that he and brother Pete were granted special permission to walk through the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan, thus becoming “the first non-Asians to officially walk through the Khyber Pass since Alexander the Great.”

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I always thought we should have gotten into the record book for having done that.”

The high point of the walk for Kunst was when he and John met Princess Grace. The princess kept their gift of one of Willie Make It II’s shoes on her desk and later wrote a letter expressing her amazement that Kunst continued the walk after his brother was killed. “He showed,” she wrote, “enormous courage and tenacity.”

John’s death was unquestionably the low point of the walk and gave rise to the one time that the extensive press coverage backfired.

During the walk, the two brothers had been urging people to donate to UNICEF, the international children’s charity. But an Afghan newspaper incorrectly reported that they were carrying the donations with them. Kunst later learned that the bandits who attacked them had been following them for three days.

Kunst, however, has no regrets.

“I never think that way, and John wouldn’t either,” he said. “The way we looked at life was that if you’re going to die--I mean, he would rather have died doing that than in an accident out on the freeway someplace. He told me more than once--and I said the same thing to him: We loved walking around the world; it was a great adventure, and if we died walking around the world, tell mom and dad we died happy.”


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