Few and far between are those who can lay claim to visiting every country on the planet. Even rarer are the likes who can swap travel stories with Mike Spencer Bown.
Having backpacked nonstop since 1990, the Ottawa-born, Calgary-raised Bown has hitchhiked through warzone Iraq and Afghanistan, explored the underground party scenes of Iran and Eastern Europe, and hunted with the Mbuti pygmy tribe while evading genocidal rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The author of The World’s Most Travelled Man, a tale of “wilderness wandering, sea voyages, and overland treks,” Bown’s hunger for travel began after a months-long trip to Central America in his twenties.
“I had a very strong interest in reality. I wanted to know how things really work and what things are really like — and of course, I had to go out and find this [out] for myself,” he says. “Once I got [started backpacking,] I noticed that everything I’d learned in this academic sense was mostly useless — and a good part of it was wrong.”
So began a decades-long odyssey of backpacking around the world, hopping on flights from one distant corner to the next — and boarding chicken buses from small town to smaller town. Passports would fill up in the span of a year and a half — or else be replaced sooner after a few too many eyebrow-raising stamps showed up.
“I knew the [border] police quite well,” he laughs. “I was joking at one point, if I knew them any better, I’d have to send them Christmas cards.”
In Somalia, Bown made headlines as the country’s first tourist in decades. In Arctic Russia, the Yakut people taught him to drive a reindeer sleigh while drunk on vodka.
“Travel is such an excellent filter — the large number of boring people are sort of filtered out, and you end up being around a larger number of adventurers, and people who have quite fascinating views of the world,” says Bown.
Even before his travels outside of Canada, Bown had a taste for adventure and the wilderness. Once, while living in British Columbia, he spent 86 days in the Selkirk mountains without any human contact — hunting for food and foraging for berries.
“My parents were quite inclined to just sort of get in the car and say, ‘let’s drive across the continent.’ We’d just drive around, looking at the sky for wherever was sunniest. Of course, I’ve taken it much further,” Bown laughs.
Along the way, the World’s Most Travelled Man author says he’s gained an appreciation for the hospitality of strangers, no matter where he’s travelled.
“I was quite surprised at how kind and humane people are, even in the most violent, warlike countries […] I think there’s a commonality to humanity that makes travel possible,” says Bown.
“It’s very satisfying for a human, because I think it’s naturally what we’re supposed to be dealing with. I mean, we’re a people who were evolved to be able to handle giant ground sloth, and mammoths, and cave lions. Early on, it was quite an adventure to survive as a human — and that was 95 percent of our evolutionary history.”