From a distance – or, rather, from the perspective of Google Maps -- the Chesterfield Islands are located somewhere between Australia, Papua New-Guinea and New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean. They are tiny chunks of land, rock outcrops for the most part, uninhabited save for the sea birds who use them as resting places.
Very few people have ever seen the Chesterfield Islands from up close. And nobody really cares, either. For tourists, the lure of these tiny islands is virtually nil.
But Don Parrish has been there anyway, though his visit was brief and he only actually set foot on one of them. It was in 2011. Stormy seas and strong rains meant he arrived at the islands later than planned and could only make his landing in the middle of the night. To do so, he and his buddy Bob Bonifas had to climb out of the vessel they had chartered into a rubber dinghy and then strike out into the darkness in what they hoped was the right direction. It was risky, but it worked out in the end. Upon their arrival, frightened birds began clamoring wildly. Parrish tried to find a French navy memorial stone so that he could have his picture taken in front of it to properly document his visit. But in the miserable weather conditions, they were unable to find it. After about 40 minutes, he and Bonifas gave up and were motored back to the ship by the crew.
A useless excursion? Perhaps. But Parrish was satisfied. He could put another check mark on the list. One of 875. That’s the number of destinations listed on the website Most Traveled People, or MTP for short. It isn't just a list of countries, but also of regions, archipelagos and islands. After all, just because you've been to France doesn't mean you've visited Martinique -- or the Chesterfields, which also belong to France. "On the Road to Everywhere," is MTP’s motto. The site has more than 12,000 registered users and it includes a ranking to show the number of places a person has visited. And according to the rankings, Don Parrish is the closest to having seen every place on the list, only missing 25 check marks. He is No. 1, the "most traveled man on earth." At least for the moment. At least according to the list.
No one has visited as many territories as he has -- and that likely also includes the rest of the people on the planet, even those not included in the ranking. After all, only true destination hunters have any real reason to focus their travel attentions on the furthest-flung corners of the planet. Don Parrish calls it "systematic travel," a term that sounds both bureaucratic and bizarre, a contradiction in and of itself. Systematic travel – what is that supposed to be?
Unfortunately, we cannot accompany him on one of his trips. He says he personally wouldn't have anything against it, it's just that, for the places left on the list, he needs special permits or will have to take long voyages by ship or be prepared to take advantage of spontaneous rides on board special transports. It's not the kind of thing where you can easily take someone along with you. So instead we meet with the world’s No. 1 traveler at his home in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove. It’s one of these typical subdivisions full of light colored gable houses surrounded by green lawns and a couple of trees. The home he owns is one of the more modest ones. "Other people spend their money on big cars and property," he says, almost apologetically. "I spend my money on travel." He doesn’t look like the typical weathered adventurer. He’s short, with soft hands and has a slight stoop when he walks. His hair is thinning and his moustache is neatly trimmed. Parrish is 72 years old. Will he manage to make it to all the destinations left on the list? We decide not to ask.
A map of the world hangs in a tiny hallway, but there’s not a single pin stuck in it. "And why should I? The map would be completely covered," he says with a broad smile. We continue in socks to his living room, where shoes are forbidden, a custom he picked up while visiting Japan. There’s also no evidence in the living room of his one-of-a-kind travel career – no collection of souvenirs or trophies. There are a few African statuettes, a landscape panorama from Indonesia, two idyllic Wild West winter landscapes. There are tasteful decorations, but no chaotic bric-a-brac from around the world. That, though, wouldn't really be something one would expect from a systematic traveler anyway.
It’s a logistical puzzle with many unknowns
He picks up a sheet of paper: "Don Parrish’s Remaining 25 MTP Locations." It’s his global to-do list, with the remaining destinations organized alphabetically in a table, with check boxes for the different hurdles that need to be cleared to get to them. Some places are restricted military areas or strict nature reserves. For some, travel costs will be high or will come along with extreme weather and safety risks. Of the 25 entries, two sound familiar: the Gaza Strip and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. But Scarborough Reef, the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago, the Johnston Atoll or Minami-Tori-shima? Never heard of them. So where is Parrish going next? "I have no idea," he says. "I have to keep many balls in the air and wait for the right moment -- for permission I haven’t yet obtained, for a spot on a supply ship that only departs twice a year."
It’s a logistical puzzle with many unknowns -- essentially the perfect thing for Parrish. Up until his early retirement in 2001, he had spent a 30-year career as a technical manager at the famous AT&T Bell Labs. Systematic thinking, from morning till night. But he only had a few weeks of vacation each year for his trips into uncharted territory. It was far too little for a person who had, since his childhood in Texas, set his sights on the whole world. Back then, he wasn’t traveling, instead spending his time reading books or watching television series like "You Are There," which recreated historical global events "live." Socrates has been sentenced to death! Columbus has arrived on American soil! Napoleon has returned from Elba! Stanley is meeting Livingstone in Tanzania! He read biographies of inventors and discoverers and devoured the multivolume "Book of Marvels" by daredevil travel writer Richard Halliburton, who followed in the footsteps of classic heroes and in doing so became a heroic figure himself. So many pioneers, so many world wonders. It was imperative for Don Parrish to see them close-up.
Somewhat unspectacularly, his first major trip took him to Germany. In 1965, as a 20-year-old, Parrish worked for a summer at a metal factory in Hanau near Frankfurt. The German national airline Lufthansa had visited his college, the University of Texas, and arranged it for him. The lederhosen he bought back then are still packed away somewhere in the closet. Parrish jumps up and sets three metal boxes at his feet, labeled with small adhesive tape labels: Germany 1965, Russia 1969, The World 1971. Not a bad three-step. The boxes contain cards, letters, brochures and small mementos. Parrish took six weeks in 1971 for his trip around the world, having saved up his two weeks of vacation for 1970 and 1971 and then begged his boss for two extra weeks. Even back then, he was becoming somewhat systematic about his travels. "My plan was to travel to all the places that I had wanted to see as a 10- or 11-year-old: the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis …" It was a pilgrimage to the holy sites of his childhood.
We set off for lunch in a 16-year-old, gold-colored Acura, leaving his passport collection behind on the coffee table, 13 of them completely filled with stamps. He’s currently trying to catalog all of the border stamps. "I need to win the lottery so I can hire a research assistant," he says.
After 10 years at work, his vacation was increased to three weeks a year. After 25 years, it went up to five weeks. He tried to pack these slots with as much traveling as he could. He has no family, so he had no constraints and he likes traveling with a driver and a guide, so he managed to see a lot. After 30 years on the job, he had visited around 100 countries.
Inside the café at the Morton Arboretum, a park filled with trees from around the world, he talks about one of the most pivotal trips he ever took – to Cuba in 2001. For the trip, he joined a group with the Travelers’ Century Club (TCC), whose members are required to have visited at least 100 countries before joining. Parrish had been a member for a year. "At the time, I was the most traveled person among my acquaintances, but here, suddenly, everyone had visited more places than me." Parrish’s early retirement in his mid-50s was imminent. The "I know it, I’ve been there" conversations he had with other members egged him on. He had time and he had money and he had just discovered a new challenge.
At TCC, the world is divided into just over 300 destinations. The first time a person in the club said, "I did it," happened in the 1990s. But he soon had company. Of those who subsequently achieved the goal, Charles Veley, at 37, was the youngest. But Veley, who got rich by selling his startup, wanted to be first among equals -- something TCC declined to recognize. So Veley instead founded his own virtual club in 2005, with a particularly challenging list of territories and also a name implying its competitive nature: Most Traveled People. Not surprisingly, his name was first in the site's initial rankings and he remained there for about six years -- until he had to start working again and two older travelers passed him up. One was Don Parrish, the other Bob Bonifas, the man who was with Parrish on that dark wet night at the Chesterfield Islands.
He is electrified by such encounters
The two frequently travel together, in no small part because they are practically neighbors. Bonifas, who is still an active businessman despite being in his late 70s, also lives near Chicago. He still has 26 MTP places left to visit, meaning Parrish has one more box checked than he does. "We’ve gone a long way together and we’ve also tackled a few difficult destinations," says Parrish. "But we’re still competitors. Bob would love to be in first place himself." Bonifas does get one small consolation, though. During trips taken abroad together, Bonifas always sits up front in first class, while Parrish sits in the back in economy.
Extreme travelers often meet up -- and not just on rankings lists in the internet. In 2015, Parrish set out on a chartered ship together with 70 other like-minded travelers to visit, among other places, Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic, a highly desired destination in no small part due to its record distance from any continent. The seas, though, were unfortunately too rough for a landing. The ship, filled with despairing passengers who had the obscure object of desire right in front of their noses, spent an entire day maneuvering around the island. But in the end, they had to depart without reaching their destination. "If you’re a top traveler who has never failed, then you are not a top traveler," Parrish says before laughing and adding, "If someone wanted to blow a big hole in the ranks of extreme travelers, he would only have had to sink that ship."
What do extreme travelers talk about when they meet up? Is it always just about logistical tricks or their country charts or the next trip they are planning? Or do they also discuss how to travel the right way – how to make the experience as intensive and fulfilling as possible? Parrish doesn’t like the question and he hems and haws. "It’s a pointless discussion," he says, as we stroll through the park in the afternoon sun. "I keep out of it. I don’t want to be telling other people how they should travel." Despite a few rapid visits to some destinations, Parrish himself is surely in it for more than just checking off his boxes. He has an excellent knowledge of politics and history and closely examines the places he visits, always looking for surprising "data points." He has visited almost half of the world's 1,052 UNESCO World Heritage sites and is particularly impressed by places with historical significance. In the Philippines, he marveled at the last stops in Magellan’s failed attempt to sail around the world in 1521; in St. Helena, he twice followed in Napoleon’s footsteps. And of his visit to the terra cotta army in Xi’an, China, he reported in reverence of an encounter there with a farmer who discovered the stone soldiers in 1974. "This farmer was like a discoverer for me – and like a direct link to China’s first emperor," he says.
He is electrified by such encounters. But he is also fascinated by the division of the earth into 875 regions, the charm of a systemic approach. Does the division make sense? "Any such division is arbitrary," he says. "I just accept it. I accept the challenge presented by the list. Without these challenges, there are many things I never would have seen." It sounds like experimental idolatry: Parrish submits himself to the list in the belief that his submission will pay off. It’s the list that keeps him going and he is willing to accept the side-effects.
He has experienced chases through contested tribal areas and has been detained a few times. But the biggest danger, he says, are roads – dark, unpaved, pothole-filled dirt roads with reckless drivers. In mountainous Nepal, for example, his driver had to veer off the road twice in the night after oncoming trucks tried to pass each other. "If fate hadn’t been on my side, that would have been my ticket to death," he says. Compared to that, the dreadful ship passage at the beginning of the year had seemed almost routine. Nine days out and eight days back to see Marion Island in the Indian Ocean -- in an old boat not even meant for passengers. Regarding the hygiene level on board another vessel, Parrish merely says: "I killed my share of cockroaches."
This prompts yet another grin, of course. Does he ever take a step back and just shake his head when he thinks about what it is that he does? He says: If a young traveler drawn to the list knew of all the travails associated with the final tenth of the list, they would probably be deterred. But once you get to that last 10 percent, a little suffering is "part of the deal." You’ve got to persevere.
Great men can achieve great things – that's part of Parrish’s creed, even if he doesn’t consider himself to be one of the greats. Still, he has learned ambition and commitment from his heroes. And sometimes, when he finds himself at high sea sailing toward some far-flung corner of the earth, he thinks about his ancestors who crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower to North America in 1620 to settle the New World. No joke: A distant branch of his family tree includes five Mayflower passengers. Five! Genealogy is Parrish’s second obsession. He never established a family, he has always lived alone and he’s constantly traveling around the world -- but he still enjoys tracing his roots. He names a few of the distant cousins he shares his roots with, including Thomas Alva Edison, the Wright Brothers, Henry David Thoreau, Earnest Hemingway. He’s also a fervent patriot -- he keeps a copy of the Declaration of Independence on his iPhone and is active with the Sons of the American Revolution, an organization made up of descendants of Revolutionary War veterans and who continue to promote the independence-fighters’ ideas. On the way to dinner, he stops at a small cemetery to show the gravestone of an almost forgotten Revolutionary War soldier. Parrish had helped to retrace his history and his eyes mist over as he tells the story.
"Some travelers are rootless," he had said earlier. "But I need to come home." Only now does it become clear what he meant: Home to those with whom he belongs in the "land of the free, home of the brave."
He tears up again later during dinner. Once again, it’s a tale of American heroism. Parrish recounts the story of Steve Jobs’ return to the helm of Apple in 1997 and trembles as he talks about the executive, clearly moved by the Messianic elements of his tale. "That’s a leader!" he gushes, with his eyes filled with tears. Inside this hardcore traveler you can still see the child who began dreaming of the icons of history and isn’t ready to bury those dreams.
In December 2011, Don Parrish reached the South Pole. Steve Jobs had died two months earlier. Parrish had someone take a picture of himself standing in front of the plaque there commemorating Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott. He was holding a photo of Steve Jobs with a message reading, "In Memory of Steve Jobs, at the South Pole, 100 Years after Its Discovery."
That’s how he travels around the world: A small hero among great ones.
Translated by Daryl Lindsey