Most adventures start at your own front door, but don’t come to fruition until you take that first step, followed by another, and another, until you finally have a story to tell. Along the way, things will happen, both good and bad, but in all they lead you to your destination, or so says Ryan Newburn.
Newburn, a Papillion-La Vista High School graduate, will soon set off on a five-year journey across the world to raise awareness and funds to fight against obesity, though his story started a long time ago.
“It’s kind of funny how one thing leads to another and determines your fate,” Newburn, 23, said.
He said when he was younger, he was unmotivated, unfocused and living unhealthily, weighing in at 320 pounds at his heaviest as a senior in high school. The now roughly 200-pound Newburn admitted he really only had one motivation: the competitive card game Yu-Gi-Oh!
“All I cared about was being competitive in the card game,” he said.
In 2004, he said his mother bought him a Yu-Gi-Oh Beckett magazine, which shows different available cards and featured the 2004 world championship games.
“As a young kid, I thought, ‘I’d love to get there some day,’” he said.
So over the years he began competing at the regional level and national level, trying his best and, while never finishing too well, still getting to travel and see the world, which would later create a desire to see more and more of it.
“2009, finally, my big moment came,” he said smiling.
Newburn finished third out of the 1,200 competitors — the largest competition in the game’s history, he added. This provided him an opportunity to compete in the world championship competition in Japan, and, while he eventually lost to the would-be champion, he said the experience changed him.
“Once I saw I could do that, once I saw I could beat out 1,200 people and achieve my dream, it changed my mindset,” he said. “I started to look at myself better.”
At this time, Newburn was near his heaviest, but, armed with this new mindset, he did not know what could stop him from achieving weight loss goals. And so his journey to lose 140 pounds over the course of three years began — with the roughly 100 steps to his mailbox. Each day, he would increase his running, bit by bit.
“I just kept setting markers,” he said. “The most I did was 13 miles without stopping.”
Following his next dream, Newburn set out to join the Navy in April 2012, with hopes to go through the nuclear program and see the world. However, a past football injury came back to haunt him. He had broken his ankle playing with some friends, and at the time needed screws put in his leg, though they never bothered him until training began.
“I was forced to tie (my combat boots) really tight and train in them,” he said.
However, soon he felt searing pain, and a growing bump began to form on his ankle. Despite not wanting to, Newburn said he had to visit a medic and get x-rays for his leg.
“One of the screws broke in half and was coming out of my leg,” he said. “The doctor saw that, ‘You’re going home.’”
Newburn said he broke down, begging the doctor to let him stay, but to no avail.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with,” he said.
Still, not one to quit, he said he looked for his next step, still dreaming of traveling. He began lifting weights in the gym, putting on about 25 pounds of muscle. Then, in June 2013, he was contacted by an old Yu-Gi-Oh! friend who wanted to walk across Japan.
“The dream really stuck with me,” he said.
For the next seven months, he began researching and preparing for the next chapter in his story, which coincidentally also began with Yu-Gi-Oh!
“I had about $4,000 in debt from (the University of Nebraska at Omaha),” he said.
Not wanting to leave with any debt or loose ends, Newburn said he sold his entire Yu-Gi-Oh! collection, bringing in nearly $5,000.
“It was time to move on to my next venture in life,” he said with no regrets.
After paying off the tuition, he said he immediately went online and bought a “one-way, non-refundable ticket” to Japan.
“I closed off any way of escape for myself,” he added with a smile.
As for the date of his departure, Tuesday, he selected it due to a friend he made during Yu-Gi-Oh!, who will be getting married on March 8 in Kobe. After a brief stay with his friend, he’ll begin his 90 day trek from the southern island of Japan to Tokyo, and — after a brief stint in Se Jun, South Korea — will return for another 90 days to finish walking to the northern part of the country, carrying with him 40 to 50 pounds of gear and budgeting $15 a day for food.
He said he chose to walk the country to experience as much of its backbone as possible, adding he has always been fascinated with Japanese culture and wants to see it all. As for food, he said the convenience store 7-Eleven is very popular in the country, and carries a lot of nutrient-dense foods.
“Backpacking 25 miles a day, you’re burning 5,000 calories a day,” he said.
After Japan, Newburn said he will walk across New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, working his way to Beijing to then take the Trans-Siberian train to Moscow. This one non-walking part of his journey is due to strict visa laws in Russia, he said. With only 20 days to hike through the country, he said he aims to make his way to Eastern Europe and zig-zag his way across the continent before winding up back in the United States, where he’ll take the American Discovery trail, which stretches from New York to California, ending his planned five-year walk across the world.
“But it doesn’t stop there,” he said.
Newburn said he wants to use his adventure to continue traveling and writing, but also to raise awareness about obesity and motivate others to achieve their dreams, both weight-related and non.
“It’s my personal mission that you shouldn’t have to live in the day-to-day,” he said. “Start with an idea, work your butt off and eventually you’ll get something great.”
Drawing a parallel to his weight-loss journey of running more and more each day, he said the focus is to be productive each day, setting small goals you can accomplish. Dreams will take work, lots of work, he said, but they can be achieved.
“Start at 100 feet, then 105, then 110,” he said. “If they’re your dreams, they should be worth it.”
Newburn also said he hopes to inspire people to not allow themselves to be overcome by nay-sayers.
“Especially yourself,” he added, “that’s the person that will stop you most of the time.”
Newburn said he will be updating his blog, strawhatbackpacker.com, as much as possible. His blog, another dream he followed, built and achieved on his own, also allows for donations to the Walk from Obesity — an organization dedicated to the prevention, education, research and treatment of obesity.
He said people can also make personal donations to him to help him as he travels.
The “straw hat” image is another nod to Japanese culture, he said, following one of his favorite cartoons, “One Piece,” which features a young man chasing his dream of finding a legendary pirate treasure. Newburn wears his straw hat to remind him of the freedom of travel and his dream of seeing the world.
To follow his journey, Newburn said to visit his blog, “like” the Straw Hat Backpacker on Facebook or follow @shbackpacker on Twitter.