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The Road Less Traveled

For my thirteenth Christmas, my parents gave me a copy of travel writer Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels which ignited my young imagination like nothing before or since. I was gobsmacked by Halliburton’s global exploits and stunning photography, not to mention a man daring (or foolish) enough to scale the Matterhorn off-season, leap 70 feet into the Mayan sacrificial pool at Chichen Itza and swim the Panama Canal! Such derring-do made headlines around the world and had special resonance because Halliburton, like myself, was a native Tennessean. His tantalizing adventures transported me to worlds well beyond my backyard and set me on a path continuing to this day.

Born into a well-to-do Memphis family in 1900, Halliburton took a hiatus from his Princeton studies and traveled to New Orleans where he signed on as a lowly seaman and boarded a ship bound for Europe. The voyage roused a wanderlust chasing him to the end of his days. After graduation, he ignored his family’s insistence that he adopt a conventional lifestyle and, instead, continued traveling. In 1925, he published his first book, The Royal Road to Romance, which was an immediate best-seller, and with his matinee idol looks, Southern charm and flair for storytelling, Halliburton became a star on the lecture circuit. His fame increased when Bell Syndicate Newspapers published his weekly travel stories, and he gained an even greater following with more colorful books admired for their objectiveness and lack of proselytizing. The one request he made of his young readers was that they regard international travel as a guide to one’s destiny. (I was so taken by his advice that I sold my high school class ring the day after graduation and bought a trip to Mexico City. Nine years later I quit my job and spent months backpacking from Sweden to Morocco.)

Always in search of new, sometimes unashamedly theatrical adventures to entertain his ever-growing audience, Halliburton reenacted Lord Byron’s swim across the Hellespont and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps by elephant and hid from Taj Mahal security guards so he could stay overnight and swim in the moonlit lotus pools. He was the first man to climb Mount Fujiyama in winter, and stood in the open cockpit of a biplane to become the first man to photograph Mount Everest from the air. A true citizen of the world, Halliburton eventually settled in Laguna Beach, CA, with his paramour, journalist Paul Mooney. Hangover House, so nicknamed because it perched atop a sheer 400-foot canyon, was a magnet for Hollywood glitterati and writers like Ayn Rand who supposedly based Heller House in The Fountainhead on the Halliburton-Mooney home.

A Chinese junk took Halliburton on his last adventure.

In March, 1939, Halliburton announced he would sail a Chinese Junk named Sea Dragon from Hong Kong to San Francisco where it would become part of the Golden Gate International Exposition. After three weeks at sea, the ship was torn apart by a typhoon, sending Halliburton’s body to the bottom of the Pacific. Seven months later the Memphis Chancery Court declared him legally dead. Halliburton was only 39, but I don’t consider his early death a tragedy. “When my time comes to die,” he wrote, “I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills—any emotion that any human ever had—and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.”

Aboard Sea Dragon.

Halliburton’s exploits did more than awaken my passion for travel, one that has so far taken me to over forty countries and such exotic destinations as Abu Simbel, Tikal, Bali and Rio. He also inspired me to write a novel, Out of Time, based on one of his most compelling characters, King Henry I of Haiti, whose phenomenal mountaintop fortress, the Citadel, is shown on the book cover below.

It’s been over half a century since I was introduced to Richard Halliburton, but clearly his influence remains strong. He helped me, in the words of William Ernest Henley, become “master of my fate and captain of my soul.” He is my hero.

3 Comments

  1. Celeste Berteau
    Mar 23, 2017

    My mother loved Halliburton. I can still see Royal Road to Romance in our front hall bookcase. Wish I still had it.

  2. Sharmon
    May 17, 2017

    I had this book in our home growing up and,it enthralled me the same way.this was the first I had ever read of/ seen the number one spot on my bucket list,Mont St Michels Abbey off of the Normandy coast.

  3. Michael LLewellyn
    May 19, 2017

    Number One for me was the Great Pyramid which I visited in 1999. It was everything Halliburton said and then some!

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