Traveler of the Year: Theron Humphrey
A maverick storyteller documents the oral histories of everyday Americans.
The numbers alone are astonishing—365 days and some 66,000 miles logged on the road, 90,000 photos snapped, 50 states visited. And the cause is inspiring. Theron Humphrey took a year to see America and record the story of one person in film and audio each day. This storyteller’s monumental road trip echoes the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, but Humphrey’s oral history enterprise is rooted in a more personal motive.
“I got stirred up and wanted to live a different life. I wanted to discover new things and meet new people,” says 29-year-old Humphrey, who quit his job as a fashion studio photographer and hit the highway in August 2011 with a mission of befriending one person each day, every day, for a year and documenting that person's life story.
The result is a personal journey published online at thiswildidea.com, a site supported by donations from angel investors on the fund-raising platform Kickstarter.com. Humphrey maps out his route and shares the tales of the people he’s met along the way.
There’s Liz Roma, a farmer in Vermont. Uncle Bobby, a Hawaiian canoe craftsman. And Patrick Millard, a Pittsburgh artist, who unexpectedly died a few days after the interview.
Humphrey’s histories document the tenor of our times, spoken by the people who populate a traveler’s landscape and framed by a photographer with an eye for detail. “It's in the American DNA to seek new ideas,” says Humphrey. “That’s what drove me.”
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: Why is travel important?
Theron Humphrey: I can’t say anything new about the adventure in traveling, or the inherently human desire to discover, but I do know it’s real. It’s in my nature to want to explore.
NGT: Can you point to an experience that ignited your curiosity about the world?
TH: I remember waking up one day and realizing that the world doesn’t always see life the way I do. Even the folks that literally live next to me don’t. I figured if I could learn to listen, that would be a good start.
NGT: What inspired you to travel in the way that has resulted in your being chosen as a Traveler of the Year?
TH: Some incredible folks came before me, like Stephen Shore and Robert Frank. But I wanted to go into the world and know names and shake hands, not just point a camera at them. I wanted to know their story and celebrate their life.
My aim was to create work that would gain value over time. I would love to know what my great-grandmother’s voice sounded like, so maybe this project will be a part of giving someone that gift in 30 years.
NGT: Do you have a personal motto or mantra that embodies your approach to life and travel?
TH: Everyone has a good story. Everyone has something to teach me.
NGT: What do you never leave home without when you travel?
TH: My iPhone, for its camera. The road can be a lonely place. Being able to share images instantly with thousands of folks through Instagram made it feel like I wasn’t alone.
NGT: Do you have a favorite travel book or film?
TH: Travels With Charley. It’s hard to beat a book about a man traveling with a dog.
NGT: What was your most surprising food experience on your travels?
TH: Most of my meals were simple, but I did get a lobster roll from a roadside stand in Maine and remember thinking that I’d be willing to eat lobster rolls until I got gout. It was that good.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
NGT: Name three places that you’d like to visit before you die and why.
TH: Is it OK to feel like I’ve been everywhere I want to go right now? I know that will change, but I feel content.
NGT: What's one place you’ve been to that you think everyone should visit?
TH: Fort Yates, North Dakota. There are some wonderful people doing good work there, and they could use some help. I suppose like a lot of reservations there is sadness, but there is also hope and folks we’ve never heard of trying to change lives.
NGT: What’s next?
TH: I have another project in the works that involves storytelling and open adventure on the sea.
I hope I always have a passion for going into the world and meeting folks, but I also want to collaborate. I’d love to be a part of helping others create what they love.