(CNN) – He’s spent more than five decades traversing wild areas around the world, and veteran black explorer JR Harris says his thirst for adventure is still as strong as ever.
Now 78, Harris has visited more than 50 countries on every continent except Antarctica, exploring some of the world’s most remote areas, including Patagonia and the Australian Outback. And he says he has no intention of putting down his hiking boots anytime soon.
“I’m curious about everything,” Harris tells CNN Travel. “And if you throw in an adventure portion, it’s just a matter of how long it will be before I put some things in a pack and go there.”
Harris, who was born in Louisiana and raised in Queens, New York, got his first taste of adventure when his parents sent him to a Boy Scout camp in the Catskill Mountains of southeastern New York.
Boy Scout classes
JR Harris, photographed in Raquette Lake, New York in 1980, has been hiking in remote locations 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.
During his time at the camp, Harris was taught many skills, including how to read a map, pitch a tent, use a compass, make a fire, and identify animal tracks.
“I basically learned to live outdoors,” he says. “And the idea that I could live with what I had in my backpack was such a different concept from the life I had in New York City. It fascinated me.”
He took many train trips across the United States while growing up in New York during the 1950s; his father worked as a waiter in the dining car of a long-distance train, so the family was able to get discounted fares.
His father eventually lost his job on the train when “train travel was supplanted by air travel,” ending the family’s frequent cross-country train trips.
He took his first plane trip, from Chicago to California, when he was about 12 or 13 years old.
Although he admired some of the “old pioneers” while at Boy Scout camp and harbored ideas of “wandering alone in the Rockies,” Harris’ first big trip didn’t come until he graduated 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 noticed that the furthest north he could drive would be Circle, Alaska, about 120 miles north of the city of Fairbanks, and decided he wanted his car to be the furthest north of the country the western hemisphere.
So he threw some clothes in the back of his battered Volkswagen and set off on a journey that took about two weeks.
It was during that trip, while looking out over the mountains and “wondering what else was out there,” that Harris realized he wanted to be an explorer.
Harris exploring the Pyrenees desert, France in 2010.
J. Robert Harris
He vowed that once he returned home, he would get some hiking 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 hoped: there was an abandoned vehicle blocking his path when he reached his intended destination.
However, Harris managed to track down the driver, who moved it to the side just for him, and was able to check that particular target off his list.
In the many years since then, he has traveled the diverse landscapes of the Canadian Rockies, the Andes, the longest mountain range in South America, the European Alps, the Pyrenees mountain range that straddles the border of France and Spain and New Zealand.
Harris is particularly fascinated by people who live in remote areas, and often chooses a particular indigenous group, such as the Australian Aborigines or the Quechua people of the Andean Highlands, to learn all he can about their history, tradition and way of life . figure out how to reach them, and “it just shows up.”
“People can’t believe that someone would come all the way from New York, for no other reason than because they were curious about their culture and wanted to see it firsthand,” he says.
And not just the people Harris will travel miles and miles to find. When he decided he wanted to walk 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.
Meanwhile, his interest in deserts took him to Death Valley in California as well as the Sahara desert in Africa. Harris has done at least one long hiking trip every year, sometimes two, for more than 50 years.
Not even being a father slowed him down. He continued his walks while his son and daughter were growing up.
Although both sons like to travel, “they’d rather go to the south of France and have a martini than go to Iceland and sleep on the floor in a tent.”
Harris was able to fund his travels through his marketing research and consulting firm, JRH Marketing Services, founded in 1975, which his younger brother ran while he explored the desert.
According to Harris, his most difficult trip was through Tasmania’s South West Wilderness, a remote and inaccessible region in southwestern Tasmania, Australia, which he initially embarked on because he wanted to try something challenging, but he didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be.
“It was hard work,” he says of the 1992 walk. “Kilometer after mile of trying to put one foot in front of the other day after day.
“I’ve been on tough journeys since then. But the lesson I learned in south-west Tasmania stays with me to this day.”
Although he has occasionally hiked with friends and says they really enjoyed it, most of Harris’ trips have been solo.
“I never expect anyone to want to go with me,” he adds.
Harris visited the Dolomites, a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps, in 2018.
J. Robert Harris
While Harris stresses that he enjoys being alone, one of the obvious drawbacks to spending so much time in the wilderness alone is the issue of safety.
“Nowadays we have GPS and devices where people can be contacted,” he says. “But for most of my life in my career, I went out before there was Internet, before there were satellite phones, and I was gone for weeks at a time with no way to contact anybody.”
Along with 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.”
Aside from technological advances, Harris says very little has changed for him from “the perspective of being alone in the wilderness” since he started exploring wilderness.
The most notable difference was the impact of climate change, especially in some of the more isolated areas he traveled to.
“The desert itself is changing in a not-so-good way,” he says. “When I go out, it’s hard to see how the glaciers are retreating and things are getting warmer. Now there are so many wildfires in different parts of the world.”
“I talk to indigenous peoples who live off the land, and it’s harder for them to get food or whatever they need from the land. It’s slowly but surely getting harder to survive in the desert.”
In 1993, Harris became one of the few black scouts to be invited to join the elite Scouts Club.
Now an emeritus member, Harris currently serves on the board of directors as well as chair of the club’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee.
While he says he’s always been happy doing his own thing and didn’t necessarily aspire to be part of a particular club, Harris is mindful of the impact someone like him can have on young people interested in exploring.
He often visits schools in neighborhoods like the one he grew up in, hoping to inspire young people to “get outdoors and maybe become an explorer.”
“Teachers say, ‘We tell these kids they should broaden their horizons,'” he says. “That they should dream big, like you did.
“But until they see someone who has done it, a lot of them don’t believe it can be done.”
Now approaching 79, Harris, who recently returned from a hike in Sweden, is making plans to visit the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to track down the indigenous Berber peoples next summer.
He also hopes to one day “get to Mongolia” so he can “connect with the camel herders 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 to me, that’s good news.”
Harris works out regularly to make sure she’s in good shape when it’s time to start her latest walk, making time for weight training and aerobic exercise.
When asked what has kept him going all this time, he says it’s the same curiosity that started his career as an explorer in 1966.
“I’m still curious about what the world is like, the natural world and the people who live in it, especially in remote places,” says Harris, who has kept a journal detailing her hiking experiences since she was in her 20s. “And the idea that anything can happen, that still appeals to me.”
Harris stresses that every trip he’s been on, whether it’s trekking across glaciers or looking for reindeer herders in Lapland, has been a learning experience, and he believes he still has a lot to learn.
“When I go home, I’m a different person,” he says. “I learned a little more. I gained a little more experience. I have a little more appreciation and gratitude for what I have.
“I know the next time I go on a trip, even if I’ve been doing it since the Stone Age, I’m going to 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 it still drives me. And I’m still going out there.”