Podcast: A Septuagenarian Explorer Hits the Road

J.R. Harris is the greatest traveler you’ve never heard of. On a road trip through Canada and Maine, he meditates on a lifetime of adventure—and the enduring power of a great road trip.

Highway Through AutumnForestIn Mountains.

“Now, I’m a guy who has a jones for travel. . . . But what I really enjoy is a road trip—to just get in my car and go.”

Photo by Nikolay Zaborskikh/Shutterstock

This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast.

I feel a rush of excitement as I slip behind the wheel of my almost-new Mini Cooper. Metallic gray with a black top. Leather seats and a great sound system. When I breathe deeply, I can still smell the almost-newness.

It’s a gorgeous, sunny New York day in early September. The gas tank is full. Suitcase is in the trunk. All that’s left is to select a music track, put the car in gear, and head for the highway. My week-long trip will take me to Canada, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. I’ve done lots of road trips in my 78 years, but the thrill is still there.

Now, I’m a guy who has a jones for travel. I think of myself as a rolling stone: Wherever I lay my hat is my home, so whether I’m traveling by plane, train, bicycle, skis, canoe, skateboard, on foot, or whatever, it’s all good as long as I’m going someplace.

But what I really enjoy is a road trip—to just get in my car and go. My first trip was back in 1966, right after I graduated college. I had an old Volkswagen Beetle back then: 40 horsepower, two doors, a stick shift in the floor. It was my first car and I drove it from my home in New York City to the very end of the northernmost road in the Western Hemisphere, about 100 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska.

I went there for one reason: I wanted my little beat-up car to be the farthest north on the continent, with no other vehicle between me and the North Pole.

I obviously don’t need much of a reason to hit the road, though this time I have one. (More on that soon.)

That first drive was a helluva trip. Alaska in the 1960s was much more desolate than it is today, a true wilderness. The people I saw up there were mostly Indigenous and a few hardy outsiders who had gone north to get away from the civilized world. Back then, free land was still available to homesteaders, and Alaska’s oil had yet to be discovered. It was about 9,000 miles round trip and I was gone for several weeks. I had very little money, so I was sleeping in my car and doing odd jobs along the way to make enough to get back home.

It was the trip of a lifetime, and I was only 22!

Now it’s 56 years later, but I still feel the juice rushing through my arteries as I release the emergency brake and slowly glide away.

I like music while I’m driving. During my Alaska journey, a popular tune at the time was called “I’m a Road Runner” by Junior Walker and the All Stars. For this trip it’s going to be another great traveling tune: “Truckin” by the greatest band in rock ’n’ roll history, the Grateful Dead.

Traffic is fairly light as I head for the Grand Central Parkway and the Bronx Whitestone Bridge. I drive through the neighborhood where I grew up in Queens. Past the building where I lived with my parents and two siblings in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in a city-owned public housing project. This is where I departed for Alaska all those years ago.

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I was born with an urge to wander; it’s as simple as that.

As a kid, I always wanted to be an explorer. I used to read about the Lewis and Clark Expedition that took place in the early 1800s, and the trappers, traders, and mountain men who followed them into the Rocky Mountains. I also read about York, who went with Louis and Clark. And about Matthew Henson, the African American explorer who accompanied Robert E. Peary to the Arctic in 1909 and is now considered the codiscoverer of the North Pole. Curiously, neither of these guys were ever mentioned in school. I had to find out about them on my own.

The more I read, the more I wanted to explore. I imagined it would be an exciting and adventurous life. But to be honest, it wasn’t a very realistic dream for a young guy like me, an African American from a working-class family. My folks didn’t have much education. Mom worked for a time in a factory where she assembled ballpoint pens. My dad—I called him Pops—was a waiter in the dining car of an overnight train that ran between New York and Chicago. When air travel became popular, he and the other waiters lost their jobs and for the next 26 years, he drove a truck, a job he liked. In fact, he’s the one who instilled a love of driving in me.

But I didn’t know anyone who was an explorer and I didn’t have a clue how to become one. My parents insisted that if I wanted it badly enough, and if I tried hard enough, I could make this dream a reality.

When I was 14, they enrolled me in the Boy Scouts and sent me to summer camp in the Catskill Mountains. They felt that summer in the inner city was not a wholesome environment for a teenage boy. I had never been in the mountains and I wanted to stay home and hang out with my buddies, so I went kicking and screaming. But my initial reluctance vanished when I started learning the skills needed to survive in the outdoors: how to read a map, use a compass, make a fire in the pouring rain. Next thing I knew, I was doing extended backpacking trips in the wilderness. That’s when I began to believe I could really become an explorer.

Years later, I won a scholarship to college. I studied social psychology and became fascinated by people who managed to carve out an existence in remote environments around the world.

After that, it was easy to combine my love of travel, the survival skills I learned in the Scouts, and my curiosity about people living off the grid. A week after I graduated, I jumped into my VW and drove to Alaska. I was living my childhood dream to explore.

Since that first trip, I’ve done more than 50 expeditions worldwide. I’ve taken most of them alone, visiting remote locations in places such as Greenland, northern Canada, Lapland, the Australian Outback, Iceland, the Andes Mountains, Patagonia, and Tasmania. I even wrote a book about my travels called Way Out There: Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker.

But I have a special love for the Arctic—which is the very reason for this road trip.

I’m across the Whitestone Bridge and heading north, toward my first stop: Montreal. It’s funny how I’m always drawn north—have been since I was a kid reading about Arctic explorers.

One of my favorites is Matthew Henson—you know, the guy who codiscovered the North Pole. In addition to our ethnicity, Henson and I share a strong attraction to polar regions and the people who live there. Henson spent 20 years in the far north. I’ve been above the Arctic Circle about 15 times.

A few months ago, I hosted an event for the Explorers Club, where I’ve been a member since 1993. At the event, held in New York, we honored the four Greenlandic Indigenous hunters who accompanied Peary and Henson to the North Pole.

After I spoke, Dr. Susan Kaplan approached me. Dr. Kaplan is director of the Peary–MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. It’s the only museum devoted to the Arctic in the lower 48—and that’s no surprise, as Robert Peary is a Bowdoin alumnus. (He graduated in 1877.) The museum, and especially the Special Collections unit, has artifacts and correspondence from Peary, Henson, and Don MacMillan, another Arctic explorer and Bowdoin alumnus.

Dr. Kaplan said she liked my talk. And then she invited me to visit the school and give a lecture about African American explorers.

My immediate thought was: ROAD TRIP!

Graffiti of Disney-like characters on a wall in Montréal.

The bright, graphic graffiti on the streets of Montréal.

Photo by J.R. Harris

Six hours after leaving New York City, I arrive in Montreal, a city I’ve visited many times. This time, I’m staying in a suburb of Montreal called Longueil, and my goal is to find and take photos of graffiti.

I grew up during the graffiti era in NYC, and I now have thousands of graffiti photos from numerous cities around the world. It’s an art form I can truly relate to—to me, it symbolizes the urban environment I grew up in. Seeing it in cities around the world always makes me feel at home. And Montreal is a graffiti hot spot.

The next morning, I wake early and grab my camera. I’ve got a street map that I’ve downloaded from the Internet. On it I’ve indicated areas of the city where graffiti is likely to be found, like railroad yards, industrial zones, playgrounds, highways and bridges, and downscale neighborhoods. By midday, I’ve snapped dozens of photos. It’s always exciting to turn a corner and find a nice graffiti throw-up, also known as a “throwie,” that’s just waiting to be photographed.

As the day winds down, I feel the need for a cup of coffee. The Complexe Desjardins, an upscale, vibrant downtown mall, is nearby. I go inside and stumble upon—a break-dance competition. Seriously. All around me, young men and women are taking turns spinning, dropping, kicking, and moving with incredible skill and dexterity. A panel of judges focus on their every move while spectators wave and cheer. I stand and watch as muscles flex, sweat flows, and music pumps. Graffiti is the artistic component of hip-hop culture, and breaking is hip-hop’s signature dance.

The music follows me as I leave the mall and head for my hotel. The explorer in me is satisfied—for now.

Back in my Mini Cooper a couple of days later, I’m ready to tackle the 194-mile drive to Gorham, a small town in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It’s time for another visit to Mt. Washington.

The mountain is part of the Presidential Range, which contains the highest peaks of the Whites. Its most notable summits are named for American presidents, including Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe. As I get close to the town, the ridge is off to my right. Today, it’s obscured by a dense cloud cover, which is not at all surprising.

At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern United States. It is also the most topographically prominent mountain east of the Mississippi River, and for this reason, it is notorious for its erratic weather. On the afternoon of April 12, 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a wind speed of 231 miles per hour at the summit. This was the world record until 1996. Mount Washington still holds the record for highest measured wind speed not associated with a tornado or tropical cyclone.

I’ve actually climbed to the summit of Mt. Washington four times in six attempts, all of them in midwinter. This time I have a less extreme, but still challenging, objective: to drive the 7.6-mile Mt. Washington Auto Road to the top. The road is very steep and it has no guardrails. Inclement weather makes the drive even more, shall we say . . . sketchy. But if you get to the top, you can claim the coveted bumper sticker that says “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.”

As I approach the entrance gate and look up, the weather isn’t promising. No surprise there. Thick fog—or maybe low-hanging clouds—begins about 100 feet above me. If I do this drive, it will only take about a minute before I’m engulfed in whiteout conditions. I won’t be able to see any of the picturesque mountain landscape, now tinged with the first traces of fall foliage. I ask the guy at the toll gate if it’s worth it.

He tells me, “Several cars have gone up this morning but if you want to spend $45 to drive on a narrow, winding road with no visibility, I’ll be happy to take your money.”

I decide to wait and see if the weather improves. It doesn’t. I’m disappointed, but a lifetime of exploration has taught me that nature doesn’t care about my wishes. She does what she wants and I’ve learned to deal with it. I’ll come back again next year and try again.

J.R. Harris at his talk at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

The author at his talk at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Photo courtesy of J.R. Harris

The next morning, I leave early. From Gorham, it’s a quick two-hour drive to Brunswick, Maine. There isn’t much to see, but it’s a gorgeous day, traffic is light. I’ve got music pumping through eight speakers, and I’m enjoying the drive. Before I know it, I’m pulling into a parking spot on campus.

Bowdoin is a private liberal arts college, founded in 1794, and sits on a lovely 200-acre campus. The place is gorgeous, exactly what one might imagine a small college in a quaint New England town would look like: There’s a spacious, grassy quadrangle surrounded by a mix of modern and 19th-century halls and dormitories. The trees are in full fall colors. It’s not hard to dream about being a student here.

My speech isn’t until 7:30 p.m., so I decide to walk around campus. It is outrageously cool to see my image on flyers posted on doorways, windows, and in hallways. It occurs to me that Black explorers from the past would never get this recognition. Seeing these flyers humbles me while also making me feel like a minor celebrity.

That feeling continues as I step into the auditorium that evening. A sizable crowd has shown up for my presentation. Dr. Kaplan and I are a bit surprised because the fall semester has just started and many students are not yet on campus. Those flyers have obviously worked! A young IT guy gets my presentation uploaded and my microphone hooked up. I’m ready to go.

My talk is called “Sambo or Superman: The Rocky Road to Recognition.” I spend the next hour sharing the lives of the very few African American explorers in history—explorers like Matthew Henson, Jim Beckwourth, and York, who was a member of Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery in the early 1800s. I explain how the accomplishments of Black explorers have often gone undocumented, and how even when they were recorded, those records were often inaccurate or distorted. Then I draw from my own expedition experience to spotlight a group of African Americans whose labors in the wilderness on behalf of their country have been lost in historical oblivion.

At the end, I show the audience a copy of my book and tell them it’s available on Amazon or the publisher’s website: Mountaineers Books. Hey, you gotta plug your own book, right?

As the lights come back up, I get a standing ovation; the audience is enthusiastically clapping and cheering. Even though I’ve given this talk numerous times, I’m still thrilled to share the lives of the people who inspired me to become an explorer. I spend a long time answering questions about the Black explorers, and about my own background as a city kid who grew up to become a wilderness traveler and explorer.

There are so many young faces in the audience, and they’re so engaged. It fills me with warmth to think maybe I’ve inspired a few of them to search for their own passion in life and attain it. Hey, I’m just an ordinary guy, and I believe that if I can do it, they can do it too.

The next morning, I finally get to visit the Peary–MacMillan Arctic Museum. Dr. Kaplan and curator Dr. Genevieve LeMoine meet me for the tour. The museum is small but it is rich with history—it’s been a repository for natural history items collected in the Arctic since the 19th century. As I look around, it’s almost overwhelming. The museum collection includes 41,000 objects, 9,000 photographs, and dozens of reels of motion picture film.

One of my favorite exhibits is the Hubbard Sledge. Sledges are like really large, sturdy sleds, used to haul heavy loads of equipment and people, and the Hubbard Sledge is believed to be one of those Peary and Henson used to get to the North Pole. Then I make friends with a polar bear—well, a stuffed one. It’s also the college mascot. Pretty cool (no pun intended).

There are no other visitors, and Dr. Kaplan and Dr. LeMoine encourage me to take my time. It’s like traveling to the past. It’s easy for me to imagine what it was like to be an Arctic explorer in the early 1900s. I love seeing, firsthand, the equipment these intrepid men used, and the clothing they wore. I think about how different my own trips to the Arctic were and how the gear and clothing have changed over time.

When I finish at the museum, I head over to the Special Collections unit in another building. Once again, I’m left on my own, this time to pick up and read letters written by Matthew Henson in the years following his North Pole trip. He wrote a number of them to Donald MacMillan, expressing gratitude to MacMillan, who was instrumental in helping Henson finally get the recognition he deserved.

It feels eerie to hold these old, handwritten letters in my hand. I can’t help but notice that, as the son of sharecroppers, Henson’s grammar, syntax, spelling, even his penmanship, were all excellent.

After a quick lunch in the cafeteria, I have one final meeting with a student organization called the Bowdoin Outing Club. The club has more than 400 members and offers more than 150 excursions per year to encourage Bowdoin students’ spirit of discovery.

Their meeting hall is right up my alley. Lots of camping equipment stacked outside, as well as stacked kayaks and canoes. Inside the hall is a large open room. Trophy heads of various animals are mounted on the walls. About 40 to 50 students are sitting on the floor in a large circle. I join them, and ask if they ever get scared while in the outdoors. Nearly everyone nods. “Me too!” I say. “In fact, I’ve been scared so many times, I consider myself an expert at being afraid.”

I share one of my scariest experiences: The time I lost my pack in the mountains of southwest Tasmania and almost perished from hypothermia. We spend the next hour having a fascinating discussion about fear. We talk about what it is, how it manifests itself, the different types of fear, and what can be learned from fear. It’s obvious these students have never given much thought to fear. Not many people do. They ask me if I have any advice I can give them. I tell them that fear, like anything else, is something that can be dealt with rationally. That courage is not the absence of fear but the acceptance of it. And most of all, that one should never be afraid of being afraid.

Bar Harbor, Maine

Looking out over Bar Harbor, Maine.

Photo by J.R. Harris

My final destination is Bar Harbor, Maine, 157 miles north of Brunswick. Bar Harbor is adjacent to Acadia National Park, a place I’ve always wanted to visit. The park protects the natural beauty of the highest rocky headlands along the Atlantic coastline. Although small in size, the park gets 4 million visitors a year, making it one of the top 10 most-visited national parks in the United States.

After a three-hour drive, I pull into the quaint, touristy seacoast town of Bar Harbor. It’s got a marina and a seaside path that offer picturesque ocean views. And there’s a main street called—you guessed it, Main Street—with lots of bars, souvenir shops, and restaurants along both sides. Lots of restaurants, and it seems like all of them brag about their lobster. Lobster is a commodity in seacoast towns like this. I wonder how one lobster meal can be much better than another.

I skip the lobster and head for the park. It’s like an explosion of fall color as I drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard. The trees are red, gold, yellow, and green, and it gets noticeably cooler as I get closer to the top.

This is such a popular drive that you need a time-stamped reservation. Predictably, traffic is heavy and it is difficult to find a place to park, but I get lucky at the top. It’s sunny and pleasant, so I decide to find a rock with a great ocean view. Lots of people have the same idea; the place is packed and finding a suitable rock is not easy. But I finally find the perfect perch, a flat rock with an unobstructed view. I scramble up and look out over the water. It’s a unique perspective, the highest land-based viewpoint of the Atlantic Ocean from Maine all the way down to Florida. The ocean stretches out in every direction, bookended by gorgeous autumn foliage.

How many times have I stood at the top of a mountain and looked at a new view? Too many to count. I think back on my talk at Bowdoin, to the explorers who paved the path for me to do what I’ve spent my 78 years doing: exploring the world.

I think about the students I met at Bowdoin College, about the next generation of explorers. I’ve built on the legacy of explorers who came before me. And I dare to hope I might have influenced a few students to spend more time outdoors, and while out there, to not be afraid of being afraid.

Warmed by the sun and my memories, I climb down from the rock. There’s one final item on the agenda, but it’s not too shabby: the 500-mile drive back home, accompanied by the never-ending, sheer joy of being on the open road.

It’s a reality that motivates my backcountry voyages. As a lifelong resident of New York City, I probably don’t fit the profile of a wilderness backpacker but since 1966 I’ve done more than fifty multi-week treks, all unsupported and most of them alone. During that time I have faced terrible weather, hair-raising river crossings and wildlife encounters, but I’ve also beheld the awesome majesty and pristine beauty of our incredible planet.