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