“You know, you think of Siberia as a frozen wasteland, but in the summertime all of that melts because the sun is pretty far north and all the frozen tundra turns into a swamp and is great for mosquitos,” says Kevin Hughes. “But we missed mosquito season.”
Hughes recalls this slushy tundra brightly, even wistfully. He’s a member of the Travelers’ Century Club, a Santa Monica, CA based organization that you can only join if you’ve visited 100 countries.
Hughes, who is 69 and joined in the early ’80s, has visited over 320 at this point and is still going.
The Travelers’ Century Club was founded in 1954 by a pair of travel agents who ran the Hemphill Travel Service in Los Angeles. Back then, there were less travel options in general, and certainly no bargain tickets to be snapped up instantly by online shoppers. Hitting 100 countries was a feat, and the pair thought they’d promote travel via the club. Since then, it has become a nonprofit organization with about 2,000 members. There are chapters throughout the United States as well as international ones. New members who have racked up the required 100 countries can join by filling out an application form and sending in a $100 initiation fee. It’s $85 annually after that. (Those who have hit 75 countries can purchase a “provisional membership”.)
A major part of the club is their list of approved countries and territories, which currently includes 324 locales. Every time someone visits a spot on the list they earn a “point”—a milestone towards either becoming a member or to scoring one of the club’s senior designations. A Platinum Member, for instance, has visited 250 countries. The list takes into account geography as well as borders. Alaska and Hawaii, for instance, both earn a point even though they’re part of the U.S. Every two years, the club’s board (of which Hughes is a member) comes together to decide the list, sometimes adding new spots and crossing others off. It is, according to Hughes, a “very noble, heady meeting.
Pamela Barrus joined the TCC in 1987, is a board member, and was once club president. Barrus doesn’t like to keep track of how many countries she has visited, but says she has checked off around 160 from the United Nation’s list of independent countries.
“The list starts driving you at that point instead of the other way around,” says Barrus, who prefers to travel alone and has ridden public buses across Africa, walked the 184 mile Thames Path in England and recently flew to Kiev to monitor elections in Ukraine.
For a couple of people who joined a club with a list, neither Barrus nor Hughes seem especially concerned with it.
“The idea is that the list is supposed to make you go to places you never would have gone,” says Hughes, who once ran into Spiro Agnew in an elevator in Bangkok. (Not inviting the former U.S. vice president for a drink is something he regrets.)
There are, of course, plenty of folks who obsessively travel in order to check points off. This “mania” is why the club decided there would be no limits placed on time spent in a country in order to get a point, according to Hughes. They didn’t want enthusiastic folks detouring into dicey regions and staying there too long, so even a plane-refueling stop is enough. The status of countries on the list are also controversial. Hughes says that the political divisions of Antarctica “probably shouldn’t be on there.”
“If I had guts and wanted to meet God earlier, I would take them off,” he says. “Because I’d be killed.”
For Barrus, the club provides a space where people are as obsessed with travel as she is.
“It’s a place you can talk about going to Mauritania without sounding like an asshole,” says Barrus. “Because frankly, no one wants to listen to you. They don’t know where it is, their eyes glaze over. You could take the most awesome trip across Asia and at best you’ve got 30 seconds to talk about it when you get home.”
Both Hughes and Barrus emphasize that you don’t have to be rich to travel. (Not that it hurts; in 2000 The Los Angeles Times profiled a member who had expended $750,000 on their travels, thanks to some “wise investments”.)
Hughes learned meteorology in the Navy and parlayed that into an airline job, a gig he desired because it would help him travel. Barrus has similarly structured her entire life around leaving home; at first she worked for the family business (easier to take vacation time) and then she started writing travel guides, tutoring, leading tours—anything that would allow her flexible time for adventure. Neither fetishizes luxury. Despite the fact she has written a guide to palaces and castle hotels around the world, Barrus takes public transport and stays in inexpensive hotels and hostels. Once, she rode five weeks on a cargo ship to Tristan de Cunha, the most remote inhabited island in the world. Hughes has braved the freezing South Atlantic Ocean to visit volcanic Bouvet Island for five minutes. He once holed up in a cold, filthy apartment in what was then the Soviet Union.
“It was euphoria,” he says. “I was uncomfortable, I put on all the clothes I had to keep warm. There was running water but the toilet was gross, it hadn’t been cleaned in years. It was unpleasant, but at the same time, it was so interesting. So damn interesting.
Barrus says she is “hardwired” for travel; as a kid she would push her toy trains and boats around a map according to fictional itineraries. She recalls the feeling of elation she experienced traveling down the Irrawaddy River at dawn, watching golden temples emerge from the jungle. She has sacrificed career and relationships to collect those moments.
Joining the Century Club really isn’t for everyone. “It was all worth it,” she says.