Richard Halliburton was a hero and mentor of mine during my childhood. I love his adventures, his books, his attitudes and thought I would live mu life much the way he did. I am so happy to read this little article from The Writer’s Almanac that I had to share it. Perhaps his books do not relate to today’s world much anymore, but if I could find The Royal Road to Romance, I would read it again in a heartbeat.
It’s the birthday of adventurer and author Richard Halliburton (books by this author), born in Brownsville, Tennessee (1900), the son of a civil engineer. He went to a prestigious New Jersey prep school, edited the student newspaper at Princeton, and then set off on the dizzying array of adventures around the world that would make him famous. To raise funds for these adventures, he wrote books about them. Many of his books became best-sellers.
On one of his first major trips, he traveled down the Nile River, headed over to India and Thailand, and climbed Mount Fiji; he wrote about these escapades in The Royal Road to Romance (1925). On one trip, he borrowed an elephant from the Paris zoo and rode it across the Alps. On another trip, he decided to follow the ancient path of Ulysses around the Mediterranean Sea; he wrote about these wanderings in The Glorious Adventure (1927). His next big adventure was around Central and South America, where he swam across the Panama Canal. Tolls for crossing the Panama Canal are assessed based on weight, and ships routinely pay more than $100,000 for a single crossing. But since Halliburton swam across, his toll was just 37 cents – a record for the lowest toll ever. He wrote about his Latin American adventures in New Worlds to Conquer (1929).
On Christmas Day 1930, he set out on another one of his epic adventures. It was a trip around the world in an open-cockpit biplane. It would last 18 months and include stops in 34 countries, and it began in Los Angeles. There was a stop in New York, and then the British Isles, France, Gibraltar, Morocco. He and his co-pilot flew across the Sahara, made a stop in Timbuktu, spent time in Algeria, and landed in Persia (now Iran). They made a stop in Iraq, where they gave a joyride to the school-aged Iraqi prince, flying him up over his school’s playground.
They headed over to India, where their crimson red plane did aerial stunts over the Taj Mahal. Then they flew to Mount Everest, taking the first aerial photographs of the summit. They flew to the Philippines. Once there, they crated the plane, put it on a ship, and rode with it back across the Pacific, landing in San Francisco. From there they flew back to L.A. so that they could complete their journey at its starting place.
Halliburton wrote a book about the aerial expedition called The Flying Carpet(1932), which was also the name of the plane. The book sold phenomenally well even though it was published in the midst of the Great Depression.
Once, when he was young, he had announced to his father – an engineer – that he himself planned at all costs to avoid living an “even-tenored” life. He said: “When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. […] And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills – any emotion that any human ever had – and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.”
He was spared a common death in bed. In 1939, he attempted to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco. It was 75 feet long, had a dragon painted on it, and was run by a diesel engine. The idea was to land at Treasure Island, in the Bay between San Francisco and Oakland. It was bad from the beginning. He was caught in a typhoon near Midway Island a few weeks after setting out. He sent out a couple messages: “Wish you were here instead of me” and “Southerly gale. Heavy Rain Squalls. High sea […] lee rail under water.” He was never heard from again and was presumed dead shortly later, age 39.
While he was gallivanting about, he wrote a lot of letters home to his parents. Afterward, his dad collected and published them as Richard Halliburton: His Story of His Life’s Adventure, as Told in Letters to His Mother and Father (1940). His travel writings are also collected in Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels (1941).