I don’t travel as much now as I used to. I seem content to go back to places that I’ve visited before rather than to strike out in a new direction. That seemed to be okay for now — as I am almost through my seventh decade — but maybe I need to re-think that just a little.
My mother did not travel much. Living and working in St. Louis, she was far from the wonders of the world. She went with a neighbor family to see Pikes Peak in an shiny new touring car sometime in the 1920s — crossing dusty Kansas on what passed for roads and camping along the way. She and a bunch of girlfriends drove to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast in the 1930s. (Whoa – how daring!) She wasn’t a driver so she rode in the rumble seat and got sunburned. I only know that because she kept a little travel journal complete with grainy Kodak photographs. We travelled on family vacations beginning in the late 1950s and when she and my dad moved to Virginia in the 1970s they travelled around the east coast. On her first airplane trip, out to California to visit her brother and sister-in-law, she visited an old Spanish mission and pried up an original clay floor tile and brought it home as a souvenir. Maybe it’s good that she didn’t travel to some places. Is that really the Holy Grail in the pantry?
But I get some of my “wanderlust” from her. She was a big fan of Richard Halliburton, an almost unknown name today but at the time, back in the 1930s, he was almost a rival to Charles Lindbergh. He was a dashing and fearless figure who travelled the world over and published stories and books of his travels. She scraped money together to buy his books and when he came to town she was in the audience. She went to see Lindbergh, too, but she seemed to be more impressed with Halliburton. He was almost a roaming evangelist for travelers: good looking and articulate — and single. He managed to turn travel into a career and made good money at it. His personal life was a little edgy by her standards, had she known, but back in the day much of that was kept private.
As I was recently going through some family books, I came across her old 1937 copy of Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: The Occident, which covers many of his travels and adventures in North and South America and Europe. I remember poring over that book as a kid and wanting to go see all those places that were pictured. Looking through it now, especially the old black and white pictures, I wonder how much things have changed. He was writing before WW-II but made reference to the damage that was done during “the Great War”. Hitler was in power in 1937 and Halliburton pretty much ignored the existence of the German state except to mention the damage the Germans did in shelling Rheims Cathedral (complete with photographs of the burning church). My dad trudged all over western Europe in WW-II from London to Paris and Berlin with an eventful stopover in Bastogne and was much less impressed with the place.
As I paged through the book this time I see that I’ve managed to visit a number of places he covered in 1937. Some are commonplace today. He goes gaga over the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Chapters are devoted to Boulder Dam, Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls…people still are impressed with those. New York City gets a chapter with emphasis on the Empire State Building. Washington DC gets a chapter. It turns out I’ve staggered through all the places in the US that he featured in the book with the exception of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas out in the Gulf west of Key West, Florida. I just never took the boat ride. There are a lot of places in the rest of the book that I haven’t visited. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and his pictures from the 1930s are interesting compared to what it looks like today. I’ve been maybe a couple hours away from some of the places but didn’t get there. I recall reading his account of Vesuvius and Pompeii as a kid and even wrote a report for school based mostly on the book but I never managed to get there — just a few miles down the road from Rome. There are a few places I’ll not visit — monasteries, mostly, but there are a number that still beckon -- Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro could be one trip. Athens and Istanbul could be another trip.
Halliburton was a great self-promoter and he seemed to be awestruck with almost anything he encountered along the way. His prose was gushing in praise for everything and sounds silly today. He found all sorts of people to happily pose in native costumes for his photographs but he seemed to really like being photographed riding elephants. There are a lot of those.
Undaunted by the first hostilities of WW-II, Japan and China were at war, Halliburton had a Chinese Junk, the Sea Dragon, built in Hong Kong in 1939 and planned to sail it across the Pacific to San Francisco. How tough could it be? Halliburton and a crew of six Americans set off in March and ran headlong into a typhoon. The ship was last seen some distance west of Midway Island struggling through the storm. It was never seen again. Initial reaction was that this was a publicity stunt — Amelia Earhart had gone missing two years earlier so nobody was dumb enough to try this without some back-up plan…right? Eventually the navy went out looking for the Sea Dragon or some evidence of wreckage but nothing was found. Halliburton was declared dead in October, 1939. Germany had invaded Poland the previous month so there was not as much attention paid to his disappearance. My mom was probably heartbroken. Rumors persisted for years that he actually was alive and living like a native in some remote location but none of the crew ever turned up. Eventually, in 1945, some wooden wreckage washed ashore near San Diego that could have been from the Sea Dragon but, after so many years of war in the Pacific, it could have been from almost anything. I might travel a little more but I won’t be trying that.
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