LIFE IS ABOUT EXPERIENCES. It’s about creating change. Seeking optimism. It’s about living fully and with intent. These can feel like lofty aspirations — but when goals seem out of reach, why not look to those of us who’ve done it before?
These six travelers are the epitome of what it means to live a full life. Reading their stories, you’ll be hard-pressed not to walk away newly inspired and with even loftier goals of your own. After all, if they could do it — some hundreds of years ago and against all odds — so can you.
Ibn Battuta is quite possibly the greatest traveler of all time. He was born in 1304 in Morocco to a family of Muslim legal scholars. Battuta trained to become a legal scholar himself, and at the age of 21, set off on the hajj. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, a pilgrimage to Mecca in what is now modern Saudi Arabia. Every Muslim who’s financially and physically capable of doing so is expected to undertake a hajj at least once in his or her life.
In Battuta’s time, traveling from Morocco, this pilgrimage would have taken around 16 months. But Ibn Battuta did what so many of us have dreamed of doing when we go on that first great trip: He just kept going. He joined caravans to avoid being robbed and took numerous detours, making stops in Cairo, Bethlehem, Damascus, and Alexandria. He finally completed his hajj after two years of travel. But instead of turning back towards Morocco, he instead continued east, through Iraq and Persia.
Over the course of the next few decades, he would travel to sub-Saharan Africa, down as far as Tanzania, and into Central and East Asia, where he met up with the Mongol Golden Horde. He traveled with the Khans for a while, visiting Constantinople (now Istanbul) with them, before heading through Afghanistan and into India, then onto Malaysia and China.
He finally made it home 24 years after he initially left. But even then, he couldn’t stop wandering. He went to Mali and Timbuktu. He never stopped moving. Ibn Battuta recorded his travels for posterity in The Rihla, or The Journey, and is now considered one of the most well-traveled people of all time — having traveled in an age before trains, planes, Google Maps, or really anything at all that made it easy. He was a true world traveler long before such a concept existed, and he dedicated his life to that pursuit.
Gertrude Bell was born rich and privileged in Victorian England. Her grandfather worked in Parliament, and she was well educated, earning a history degree from Oxford University. It would’ve been easy for her to marry someone else wealthy and spend the rest of her days in aristocratic idleness, but Bell was interested in the world. Her uncle was an ambassador to Persia, and Bell opted, at the age of 24, to accompany him there.
Catching the travel bug happened pretty quickly after that. She started studying world languages and developed an interest in mountaineering. She climbed in the Alps, often as the first person to use a particular route, and there’s even a mountain in the Swiss Alps named after her: Gertrudspitze. Once, while attempting to climb the Finsteraarhorn, she was trapped in a snow- and thunderstorm that forced her to spend 48 hours clinging to a rock face.
Bell is most famous, though, for being a “Queen of the Desert.” She was fluent in Arabic and Persian (as well as French and German), which gave her an ability to navigate the Near East, particularly Syria, Persia (modern-day Iran), and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Her travel writings on the region propelled her to fame, as did her photography and skills as an archaeologist. When World War I broke out, she volunteered for the Red Cross in France, but eventually British Intelligence recognized her expertise and decided to enlist her help in Arabia.
Along with her counterpart T.E. Lawrence — better known as Lawrence of Arabia — she was sent to the desert, their mission to identify sympathetic tribes and enlist them in the war effort. She led British troops in their operations, and later witnessed and reported on the Armenian Genocide.
When the war ended, the British were tasked with setting up the modern country of Iraq. Bell advocated for self-determination for the Iraqi people, but the British colonialists won out, instead installing a puppet government similar to the one they controlled in India. Nonetheless, during the nation building process, she served as a mediator between the British government and the Iraqis. Though she eventually returned to live in England, she died in Baghdad — and definitely in a class all her own.
Any member of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition across the American West would be at home on this list. The odyssey was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired territory of the Louisiana Purchase and to find a route across the mountains to the Pacific. Accompanied by a military unit called the Corps of Discovery, Lewis and Clark traversed half the country and back over the course of two years. It was a time when the West was still truly wild: herds of bison numbering in the millions covered the Plains, titanic forests stood untouched. The journey was challenging in a way few Europeans could have imagined.
One would have thought, after two years of living in extreme wilderness, that the members of the Corps of Discovery would’ve been happy to return to civilization. But not John Colter. Colter was one of the best hunters and hardest workers on the expedition. On the return trip, just a month before the expedition’s end, he met a pair of fur trappers heading west and asked to be discharged so he could join them. Lewis and Clark said yes.
Colter would wander the West over the next few years, frequently traveling without a guide, surviving solely off his wits and hunting skills. He was the first known European to see what we now call Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. Once, when he arrived at a Montana fort to resupply, telling tales of bubbling rivers and boiling mud, the other trappers made fun of him, calling the supposed place “Colter’s Hell.”
At one point, he was captured by a hostile band of Blackfeet, stripped naked, and told to run. He was pursued by a number of Blackfeet warriors, but he outran them, managing to kill the one warrior who could keep his pace. Colter ran a total of five miles and hid in a beaver lodge, with only a blanket he’d taken off the man he’d killed — or so the story goes. He then walked for 11 days before finding safety. He traveled to St. Louis in 1810, having lived in the wilderness for six years.
He went on to fight in the war of 1812 with Nathan Boone’s rangers, and would die the next year of jaundice. No one knows how old he was, but he is now acknowledged as the first (and most awesome?) true “Mountain Man.”
Zheng He was born into a Muslim family under Mongol rule in Yunnan Province, China, in 1371. When he was 10, the Ming Dynasty invaded his town. A Ming General approached him and demanded that Zheng He tell him where the local Mongol leader was. Zheng He refused and was taken captive; as a young boy, he was castrated and put into the service of a prince.
Most of us would be somewhat discouraged by such a turn of events, but the story Zheng He most certainly doesn’t end there. He fought as a soldier against the Mongol hordes on China’s northern borders, and established himself as a skilled warrior and a trusted adviser to his prince.
As a result of his service, the Ming Emperor gave Zheng He free rein to build ships and explore the Indian and Pacific Oceans. He oversaw the construction of huge vessels, nearly five times longer than those of Christopher Columbus, and sailed extensively, mapping much of what he discovered. He also had the job of extracting tribute from all those he came across and was respected as both a diplomat and a military commander.
When the Emperor died and China’s passion for world exploration cooled, Zheng He was called back to Nanjing, where he was appointed Defender of the City. While there, he oversaw the building of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, one of the seven wonders of the medieval world. No one’s sure how he died. Some say it was during his seventh and final voyage to chart the Indian Ocean. But Admiral Zheng He was one of the world’s greatest explorers at a time when Europe had just barely kicked off its Age of Exploration.
He’s best known today as the writer of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but Eric Blair — better known by his pen name, George Orwell — was a fearless traveler in his time. Blair was born in India, where his father worked for the Opium Department of the colonial civil service, but he moved back to England in the first year of his life. There, he chafed against the boring, middle-class upbringing he received, and as soon as he could hopped a ship to Burma, where he worked for the Indian Imperial Police. While in Southeast Asia, he began to harbor misgivings about his role as colonial oppressor and eventually quit to become a writer. He would write about this period in his life in the travel novel Burmese Days.
Next, he moved to Paris, where he lived as a penniless writer, occasionally working as a dishwasher at fancy hotels. He eventually moved back to London, again living in squalor. The aptly titled Down and Out in Paris and London was written during this time.
In the 1930s, Blair, a committed socialist, went to Spain to report on the Civil War. Instead, he ended up joining an anarchist militia to fight Franco’s fascists. After being shot in the throat and nearly killed, he was taken to Barcelona for treatment…where he proceeded to make enemies of the local Stalinists. He ended up having to flee Spain (with a neck wound) to keep from being tossed in jail. During World War II, he couldn’t fight because of his health, but he did broadcasts for the BBC. In 1950, he died due to complications from tuberculosis at the age of 46. In his short life, he saw the world, fought injustice, stood up to ideologues, penned some of the best travel memoirs ever written, and — oh, hey, two of the greatest novels of all time.
Nellie Bly might be the coolest traveler of all time. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in a small town in Pennsylvania during the Civil War. She got her first job in journalism when the Pittsburgh Dispatch published an article called “What Women Are Good For,” which basically stated that a woman’s place was in the home and the kitchen. Cochran wrote an absolutely brutal letter ripping the article apart; the paper’s editor was so impressed, he offered her a job.
Still, it was expected she would cover “womanly” stories — gardening, clothes — but Cochran (who’d adopted the pen name Nellie Bly) aspired to becoming an investigative journalist. She moved to Mexico during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and reported on the horrible treatment of the press under his regime. Diaz’s goons threatened to arrest her, causing her to flee Mexico. When she got back to the US, she decried him as a thug. She was 21.
She returned to Pittsburgh, only to be pigeonholed as a “woman writer” once again. So she moved to New York City, where she lived a destitute life for a few months before convincing Joseph Pulitzer to offer her an undercover investigative job. For this assignment, she faked her own insanity and was admitted at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. After 10 days, she was released and proceeded to report on the neglect and abuse patients experienced at the hands of asylum medical staff, sparking reform — all this while she was in her early 20s.
Her next trip was her most famous: Inspired by Jules Verne’s famous sci-fi travel book, Around the World in 80 Days, Bly decided to beat the record set by Verne’s fictional Phineas Fogg. She crossed the ocean to England, moved on to France (where she met with Jules Verne), down to Italy, through Egypt, and eventually over to Singapore and Japan. She arrived back in New Jersey in just over 72 days, after traveling by herself for most of the trip. She was 25.
Bly would go on to become an inventor and fervent suffragette, dying of pneumonia at the age of 57. She’s remembered as an awesome solo female traveler and investigative journalist, and, of course, as an all-around badass.
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