About Me — and How Travel Got Into My Blood
by John Massaro
I knew I was different when I was a boy growing up in the early 1960s. That’s when I used to play the board game “Pirate and Traveler” with my friends. The board displayed a map of the world and distant ports with names like Cape Town, Bombay, Valparaiso and Godthaab – names that cast a spell over me. Who lived there, what were these places like, I wondered, without having the slightest notion that some day I’d set foot in them. (Well, I still haven’t made it to Godthaab, recently renamed Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, but I’ll get there one day.)
Several years later, shortly after dropping out of college, I picked up a burly, bearded hitchhiker while driving to my dull office job. He had thumbed all the way from his hometown of Hungry Horse, Montana – talk about enchanting names! – and regaled me with stories about places he’d wandered and jobs he’d held throughout the American West, which at the time seemed as distant and unknown to me as the moon. And I still remember what he said just before I let him out: “Travel is the best education in the world.” He was such an unforgettable character, and such an inspiration, that fourteen months later – January 1974, to be exact – after returning to college, and with nothing to do during a long winter break, I decided to fly from New York to Phoenix, Arizona – my first time in a plane – and hitchhike back home. I was so hooked on travel, that when summer came around that year, I tried, and failed, to hitchhike all the way to Alaska (which to this day is the only state I haven’t been to).
Forty years and ninety-one countries later, I often look back at those two trips. I was only twenty at the time, and even though they were tame in comparison to many adventures that followed, they still stand out as among the best experiences of my life. And unique in their own way. In fact, the first trip is the only one in my life I’ve ever made in harsh winter conditions, enduring a blizzard, eight below zero cold, and black ice conditions so treacherous that I-70 in Illinois was shut down and I had to sleep on the floor of a truck stop; the second trip is the only time I’ve ever seen the otherworldly Northern Lights, and a bear running across the road fifty yards from where I stood!
But that was just the beginning. Years later, after I finally graduated from college and could not find employment, I ended up by chance in the home heating oil business, driving an oil truck. This is cold weather work which gets very slow in the summer months. For someone like me, who had a burning desire to see the world, it was perfect. Through the 1980s, before marriage and children came along and brought my wandering days to a temporary halt, I would take the entire summer off and travel – usually alone, staying in the cheapest hotels and using public transport, which in some parts of the world can be dangerous and undependable. Occasionally, in countries where solo travel is very difficult or impossible – as in central Africa – I joined basic tours, which sometimes involved camping and cooking our own meals. But for the most part I lived my dream doing it on my own, seeing most of North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and beyond. And I couldn’t agree more: Travel is the best education in the world.
Kitchen table chat about my trip to North Korea.