More than 30 years ago, veteran traveller Donald Maltby Parrish Jr completed a long held desire to visit all 50 US states. Once that goal was achieved, he set his sights on visiting the 193 UN member states, including Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Somalia and South Sudan. He ticked off Mongolia – the last country on his to-do list – four years ago, at age 66, but that was nowhere near the end of his travel ambitions.
“I decided I was going to travel everywhere. But then you have to define what ‘everywhere’ means,” he said. “I took the concept of visiting all 50 states and applied that on a worldwide basis.”
The Traveler’s Century Club (TCC), a popular club for world travellers, defines “everywhere” as 324 countries and territories. But two other clubs for obsessive travellers, Most Traveled People (MTP) with 875 places and The Best Travelled (TBT) with 1,281 places, divide the world up into much smaller parts.
In attempting to complete their travel lists, Parrish has been to almost every geographic subdivision in every major country: all 50 US states; 27 regions of France; 32 Chinese provinces; 83 Russian political subdivisions; 28 Indian states; 23 Argentine provinces; 16 German Länder; 20 regions of Italy; all 19 autonomous communities in Spain, and more. He brings his own pillow everywhere he goes and never leaves home without a detailed, laminated itinerary outlining his goals for the trip.
Parrish is the number one ranked traveller on the MTP site, having visited all but 34 places on their list. He is fifth on the TBT list, and he has visited every destination on the TCC list save for the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a collection of lonely islands halfway between East Africa and Indonesia that is generally off limits to tourists. Nearly all of the places Parrish hasn’t been to – mostly obscure islands such as Jarvis, part of America’s Minor Outlying Islands group in the South Pacific Ocean; St Peter and Paul Archipelago, a group of 15 islets and rocks located about 1,000km off Brazil’s northeast coast; and Johnston Atoll, an uninhabited, unincorporated US territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – are unknown even to geography wizards and all but the world’s most elite travellers.
Parrish, 70, is a trim, energetic man with neatly parted grey hair, pale blue eyes and a lampshade-style moustache. He wears a FitBit device to track how many steps he walks each day and keeps a trusty pen tucked in his shirt pocket. Sitting in a tiny park across from a train station near his suburban Chicago home, he explained how he’s managed to visit nearly every geographic entity on the planet.
“I didn’t wake up when I was 10 years old and say, ‘Someday I’m going to become the world’s top traveller’,” he said. “I just kept travelling. I’m well organised and I like to solve complex problems, like getting to these places on the lists.”
Parrish admitted that figuring out how to get to places he’s yet to visit is almost a full-time job. He keeps a spreadsheet detailing the obstacles he must overcome to reach the final 34 locations on the MTP list. A few of the locales, such as the Gaza Strip and Guantanamo Bay, are closed to travellers for political reasons, but most are remote islands that are expensive or impossible to get to because of logistical issues.
“If I was rich, I could just buy a million dollar yacht and reach most of these islands,” he said. “But I’m not.”
To prove this point, he gestured at his car, a 15-year-old Acura, which he said has more than 140,000 miles on it. “Some people spend their money on nice clothes and fancy cars,” he said. “I spend my money on travel.”
He’s a lifelong bachelor, which he said enables him to travel for six months or more each year. He doesn’t buy souvenirs. The only evidence of his passion is a world map hung in a hallway in his home.
Don Parrish’s travel obsession started in the summer of 1965 when, as a college student from Texas, he worked as an unskilled labourer in a metal factory as part of an exchange programme in Hanau, Germany.
“I spoke nothing but German all summer,” he recalled. “When you completely immerse yourself in another culture, it opens your eyes to all kinds of possibilities.”
He continued to travel abroad during his career developing electronic switching systems for Bell Laboratories (then the research and development subsidiary of telecommunications giant AT&T), but with only a couple of weeks of holiday per year, he could only go so far. The plan to travel everywhere was hatched after he retired in 2001, but the seeds of curiosity about the world were planted in the summer of ‘65.
When asked about his favourite destinations, Parrish said that his most beloved place in the world is the easy chair in his home.
Many of the world’s top travellers are single or divorced men. They cross paths in isolated locales that might be the answers to difficult pub quiz questions. Tristan da Cunha, a remote island group in the South Atlantic Ocean with a population of about 300, is one of them; it’s reachable only via a week-long boat ride from South Africa. They also frequently pool their resources to charter boats to reach places like Banaba, an out-of-the-way island that is part of the Republic of Kiribati. The conditions on board are often primitive and distinctly uncomfortable.
“Very few people would want to visit a lot of the places we go to,” Parrish said.
Parrish is able to finance a few exotic trips each year, such as the five-week-long cruise to obscure islands in the South Atlantic Ocean that he went on in 2013 and the extreme travel conference he attended in Grozny, Chechnya, in October 2014.
According to Barcelona native Jorge Sanchez, who is ranked number seven on the MTP site, many of the top travellers are essentially tick-the-box dilettantes who visit places simply to boast that they’ve been there.
“Some of the people in these clubs, they only touch down for one day or even one hour and they learn nothing,” he said. But Sanchez maintains that Parrish, whom he’s crossed paths with in places like the Midway Islands, an unincorporated territory of the US located about 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu, travels to satisfy his curiosity about the world – not for bragging rights.
“Don is honest,” he said. “Everywhere he goes, he learns about the place. He travels for the experience."
Bob Bonifas, 77, the owner of an alarm system company in Chicago and the number two rated traveller on the MTP site, has been on a number of journeys with Parrish since they met on a trip through Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006, and he says that he’s much more competitive than he’s willing to admit.
“Don cares more than anyone in the world about being number one,” he said. “I have eight different interests in life. Don has just one: travel. It’s all he talks about. All he thinks about.”
As a problem solver, Parrish loves trying to figure out how to see every bit of the planet – but he refuses to call his ambition a quest.
“I don’t think of it like that,” he said. “I want to see as much of the world as I can. This is what I’m focused on.”
He also insists that he doesn’t care about being the number one ranked traveller.
“If my only goal in life was to be the world’s most travelled person, I’d be in trouble,” he said. “Others are younger than me and plenty of others have more money, so I know my days at the top are numbered.”
But if he doesn’t care about bragging rights, what’s the point of joining clubs that rank travellers and quantify globetrotting with lists? Parrish believes the lists create a “forcing function” that gives travellers the chance to see the world in a “systematic way”.
“Without the lists, you’re just cherry picking random places to visit around the world,” he said. “There is so much you’d never learn about the world without the lists.”
To prove his point, Parrish launched into the history of Clipperton Island in the Pacific. Without the travel lists, he said, he would never have known it existed, let alone the fact it was discovered by Magellan about three months before he was killed. He then pulled a stack of binders containing laminated 8.5- by 11-inch itinerary cards out of his briefcase to illustrate what “systematic travel” means to him.
The cards had trip numbers at the top, with printed maps, detailed itineraries and objectives below. One such card, for a trip to Sudan and the Gulf States, revealed that while in Khartoum he visited the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, which was bombed by the US in 1998 in retaliation for the US Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.
“I learned that the Sudanese government has not allowed the factory to be rebuilt because they think someday it will be proved that it wasn't a secret chemical weapons laboratory as the US claimed.” he said.
Parrish records his trips so that he can look back and know exactly where he was on a given day, even years later. He has made full use of 13 US passports over the years, each overflowing with stamps and visas. And he recently started a project to record every entry and exit stamp in them, a task he calls “personal archaeology”. The point isn’t to prove to doubters that he’s the world’s top traveller, he said, but to have a clear record not only of where he’s travelled but when.
As hyper-organised as Parrish is, his world of travel isn’t just about counting geometric shapes on maps and stamps accrued in his passport. For him, travel is an adventure akin to a sacred experience. It is about learning, but it’s also about connecting with people in order to form lasting friendships and to better understand the places he visits.
"There are no lists for much of what I do in travel," he said. "But the lists are sometimes the key trigger to get me to the places where stories and empathy are."
Where's the finish line?
Parrish adores travel lists, saying he admires the intellectual creativity required to "define" our planet systematically – but he also insists that they’re a moving target. Some countries fade away. New countries are born and countries add new regions or provinces.
"Did you know that India has added four new states since 2000?” Parrish said. “Without the lists, I wouldn’t know that.”
Even if there is no absolute finish line, in 2015 Parrish will again head to the South Atlantic Ocean where he plans to visit Bouvet Island, a spectacularly remote, uninhabited island that belongs to Norway; the (British) South Sandwich Islands; and Gough, a volcanic island where a half dozen meteorologists run a weather station that is administered by the UK.
He has also visited more than 400 of the Unesco World Heritage Sites. "No one has ever visited all of them," he said. "Unesco is adding about 20 to 25 a year so there's always something left to see."
Illustration © Candace Rose Rardon
All information correct as of March 2015.