The Greatest Traveler You’ve Never Heard Of

J.R. Harris is one of the most prolific solo hikers the world has ever seen. But he’d never tell you that himself.

J.R. Harris hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia, in 1995. In his more than 50 years of traveling, Harris has circumnavigated the world some 13 times.

Courtesy of J.R. Harris

It was the new summer of 1966, and 22-year-old J.R. Harris sat in a nondescript classroom and put down his pencil. After four years as a student at Queens College—where he majored in psychology, ran track, played tennis, worked as an instructor with the Queens College Outward Bound Program helping inner-city high school students, all while driving a taxi to finance his education—he was done. Done with this final exam; the last thing between him and a higher education degree, making him the first in his family to receive one. “I knew every answer,” he says. “And I thought, ‘I gotta get out of here.’”

Here, for all intents and purposes, was the bleat and scurry of New York City, where J.R. had spent a majority of his life in the Pomonok housing project in Queens. At 22, he was preparing to embark on his first solo trip. But where to go? And without much money? Flying, for this reason, was out of the question, so J.R. decided on a road trip with his recently purchased, used, light brown 40-horsepower VW Beetle he had christened “the Dub.” At home in his family’s apartment, he pulled an atlas off the shelf and flipped through it. He read, and read some more. In time, he realized the northernmost road on the continent was 120 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, in a town called Circle. A pop and crackle of an idea: “I said to myself, if I was to drive to the very end of that road, every vehicle—every car, truck, taxicab, motorcycle—would be behind me. And there will be no vehicle between me and the North Pole. And for that reason, I did it.”

In June of 1966, J.R. set off on a 4,500-mile trip from Queens to Alaska with $150 in cash, a $10 tent, and provisions packed by his mother: three bologna and cheese sandwiches, three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, some candy bars, cookies, and gum. East of Syracuse, he hit a deer. Outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba, he ended up in a ditch. By Coal River, British Columbia, he was chopping wood and washing dishes in exchange for food. It was not the grand journey he had envisioned.

But once he reached that very northernmost road, the most divine of transformations occurred. J.R. pulled over to look at mountains—mountains unlike any he’d ever seen before. “It was awesome,” he says. “But I thought, What’s beyond that? I was stuck on a road because I had a car. I could only imagine what it was like even 10 miles beyond the mountains. And I said, ‘That’s really where I want to go. I want to get back there. Next time, I’m going to get a backpack. I’m going to find a way to walk and get back in.’”

J.R. returned to Queens in July of 1966. A photo of him from this time shows him resting on the bumper of the Dub, a quarter in his left hand and a dime in his right—the last of his finances for the trip. He is squinting in the sun; grinning and carrying an air of setting off, not of returning. And soon, he was off again, with little else but a backpack and his Boy Scout skills. There was that next time, then a next, and a next. The nexts just kept on coming, and he’s kept that quarter and dime all the while, reminders of that very first trip.

J.R. sitting on the Dub after his return from Alaska, 1966.

J.R. sitting on the Dub after his return from Alaska, 1966.

Courtesy of J.R. Harris

To date, J.R. has circled the world some 13 times. He has taken more than 50 multi-week trips in many of the most pristine places on the planet: the Andes, the Amazon, the Adirondacks, Alaska’s Yukon, Greenland, the Arctic Circle, Tasmania, you name it. Wherever he goes—however he can—he embeds with the local population, bunking in homes that will have him and breaking bread in a language not his own. Otherwise, he is almost always alone. It is no stretch to call him one of the world’s most prolific living solo explorers.

In a time when travel is too often bounded by bucket lists—moments measured by monuments seen—J.R. was, is, and will be an anomaly in the very best sort of way: someone who seeks out travel because it is challenging, requires changing of self, serves as a mirror unlike any other. And even though his pace has slowed slightly, J.R. says the trips won’t stop anytime soon. Now 78, with an easy grin and gray goatee, he is waiting for warmer weather and planning his next adventure from his apartment in Queens, where backpacking photos and signs of bear warnings neatly line the walls. Morocco sounds nice, he says—perhaps he will finally take his COVID-delayed solo trek across the High Atlas Mountains.

Wrote Paul Laurence Dunbar in a 1913 poem:

Where forests rustle, tree on tree,And sing their silent songs to me;Where pathways meet and pathways part,—To walk with Nature heart by heart

Says J.R., in poetry all his own: “I’ve never been lonely when alone in the wilderness.”

Camping near Raquette Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, 1980.

Camping near Raquette Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, 1980.

Courtesy of J.R. Harris

James Robert Harris was born on April 1, 1944, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Ruth Boutte Harris and James Harris. When J.R. was still a small child, the family moved to Queens, where he attended St. Nicholas of Tolentine elementary school and lived with his parents and two siblings in a two-bedroom apartment.

Growing up, J.R. spent after-school hours playing basketball, marbles, and stickball with his friends in the neighborhood, the ever-present toot of traffic a constant companion. In the evenings, he’d hustle home to greet his father, who worked as a waiter in train dining cars and then as a truck driver for the U.S. Postal Service. After sunset, homework done, J.R. would pick up books about adventurers: the Buffalo Soldiers, who served on the western frontier; fur trapper and wilderness guide Kit Carson; Lewis and Clark. But until J.R. was 14, these dreams of adventure were only that—dreams.

In the summer of 1956, everything changed. J.R.’s parents, concerned about the uptick of violence in the neighborhood and the indoctrination of teens into gangs, sent him away to the Ten Mile River Scout Camp in Narrowsburg, New York, for six weeks. Geographically, it was not that far from the city—two hours by car by way of the George Washington Bridge—but in some senses, it was a whole world away. In some senses, the J.R. who left New York City for the Catskills that summer would never return.

It was here, J.R. says, that he first learned to love being alone in the wilderness. He mastered Boy Scout things: how to track animals by their footprints and scat; how to tie bowline, timber hitch, and sheet bend knots; how to keep a fire alive in the driving rain; how to orient himself without a compass. These were not arbitrary skills, accumulated for some far-off time. No. There was a goal in mind: to get three merit badges—one each in camping, cooking, and pioneering—which encompassed all the skills he needed to be outdoors and in the wild (by Boy Scout standards at the time, at least). With the badges, J.R. was entitled to requisition food and go off on his own for four days. He had to stay within the geographic limits of the camp and tell leaders where he was going, but otherwise, he was alone. “Most kids wanted to stay in camp and play games and hang out with their friends,” J.R. says. “As soon as I got the badges, I said, ‘Give me my food.’”

J.R.’s first outpost was on a bluff overlooking a lake, with the Adirondacks in the background. He greeted the morning light by peeling open comic books he’d brought with him, then wandering the woods, appreciating the quiet, and returning to his camp before dusk to do it all over again the next morning, fueling up on sandwiches—peanut butter and jelly, bologna and cheese, tuna. Even then, as a teenager, he did not feel lonely. Once the four days were up, he returned to camp and said, Give me another four days. He went right back out.

When he came home to Queens, J.R.’s dreams of becoming an explorer were bigger than ever. If he thought he could hack it as an adventurer before, now he knew he could. But back in the projects, his friends laughed it off. They told him, You can’t be an explorer. Get real! You have to be rich. You have to be white.

J.R.’s parents encouraged him. They said: Listen, you can be anything you want to be. It’s not going to be easy, and nobody’s going to give it to you. But if you really want it, you can do it.

And J.R. said: Sure, I can do it.

J.R. stayed in the Boy Scouts (and subsequently, the Explorer Scouts) for most of his high school years. He went to Scout camp every summer, then began hiking and camping on his own. As life unfolded, J.R.’s responsibilities grew with age. But his grail of exploring never wavered.

(Clockwise from top left) 1956: Alpine Scout Camp; 1980: Raquette Lake, Adirondacks; 1988: Banff, Canada; 2015: Spenser Mountains, New Zealand; 2015: Three Rope Bridge, New Zealand; 1988: Glacier National Park

(Clockwise from top left) 1956: Alpine Scout Camp; 1980: Raquette Lake, Adirondacks; 1988: Banff, Canada; 2015: Spenser Mountains, New Zealand; 2015: Three Rope Bridge, New Zealand; 1988: Glacier National Park

Courtesy of J.R. Harris

Almost immediately after that hallmark 1966 trip, J.R. entered the workforce, using his psychology training in the field of consumer marketing and behavior. His career quickly took off: By 1969, he was heading up research for a decaffeinated coffee group at General Foods Corporation in White Plains, New York, plumbing people’s minds for why they were deciding what they did. From 1972 to 1975 he worked as the international research director at PepsiCo, designing and conducting consumer marketing research projects; in 1975, he and his brother Lloyd founded JRH Marketing Services, providing consulting and research to clients including the U.S. Army, Anheuser-Busch, and JPMorgan Chase. (It is the oldest Black-owned marketing research and consulting firm in the United States.) J.R. traveled for business, and traveled well, flying business class, staying in five-star hotels, and dining fine. But he missed the wilderness, and so in between all of those work trips, he snuck in some adventures, riding a 10-speed bike from New York to Montreal and spending 24 days in the Boundary Water Canoe Wilderness of Minnesota.

J.R. also got married all those decades ago and had two children: a boy and a girl. The marriage ended after a few years, and when his ex-wife passed away, he became a single parent. J.R. is quick to credit his family with their support and encouragement, for them always saying See you later, never begging him to stay home or come home. Says J.R.: “I’m really grateful for that.”

To J.R., as in work as in travel, life is about meeting people and trying to understand them; attempting to learn a little bit more about them in the hopes of learning more about yourself, the world. Like in his work, J.R. is no quiet, passive traveler. He’s invested, interested, intent.

Before he travels anywhere, J.R. spends time reading up on the history of the area and its first inhabitants. Every trip of his has an objective: something to see (like the caribou migration in the Yukon) or something to learn (more about Pacha Kamaq, the Inca god of creation). Wherever he goes, he tries to make contact with the original stewards of the land. He’s looking for a conversation, he says—to exchange ideas.

“The first reaction is often, ‘Where’s the rest of your party?’ And then: ‘Why are you here?’” says J.R. “I say, ‘I know a lot about you from secondhand material. But I wanted to experience your culture and lifestyle in person. And if you need any help with anything, I’m here.”

Taking a break during a hike in Colorado, 1990

Taking a break during a hike in Colorado, 1990

Courtesy of J.R. Harris

In August 1989, J.R. set out to visit the 8,290-square-mile Auyuittuq National Park, the northernmost national park in Canada, which he would access via boat from Broughton Island, across the Davis Strait, to the trailhead on the Baffin coast. First, he’d have to get to Canada. As he sat on the runway for his initial flight—New York-LaGuardia to Montreal—he read Colin Fletcher’s account of hiking the Grand Canyon, The Man Who Walked Through Time. Fletcher’s words struck him as prescient: “For I knew now that I had left behind the man-constructed world. I came to . . . a world that was governed by sand and wind and the lie of the land. A world in which the things that mattered were a pack on your back, and sunlight on rough rock and the look of the way ahead. A world in which you relied, always, on yourself.”

Two days later, J.R. landed on Broughton Island, which had a population of some 400 people, more than 90 percent of whom were Inuit. With no taxi in sight, he hitched his pack to his back and started to walk into town. A young Inuit child approached on a bicycle, then sped off. Ten minutes later, he returned with a dozen other kids on bikes, an informal welcoming committee escorting J.R. into town, where he bunked in a communal rooming house with construction workers staying in the area for drilling, months at a time.

By the next morning, news of J.R.’s arrival had spread. As he stopped by the grocery store to pick up some rations for his trip, he was greeted by name by a group of men in front of the store who asked him, “Hey, J.R., what’s happening? How’s life in the Big Apple?” J.R. was not surprised by this; instead, he was excited. After all, what is the beauty of travel if not for these moments—for opening your arms to the world and being greeted in the same way?

Not once in J.R.’s 50-plus trips has he had a negative reaction to showing up in this manner: open, honest, unannounced, alone. Instead, he has been profoundly welcomed. He has been invited into a shaman’s tent for an offering ceremony; taught to sneak up on seals on the ice and “destabilize” them if necessary. He has also delighted in the value of the exchange, answering questions about his life in New York City. (In addition to English, J.R. speaks conversational French and Spanish.) When people tell him how unusual it is to see a Black man traveling alone, and that J.R. is the first they have ever seen doing so, he replies that they are ahead of him—because he still has never seen one. This usually gets a laugh. It breaks the ice; helps the conversation move forward with a spirit of candor and discovery. And if J.R. had to sum it up, he would say these moments are encouraging. They help him remember how small the world actually is and what can be gained from sitting down with people and listening first.

Says J.R.: “The crux of it—the thing that made it work—is that I was just a guy by myself showing up and saying, I want to learn.”

Ever since that 1966 trip, J.R. has kept a journal of where he’s been, what he’s done, what he’s seen. These journals are each mini chapters of an epic, helping chart the evolution of a planet changing, yes, but also a person. When J.R. was younger, being outdoors was more about the experience—he could follow the animal tracks; see what was in the next valley; delight in his ability to forage and make fire from the sticks that surrounded him. But as he has gotten older, the experience has become more internal.

“Out there, you have a lot of time to think,” he says. “Who are you, really? Why are you here? When you’re in a wilderness area, you can’t help but feel tiny, insignificant, super small.”

Despite J.R.’s decades of experience, nature can of course be a fickle mistress: when it’s good, it’s grand, but when it’s not, even the best-laid plans are no match for the elements. Such was J.R.’s experience in 2012, three days into a six-day hike on and around Ausangate, one of the highest Andes mountains in the Cusco region of Peru. With visibility limited to 100 meters owing to thick mist that wrapped the mountains like white frosting, he found himself alone on the most remote part of the trail, with no GPS—and a food supply that was dwindling.

Instead of pressing forward and relying on trial and error, J.R. decided to retrace his steps and head back toward the village of Tinqui, which he’d departed a few days earlier. He set a reverse course, but was soon thwarted by more clouds and heavy fog, which again stymied his attempts to follow the trail. Instead of panicking, J.R. stopped. Looked around. Tried to take in where he was and think about how he would get out of it. Nature has a way of forcing your hand, after all. And when J.R. finally did stop, he noticed something: horse droppings. He thought, and thought some more about what he knew of the region. Given that horses were primarily used as pack animals by highland tribes in the area, shouldn’t horse manure be as suitable a marker as any of a route through the mountains? J.R. followed these markings, and before he knew it, he had left the mist and the fog behind.

Harris protected against some of the elements on Baffin Island, Arctic Circle, in 1989.

Harris protected against some of the elements on Baffin Island, Arctic Circle, in 1989.

Courtesy of J.R. Harris

A word about that whole “alone” thing: J.R. never tells anybody they should travel alone unless they are comfortable with it. He’s aware of the safety risks and has had enough encounters to know that life can change with a slip, in a second. There haven’t always been horse droppings to guide him. He’s been stuck in quicksand, lost nights of sleep over the threat of a polar bear attack, and made body-numbing crossings through rivers that have stymied militaries hoping to advance. But to him, the cost is worth the price. To J.R., all these times alone—these trips—have served as an unrelenting mirror.

“I’ve learned how I handle adversity,” he says. “When you’re out there by yourself, you can’t bullshit yourself. You can’t rationalize. If you’re out there and something happens and it’s your fault, you have to face it. I’ve learned a lot about who I really am this way.”

J.R. is the first to admit he is an expert at being afraid. “If they had a PhD program for fear, I’d be Dr. Scared,” he will quip. But from this fear, he’s learned to wait a beat, think, and learn. He isn’t afraid to be afraid. He’s dealt with adversity enough times to know not to panic. He goes with the flow.

As a result, these trips into the wilderness have changed in other ways. Now, J.R. says, there is more peace—more time to just sit back and enjoy the burp and babble of a brook and wind brushing through the trees. To enjoy something that won’t be around forever. “There have been times when I’ve said to myself, ‘You know, I’m glad I won’t be here in 50 years,’” he says. Then he smiles, bright as sunshine warming the trail ahead. “But I might be.”

Walking the Italian Dolomites in 2018, one of his most recent trips before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walking the Italian Dolomites in 2018, one of his most recent trips before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Courtesy of J.R. Harris

The past is filled with record-setting Black explorers who bent the arc of history: York, the enslaved “body servant” of explorer William Clark, was an essential member of the Corps of Discovery, often chosen by Clark to be one of the men accompanying him on scouting trips and bartering for food. (Clark refused to release York from bondage after the group returned East.) Colonel Charles Young—whose life the writer W.E.B. DuBois called a “triumph of tragedy”—was the first Black superintendent of a national park. Matthew Henson, the codiscoverer of the North Pole, was the first man to stand on top of the world. Wrote Henson in his 1912 book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole: “The lure of the arctic is tugging at my heart. To me the trail is calling! The old trail, the trail that is always new.”

Yet even these men, prominent as they are, remain lesser known than any white counterpart. This is no accident. Instead, it is the result of placing more merit on certain voices and stories than others; of assigning freedom and promise to certain travelers and not others. Says James Edward Mills, author of 2014’s The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors and cowriter and producer of An American Ascent, a 2014 documentary about the first African American expedition to climb Denali: “There are countless stories of Black and brown adventurers that sadly go untold.”

To Mills, J.R. is one such example; significant not necessarily because of what he’s done but because of how he’s doing it.

“As storytellers, we can certainly focus our attention on those who hike the fastest, climb higher, or achieve a first ascent,” Mills says. “I believe that there are better stories to be told in the lives of those who walk gently with compassion and kindness. The best adventurers are those who make themselves vulnerable to human emotion and seek to learn as much about interesting people they encounter as they might about themselves.”

In 1993, J.R. was elected into the invite-only Explorers Club, which was founded in 1904 with the goal of promoting scientific study and exploration. Today, it counts roughly 3,500 members around the world. (Members, who include everyone from primatologist Jane Goodall to filmmaker James Cameron, must demonstrate evidence of “a sustained interest and participation in some aspect of field exploration and have contributed in broad terms to the cause of exploration and the furthering of scientific knowledge.”)

The Explorers Club is 90 percent white, 71 percent male, and “generally affluent,” per the first study of the group’s demographics, reported in January 2021. As chair of the Explorers Club’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, Harris in 2021 encouraged diverse nominations for the inaugural Explorers Club 50 list, which highlighted 50 adventures changing the world, including leading oceanographer Dawn Wright, national park ranger Shelton Johnson, and Bolortsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist working to protect at-risk sites in the Gobi Desert. To J.R., it is nothing new; merely a continuation of his work in fostering connection and curiosity.

Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, J.R. spent much of his time in high schools in low-income areas, clicking around on a screen until his PowerPoint filled the projector. “Trail Wisdom from an Old Dirt Kicker,” it is sometimes titled. In it, there are photos of him as a Boy Scout in 1958, of that campsite with a view of Mount Ausangate. Of the afternoon sun orange on Ayers Rock. He tells students his story: about meeting the Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Explorers Club headquarters, about starting his Brokenbo expedition company, about writing his 2017 book Way Out There. How red is his color, and how he likes to pack a flask of Rémy Martin and some hand-rolled cigars to take with him in the bush. He tells them, too, about the awe he felt at seeing Switzerland’s Mont Blanc massif, the exhaustion he experienced at various points when walking Canada’s Canol Trail, arguably the toughest path in North America.

Many kids, J.R. says, laugh and feign horror. They tell him there’s no way they’ll sleep on the ground or willfully go out where there are snakes and grizzly bears. But that’s just fine with him. This was his dream. What’s theirs? If he—a kid from the projects, whose parents didn’t finish high school—can do it, so can they. Someday, maybe, they’ll remember him. J.R. smiles. He can imagine this. He can imagine they’ll say:

Years ago, that turkey J.R. came to our school and said that I can do anything.

And you know what?

He was right.

>> Next: The God of Silence Speaks Up

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at Afar focused on features and essays.
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