The accidental circumnavigator

Pioneers in Circumnavigation

Nicholas Kulish, 2016

A U.S. journalist for The New York Times, Kulish was a passenger during an unintentional circumnavigation over the course of a two-week vacation this year. His route was from Newark, New Jersey, to Tokyo to Munich to JFK.

Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, 2016

Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist who completed the first circumnavigation by hot air balloon, and Borschberg, a Swiss businessman and pilot, created the team behind the Solar Impulse airplane. They completed a five-day, 24,000-mile journey around the world, from Nagoya, Japan, to Hawaii, without fuel. It was the first circumnavigation by solar plane.

Steve Fossett, 2002 and 2005

Fossett, a U.S. businessman-cum-adventurer, became the first person to complete a solo hot-air balloon flight around the world in 2002. His journey, from Australia and back again, took nearly two weeks and covered roughly 20,000 miles. Three years later, he made the first solo, nonstop flight around the world without refueling. That journey began and ended in Kansas and lasted 67 hours. He died in a plane crash in Nevada in 2007.

Sally Ride, 1983

Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to fly in space in June 1983, when she was an astronaut on the Challenger. Her inaugural mission lasted more than six days and orbited the earth 97 times, a distance of more than 2 million miles.

Hugo Eckener, 1929

Eckener, head of the Zeppelin airship company, flew the first aerial circumnavigation at the behest of William Randolph Hearst, who financed the trip. Among the passengers was a journalist, Lady Hay Drummond-Hay, who became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by air.

Jeanne Baret, 1766 to 1775 (or so)

Jeanne Baret became the first woman to circumnavigate the world by sea after disguising herself as a male assistant to botanist Philibert Commerson to gain entry to a French naval ship. She had help: Commerson was her lover. After she was found out, the couple left the ship and settled in Mauritius, where they lived until Commerson’s death. Sometime afterward, Baret returned to France with a new husband, a French soldier.

NEW YORK — When imagining a journey around planet Earth, I never pictured the part where I crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in a Toyota Camry with a pink Lyft mustache on the dashboard. Yet that was how I embarked on an accidental circumnavigation of the globe one recent sunny morning, Annie Lennox singing “I travel the world and the seven seas” on the car stereo as the Camry hurtled through the E-ZPass lane.

Because I was flying west out of Newark Liberty International Airport and arriving back at Kennedy Airport two weeks later, my trip had begun, and would end, rather prosaically, like my daily commute, on my doorstep in Brooklyn. At least that was how the experienced travelers of the Circumnavigators Club explained it to me. I had sought their counsel a week before as I tried to understand what, if anything, this inadvertent journey meant to me.

The feat I was undertaking had once required a wealthy royal patron and a willingness to face the prospect of an early death. A few centuries later, I was doing it to solve a scheduling problem: a vacation with my wife, Rachel, in Japan overlapped with a family gathering in southern Germany. To avoid disappointing anyone, I decided to fly onward from Japan to Munich and then back home.

I handled this rather substantial detour across Asia, Europe and the Atlantic Ocean on the website Kayak with a few clicks on my laptop track pad. The additional cost was just $600, less than what I’ve paid for a lot of domestic flights. And the fact that I was about to circle the planet did not even occur to me until the following morning at the office, when I was complaining to a colleague about the inconvenience and multistage jet lag of the trip, and she asked if I’d bought a round-the-world ticket. Then it hit me.

Before long, my wife and I were sitting in a Tokyo owl cafe, a moon-faced barn owl named Whitebait perched on my shoulder. In Kyoto we visited otherworldly mossy temples and calming rock gardens. In Munich I drank Augustiner beer and watched the inner-city river surfers slice back and forth in the pounding current of the Eisbach. And in Konstanz, Germany, my grandmother, mother and I would find the gabled, green-shuttered apartment house where my great-great-grandmother once lived, just a few blocks from the Swiss border.

But the longitudes of the world I had never traveled across, east of Kunduz, Afghanistan, and west of Bangkok, I would experience tucked inside the fuselage of a Lufthansa jet. The only suffering would be endured by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant,” playing on the tiny screen embedded in the headrest of the seat in front of me.

I did not brave the crush of people in Mumbai, India, nor ride the Trans-Siberian Railway as I had dreamed of doing since I was a child reading about the freshwater seals of Lake Baikal in an old National Geographic. The clouds and snatches of land I could see through the tiny window of the 747 were indistinguishable from other flights. What significance, if any, would this loop I was making have in an age of inexpensive air travel?

To find answers, I sought out the experts of the Circumnavigators Club. I knew from my research that Harry Houdini and Gen. Douglas MacArthur had been members and that William Jennings Bryan had given the club its treasured whale-tooth gavel, still in use by the president today. Composer John Philip Sousa had also been a member and even wrote a march in honor of the club.

Listening to the jaunty, brassy work through my computer speakers, I could not really distinguish it from his many other jaunty, brassy marches, but it spoke of history. The club, which was founded in 1902, chose as its logo a tall ship sailing away, although it was well into the era of steamship travel. This lore, these trappings made the group seem distinguished. In truth I was not particularly looking forward to the event, imagining myself among the kind of 1-percenters who could afford the $120,000 vacation my colleague David Brooks wrote about last year.

The certified circumnavigators gathered in May at the Penn Club in midtown Manhattan. Straightaway I found myself talking to Charles Merkel of St. Louis, a fifth-generation piano tuner whose first around-the-world journey was in 1971. He worked for a year after graduation and managed to save $3,500 for his trip. When he returned to New York a year and a half later, he had just $17 in his pocket and had to borrow $80 from the Travelers Aid Society to make it home. He confided to me that he had never paid the money back.

The attendees were bursting with enthusiasm, and rather than formally ending one interview with a handshake and introducing myself to someone to start the next, I would be carried from one person’s reminiscence straight into the story of another member. In mid-discussion with Merkel, his friend Steve Fuller began telling me that he had run a marathon on every continent “including Antarctica.”

When Fuller took a trip to run a marathon in Australia in October 2001, it was his “final continent but first circumnavigation.” He was in the midst of trying to visit every country in the world. He had thus far made a pretty good showing with a tally of 175, considering that the United Nations counts a mere 193 members.

This urge to count, to tick off boxes and keep track, seemed part of what drove the members of the Circumnavigators Club: like philatelists or numismatists adding to their collections, but instead of stamps or coins, their quarry consisted of canceled visas and ticket stubs, digital photographs on camelback or yellowed Polaroids of themselves standing in the prows of ships.

They were retired teachers and sales executives, U.S. State Department employees and lawyers, most of them white but by no means all of them, an older group by and large, many of them retirees. (The group has a foundation to provide travel grants for students to encourage younger members.) Although there were about the same number of men as women at the luncheon, Margaret Ellen Parke, the group’s international president, wanted me to understand how that had not always been the case.

When she was working in the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, Norway, in the early 1980s, she heard about the club from the ambassador, who was a member. She excitedly told him that she had been around the world already as a schoolgirl. Her father was the naval attaché in South Vietnam in 1960, and she spent seventh and eighth grade there. She had sailed through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean. Could she join?

“He said, ‘That’s nice, Ellen, but we don’t take girls,’” she recalled, her tone more bemused than rueful. “A year or so later he came back and said, ‘Guess what? We are going to take girls.’” He sponsored her for membership, and before long they had talked her into co-founding the Washington, D.C., chapter.

I began to notice that more than just excitement, the rush to tell me stories that I would then scribble into my little OfficeMax pocket notebook was a form of one-upmanship. Brad Vogel was recounting his visit to Kathmandu, Nepal, as the Nepalese monarchy lost its grip on power in late 2007, when an older member named George Sanborn chimed in, announcing, “I was there in 1970.”

“We always have to trump each other a little,” Vogel said. “Like, I’ve been by ship or vehicle instead of flying over it.”

The less glamorous, the rougher, the slower a journey was, the prouder the traveler. Buses packed with locals and stacked with luggage trumped rental cars; boats were superior to airplanes for crossing oceans; moving by foot and by bicycle occupied a special place in the hierarchy.

Amid this fellowship of extreme travel I was more than a little ashamed of my simple airline itinerary through three of the four largest and most developed economies. My fraudulent feeling was accentuated by the fact that I had smuggled an even dirtier secret into the club.

My internet research told me that my trip might not even count as a circumnavigation. Guinness World Records required the total distance of one’s journey to exceed the circumference of the earth for certification, which mine would not because my flights were taking shortcuts over the narrow northern reaches of the globe.

I feared that I wasn’t worthy of being rapped on the knuckles with the whale-tooth gavel, much less lifting it as a member of the club. Thus it was with great relief that, as I stood in the buffet line, half a lox and cream cheese bagel on my plate and half a corned beef sandwich in hand, Howard Matson, a former president of the group, explained to me how arctic explorer Rear Adm. Robert Peary had accomplished his circumnavigation simply by walking in a small circle around the North Pole.

“Are you giving him credit?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. I told him about Guinness’ rather stringent requirements. He shook his head. “Admiral Peary crossed every meridian,” he said judiciously. “Those are our rules.”

I could join the club, but I still wasn’t sure what the appeal of circumnavigating the globe was — of ticking this arbitrary box — versus a lifetime of interesting trips to intriguing or unusual destinations.

I asked a British member named Peter Mosse, who started his trip in 1966 on a Greyhound deal for foreign travelers, $99 for 99 days unlimited travel in the United States and Canada.

“It’s not just to prove the flat-earth society wrong,” he said. “It’s just the idea that you can get back to where you started from without turning around.”

I can remember the awe in which I held Sir Francis Drake, one of Europe’s first circumnavigators and a kind of legally sanctioned pirate on behalf of England. I wrote a report about him in my shaky elementary school handwriting and illustrated it in colored pencil (he basically looked like Shakespeare with a little more hair and a frillier collar). I didn’t know at the time about Drake’s involvement in the slave trade. And I certainly didn’t know that the first person to successfully make it around the world may have been an escaped slave.

That expedition started out being led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan from 1519 to 1522, but Magellan died on the way, and his survivors were the first Europeans documented to have completed a circumnavigation. The first to accomplish the feat, though, might have been Enrique of Malacca, Magellan’s slave. According to his will, Magellan had promised to free Enrique at the end of the voyage. After the expedition leader died, the survivors decided not to honor Magellan’s promise. So when Enrique saw his opportunity, he escaped, ditching the expedition a mere 1,000 miles from his likely birthplace in the Malay Peninsula. No one can say for certain whether he made it home. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt even if the record books are not as kind.

In terms of sheer intrepidness, it’s hard to top the people who didn’t know for certain that the earth was round or whether they could get around Cape Horn or the Straits of Magellan without sinking. From sea to air, many of the pioneers died pursuing their goals, including Amelia Earhart when her plane disappeared in 1937 as she tried to become the first woman to fly around the world. Once the feat itself was manageable, every mode of transport seemed to require a first: helicopter, submarine, amphibious jeep, solar boat as well as solar airplane.

On my trip I took regular combustion-engine planes and several ferries, the fabled Shinkansen bullet trains of Japan (my Snapchat clocked it going 151.1 mph at one point) and the speed-unlimited autobahn (where I pushed the rental car over 100 mph without my mother noticing). I took a streetcar through Munich’s historic old town and even rode the limping, filthy A train from JFK.

In Japan, we watched from a nearby mountaintop as snow-capped Mount Fuji coyly emerged from misty clouds, the sun a smear of white behind it. We saw a traditional wedding at the Meiji shrine, the bride and groom walking under a giant red umbrella. We had midnight ramen and an even later karaoke singalong.

“We could probably learn to love a robot toy,” Rachel observed, as we passed an animatronic Dalmatian with blinking yellow eyes and wheels for feet in the vast Bic Camera megastore.

The brilliant chef Kotaro Hayashi cooked us one of the best meals of our lives at his namesake izakaya in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, from the classic sashimi to a rich Ibérico ham marinated in miso to a simple but perfect bowl of udon noodles with lots of ginger at the end. Somehow he made us feel as if it was his privilege to host us even more than it was our privilege to eat there.

Our guide in Osaka, Japan — Yuki Fujisawa of the Inside Osaka tour company — steered us to the tastiest octopus balls and the safest chicken sashimi. He told us about the Japanese tradition of eating KFC at Christmas and how a miniseries about a Japanese whiskey pioneer who studied distilling in Scotland had led to a surge of interest in local whiskey that resulted in a shortage of older vintages. And he took us to Osaka’s neon-lit supermarkets, part Chuck E. Cheese’s and part ‘70s Vegas casino, to show us the wagyu certificates in the meat aisle, describing each individual cow and stamped with an inky noseprint.

It was gray and drizzling when I left our Airbnb in Kyoto’s historic Gion district. The night before, I had seen three traditional geisha disappearing down an alleyway at the end of their shift. Now Rachel was still sleeping and the streets were empty. I was flying on to Germany by myself, going from somewhere totally foreign to a place that was completely familiar.

I have been visiting Munich for more than two decades now. My mother was born there, and this birthday trip was mainly an excuse to bring my grandmother back to see her infirm brother. Hospital rooms and family dinners replaced museums and temples, schnitzel subbed for sushi.

When I wasn’t helping my grandmother over uneven cobblestones or going with my father to fetch the rental car, I puzzled over how to construct a narrative around these two tenuously connected halves of my journey. A friend joked that if I went to Italy, I could call it my World War II Axis Powers circumnavigation.

There were other obvious comparisons. Both Japan and Germany were clean and organized (although Japan was cleaner and more organized), had great train systems and made a lot of cars. These similarities were superficial and beside the point, arbitrary attempts to impose a structure onto a journey that was just an accident.

I put off the question to enjoy my time with my grandmother.

We found the house where my grandmother grew up in the tiny village of Markelfingen and the bakery across the street, Cafe Diener, where she worked as a girl. She recalled the horse that stuck its head through the window every morning, more or less demanding sugar cubes. “A black horse, beautiful,” she recalled, “mean like hell.”

We saw the St. Laurentius Church she attended in her childhood, built in 1462, 30 years before Columbus sailed to America. “Isn’t it pretty,” she asked, her voice echoing off the whitewashed walls, with frescoes of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles from the 17th century, “for a little town?” We met cousins I never knew existed whose eyes teared up at the sight of this little white-haired woman, still cracking jokes and laughing her way through her 90s.

On the drive back to Munich with my family, through green Bavarian hills, the day before my flight back to New York, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” started playing on the radio. It wasn’t such a surprise; the John Denver hit is an Oktoberfest standby, shouted with inebriated fervor and heavy German accents in the beer tents every year. But it always brought back to me trips with these same people to my summer camp in West Virginia, the melancholy bridge (“driving down the road, I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday, yesterday”) evoking the mix of homesickness and excitement that traveling gave me.

In German, homesickness and wanderlust are twinned words — heimweh, aching for home, and fernweh, aching to be away. In a sense there are two kinds of trips: leaving home and coming home. Circumnavigation is the only voyage that is both at the same time. When I arrived back on my Brooklyn stoop the next day, I had circled the globe without turning around, gone away and come back, all at once. It felt like a lot more than ticking a box.