When she was a girl of 12 in Minneapolis in the mid-1970s, Polly Letofsky was fascinated by newspaper accounts of a Minnesota man’s walk around the world.
“The idea really took hold in my brain,” she told me in 1999, as she tried to explain why she was attempting the same feat.
The loss of a close friend to breast cancer gave her purpose.
Letofsky started from Vail, Colo., where she had been living, and in five years she walked 14,125 miles through 22 countries — and 29 pairs of walking shoes. She dedicated her walk to cancer awareness and raised more than $250,000 for the cause, including $2,500 raised in Thailand that financed the start of a breast cancer department at a regional hospital there.
Polly’s world walk is still bringing in money to fight cancer. A documentary film on her solo journey will receive its debut screening Wednesday at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis. Admission is $45 with proceeds to benefit the Mayo Clinic and Susan G. Komen for the Cure Minnesota.
The film will be shown at 7 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session with Letofsky and the film’s director, her brother, P.J. Letofsky. A silent auction and reception will begin at 5:30 p.m.
As a reporter at the Star Tribune, I kept in touch with Polly as she made her way across the globe, through her posts on an online journal, emails and the occasional cell phone call. As she finished the first leg of her walk, through the Colorado mountains and the Mojave Desert to the Southern California coast, she gleefully reported that a surprise visitor had come to wish her luck as she left for Australia: David Kunst, the Waseca, Minn., walker whose four-year, 15,000-mile trek around the world in the 1970s had inspired her.
He offered her advice on dealing with blisters and local politicians.
Her route took her through Australia and New Zealand, then South Asia, Europe and North America. On the U.S. State Department’s recommendation, she skipped over Afghanistan and Iraq. She endured blistering heat in Turkey and bitter cold in Iowa, and she had to skirt floods and forest fires — and turn aside six marriage proposals. (Three suitors were so persistent, she said, that she had to contact police.)
It was a broad education she received. People lectured her on the sins of U.S. foreign policy. She was given 15 Bibles and consulted 782 maps. In Malaysia, Letofsky learned that you sprinkle sugar on your popcorn at the movie theater, but in India the preferred topping was butterscotch powder.
She was in Malaysia on Sept. 11, 2001, unaware of what had happened back in the United States until a woman, crying, showed her pictures in a newspaper. Members of a Muslim family took her into their home, offered their condolences and gave her privacy to watch CNN and grieve for her distant country.
The things she carried in her jogger’s cart: water bottles, maps, ibuprofen, pepper spray, a cell phone, a camera, apples, Aretha Franklin CDs. She learned how to ask, “Can you show me where I am on this map?” in nine languages, and collected more than $50 in local currency found by roadsides. In many countries, women who were fighting breast cancer joined her for a mile or two, and they wrote their names on her cart: Stella from Ireland, Katey from New Zealand.
“Even the bad times, now that I’ve survived them, I can look back and laugh about them,” she said in a cell phone conversation from a mountain pass outside Vail in July 2004.
“And in five years, I never once thought about quitting,” she said. “I thought when I started that it might come to that, so I wrote myself a letter explaining why I couldn’t. I never had to look at it.”