It began on a gray December day in New York. I was sitting in the offices of Argosy, overlooking the dismal winter scene twenty floors below. The magazine was publishing the story of my trip across Russia, and Al Podell, the picture editor, had just finished going over the layout with me.
Al asked what I planned next.
“Another auto trip,” I said. “This time completely around the world.”
I saw him looking at me strangely.
“After Europe,” I remember explaining, ”I’ll cut across the top of Africa, camp in the desert, share meals with roving bands of nomads. Then Cairo. I’ll pitch camp in the shadow of the Pyramids, cooled by the evening breeze off the Nile … the Great Salt Desert of Persia … mosques and minarets … Baghdad … wilds of Afghanistan … the twists and bends of the Khyber Pass where the Mongols and British fought and where fierce Pathan warriors still roam unchallenged … two weeks later bathe in the Ganges … two more weeks and I’ll be climbing the Himalayas … then the jungles of Thailand, camp at the edge of a forest pool where elephant and tigers drink together …. “
I rambled on about Tangier and Tahiti, Calcutta and Kathmandu, Bangkok and Singapore, sights that I had seen and others that I longed to see. A faraway look came into Al’s eyes, a look I had seen many times on the faces of those to whom I spoke of my adventures. The words that followed were also familiar.
“I wish I could go with you.”
People had often asked if they could accompany me. There’s something magic about the name Tahiti or the vision of a white sail upon the sea. Call it romance or a dream, or anything you like, but it awakens in every man at the wail of a train in the night or the blast of an ocean liner leaving port. Somewhere beyond the horizon lies romance, and every heart yearns to find it.
The world opened to me when I was a young boy on a farm in Pennsylvania. It opened with books of adventure and travel, for those were the golden days when a young reporter named Lowell Thomas wrote about exotic places like Timbuktu and Kathmandu, and Richard Halliburton crossed the Alps on an elephant and swam the Bosporus. To me, these places and the lives these men led spelled romance. But when the real world came leaping at me, it was like the earth coming up to meet a skydiver. There was no casual introduction; it came up suddenly-with World War II.
I left high school to enlist in the Marines, and at seventeen sailed west to find romance. My ocean liner was a troop ship and my Shangri-La was the shell-torn island of Okinawa. When the fighting ended, the Marines sent me to Peking, and I discovered the cruel world that was postwar China. But somehow I couldn’t accept the idea that romance was dead. I went to Paris with the U.S. Naval Attaché and there decided upon a diplomatic career. I went to Washington, took my discharge, was graduated from Georgetown University, and spent the next few years in government service. But the dreams that colored my childhood could not be forgotten, and armed with nothing but the wish to discover the world’s ends, I set forth.
During the next decade the world became my backyard. When I had to, I taught school but I much preferred other kinds of work-surveying the Chocho Jungles of Colombia, culling the deer herd in the Ureweras of New Zealand, crewing on copra schooners across the Pacific. I crossed Afghanistan by camel caravan and hunted kangaroo for their hides in Australia. In a very deep sense, I got to know and love the world.
After circling the globe four times, I realized that no matter how I had traveled, whether by ship or bus or train or plane, there was always something lacking. I concluded that there was only one way to see the world, and that was to drive, to be free from flight schedules and familiar routes. I wanted to get to the world’s heart, far off the tourist track, to the untouched villages, the nomad camps, the jungle ruins.
I wanted to really get to know it, and if this meant following caravan routes long forgotten, traversing trackless deserts, crossing lofty mountain passes and fording unbridged rivers-I wanted to try it.
After driving a Jeep 18,000 miles across Europe and the Soviet Union, I knew I was right. I decided to drive completely around the world. The only thing standing in my way, as I was explaining to Al Podell, was $20,000.
“Twenty thousand dollars. Where you going to get it?” Al asked.
“You’re buying the story, aren’t you?” “What about the other $19,000?”
”I’ll try to work something out,” I said.
“I know some people who might be interested in helping you. I’ll call them and let you know.”
Al didn’t mention again that he wanted to go with me, and I once more realized it is not within the realm of possibility for all men to cast off their jobs and homes and fortunes-to- be-made and turn to adventure and the unknown, except in dreams. But dreams are what men are made of. Two weeks later in California I had a long distance call from New York. When I heard Al’s voice over the wire I knew he had passed beyond dreaming. “Steve, listen. I want to go with you.”
Now I hoped he hadn’t passed too far. I emphasized that the trip would have hardships as well as grandeur, that a breakdown in the desert could mean disaster, that bandits still roamed the mountain passes in Afghanistan, that there would be thirst and hunger and the possibility of epidemic and disease in India and the Far East. Al listened quietly, and after I finished, he said he still wanted to go. “You know, I’ve been at Argosy four years,” he said, “and I’ve met just about every adventurer in the business. They all come to me with their stories and plans. Guys want to go by bicycle from Capetown to Cairo, to dog-sled across Greenland, to go pogo-sticking up the Amazon, even to drive around the world. But I’ve never been tempted to go with any of them.”
In a sense I could understand why he never had been tempted. Al was the youngest picture editor of any major magazine in America, and ran several prosperous trade newspapers in his spare time. His apartment on East 55th Street was a luxurious four-room bachelor’s layout with palm trees and oil paintings and colored lights where he entertained some of the prettiest models and actresses in New York. You might say that Al had everything a young man could want, so why would he be tempted when I talked about the blazing heat of the Great Syrian Desert?
“It’s your enthusiasm, Steve. It’s contagious. You make the world sound more exciting than anyone I’ve ever met. You’ve convinced me that I’ve got to see what it’s really like. I want to go with you.”
“Well, I hope you like to drive.”
“Drive is right,” Al said. “Did you know your route would be the longest automobile trip ever made around the earth?” Later, back in New York, I studied the accounts that Al had gathered of past trans-world expeditions. He noted that they had traveled between 19,000 and 21,000 miles by land, and all had gone by one of two routes. The expeditions in the early part of the century, including the great race of 1908, had all crossed the width of the United States and driven through Manchuria, China and Russia to France. After World War II and the descent of the Iron and Bamboo Curtains, this route became impossible. In the twenty years since then, only two expeditions had been able to drive completely around the world: the Oxford-Cambridge group in 1955, and Peter Townsend the year after. They had angled down from France through Greece and Turkey, driven on to India and Southeast Asia, and from there shipped directly to the United States. In all cases, the non-repetitive mileage (eliminating sidetrips, backtracking, indirect routing and city travel) never exceeded 21,000. The route I had chosen would, Al pointed out, better all past marks by 3,000 miles and set a record for the longest non-repetitive automobile trip ever made around the earth.
- Photo caption on page 7 of the printed publication:
Left, the 1908 New York to Paris race. Right, the Stars and Stripes that went around the world aboard the famous Thomas Flyer touring car.