A growing tribe of devoted leisure travelers are circling the globe more or less nonstop, with only brief layovers at home between trips. What exactly, wonders Jeff Wise, are these 'perpetual wanderers' looking for?
Last December found Kevin Hughes in a difficult spot on the Indian Ocean off Antarctica. Heavy snow and bitter 50-knot gusts lashed his ship, the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, as it picked its way along the barren Adélie Coast of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories. Hughes desperately wanted to get ashore, but conditions were far too dangerous for travel by either Zodiac or helicopter. Even if he made land, there were no guarantees he'd be able to get back. And becoming stranded on the uninhabited, frozen wasteland would be tantamount to a death sentence. In the end, Hughes was forced to return to port in New Zealand, disappointed.
"In all my years of traveling to isolated, hard-to-reach places," he says, "this was the first time I'd ever been denied."
Hughes's failure meant he had missed his chance to complete the ultimate traveler's to-do list: visiting each of the 314 countries and territories recognized by the Traveler's Century Club, a Santa Monica, California-based organization, every one of whose 1,600 members has been to at least 100 countries. Hughes, a 57-year-old flight dispatcher who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, had managed to visit 313 places on the TCC list, putting him in the running to be one of the world's most traveled human beings. As he steamed homeward from Antarctica, however, he received more bad news via Inmarsat. At a board meeting in California, the TCC had just added three disputed Balkan territories to its list. The new total: 317. So far, fewer than 10 TCC members have visited them all.
"I began planning aboard the ship," Hughes says, "and as soon as I was able to get to an Internet café in New Zealand, I checked out airline schedules." Six weeks later he was on a plane to the Balkans.
Hughes and his fellow Century Club members might seem freakish in their compulsion to roam, but they are far from unique. Whether on an organized trip or solo, the obsessive tourist is at large on the world's sea-lanes and airways. The result of a confluence of demographic, economic, and social trends, this tribe of perpetual wanderers have both the desire and the means to devote their lives to full-time leisure travel.
No one is quite sure how many of them there are, but every high-end travel agent knows a few perpetual wanderers. And despite the global economic slump, their numbers aren't shrinking. "They rank travel so high on their list of priorities that if they have to cut down, they'll cut down on something else," says Keith Waldon, spokesman for Virtuoso, a network of top-tier travel agents headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas.
Worldwide panic over terrorism and SARS?No problem. "If they feel a destination isn't safe," Waldon says, "they'll just go somewhere else."
Not many are intrepid iceberg-dodgers like Kevin Hughes. Far more typical is Daryl Russell, a hardworking CPA in Denver, Colorado, who decided on his 50th birthday that he wanted a change of lifestyle. He had beavered away for decades in his small practice, and now a modest inheritance allowed him to wind it down. He had no wife, no kids, no obligations. It was time, he figured, to travel. For 25 years.
"I decided I was going to see the world and basically make that my next quarter-century," Russell says. He bought a National Geographic map of the world, 36 inches by 44, and hung it on his wall. Whenever he read about someplace interesting, he went there. After each trip, he stuck a red pin in the map. "You're talking to an obsessive-compulsive CPA," he says. "Methodology is my madness."
In the past 13 years Russell has covered a lot of the planet. He has seen gorillas in Uganda and pink dolphins in the Amazon. Last year he took a monthlong jaunt halfway around Antarctica. He estimates that about 40 percent of the passengers were fellow perpetual wanderers.
One of them was Chicago resident Burt Freely (not his real name—he says he doesn't want everyone to know that he's always out). Like Russell, he's in his sixties, retired, with no immediate family. Even before he stopped working at his medical practice three years ago he spent a month or two each year touring the world. Now he's full-time. "I'm always about to go somewhere," Freely says. "Basically, I'm away, then I'm home for a week or two to catch up on the mail, then I'm off somewhere else." On his most recent trip, he crisscrossed the Lower 48 via Amtrak. Next he heads to Las Vegas for a three-day canyon tour by helicopter. After that comes a trek to Churchill, Manitoba, followed by two weeks in Alaska. Then it's off to Russia, to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway.
All this frenetic globe-trotting prompts a question: What are they looking for?One of the pleasures of travel is savoring novel sensations with an uncluttered mind, then digesting them afterward at leisure. Perpetual wanderers see so much, so fast, it's hard to figure how they can process much of anything. A skeptic might view nonstop travel as just another expression of American hyper-consumerism—the leisure-time equivalent of the Hummer and the McMansion. Keith Waldon says his baby-boom clients are accustomed to enjoying a wide variety of experiences. "They have the mind-set of wanting to master things," Waldon says. "Boomers are very competitive with their peers."
Among the truly devoted wanderers, however, ostentation is rare. When he's home, Freely says, he doesn't even talk about his travels: "It's frustrating, because you can't really convey what these places are like. So I don't try. If people ask, I say just enough to be polite."
Karyn Planett and her husband, Geoff Thompson, can't show off, either—their neighbors travel as much as they do. A year ago, the Monterey County, California, couple moved into their two-bedroom apartment aboard the World of ResidenSea, the cruise ship condominium that launched in March 2002. Planett and Thompson have wandered through Europe, cruised the Eastern Seaboard, explored the Caribbean, transited the Panama Canal, and sailed the Pacific to Hawaii, all without lifting a finger. "In ten months, we unpacked once," Planett says.
Strangely, when I asked the perpetual wanderers to articulate their compulsion, most were flummoxed. It was as if they've been answering a call so deep they were unable to express their reasons. After talking to enough of them, however, a common thread emerged. Many have no children or other close family ties. They had devoted themselves to work, and now, in middle age, were confronting the startlingly sneaky way that time can pass by practically unnoticed. Their response: to seek out new experiences—as many as possible, as quickly as possible. They travel not for escape or relaxation, but as a way of adding intensity to their lives.
Whenever he journeys through the Arctic, Freely says, he feels more alive: "Last summer we were on the east side of Ellesmere Island. It was eleven o'clock at night, and the sky was pink and the water was pink. The water was just totally flat, not a ripple, and you literally could not tell the sea from the sky. Behind us the wake pattern was spreading out, sending ripples as far as the eye could see. It was stunning."
At moments like that, sharing the mysteries of sea and sky with like-minded travelers, there is no longer any question why any of them has voyaged so far. Experiencing the grandeur of a strange place, there is no competitiveness, no score-keeping, no one to impress.
When I ask Russell—who's also working on his TCC scorecard—how much of the globe he has left to conquer, he doesn't hesitate to set me straight. "Not conquer. I'm just a tourist," he says. "I want the world to come in front of me. I want to touch and see and feel and smell everything."
"Yes," he says. "It isn't a big planet. It's not Jupiter."
Anyone who has traveled to 100 or more countries can apply to become a member of the Traveler's Century Club (310/393-7419; www.travelerscenturyclub.org ; $100 initiation fee, annual dues from $30).