Come vacation time, Parke Thompson faces a peculiar problem: finding a new place to go. Thanks, but he has already sunbathed in the Bahamas, sightseen in Suriname, photographed in Finland and perched, briefly, on the Canary Islands. He has seen midnight in Moscow, Paris in the springtime and—for good measure—moonlight in Vermont. All told, Thompson—who the Guinness Book of World Records says is the most traveled person in America—has visited 299 of the 308 countries, islands, territories and principalities listed by The Travelers’ Century Club, a Los Angeles-based organization which monitors super travelers. Says the club’s founder, R.G. Davidson, “Compared to Parke Thompson, Marco Polo was a piker.”
A genial attorney from Akron, Ohio, Thompson, 67, doesn’t come across as the sort of hell-bent-for-Botswana adventurer who likes his cars young, his women fast and his Serengeti plain. “I just enjoy collecting countries,” he explains of his globe-trotting ways. “It’s like a game. And, along the way, you get your battery recharged. Traveling is like an obstacle course, and so far I’ve been able to overcome any obstacle that came along.” Most of his difficulties have been more aggravating than dangerous—a Mexican traffic cop who wanted a small bribe; a West African customs official who tried to intimidate Thompson into changing all his American dollars into the nearly worthless local currency; a suspicious Soviet customs agent who interrogated the camera-laden traveler for three hours. But Thompson’s favorite memories are the pleasant ones: cocktails with the King of Sikkim; a Christmas pageant in Namibia where “two enormously tall Africans played Kris Kringle and the Angel Gabriel”; or a breakfast of very good hot cross buns on St. Helena, Napoleon’s isle of exile in the South Atlantic.
Along with memories, Thompson brings back pictures. Lots of pictures. Nearly 80,000 so far, all slides, stored floor-to-ceiling in an eight-by-ten-foot room in his white frame home. “All my travel revolves around taking pictures,” says Thompson, who gives slide shows, gratis, to schools and community groups. Sometimes his passion for photography lands him in trouble. On a 1958 trip to the Soviet Union, Thompson tried to photograph Richard Nixon, who was surrounded by guards, while the then Vice-President was visiting an American exhibition. “Somebody told me the guards almost shot me because I was standing on the champagne bucket,” says Thompson. “You know how it is when you’re taking pictures—you get carried away.”
Thompson, who grew up in Cleveland, recalls devouring history and geography books as a child and entering any contest that offered travel as a prize. By the time he was 14 he had won trips to Chicago and Washington, D.C. and was hooked on sightseeing. After service in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he opened a law practice and began making the most of his vacations. Thompson usually takes one five-to-seven-week trip per year. His wife of 28 years, Babette, accompanies him on his less hectic jaunts. “I didn’t know about his travel fever when I first married him,” she says, “but I found out quick. I never objected, because it means so much to him.” Thompson figures the couple now spends $6,500 a year on travel, their luxury. Otherwise, he says, “We don’t spend much. We live simply, we have only one car and no kids to put through school.”
Which doesn’t mean that Thompson can relax, exactly. Two other American ultranomads—attorney John Clouse, 60, of Evansville, Ind. and retired military man C. Don Buckley, 77, of Denver—are giving him a run for his money. In fact, thanks to recently completed trips, both Clouse and Buckley have 300 Travelers’ club destinations to their credit—one more than Thompson. “Oh, Thompson’s not going to stand still for that,” predicts the Travelers’ Davidson. “He’ll be off and running any minute.” He’s right: Thompson already has plans to visit Pitcairn Island in the Pacific, Saint Andrews Island in the Caribbean and Fernando de Noronha in the Atlantic, all by summer. Says Thompson, “The Guinness Book goes to press in July, so I should be in better shape by then.”
What will he do when the world runs out of places for him to visit? Easy, says Thompson: “I’ll just stay home with my dear and edit my slides.”