In the Bizarre World of Competitive Travel, it’s not where you’ve been, but how you check it off your list.
In the Bizarre World of Competitive Travel, it’s not where you’ve been, but how you check it off your list.
For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.
I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
— Robert Louis Stevenson
F THE MANY HIGHLIGHTS ON BILL ALTAFFER'S CV — surfed off every continent; skied on six; visited every country in the world, plus 300 island groups, disputed areas, territories and colonies; visited both poles; among first tourists into Post-Mao China, Midway, Socotra, East Timor, Post-Khomeini Iran; last pre-war into Iraq; one of the first Americans to modern Saudi Arabia and North Korea; over 450 sea days, 50 Equator crossings, 50 International Date Line crossings, 12 passports and 130 visas — one item stands out (in a much bigger font): World’s Most Traveled Man, 2005-2006.
Which begs certain questions: like how does one measure such a thing? And who holds the title now?
“No one is the world’s most traveled man,” says Altaffer, 65, hunched over the dining room table at his second home in Mammoth Lakes, California, beneath a collection of spoons and exotic masks. There's a glint in his eye as he says this, a barely perceptible lifting of jowls, as if to say that he knows better, that in fact there is one person on the planet, maybe even in this room, who’s been to more places than anyone else. The trick is how you count the places — and who's keeping score.
Four years ago, when a young dot.com millionaire by the name of Charles Veley created Mosttraveledman.com (later re-directed to mosttraveledpeople.com — MTP for short), and unveiled his own “master list” of the world’s countries and territories (“673 divisions of the land area on Earth”), Altaffer punched in his credentials — and came out on top. But then, as Altaffer explains it (as one might explain having lost the first match of an ongoing tennis tourney), “he [Veley] bought tickets and went rat-tat-tat and got me.”
Today, Veley (44) is still the leader on his own list — a list that expands and contracts (but mostly expands) based on votes cast by its thousands of users. Altaffer has slipped to number three, just behind a woman from Beverly Hills whose professed accomplishments remain in question — in particular a visit to Mount Athos, a monastic state in Greece where women are forbidden.
Thanks to his website, Veley’s been touted in national magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, as the World’s Most Traveled Man. The publicity has cost him friends. Or maybe it’s his personality — his boyish optimism, his complete lack of gravitas, his willingness to bear the mantle. Plus there’s the made-for-TV haircut, the Harvard pedigree, and the scary resemblance, as Altaffer (and others) points out, to “that fucker John Edwards.”
Altaffer, having traveled voraciously since the middle of the last century, is not quite the svelte surfer dude he once was, but he’s pretty sure he’s been more places than young Veley. Plus, he points out, many of those places no longer exist — like China in 1979 (“the whole place was Mao suits”), or Malibu in the 60’s (“when Miki Dora was king”). He admits he's slowed down a bit in the last decade, due to two young kids (“byproducts of a trip,” he says) and major knee surgery. But with his recent conquest of 63 Russian Oblasts, he’s still very much in the game.
"There are ways of measuring this crap," he says, flattening a scrap of fax paper on which he’s printed a chart of “Top Travelers Achievements,” downloaded from the internet. On it there are twelve highly-accomplished travelers — including himself, Veley, a Bangkok-based Swedish businessman by the name of Jarl Hardenmark, and others — matched up against seven lists: seven different enumerations of all the places (or “exploits”) on planet Earth — countries, territories, patrimonies, island groups, trains, lost tribes, mythical cities.
He turns to his seven-year-old son, reminds him (again) that he’s too close to the TV. His daughter’s practicing piano with his wife Qing, just back from Shanghai. The front hall is a sea of as-yet unpacked suitcases. He winks: “If you screwed a chick in every country you should get something for that, I suppose.”
UMANS WERE TRACING LINES ON MAPS and stuffing saddlebags with curios long before Magellan hoisted square sails for Tierra del Fuego. “Swayed by an overmastering impulse within me,” wrote Ibn Battuta of the summer in 1325 when he saddled up for three decades across Africa and Asia, “I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home.” The airplane, of course, has opened the world to a wide range of restless souls with different skill-sets than those of, say, Marco Polo or Ernest Shackleton.
The UN now divides the globe into 194 independent states and entities. For die-hards like Veley and Altaffer, and hundreds of others, this is barely a starting point. The Travelers’ Century Club (TCC) was founded in 1954 as an exclusive association for “travel pioneers” who’d visited 100 countries. In 1960 there were 43 qualifying members. Today, the organization boasts more than 1,800. Its register of “approved countries,” derived from a list used by ham radio operators, has expanded to 319 destinations, including some — Easter Island, Alaska, Madeira, the seven territories of Antarctica, etc. — which for various reasons are counted separately from their parent countries. Recent additions include East Timor, Kosovo, Transnistria, and Cabinda.
“If you’re going to be up with the big boys,” says Altaffer, you have to have three things: (1) time; (2) money — he figures about $3 million to get 300 countries (“You could hedge it a mil,” he admits, if you had to — “you could backpack and stuff like that”); and (3) “balls — or stupidity.”
To illustrate this last quality, he tells of a foray into Socotra in 2000, at the start of semi-regular air service. “We got on a plane in Sanaa, a Yemen Air piece of shit.” He sketches a map of the Gulf of Aden. Here’s Yemen, he says. Here’s Somalia. “And this is Socotra, an island full of blond people who are descendents of Alexander the Great.”
As they’re about to lift off there’s a bang, flames shooting out of the engine. Nobody knows what the problem is. He considers his options: maybe there’s a flight out of Aden (where weeks earlier the USS Cole had docked to a warm welcome of C-4 explosives); maybe not. People get off the plane, get back on. “This is bullshit,” says the pilot (as quoted by Altaffer). “This is not a restaurant. We do not know what’s wrong with this plane, but we’re taking off in five minutes.”
Socotra isn't on the TCC list; it's just another part of Yemen. But Altaffer wants it. “Our butts never left the seat,” he says.
HERE WAS A MOST TRAVELED MAN in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1995: Indiana attorney John Clouse, who'd survived the Battle of the Bulge and seven marriages and “visited all the sovereign countries and all but two of the non-sovereign or other territories.” Guinness’s list included 14 places not recognized by the TCC — places like Kingman Reef, Bouvet Island, Gaza, the Military Order of Malta (in Rome), and the Paracel Islands, a heavily-guarded Chinese military reserve in the South China Sea. Clouse had been everywhere but Bouvet and the Paracels.
In 2003 Guinness retired the category, claiming it “can no longer strictly be a record once more than one person has achieved it.” Which might hold water, except that not even Clouse had yet achieved it. More likely, Guinness came to the realization that “most traveled” lay beyond its capacity to judge — especially alonside, as former TCC president Kevin Hughes jibes, “who made the largest salami sandwich and who ate the most fluorescent light tubes.” The TCC declined to step in. As Hughes puts it, “we do not condone, sanction, nor encourage this sort of thing.”
Which is where Charles Veley came in.
Veley had been turned away from the club in 2000, with only 65 countries under his running shoes. Three busy years later, at age 37, after logging “259,640 miles, or more than 10 times around the world, with 254 flight segments on 94 different airlines,” he became the youngest person to claim every country on the TCC list.
As a feat of extreme globe-trotting it was impressive, but hackles went up. “Charles gets off the plane, bops around, and gets back on,” said Clouse. How could he even remember where he’d been? Kevin Hughes was blunt: “Running around the world as fast as you can is a stupid, shallow, childish endeavor.” Hardenmark dismissed it as “a kindergarten joke.” Even Jorge Sanchez, ranked number four on Veley’s list, wrote that “traveling that way is like buying a ticket to the cinema, and going back home without watching the movie.”
Veley is baffled by the animosity. “I view the world as a giant smorgasbord,” he says. “You do your best to take a small taste of everything to earn the right to return for seconds.” Having burned a decade and as much as $2 million to sample 93% of the items (710 of his list's 761 places), he has, in recent years, been able to put more time into seconds. He figures he’s revisited at least 500 places.
For Jeff Shea, a self-proclaimed “true world-class adventurer” based in Singapore, the mere mention of Charles Veley seems to cause an intense throbbing in his ears. What about Emilio Scotto, with his two turns around the planet on a motorcycle? Or André Brugiroux, who hitchhiked 249,000 miles, drinking from streams and gleaning sustenance from the Earth? What about Hardenmark, the only contemporary traveler who claims to have set foot on the Paracels, where not even John Clouse was able to get? “There are movie stars, and there are people who are traveling for the right reasons,” says Shea. "I’m just pissed because I’m the most interesting and I’m not being recognized.”
Shea has been to every country and climbed the Seven Summits, took the first photos of Warming Island and Stray Dog West (Earth’s newest piece of rock), walked across New Guinea. His daughter, when she was not yet three, had already bagged 100 countries and the Guinness record for Youngest Person to Travel All Seven Continents. Shea has never visited Veley’s website (he says). Instead, he made his own list — Shea’s Register of the World, based on an International Standards Organization (ISO) list, breaking the planet down into 3,978 constituent parts “for the avid or extreme traveler to follow.”
The list was well received. The more places to go, the merrier. Competitive travelers scrambled to enter their data. Veley came up with 1,873. Altaffer figured 2,168, putting him above Veley by 295 places and above Shea by 642. Shea wanted proof, got proprietary, even threatened to sue anyone who used the list to promote his own or anyone else's accomplishments. “There are one thousand three hundred and seventy places on my list that I haven’t even been able to locate,” he protests. “Some of the names are in Arabic! You can’t find the maps!"
Altaffer has offered to tell Shea a story about every place he’s ever been, which expedient Shea calls “most impractical.” “If I kept a log with all the dates from 1949 to show Jeff where I went,” Altaffer shrugs, “I might have been traveling for all the wrong reasons.”
“It’s a slippery slope to meaninglessness,” admits Veley.
I know a trip has really been successful if I come back sounding strange even to myself; if, in some sense, I never come back at all, but remain up at night unsettled by what I've seen.
— Pico Ayer
LTAFFER'S NEXT STOP IS HIS WHITE WHALE: Wake Island. He's been trying to get to Wake for 15 years; it’s the only place left on his TCC list. Site of a heroic stand by US Marines in WWII’s Pacific Theater, the outcropping has been off-limits since 1974 — except to a small U.S. Air Force team, a handful of civilian contractors, and those arriving by emergency landing. “Guys have talked about faking shipwrecks,” says Altaffer, who once sailed past on a cruise ship (and later won a lawsuit against Crystal Cruises for falsely advertising the atoll as a port of call). Clouse got there in the 1980s, with Kevin Hughes and a handful of other TCC members who’d finagled their way onto a memorial flight. Altaffer plans to finally get there this coming December on a military tour commemorating the start of the War in the Pacific.
I meet Veley for dinner one night on the first floor of a funky faux-Tyrolean motel in Mammoth Lakes. (Sadly, Altaffer is out of town.) We’ve been going back and forth by email for months. First he was in Apia, Western Somoa, boarding an aging research vessel — “one of the slowest and most unstable in the Pacific” — bound eventually for Tuvalu. Then he was back in the States, insisting we meet in person. He’d come to me, he said. He was happy to sample the newly established air service to Mammoth, via LAX. It was a leg he’d never traveled, and though it wasn’t likely to factor on any most-traveled list — not even Shea’s — he was glad for the experience.
He’s already sitting when I arrive, wearing a still-crisp baseball cap from Drifter’s Reef, the only bar on Wake Island. He orders a California Riesling, one he’s had before and liked. It pairs nicely with the pork tenderloin. He tells me how he got to Wake by calling an old friend, a sympathetic colonel in the Air Force, and securing temporary orders as a military contractor. He talks about the difficulty of balancing a wife and kids (5, 3 and 1) against his need to disappear for six months at a time. He talks about how the money’s dwindling, how he hopes to monetize the website, how he loves telling taxi drivers he's been to their village.
I take him to a luge party, where we stand by a bonfire in the snow and drink spiced vodka. I lend him a helmet and he makes a couple of runs. The next day he suits up in his late-90s vintage teal and purple one piece and I give him a tour of the ski mountain.
Then I drive him to the airport and he flies away, bound soon enough for Pitcairn Island and the Isles Eparses. Having now been to Mammoth Lakes.