Chap Petersen may be Durango’s most interesting dinner party guest.
Having traveled to more than 180 countries in his lifetime, Petersen, 85, is filled with stories of adventure, danger and yes, romance.
For reference, there are 195 countries in the world today, though that number over the years has changed.
“What I enjoyed most of all is the variety of cultures and traditions,” Petersen said from his home in the Animas Valley, north of Durango.
Petersen’s story begins fittingly: As a child, his father was in the military, so his family moved around a lot, spending time in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and then Chicago.
But when Petersen’s father died, his mother, who was a civil air patrol lieutenant in World War II who was then working three jobs to make ends meet, decided to send Petersen to her parents’ ranch in the grasslands of Oklahoma.
It was there Petersen acquired his sense of independence and hard work ethic that he would carry with him through life. Eventually, he went back to Chicago, and earned various degrees at Denison University and the University of Colorado.
But it wasn’t until Petersen started a career in real estate investment and consulting that his true calling as a world traveler began.
Name a country and Petersen can tell a story that will keep you captivated.
While trying to leave China in the summer of 1983, in the days when it was illegal to sell electronic devices there, a security guard was insistent that Petersen was carrying a transistor radio.
Though he wasn’t, and told the guard as much, the guard still put a gun to his head demanding the radio. Petersen said he grabbed the barrel of the gun, put it up to the guard’s chin, grabbed his bags and walked away.
“They weren’t killing Americans in those days, so I got away,” he said.
In Senegal, while studying the African French language, Petersen received a benediction from a West African voodoo witch doctor in a hut adorned with shrunken heads and all.
“He put a kola nut on my head and said, ‘You will travel safely around the world,’” Petersen said. “I took his word for it.”
And in a remote part of Africa, Petersen, who didn’t have a proper visa to enter another country, decided to cross a river into the country instead. He ended up being chased by a tribe of villagers.
“I ran back into the river and jumped back on the boat that dropped me off,” he said.
As for the romance side of things, Petersen remembers in intense detail, probably more than any of the other stories, the day he met his future wife, Betsy, in 1954 at Denison University in Ohio. They were married that same year on Christmas Eve.
Ever since, the couple has been travel buddies, business partners and happily married through some of the wildest adventures. Like when the two were part of an expedition in the Himalayas that was lost three weeks in a blizzard.
“We’ve been very lucky, and we recognize that,” Betsy, 82, said.
After about four decades with Chicago as a home base, Chap and Betsy moved to Durango almost 20 years ago, looking for a place to retire. Though they’ve been all across the world, Durango fit the bill for the couple as an outdoorsy place with a vibrant small town and a college.
“When we pulled into town, the first thing I said was, ‘I’m home,’” Betsy said.
They have both been active in Fort Lewis College’s “Professional Associates,” an advisory group of active and retired professional that help the college on certain issues.
Petersen’s last trip was about six years ago. Around that time, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects movements.
After years of traveling the world, it was understandably difficult for Petersen to adjust to a life that didn’t allow it.
“It was a big psychological adjustment,” Petersen said.
These days, Petersen is focusing on finishing his children’s book series, based on his adventures. He started the endeavor in the 1980s.
“There aren’t too many countries he hasn’t been to, some of which you don’t want to go to, and some he’d like to go to but no longer can travel,” Betsy said. “And if he hadn’t gotten Parkinson’s, he’d still be climbing mountains with me.”