Not Just Liking Geography. Living It.

Long before Anthony Bourdain, there was a fellow named Richard Halliburton. My hero. He wasn’t a chef, but he was an intrepid travel journalist who swam the Panama Canal, climbed Mt. Everest and, like Bourdain, took a big bite out of life wherever he found it. He soundly rejected his father’s advice to adjust his life to “an even tenor.”

Also like Bourdain, Halliburton cranked out page after page of vivid prose recounting his travels.

A classic book

I never prepare for a big trip, as Ted and I are doing now for a cruise this month from South America to Antarctica, without consulting his classic Complete Book of Marvels, first published in 1937. (I still have the copy of the book my parents gave me one Christmas when I was in grade school.)

Maybe it’s silly.

Maybe a tad superstitious.

But It’s just a thing I do to be sure I carry some of Halliburton’s adventurous spirit with me while we travel. To keep the hassles of airports and customs lines from overpowering the excitement of seeing new places and meeting new people around the world … whether it’s Namibia or New Zealand, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, France, Italy, Fiji, or maybe our biggest adventure of all, 17 days in South Africa in 2006.

From our visit to Etosha National Park, Namibia, 2016

I discovered Halliburton in the fourth grade, when, after lunch, my teacher, Mrs. Ralston, would read aloud from the 55 colorfully written chapters in his book. Some kids put their heads down on their desks and napped during the readings.

Not me.

Most of the other kids and I hung on every word.

A magic carpet ride

Geared toward young readers, the book was a magic carpet ride, taking me and my classmates far away from decidedly unspectacular Columbia, Tennessee, to Gibraltar and Jerusalem, the Andes and the Alps. And in my favorite chapter, for a swim in the Blue Grotto off the Italian Coast.

About that visit, Halliburton writes, “We’ve gone to heaven, but we are still alive… And the water we float on is no longer water. It’s a bottomless sky shot full of unearthly blue light… Will you believe in magic now?”

Three open-water swims in 2019 with Ted in Fiji, where live, navy-blue starfish as big as dinner plates dot the ocean floor. Magic? You bet.

The world map has changed since Halliburton circled the globe. Reportage is a little less flowery. Yes, Halliburton’s book, filled with grainy black-and-white photos, is a relic from another time. But there is a childlike wonder in his writing that is touchingly fresh and alive today.

It never fails to inspire me.

Love of the journey

And inspired Ted and I are for this cruise down the east coast of South America across the sometimes treacherous Drake’s Passage to Antarctica. Though none of the sights we’ll see are featured in Halliburton’s book–he never ventured to either the North or South Pole, as far as I know–there’s something about his love of the journey that makes me ready to go.

We feel a kinship with Halliburton for another reason.

Rumored to be homosexual, he was romantically linked to Ramon Navarro and the freelance journalist Paul Mooney. He was noted by French police to have visited certain unsavory establishments in Paris in 1935 while preparing to cross the Alps by elephant. (His intent was to retrace Hannibal’s legendary trek through the mountains, and by golly, he did it, as shown below.)

I wonder today if part of my 10-year-old self heard those after-lunch readings and understood, in a way I couldn’t put into words yet, that Halliburton’s adventurous spirit extended to other parts of his life beyond the highway. I do know that I sensed something familiar about him when I listened to his stories. Some kind of connection.

Bold as his adventures were, there was no Boy Scout machismo in his writing style. Much of it is sensuous, grand, poetic … very appealing to the little boy I was in Columbia, Tennessee. Here was a kind, well-educated man encouraging me to look beyond my hometown surroundings, to appreciate this marvel-filled world of ours … whatever it took … wherever it took me.

Hiking in the Anton Valley, Panama, 2018. We didn’t swim in the Canal like Halliburton did, but we did sail through it.

Halliburton writes: “If I ever grow up and have a son, we are going traveling together … because I’ll want my boy not only to study geography–I’d like for him to live it, too.”

Wise words. That’s why my childhood hero Richard Halliburton remains my hero today. Why I still treasure the book my parents gave me. And why I hope to have a little bit of Halliburton in the stories I write about our new adventure.

More to come

Stay tuned for those stories … and photos … from Argentina, Antarctica and Chile. And best wishes for a happy and adventurous 2023 to you all.

Note: Book images are from the 1960 edition published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

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