The return of the 'horizon chaser'

Another generation can now enjoy a classic travel tale from explorer Richard Halliburton

Anyone who grew up reading - and avidly rereading - "Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels" knows the indelible imprint his travel adventures leave on memory and imagination.

What Halliburton fan can forget that thick orange book, written especially for young people? With 110 essays weaving together threads of history, geography, and adventure, it served as a literary magic carpet, whisking eager readers to the remotest corners of the world.

Halliburton remains one of the 20th century's most beloved travel writers. It was he who introduced several generations to such exotic places as the Blue Grotto, Machu Picchu, and Udaipur. It was he who planted the first seeds of wanderlust in many youthful readers, feeding their dreams of someday visiting Pompeii, Mont St. Michel, and Angkor Wat. And it was he who sent fans back to libraries and bookstores in search of his other works as well.

For several decades Halliburton's books have been out of print. Now, in this centennial year of his birth, there is good news. His first book, "The Royal Road to Romance," is again available (Travelers' Tales, $14.95). Written when he was only 25, it chronicles his wanderings from Andorra to the Nile, from the Khyber Pass to Mt. Fuji. Seven decades before "adventure travel" became an $8 billion-a-year industry in the United States, with packaged tours to suit every whim and budget, Halliburton was blazing his own independent trails.

His insatiable desire to travel began in childhood. After graduating from Princeton University, he rejected any thought of a conventional career and took to the road. He crossed oceans on freighters, pretending to be an experienced seaman. He scaled mountains from Europe to Japan. He bicycled 128 miles in a single day in France. He swam in a Venetian canal.

Whatever his itinerary, Halliburton said he reveled in the "freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic." He also delighted in sharing his findings with others, writing books and giving lectures to pay his way.

Halliburton traveled on a shoestring, propelled by equal parts of curiosity, innocence, exuberance, and impulsiveness. He was the consummate adventurer. No destination was too remote, no trek too daunting. Again and again he heeded the "small voice" that whispered, "Go ahead. Risk it."

And risk it he did.

It was still possible then to wander alone on a moonlit night along the walls of Carcassonne. As he recalls in "Royal Road," "Not a person was to be seen; not a light showed, nor a dog barked as I climbed the path and walked beneath the massively fortified gate...."

It was also possible to climb one of the Great Pyramids at night. Writing triumphantly about the experience, he says, "Many pens have described the panorama seen at midday from the peak of Kheops; few have described it at midnight."

In other exploits, Halliburton exaggerated his previous mountain-climbing experience in order to persuade a guide to escort him - clad in corduroy pants and borrowed gear - to the top of the Matterhorn.

He also managed to sneak past the guardhouse at Gibraltar under cover of darkness to explore the summit of the Rock. Yet even Halliburton was not always invincible. He spent his 22nd birthday in a Gibraltar jail for breaking a law against photography.

By today's standards of sophisticated travel, Halliburton sometimes seems hopelessly nave as he charges ahead, all giddy enthusiasm and irrepressible energy. By the standards of any era, he can also be astonishingly reckless and foolhardy in the face of potential danger. But that remains part of his enduring charm.

Still, why read about travel from a long-ago era? In any age, travel is a journey of the heart, a voyage of discovery that, at its best, sheds light on both the destination and the traveler. To read Halliburton is to experience a simpler world, before hordes of tourists - and those who cater to them - began permanently altering landscapes and cultures everywhere.

Halliburton's adventurous spirit was cut tragically short in 1939, when he was not yet 40. He and a crew boarded a Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, in Hong Kong and attempted to sail it to San Francisco. But the vessel proved to be unseaworthy.

Just before it went down in a storm, Halliburton radioed a message to his parents, still managing a bit of brave humor in a desperate situation. He wrote, "Southerly gales, squalls, lee rail under water, wet bunks, hardtack, bully beef, wish you were here instead of me."

After that, silence.

Years earlier, when someone asked the adventurer his name and occupation, he replied, "Halliburton - horizon chaser." That description could serve as his epitaph, neatly summing up his life and his rich legacy.

Perhaps the reissue of this classic book will mark the beginning of a Halliburton revival. His globetrotting writings could inspire a new generation of horizon chasers eager to discover, through his eyes and pen, the wonders of the world, the goodness of people, and the sheer joy of packing a bag, turning a key in the door, and heading out to a destination far from home.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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