On the 23rd September 2014, our founder Harry Mitsidis met one of the biggest travellers in the world, Don Parrish. Don is ranked first in the Most Traveled People website, which is no mean achievement at all. In this narrative, Harry recounts the meeting and the many anecdotes from Don’s travels.
I meet Don at the lobby of the hotel and his infectious smile, which seems engraved on his face for all of the 6 hours we will be together, cannot fail to have an effect on me. This is the famous Don Parrish, the 70-year old who has been to all countries in the world and all but one of the regions of the Travelers Century Club.
We start walking under a very sunny Chicago sky but we quickly realise that we have too much to say, too much to discuss, and this requires a table and some concentration, so we make for a café. Little does the efficient girl behind the counter know that this seemingly quiet older gentleman in front of her is one of the greatest dare-devils of all time, going to places where very few have ever dared to, e.g., in May to Banaba island, a small speck in the middle of the Pacific that even a young sailor would not easily go to. And there was a harrowing trip with 2 other top travellers in an open boat to Navassa Island in rain and rough seas in November. The captain’s estimate of 8 hours turned into 19.
Don is eager to recount his stories. His very first flight by himself, back in 1955 when he was just 10, was to the very city we are in. Landing at Chicago’s Midway airport from Dallas, Texas, the drawl of which is still evident in the way he speaks, and his easy-going, unassuming demeanour, he explains his visit to an old family friend who helped his mother when he was born in Washington, D.C.
This visit had an indelible impression on him because it was his first time to see a captured WWII German submarine, a model of a coal mine, an Egyptian mummy, a Thunderbird car, an Indian totem pole, the mayor of Chicago whizzing by on Lake Shore drive with motorcycle police, movable bridges (Chicago has more than any city in the world) that stopped cars allowing ships to pass from the lake and down the river, etc. Don is proud that he followed his father’s instructions effortlessly when the return flight landed in Fort Worth. When he got off the plane, he asked the pilot where he could get a limo to the Aldophus hotel in Dallas. The pilot asked him; “Where are your parents?” “They are waiting for me at the hotel.” Don replied. The pilot escorted him to the limo.
I asked Don about his first international trip. In 1965 he spent a summer in Germany working as an unskilled laborer in a metal factory in Hanau, a small city near Frankfurt. He was completely isolated from other Americans and lived with a Germany family with 3 young children. What made this a transformative experience was his decision not to speak a word of English. This was amazing to the Germans, and they shared with him personal stories about WWII and its aftermath. Occasionally Don finds that German comes in handy – for example, when he spoke to 2 Serbian brothers on the ship returning from Mount Athos 3 years ago he had a 45 minute conversation in German. This year in a historically Saxon village of Viscri, Romania, an old lady, one of the few remaining Germans, explained her life growing up and how her father was killed in WWII in slow, clear German. She also shared some comments on Prince Charles who speaks German to her during his annual visits. He bought 2 houses in the village.
I’m also impressed by his knowledge of American history, as he recounts the many Lincoln-related monuments that one can find further south in Illinois, in New Salem and Springfield. He has visited them as well as where Lincoln was born, where he was assassinated, and where he died.
When he talks I am struck by how his various stories are linked. For example, earlier this year in Oman, where I have worked, he looking around in the airport in Muscat waiting for a flight to Salalah when a local man in his late 20s in traditional dress approached him and asked: “Can I help you?” Don was shocked because he had a genuine Texas accent. To compress a long story, Don had lunch with him learning he was born in Oman and at age 16 his father sent him to live with his brother in Texas. At 18, his brother put him out on his own and he worked his way up to manager in Walmart. Don was fascinated when the man explained that in Texas people thought he was a Mexican so he learned Spanish and started using the name Ricky Esquvail. Don felt an emotional bond when Ricky explained “he was a patriotic Omani, but loved Texas.” Ricky left Texas returning to Oman only when his elderly father needed his help. Don learned Ricky had lived in Marshall Texas, and made it a priority to visit this small Texas city of 25,000. Don had just visited Marshall for the first time 2 weeks before our meeting. His stories are long and full of detail beyond our available space so you will have to Google “Lucy Holcombe Pickens” to see a trigger for a visit Don made to Charleston, South Carolina, a city he has long wanted to see, a week after our meeting.
We discuss a number of issues related to thebesttravelled.com. For example, are the regions correctly divided? Don seems to take this on face value because the places themselves are the most important. Don may well be the only member of the club who has taken a trip mainly to confirm he has been to a country – he could not prove he had been to the Marshall Islands based on a stamp and so, he went again. But he points out, in his usual optimistic way, it was a blessing in disguise because his trip re-visited other islands in the Pacific.
We head for the Chicago Yacht club where, thanks to his generosity, I am his guest at a meeting of the Circumnavigators Club. The criterion to be eligible here is to have gone around the world on one singular trip. It is a varied crowd, though most of the members are obviously older; Don is clearly the best travelled around, and one of the most popular, judging by how chatty he is and how well he appears to know almost everybody. He introduces me as a peer; I am, seemingly, always ranked one position lower than Don on thebesttravelled, but this is only fitting – he is a travel legend, after all, and also one who very eagerly embraces and supports many of the competitive travel clubs.
He just returned from crossing the Panama Canal and seems very excited about this achievement. I can almost see the 10-year old boy landing for the first time in a strange city through his love and passionate accounts of the places he has been to. It turns out that the woman he visited in Chicago gave him Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels, a primary cause of his life of travel. And, to show every one of his stories are linked, Richard Halliburton swam the Canal in 1928 in 10 days paying a toll of 36 US cents.
And what is he planning in 2015? He likes being mysterious and vague. He explains that trip planning is not easy when you must charter boats with people to visit very remote places and when you are working on multiple lists.
Don leaves me a laminated page of one of his trip logs. These are very detailed, a day-by-day account of every step of each trip, the towns and sites visited and the transportation methods involved. Nobody can accuse him of not being meticulous in this. Then again, ever since he retired, trips away from his home in western Chicago are his way of life. He certainly won’t be stopping any time soon…
The photos in this article are from Don’s collection and show him with the pygmies in Central African Republic; with a lemur in Madagascar; with a priest in Mount Athos; with a North Korean security man; between Che and Putin in Transdniestr; at the Khyber Pass; with two locals at the Ashanti King’s court in Ghana; with the Chechen Minister of Tourism in Grozny; and finally with TBT’s first ranked Babis Bizas in Franz Josef Land.
For more about Don, visit his website here.