Before any know-it-alls start complaining about the absence of Edmund Hillary, Thor Heyerdahl, or Amelia Earhart from this list, let me make a distinction between “explorer” and “adventure traveler.” An explorer has historically been someone who attempts to do something that no one has done before (or plunder indigenous people for their gold and women). An adventure traveler, on the other hand, is someone who laces up a pair of comfortable shoes and plots a course for the cultural horizon. Here are my picks. I realize there’s a shortage of women here, but I blame this more on the gender constraints of past generations than my own lack of imagination.
Swashbuckling Teddy was the most badass of all adventure travelers. He drove cattle in North Dakota after graduating from Harvard (in true trustafarian style), and led the band of former football players and cowboys known as the “Rough Riders” in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He became the frickin' President, and afterward, went on safari in Africa, traveled Europe, got shot in the chest by a barkeeper, and led a scientific expedition through the Brazilian Amazon.
To my kids, “Marco Polo” is a swimming pool game. To most of the rest of the Western world, he’s the guy who brought us spaghetti (which he actually didn’t do). It’s believed that he probably did, however, spend roughly 17 years in the late 13th Century traveling in the Far East as a merchant with his dad. When he returned to Venice, Italy, he was imprisoned by the warring Genoese. While behind bars, he dictated the story of his travels to a fellow prisoner who happened to be a writer, recounting his experiences with Kublai Khan, and describing the exotic things he saw, like paper money, silk, and gunpowder, and how the Chinese burned coal as fuel (how little has changed).
Yes, I’m referring to the snooty writer who, in his book A Walk in the Woods, admits that he didn’t have the stamina to complete his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. No one in modern history has made the concept of adventure travel seem more accessible or just plain fun to millions of us common folk than Bryson. A Walk in the Woods and The Lost Continent are as close to American classics as any travel books of the last 25 years.
Harriet Chalmers Adams
A writer for magazines like National Geographic and Harper’s, the California-born Adams traveled throughout South America with her husband after the turn of the 20th Century. She canoed parts of the Amazon, rode horseback through the Andes and across Haiti (she was a Christopher Columbus buff), and served as a correspondent in France during World War I. In 1925 she became the first president of the Women’s Society of Geographers (the National Geographic Society didn't admit women at the time).
Born in Morocco the early 14th Century, Battuta made his first big trip, the pilgrimage to Mecca, when he was about 20. He spent the next three decades wandering throughout the Islamic world, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, and Southeast Asia. His adventures were recounted in a book known as the Rihla. In a time when most people never left their home villages, it’s safe to say that no human had ever come close to traveling more—an estimated 75,000 miles—than him.
Like many recent college grads today, Charles Darwin found himself in hot water with his dad in 1831 for not showing any direction in his life. He was 22 years old and had decided to travel the world on a sailing ship. Robert FitzRoy, the 25-year-old captain of the HMS Beagle, had just written, saying he needed a companion to treat as a friend and equal (something he couldn’t do with the crew without compromising his authority) to prevent him from going crazy during a trip to chart the South American coast. So Darwin paid his own way, with the aim of taking geological notes of the strange lands on their voyage to pass the time. His dad told him that when he came back, he’d need to get a real job, like as a parson. You know the rest of the story, and if you seriously don’t, Google it.