By Emily Bialkowski
HBO Films is developing a film based on the adventures of Caledonia native Dave Kunst, who was the first documented person to have walked around the earth and who has a dedication marker honoring the feat at North Park on the corner of North Kingston and Hwy. 44 in Caledonia.
The story has become a bit obscure over time. Who are the Earthwalkers? Why is there a giant sign commemorating their effort in Caledonia? Why did it take over 40 years for someone to decide the story might make an interesting movie?
It all actually begins in Caledonia when Dave Kunst was born July 16, 1939. Now 73, and living in Costa Mesa, Calif., Kunst credits his early upbringing as a reason for later success.
“I always tell people thank God I was born in Caledonia, Minn. I may not like living in the cold country now, but when I was a kid I lived a fantastic life. I remember nothing but good fun and good people. When you grow up with that kind of childhood you grow up straight and narrow,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
Kunst remained in Caledonia until about age 13, after which his family moved to Florida and later back to Minnesota.
By age 30 Kunst had settled in Waseca, Minn., worked as an engineer’s surveyor during the day and helped a friend, Richard Ebensteiner, at a movie theatre by night.
Kunst said after the theatre would empty out he and Ebensteiner would drink beer and talk the time away. It was Ebensteiner who suggested the walk around the world.
“I thought about it for 10 seconds and knew I was going to do it,” Kunst said.
Kunst took the idea up with his brother, John, who was on the precipice of graduating from the University of Minnesota at age 25. The brothers decided to set out just five days after graduation on June 20. Kunst said setting a date was paramount to making the trip a reality.
“I said if we set a date to walk out of town we’ll do it,” he said.
The adventure began in Waseca in 1970 with the brothers walking all the way to New York City. In his account, Kunst remembers walking just 15 miles a day until his feet could build up endurance and calluses.
He is very quick to credit other people’s good ideas as the reason he was able to complete the journey.
“We were very naive,” he said. “A lady suggested that we take a mule so we wouldn’t be just two guys walking down the road. The beast could carry our gear, it would add interest to our walk and people would see that we were walking.”
John, who was killed on the trip by bandits in Afghanistan, suggested the brothers promote a worthy cause along their journey. He was the more benevolent of the two, Kunst said.
The two took up the flag for UNICEF and told people along their journey to send money to the organization. They never carried donations for UNICEF, just promoted it, a difference worth mentioning.
Also worth mentioning is the endorsement of Senator and former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a suggestion made to the brothers by their father.
“Our credibility increased when we met Senator Hubert H. Humphrey. He liked us and gave his support to the project. We had our pictures taken with the former vice president and he presented us with a wonderful letter of introduction to use freely around the world,” Kunst said.
The senator also told them to carry a parchment and have it signed by every local official they came across. The parchment helped make the pair, “more than hippies walking done the road,” Kunst said. It created documentation of their feat.
Another individual, Dumitru Dan, is believed to have possibly accomplished a walk around the earth between 1910 and 1923 but lacked proper documentation.
“That’s why I was the first person. I walked around the world, officially. If we wouldn’t have had the scroll or Humphrey’s letter we would have never met with people. Those weren’t our ideas – it was the ideas of other people that helped us make it,”
After hoofing it all the way to New York with a mule named Willie Makeit, John and Dave Kunst touched their toes in the Atlantic Ocean and flew to Europe and walked across Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
Along the way they encountered all different kinds of people and perceptions.
“Don’t worry about what people have to say,” an American psychologist once told the brothers. “Don’t argue with them. Just listen and accept it and go on your way.”
“It seemed most people were kindred spirits about the walk, but there were those who thought we were crazy to attempt such a feat,” Kunst said.
Dave and John met mayors, musicians, ministers, military personnel and even Princess Grace of Monaco, who was very interested in the walk, Kunst said.
The trip wasn’t all cake and ice cream, though.
In his short story account, Kunst recalls, “Crossing into Afghanistan in late August the border guards gave us each an almond club to protect us from nomad dogs. They said we would have to ward off the huge dogs that protect the campsites of the wandering people who are found throughout the area. We were apprehensive crossing into Afghanistan because the Iranians told us it was a dangerous country with bad people. The letter waiting for us at the border from the American Embassy put a period on that fact and I’ll always remember what it said. ‘Be assured you are in some danger, as the people of this country will kill you for your possessions or for their resentment of your presence in this country, or both. It happens more often than most people familiar with this country realize.’”
It is in Afghanistan that a journalist reported the brothers were collecting money for UNICEF.
On the night of Oct. 21, 1972, while the brothers were camped about 90 miles from Kabul along the Kabul River six bandits attacked.
The first bullet hit Dave and the subsequent shots killed his brother John. Kunst played dead and by early morning police found him.
He spent the next four months recovering from his injuries and resumed the journey, along with his other brother Pete, from the spot where John was killed.
In hindsight Kunst says that so many times in life things happen and are taken out of context. It’s something he learned to accept and might accept again when the movie comes out.
Kunst’s journey ended in Waseca on Oct. 5, 1974. His brother Pete had to leave the expedition during the Australian leg of the trek.
In 2004 the city of Caledonia commemorated the brothers with the large sign that now stands at North Park. The inscription reads, “Caledonia: Birthplace of the Earthwalkers David, Peter and John Kunst.”
Decades have passed. Kunst settled in California with the love of his life, Jenni Samuel, whom he met in Australia during the walk. He coauthored a book about his adventure titled “The Man Who Walked Around the World” with Clinton Trowbridge in 1979.
He managed an apartment complex for years and also gave speeches about the walk while his wife taught. Now 73, Kunst said he is delighted to watch the story come to life.
“I have told many, many people I’m not an adventurer. I’m just a guy that accomplished something big. Anyone can do it. It just takes passion, determination and a goal.”
After selling his book and life rights to HBO Kunst will have little influence on the movie. He has been warned that HBO could make it a horror movie if they wanted to. But his attorney did say that HBO tends to be quite reputable.
The movie’s release date is unknown at this point, but it is being made. Deadline Hollywood reported on April 1 that HBO is developing the movie. Robert Connolly is attached to write and direct the project with executive producers Ted Hope, Jonathan Ross, Glenn Rigberg and Anne Carey.
Kunst remains as eager as he was in the 1970s about sharing this story. He insists, “I’m not a special man. It was a special adventure.”
Learn more at http://home.earthlink.net/~earthwalker1/.