It was 100 years ago when Richard Halliburton got the travelling bug during a break in his studies at Princeton University. He joined a cargo freighter as a crewman which took him across to England. Richard toured around for a while before returning to Princeton.
In 1921 Richard began his life of travel in earnest. To support himself he wrote travel articles for magazines, and his father also gave him a modest monthly allowance. Quite often, though, Richard’s impulse buying made funds very low.
The first adventure was to climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland. He had never climbed before but he had a travelling companion and a local guide with him. His travels then took him to France, Spain and Gibraltar, where he was arrested for taking photographs of British installations. After using his charm on the authorities he was let off with a fine of £10, which he had to borrow. His travel articles weren’t selling so Richard probably realised that he should keep an eye on his spending.
Richard made his way via Egypt (spending a night at the top of the Great Pyramid) to India. The lure of the famous Taj Mahal was strong and after hiding in the shadows as the site was cleared of visitors for the night Richard took a midnight swim in the pools in front of the famous building.
More adventures followed as he travelled eastwards. In Macao he encountered pirates, and on his 23rd birthday he climbed Mount Fujiyama in Japan solo. He arrived back in the US in March 1923.
Despite having written dozens of articles only three had been published. However, he thought of another way to earn money by going on the lecture circuit and talking about his travels. This was a great success, so successful that he didn’t have time to turn his writings into a book as he hoped.
Even though Richard pushed his body to the limit many times he suffered from a rapid heartbeat and hyperthyroidism. He checked himself into Dr. Kellogg’s Sanatorium for a while (I hope he enjoyed his corn flakes!) and the rest gave him time to finish his first book, “The Royal Road to Romance”. Before it was published in 1925 Richard was off on his next adventure - to follow the voyages of Odysseus, the hero of the ancient Greek legend.
Richard’s Odyssey began on Mount Olympus. He reached the summit to be greeted with an almighty thunderstorm that trapped him and his two climbing companions there overnight. Perhaps Zeus himself was punishing them for ignoring their guides’ warnings not to go up until the next day. After visiting Delphi and climbing Mount Parnassus Richard headed to Athens where he sneaked into the Acropolis at night after it had closed. This was followed by running the original marathon route (the last 14 miles by taxi cab in order to get to his own birthday party at his hotel).
Crossing to the site of Troy in Turkey he continued on to the Hellespont. There Richard emulated the achievement of one of his heroes, Lord Byron, by swimming across it. After various other adventures Richard arrived at the volcanic island of Stromboli a few weeks later. He couldn’t resist clambering up to the mouth of the volcano itself. (There seems to be some recurring themes in his adventures – climbing up mountains and volcanos, sneaking into heritage sites, and diving into water!)
While retracing Ulysses’ voyages Richard inserted a detour to the top of yet another volcano, Vesuvius, before attempting to swim across the Strait of Messina. Strong currents forced him to finish it in the accompanying boat. Richard also visited Taormina in Sicily, where Robert Hawthorn Kitson had his villa. Although not mentioned by name in his book of his Odyssey, “The Glorious Adventure” (published May 1927), Richard mentions meeting “all the Englishmen”. And yes, Richard climbed to the top of Etna, where he almost succumbed to the sulphur fumes. But he needed to finish his Odyssey before the end of the year, and eventually reached Ithaca, home of Odysseus, in December 1926.
By now his first book was rapidly becoming a best-seller and this helped to make his 1927 lecture tour hugely successful – and profitable. In 1928 Richard accepted an offer from “Ladies Home Journal” to write articles on Latin America and he was off on a new set of adventures.
He began by tracing the steps of Cortes who conquered Mexico. Yet another volcano, Popocatapetl was ticked of his list of climbs and then came the ominously named Well of Death at Chichen-Itza. Richard dived down the well into the water 70 feet below. Climbing out he realised people might not believe he’d done it, so the next day he got a camera and did it again.
The most famous exploit on this adventure was his swimming the whole length of the Panama Canal. He wasn’t the first to do it, but he was the first to go through all the locks, which meant he had to pay the toll, the lowest in the canal’s history, of 36 cents.
Other exploits on this American adventure included being held prisoner on Devil’s Island, and spending two weeks living as Robinson Crusoe on Tobago. All the time he was writing his articles for “Ladies Home Journal”. They were so popular that the magazine paid him a bonus.
Back home and back on the lecture circuit Richard finished his book of his latest exploits as “New Worlds to Conquer” which was published in time for Christmas 1929.
As the 1930s began the Great Crash and Great Depression hit the family finances. A bright light for Richard was his meeting with Paul Mooney, who became his life partner.
In July I’ll continue Richard Halliburton’s story and his final mysterious adventure with his partner.