Wait, When Did Wanderlust Become a Competitive Sport?

The state of the universe.
Sept. 22 2011 5:16 PM

The World's Most Traveled Man

How wanderlust turned into a competitive sport.

Also in Slate, read Seth Stevenson's review of Ken Jennings' Maphead.

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Veley himself feels that travelers who take his rankings too seriously have missed the point of travel. "We're talking about something that's supposed to be enjoyable and fulfilling and about bonding with new people," he tells me. "Not creating walls." But others find that the checklist itself can ruin the travel experience. Many veteran travelers sniffed at Veley's record-breaking circumnavigations because he seemed more concerned with speed than actually getting to know the world, counting places like Iraq and Abkhazia, for example, because he paid off guards to let him stick a toe across a border. Jorge Sanchez counts the world's real top travelers as men like French author André Brugiroux and German cyclist Heinz Stücke, low-profile types who will never compete in any club. They care more about depth of travel than breadth. When you compare them to the top country collectors, he tells me, "the difference in quality of travel is abysmal."

American Lee Abbamonte is still ranked No. 15 on MostTraveledPeople.com, but no longer records his geographic conquests there, because the size of the checklist has gotten out of control. "I would never want to venture time and money to touch a nothing rock sticking out of the water in the North Sea somewhere just to say I did it," he says. Nor is he a fan of the site's new pay model. Charles Veley spent over $100,000 out of his own pocket to build the site, hoping to fund it with ad sales or outside investment. When that proved futile, he was forced to start charging users for subscriptions just to keep the site going.

His travel life has changed as well. Once a slave to his "collection," Veley soon discovered that the checklist was just a means to an end—a way to find remote new destinations and swap tips with fellow travelers. His trips became more leisurely, more social, more adventurous. He's ridden the famed "Death Train" to the Bolivia-Brazil border, cast nets with the village fishermen of Galle, Sri Lanka, and tracked gorillas in Rwanda. "He travels in quality," says Sanchez approvingly, "visiting the countries in a proper way, overland."  Sanchez is no stranger to the dangers of this "proper" kind of travel; he proudly includes on his website a page full of deportation and expulsion documents from trouble spots over the globe, including a five-year prison sentence in Afghanistan for espionage charges.

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In a crushing irony, though, MTP's top-ranked traveler (Veley still leads his closest rival, Bill Altaffer of San Diego, by just six countries) now mostly travels for business, back and forth between San Francisco and Washington. In debt after the Internet bubble collapse and a more recent divorce, Veley has gone back to work for the tech company he co-founded, and his plans to see the last 50 spots on his checklist are on hold. "If I have time and the energy," he sighs about his current trips, "I might get out and find a favorite restaurant or walk down a favorite street. But my time's not really my own."

For now, Kurdistan, Mellish Reef, and the Corn Islands of Nicaragua will have to wait. The world's most traveled man is, for the moment, just another road warrior on the red-eye to Dulles.

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