A little more than a decade ago, Don Parrish looked at a world map and declared, “I want to see everything.”
Parrish, 72, from suburban Chicago, had just retired from a lucrative career and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to travel. He started with the pretty places – the kind you or I might visit – before moving on to the ones he knew had problems, like Somalia and Iraq.
Within a decade, Parrish had visited all 193 UN member states. But his wanderlust didn’t end there.
By some accounts, Parrish is now the world’s most travelled person. He’s breezed through 13 passports, flown about 5 million air miles, visited more than 60 islands by ship, and, for the past three years, ranks No 1 on the most popular online club for extreme travellers, Most Traveled People, or MTP.
MTP divides the world like a puzzle into 875 pieces; Parrish has seen a staggering 851 of them. The lifelong bachelor is also No 7 on The Best Traveled, or TBT, a smaller club that breaks up the world into 1281 regions along slightly different criteria. The chance to rise up the rankings on MTP and TBT has birthed a small community of “competitive travellers” like Parrish who race around the globe collecting destinations the way ordinary folks might collect baseball cards.
So what’s it like to be the world’s most travelled person? I arrange to meet Parrish and find out. Our rendezvous point is predictably obscure: the Chilean fishing hub of Puerto Montt.
This is Parrish’s fifth time in the South American nation, but he’s never seen the UNESCO World Heritage Sites that lie on a little known archipelago called Chiloe, which juts into the Pacific as the mainland crumbles into the Patagonian fjords. Our plan is to catch a ferry to its foggy shores, but first, we’ll gorge on some of Puerto Montt’s famous seafood at the Angelmo fish market.
We settle in for dinner at one of the market’s seafood dives. Parrish orders grilled salmon with purple potatoes while I opt for the chupe de centolla, a creamy king crab casserole.
The consummate traveller launches into conversation with a topic that’s been on his mind lately: failure. “Most times when you travel you don’t have the concept of failing,” he explains.
“You consult a schedule, plan your trip, and it’s under your control. But when you’re going to unusual places, as I do, you often don’t even know how to get permission to go there.”
The main reason he flew to Chile was to secure permission from its navy to land on the Desventuradas Islands, an isolated archipelago 853km off the coast. These uninhabited islands are but one of 24 destinations on MTP’s list that Parrish has yet to visit. Another is the Brazilian islands of Trindade and Martim Vaz. Both trips appear destined to fail.
In addition to plugging away at the MTP and TBT lists, Parrish wants to tackle all 1052 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. He’s seen 459, but the UN body adds about two dozen each year, making it an uphill battle.
It’s in pursuit of World Heritage sites that we find ourselves on a ferry to Chiloe the next morning. The Andes merge into a thin line of white across the horizon as Parrish digs into his briefcase and hands me the three spiral notebooks cataloguing his escapades: one for MTP destinations, one for TBT and another for World Heritage Sites.
The laminated sheet for trip No 69, his current journey, has a graph with each day’s objectives. Today’s goal is to visit the World Heritage-listed churches of Chiloe.
Parrish, tells me these lists give him a structured way of seeking travel inspiration. “They’re a means to an end,” he says.
“How else would I have ended up in Chiloe searching for its wooden churches?”
The main island, Isla Grande, is the second-largest island in South America when you exclude river islands of the Amazon. Its seafaring people developed a culture quite distinct from the mainland with a rich mythology of mermaids, forest gnomes and ghost ships. The architecture, too, is telling of Chiloe’s isolation. There are tejuelas (wood shingles) on nearly every home, colourful palafitos (stilt houses) along the coasts, and some 150 wooden churches.
Parrish and I focus on seven of the most important churches on Isla Grande and the outlying Isla Quinchao. As we travel around, his mind wanders to all corners of the globe.
The volcanoes in the distance remind him of the three times he hiked up Mount Fuji in Japan. A fishing boat has him daydreaming of the South China Sea and the game of cat and mouse he played with Chinese authorities while trying to reach the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Conversations bounce around like this all day as Parrish cycles through a Rolodex of adventures. With so much time alone in planes, trains and faraway hotels, he’s eager for a listener who will appreciate the facts stored away within the atlas of his mind.
We discuss lonely islands and foreboding frontiers as we travel down the southernmost stretch of the Pan-American Highway to the seaside village of Chonchi. Reversing course, we tick each church off Parrish’s list as we wind our way back through Chiloe’s rolling hills to the dock.
Standing on the top deck of the ferry as the sun sets over the Pacific, I ask Parrish if he’s ever regretted any of his travels.
“There are tough days, and you have to be willing to suffer a bit, but the answer is no,” he says, eyes trained on the horizon.
“I’ve never regretted any of it because I haven’t been on a single trip where I didn’t learn something new.”
Parrish has been detained by Jamaican authorities, cheated death on a Nepali road and was badly injured in a fall while rock climbing in Wisconsin, but he says each stumble taught him something he wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
“At first you count your lucky stars,” he explains, “but over the years you begin to realise something important.”
Our ferry creeps closer to the Chilean mainland and the plane that will fly Parrish off to the next stop in his quest to see the closest thing possible to everything.