French people

The veteran black explorer, 78, still on the move

(CNN) — He’s roamed wilderness areas around the world for more than five decades, and veteran black explorer JR Harris says his thirst for adventure is still going strong.

Now 78, Harris has visited more than 50 countries on every continent except Antarctica, exploring some of the world’s most remote regions including Patagonia and the Australian Outback. And he says he has no plans to put away his hiking boots anytime soon.

“I’m curious about everything,” Harris told CNN Travel. “And if you throw in a slice of adventure, it’s just a matter of how long it will be before I put a few things in a bag and go for it.”

Harris, who was born in Louisiana and raised in Queens, New York, got a taste of adventure when his parents sent him to a Boy Scout camp in the Catskill Mountains in southeast New York.

Scouting lessons

JR Harris, photographed in Raquette Lake, New York in 1980, has traveled to remote places around the world for more than five decades.

J. Robert Harris

“I went kicking and screaming,” he admits, before explaining how the experience changed his outlook on life.

While at camp, Harris learned many skills, including how to read a map, pitch a tent, use a compass, build a fire, and identify animal tracks.

“I basically learned to live outdoors,” he says. “And the idea that I could just live with what I carried in my bag was such a different concept from the life I had in New York. It fascinated me.”

He made many train trips across the United States while growing up in New York in the 1950s – his father worked as a waiter in the dining cart of a long-distance train, so the family was able to benefit reduced rates.

His father eventually lost his job on the train when “train travel was supplanted by air travel”, ending the family’s frequent train trips across the country.

He took his first plane trip from Chicago to California when he was around 12 or 13 years old.

While he had admired some of the ‘old pioneers’ while at Boy Scout camp and harbored the idea of ​​’walking around the Rocky Mountains alone’, Harris’ first big trip didn’t happen. before graduating from Queens. College, a public college in New York, where he had studied psychology, in 1966 and “needed some kind of adventure”.

After looking at a map for a while, he noted that the farthest north he could possibly drive would be in Circle, Alaska, about 120 miles north of the city of Fairbanks, and he decided he wanted that his car is the northernmost vehicle in the Western Hemisphere.

So he threw some clothes in the back of his ramshackle Volkswagen and embarked on a journey that lasted about two weeks.

It was on this trip, as he gazed at the mountains and “wondered what else was out there”, that Harris realized he wanted to be an explorer.


Harris exploring the wilderness of the Pyrenees, France in 2010.

Harris exploring the wilderness of the Pyrenees, France in 2010.

J. Robert Harris

He swore to himself that once he got home he would get some trekking gear and spend as much time as possible exploring remote landscapes on foot.

Getting his car to the northernmost point was not as easy as he had expected – an abandoned vehicle was blocking his path when he reached his intended destination.

However, Harris was able to track down the driver, who had him moved to the side just for him, and was able to tick that particular objective off his list.

Over the many years that followed, he traveled the varied landscapes of the Rocky Mountains of Canada, the Andes, the longest mountain range in South America, the European Alps, the Pyrenees mountain range straddling the Franco-Spanish border and New Zealand.

Harris is particularly fascinated by people who live in remote areas and often chooses a particular indigenous group, such as the Aboriginal Australians or the Quechua people of the Andes, learns all he can about their history, traditions and way of life. , figure out how to reach them and “just show up”.

“People can’t believe someone came from New York alone, just because they were curious about their culture and wanted to see it with their own eyes,” he says.

And it’s not just the people Harris will travel miles and miles to meet. When he decided he wanted to walk on a glacier, he headed to places like Greenland, Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic and Glacier National Park in the US state of Montana to do it.

During this time, his interest in deserts took him to Death Valley in California, as well as Africa’s Sahara Dessert. Harris has done at least one long trek every year, sometimes twice, for over 50 years.

Even becoming a father didn’t slow him down. He continued his hikes as his son and daughter grew up.

Although her two children love to travel, they “would rather go to the south of France and sip a martini than go to Iceland and sleep on the ground in a tent”.

Harris was able to fund his hikes through his marketing research and consulting company, JRH Marketing Services, founded in 1975, which his younger brother ran while he went out to explore the wilderness.

According to Harris, his toughest journey was through the Wild South West of Tasmania, a remote and inaccessible region in South West Tasmania, Australia, which he first embarked on because he wanted to try something difficult, but hadn’t quite anticipated how hard it would be.

“It was hard work,” he says of the 1992 trek. “Mile after mile trying to put one foot ahead of the other day after day.

“I’ve had some tough trips since then. But the lesson I learned in South West Tasmania stays with me to this day.”

Although he occasionally went on hikes with friends and enjoyed them immensely, the majority of Harris’ travels have been solo.

“I never expect anyone to want to come with me,” he adds.

Solitary Adventurer

Harris visited the Dolomites, a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps, in 2018.

Harris visited the Dolomites, a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps, in 2018.

J. Robert Harris

Although Harris insists he enjoys being alone, one of the obvious downsides to spending so much time alone in nature is the issue of safety.

“Today we have GPS and devices where you can contact people,” he says. “But for most of my life in my career, I was dating before there was the internet, before there were satellite phones, and I would be gone for weeks with no way to contact anyone. “

In addition to his hiking gear, which includes pots and pans, first aid kits and a water purifier, he now carries a device equipped with an SOS button.

“If I’m in trouble, I can push the button and hope someone comes to help me,” he says. “I never had to use it.”

Advances in technology aside, Harris says very little has changed for him from the standpoint of “just being alone in nature” since he started exploring the wilderness.

The most noticeable difference was the impact of climate change, especially in some of the more isolated areas he visited.

“Nature itself doesn’t change so well,” he says. “When I go out it’s hard to see how the glaciers are receding and things are getting warmer. There are so many wildfires going on in different places around the world now.

“I talk to indigenous people who live off the land, and they find it harder to get food or whatever they need from the land. It’s slowly but surely becoming harder to survive in the wild.”

In 1993, Harris became one of the few black explorers to be invited to join the elite Explorers Club.

Now a member emeritus, Harris is currently a member of the board of directors, as well as chair of the club’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee.

Although he says he was always happy to do his own thing and didn’t necessarily aspire to be part of any particular club, Harris is aware of the impact of having someone like he could have on young people interested in embarking on exploration.

He often visits schools in neighborhoods like the one he grew up in, hoping to inspire young people to “get outside and maybe be an explorer.”

“Teachers say, ‘We tell these kids they should broaden their horizons,'” he says. “Let them dream big, like you did.

“But until they actually see someone who’s done it, a lot of them don’t believe it can be done.”

Prolific career

Now approaching 79, Harris, who has just returned from a trek around Sweden, plans to visit the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to reunite with native Berber tribes next summer.

He also hopes to one day “get to Mongolia” so he can “get in touch with the camel herders there in the Gobi Desert.”

“I think the more you travel, the more you realize you haven’t been everywhere,” he says. “There are always other places you can go. And for me, that’s good news.”

Harris works out regularly to make sure he’s in good shape when it’s time to head out on his final hike, making time for weight training and aerobic exercise.

When asked what kept him going all this time, he says it was the same curiosity that launched his career as an explorer in 1966.

“I’m always curious about what the world is like, the natural world and the people in it, especially in faraway places,” says Harris, who has kept a diary detailing his trekking experiences since he was in his twenties. . “And the idea that anything could happen – that always appeals to me.”

Harris points out that every trip he’s taken, whether it’s walking on glaciers or searching for reindeer herders in Lapland, has been a learning experience, and he thinks he still has a lot left. to learn.

“When I come home, I’m a different person,” he says. “I learned a bit more. I gained a bit more experience. I gained a bit more appreciation and gratitude for what I have.

“I know the next time I take a trip, even if I’ve been doing it since the Stone Age, I’ll come back a different person.

“I’m going to learn something. I’m going to experience something, and it’s going to be great. So that always motivates me. And I always go there.”