Visiting a room in the home of Rosalyn Pursley, 69, Port Hudson, is like taking a trip around the world.
Batik, or two-dimensional wax art creations on fabric, hang on the wall. The framed art is from Yogyakarta on Java Island in Indonesia. A little elephant herd adorns one piece of furniture, with small elephants from India, an elephant from Thailand and a jade carving from China. A coconut from Kathmandu and a handcrafted fisherman from Bali, Indonesia, sit atop another shelf.
Sitting on the table are journals of Pursley's travels to places all over the world, guidebooks - each carefully wrapped in a brown paper bag cover so people don't realize she's a tourist as she looks, and a small world map.
Pursley has spent much of her adult life exploring "the blue dome," much of it by herself, traveling from country to country. In her travels Pursley takes pride in traveling at the same level of the natives in the land she's visiting. She doesn't stay in fancy hotels or visit all the tourist destinations, in fact, most of the time she has only her backpack as she visits and mingles with locals on the streets.
Transportation methods have included trains, buses, hiking boots, her thumb, bicycle, rickshaw, tuk tuk, plane, boats, ferry, felucca, a canoe, kayak, dugout, motorcycle, metro, a bamboo railroad, car, camel, snowmobile, snow skis, water ski, jet ski, horse cart and an elephant.
There's a certain flexibility to traveling solo, Pursley said, allowing her to see the sights and hear the stories of the people. But the travel bug didn't really bite until Pursley was already in her adulthood.
Pursley is the youngest of five children of the late Pete and Marie Hillermann and joked that it was growing up with three older brothers that taught her the wit and humor that would prove beneficial in traveling alone.
She grew up in Washington and attended St. Francis Borgia grade and high schools. She graduated the latter in 1960.
After working for five years at the Washington water department, Pursley married her high school sweetheart, Vernon Pursley. The couple were united in marriage Oct. 9, 1965.
They have two children, KrisAnn and Vernon III.
The couple built their home in the Port Hudson area before they were married and have lived in the home for 46 years.
Because Pursley didn't have the opportunity to go to college directly after high school, she chose to attend East Central College at the same time as her children. All three graduated together in 1989.
Her son delayed his graduation one year and her daughter skipped her senior year at St. Francis Borgia, which put them in black caps and gowns for the same graduation commencement.
Upon graduation, Pursley, her husband and two children took a trip to Grand Cayman Island to go scuba diving and snorkeling as a graduation celebration.
Growing up, Pursley said her family didn't have a travel budget. It wasn't until later in life that Pursley discovered she had a passion for traveling. In fact, she didn't leave Missouri until after she graduated from high school.
After working a year at the water department, Pursley booked her first vacation - a tour in Florida.
"That was the humble beginning of traveling," Pursley said. "I gradually built up my confidence. There's no way in the beginning that I would have had the confidence to go to Asia or Africa."
The following year she took a tour to Colorado.
When her children were born, Pursley resigned from her job to stay home with them. The family tried to take a trip every summer and eventually expanded the trips to winter vacations as well. The family would take annual vacations to Colorado to ski.
Pursley prided herself on being able to travel on a tight budget and traveled in a 1973 Dodge van, which the family slept in on trips.
"The trips to Colorado were pretty rugged. We would pull into a service station at night and plug in our little electric heater," she said. "I knew all the places we could plug in along Highway 70 from here to Colorado and marked them in my AAA book."
The van eventually was upgraded to a 1973 Winnebago, which Pursley said they still have.
The level of comfort has moved up to a condo in Colorado, where her whole family visits to ski. All four of Pursley's grandchildren enjoy skiing and Luke, her 8-year-old grandson, passed her on the slopes two years ago.
At first, Pursley did a lot of camping with her family throughout the United States and Canada. One trip brought the family to the Grand Canyon.
"I can remember standing on the north rim of the Grand Canyon . . . and I'm looking down into the canyon and I think ‘There's got to be more down there.' I knew I was missing out on something."
Pursley thought that someday she would travel to the bottom of the canyon.
And she has - many times!
She has hiked into the Grand Canyon four times, the first time she hiked rim to rim with KrisAnn, and the next time with her husband. KrisAnn and Pursley did the Hermit Trail on the west side of the national park. The third time she hiked by herself to the Supai Indian Reservation.
This past summer she hiked to the bottom of the canyon with her daughter and 12-year-old granddaughter, Nicole Traicoff, who was 11 at the time.
She has rafted it twice, more than 150 miles on the Colorado River. Twice she visited and viewed it only from the rim.
In all, Pursley has been to the Grand Canyon eight times.
"To me it's one of the most beautiful places in the world and one of the only places that I have repeatedly gone back to," Pursley said, noting that she's also been to Switzerland several times.
"I tell everybody there's one trip that you must, with all capital M-U-S-T take before you leave the planet Earth, and that is rafting in the Grand Canyon," she said.
Hiking to the bottom, though, is not for the wimpy or faint of heart.
"There are a lot of elements in the canyon. We had wind, intense heat, intense cold, rain and hail," she said.
It was June 1982 during the summer solstice, when Pursley began thinking about Alaska. The summer solstice was what sparked her curiosity, as she began thinking about how the sun doesn't set in Alaska. At that moment, Pursley decided she would convince her husband to take their family to Alaska the following year.
The family spent the year preparing for the trip by canning vegetables and other food and gathering items needed for the three-month summer trip.
They loved their experience so much, that they returned in 1985 for another three-month trip, spending 1984 preparing for the following year.
The Pursleys raised chickens and started a garden. KrisAnn and Rosalyn Pursley canned more than 650 jars of vegetables and meat and Rosalyn and Vernon got an RV.
"It was true what we heard, that once you've been to Alaska you never come back - not all the way back," Pursley said, explaining that once you've been to "the land of the midnight sun," you feel like you've left a piece of yourself.
She said she'd love to go back to Alaska a third time.
The family spent the trip salmon and halibut fishing, clam digging and enjoying Alaska. They canned excess food to bring home.
The family were not yet backpackers, so they borrowed backpacks to hike the 35-mile Chilkoot trail that goes through Alaska and British Columbia.
When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, an estimated 100,000 people stormed north to the Alaska gold rush, many of them going by way of the Chilkoot trail.
Pursley still remembers the warnings her family were given about the trip by a ranger.
"One day, you're going to have to hike 13 miles through the high country. You'll walk on top of the snow until about noon, and then you'll break through with every step up to your knees. . .," the ranger said. "There's standing water and mud on the trail and there's avalanche danger in the high country. Sometimes grizzlies frequent the trail," he also told them.
Despite the warnings, the family began hiking and made it "slow and steady."
It was the first of many backpacking trips for Rosalyn and her daughter KrisAnn.
"We knew we were hooked," Pursley said.
Pursley's son and husband didn't want to backpack in Europe, but always encouraged the ladies to do what they wanted.
Pursley and KrisAnn's next venture was backpacking through Europe.
"We were two country bumpkins, at that time (the road we live on) was a gravel road, but we didn't let our lack of experience stop us," Pursley said.
The team flew into Madrid in the south, zigzagged across Europe and three months later flew out of Amsterdam.
It was both KrisAnn and Pursley's first time out of the country. Neither knew a foreign language and they didn't even bring along a guidebook.
The ladies took a 4- by 6-foot tent, preferring to stay in it rather than a hotel or other travel accommodations.
Pursley quickly learned how to stay safe and use common sense.
Once, on a night train in Germany, Pursley tied the wash line to her foot, the door handle and over the luggage rack so that if anyone opened her compartment in the night her foot would go up and she'd wake up.
Pursley and her daughter traveled through 14 countries, with 12 different currencies.
They were completely self-reliant with everything needed to cook, eat, wash clothes, etc.
"The motto is that if you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, then you can't," Pursley said. "We thought we could and we did."
Pursley and KrisAnn returned to Europe after the Iron Curtain came down two years later and visited Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
When KrisAnn graduated from college she accepted a job in Arizona. That forced a change in Pursley's future travel plans.
"I had a decision to make. Should I give up travel, which I've grown to love, or would I have to travel solo?" she said. "But the Alps yodeled for me to return."
Her daughter encouraged her to go alone - "Keep your head on straight and go where the wind blows you," she told her.
Purlsey's first solo trip was backpacking through Switzerland for one month, tent camping every night except one. Pursley said she was never scared.
"If you're going to be scared you have to know what you're scared of," she said. "Don't holler fire until there's a fire."
Pursley has returned to Switzerland three other times, and the fourth time her husband went with her.
After Switzerland, KrisAnn and Pursley took another trip together, this time to Taiwan.
The two had originally planned to visit Indonesia, but it was in a currency crisis.
Pursley returned home disappointed because she didn't get to visit Bali and her husband suggested she go the next year, which she did.
"At this point, I'm really beginning to feel confident wherever I go," she said, thinking back.
Another backpacker told Pursley that "you haven't really been to Asia" until you've been to the "three K's" - Kuta Beach in Bali, Kathmandu in Nepal and Khaosan Road in Bangkok, Thailand, all of which Pursley has now visited.
In Bali, Indonesia, Pursley visited the Gili Islands. She rode in a horse-drawn cart and stayed in a rustic thatched roof bungalow.
"It had a million dollar view of the sea," she said.
"In Bali they have quaint little courtyards where you can rent a room for a few dollars per night. Orchids cascade off of the roofs and the poinsettias were growing wild in the countryside, coconut palms, banyan trees, banana trees - all within a backpackers budget," Pursley said.
She also went scuba diving and snorkeling in the Indonesian islands and hiked the Batur Volcano.
"(The tour guide and I) sat up there and waited for a thunderous roar from deep in the earth and then there was a boiling cloud of smoke and steam and these red hot lava rocks poured out," Pursley said.
She said she noticed burnt grass near where she was and asked if the rocks ever came over their heads where she was sitting and was told by a local, "Yes, sometimes. We pray not today."
Thailand and Nepal
Pursley visited Thailand and Nepal in 2001. The trip was memorable for, among other things, she lost a filling from her tooth there and needed to see a dentist, who put a crown on it. She jokes that she was "crowned" and now she's "Queen Mum" in Bangkok. She's had the crown "souvenir" for more than 10 years.
Pursley rode on an elephant and rafted on the River Kwai on a bamboo raft. She also visited a refugee camp where people had fled from Myanmar.
In Nepal, Pursley visited the Royal Chitwan National Park where she saw wild rhinoceroses and trekked the Jomsom Trek on the Annapurna Circuit in the Tibetan Plateau.
In Kathmandu, Pursley visited a jail. There were no prisoners from America, so she visited with a man from Switzerland.
In 2002 Pursley visited India and was away for her first of five Christmases. Pursley also spent Christmas away from home on trips she made to Vietnam, Bethlehem in Israel, Cuzco, Peru, and Tanzania, where she stayed with a group of nuns in their motherhouse.
In India Pursley walked the same streets that Mother Teresa walked in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata.
"It was a very special morning," Pursley said.
She visited the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, Palolem beach, the bay of Bengal and took a boat ride on the Ganges River at dawn to see the Hindu rituals.
She spent Christmas 2006 in Bethlehem. She spent the night on Manger Square, visited Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. She also saw the birthplace of Jesus, as well as the place that is believed to be his tomb and Calvary, where he was crucified.
She then traveled to Egypt to see the pyramids and went inside two of them.
"The air was so stale," she said. "You don't want to stay in there long."
Next, Pursley visited Vietnam and learned the history of the Vietnam War from the other side, which is referred to as "The American War."
She learned that 1,600 men and 100 women lived in tunnels, called CuChi during the war. An additional 82 families lived in the Vinh Moc tunnels.
An American tank sat on its original site. Helicopters and other American military gear were left from the war.
Despite past hostility, Pursley said she didn't receive any ill feelings from the Vietnamese.
She also visited Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong River, then Hanoi where she went kayaking on the Gulf of Tonkin.
Next she flew to Laos, where Buddhist monks lined the streets to collect donations of rice, which would be their breakfast and noon meal.
Pursley took a "roller coaster bus ride for eight hours over the Lao mountains with constant switchbacks through the jungle" to Phonsavan, where Pursley was determined to see the Plain of Jars, hundreds of huge unexplained stone jars.
She visited Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and pressed onward to Cambodia where she took a two-day hike in the Bolaven Plateau to see the countryside and coffee plantations.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, Pursley bought a three-day pass to Angkor Wat, a world famous UNESCO site.
Angkor Archaeological Park contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the ninth to the 15th century. It includes the temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple.
She also stopped by a land mine museum. The owner, Aki Ra, was a child soldier during a time known as "the killing fields of Cambodia." At age 13 he laid many mines and later, he was commissioned to diffuse the mines.
From Siem Reap Pursley took an eight-hour boat ride to Battambang where she saw the real life of people who live along the river.
"This is what I like to see. I like to see the local people and that's why I like to go by myself," she said.
Another stop was the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, which was a school turned into a security prison known as S-21 from 1975-78.
A monument with 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, was erected in 1988. Today it's a peaceful place in the countryside and a reminder of the atrocities that occurred there.
China, Peru, Kenya
In 2003, Pursley visited China with her sister-in-law Lucille Hillermann. The following year she returned to teach conversational English.
Pursley had 56 students per day who were "afraid to open their mouths to speak." Pursley had brought Dumbo books for lessons. In the story, Dumbo can't fly unless he has his feather.
To help them realize their potential, Pursley robbed feathers from a feather duster in the broom closet and brought a feather for each student. Pursley told them they could speak English.
"There wasn't a student in that classroom who would have left without their feather," Pursley said. "They were wonderful, wonderful students."
With currency, Pursley said you have to be careful. People will cheat or overcharge you if you don't pay attention, noting she saw a person pay $50 for a watermelon or $10 for a cup of tea because the people didn't know the value of the currency they were using.
In 2008, Pursley visited Peru. She took a jungle trip, hiked, visited Iquitos, which is the largest city not connected to a road system.
The following year, she visited Kenya. She spent Christmas in a motherhouse with nuns so she could spend Christmas in a Christian place.
Despite her age and all of the places she has already seen, Pursley doesn't plan to stop traveling.
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones that you did," Pursley said, quoting Mark Twain.
In the future, Pursley would like to visit more of South America.
Of the seven continents, Pursley has been to five of them - North and South America, Asia, Europe and Africa. She hopes to be able to make it to Australia.
"I've been saving that one because I thought it might be something my husband would like to do," Pursley said.
Pursley will quit traveling "when I quit breathing," she said, "I figure that's as good of a time as any."
Pursley is working on a book about her travels.
America - Best Country on Earth
No matter how far she roams, Pursley said the United States is always home.
"We have no complaints in this country. We really are fortunate to be living here," Pursley said.
"As far as the mountains, the plains, the canyons, the seashores - we have it all. I've seen poverty refugee camps and I ask myself, ‘Why am I so blessed to be born in the best country on the planet?' It's always good to be back again."
Pursley also encourages people to go out and see other countries and grab every opportunity you can.
She'll never forget something she and KrisAnn were told while waiting at a train station in Sweeden.
"Chance comes like a snail, but goes like a train," she said. "You have to grab every chance you get."