Growing up in a small town in Connecticut, Cassie De Pecol’s knowledge of the world often came from images on television — some of them scary.
“Despite that, I was eager to see these places for myself because I had this secret yearning to prove people wrong about the world we live in and to show them that it is safe and beautiful,” De Pecol, now 28, recalls.
The travel bug stayed with her through college, where she focused on environmental studies and sustainable tourism. After graduation, she spent two years touring 24 countries on the paltry $2,000 she’d saved from summer jobs of lifeguarding and babysitting. That’s when she learned how to stretch a dollar by sleeping in train stations and working at hostels in exchange for room and board.
Once home, she landed a 9-to-5 office job in Washington, D.C., but it left her feeling stifled and unfulfilled. She soon quit and, like many great wanderers before her, headed to California to do some soul-searching. “I just kept thinking about my lifelong dream of taking a trip around the world,” she says.
De Pecol took the leap a few years later, when she discovered the Guinness World Records had a category for the fastest time to visit all sovereign countries. But trying to set a record wasn’t her only motivation — she wanted to prove a larger point.
“I think it’s important to set goals that serve not just you but others,” she says. “I had this idea that if I could travel to places that people like me — young, blonde, American, and female — don’t travel to every day, I could demonstrate that kindness and beauty do exist, despite the limitations and boundaries we set for ourselves and others.”
And she wanted to make a difference in the world. With that in mind, she became an ambassador for the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism.
“Travel allows for the development of a mutual understanding and appreciation of other cultures, religions, and ways of life,” she says. “Taking the time to integrate yourself in the diverse communities of the countries you visit offers opportunities to break down your misconceptions and biases and teaches kindness and empathy. Travel can really humble you if you let it.”
On July 24, 2015, with $10,000 of her own savings, and additional funding from sponsors, De Pecol traded a home for a passport and embarked on a solo journey to the Pacific island country of Palau. She kept going — and going and going.
She floated in the Dead Sea, met the King of Spain, visited North Korea, and explored the remote Mongolian wilderness alone.
Spending so much time by herself didn’t faze De Pecol, who credits her Waldorf- and Montessori-inspired homeschool education for her independent nature. “I’ve learned from previous trips that traveling with others often deters me from meeting new people, embracing new situations, veering off the beaten path, and observing people and my surroundings in quiet thought,” she says. “I love traveling alone.”
When she landed in Yemen on Feb. 2, 2017 — 558 days after embarking on her trip — she became the world’s fastest nation-hopper, slicing the men’s record by more than half. In all, she’s visited 196 countries.
Along the way, she filmed a documentary about her experience, collected water samples to be tested for microplastics, planted trees to offset her carbon footprint, and talked to more than 15,000 university students about the benefits of exploring new places.
Her ventures taught her to try everything and embrace failure. “I also learned that all humans just want a roof over our heads, a hot meal in front of us, and a loving family or someone who cares about us,” she adds. “Through travel, we come to understand this, and the sooner we can recognize it, the sooner our world will become more united and understanding of one another.”
Her trip may have looked easy through the lens of social media, but De Pecol says she made plenty of mistakes and faced constant challenges along the way. She had to overcome her fear of flying and deal with dwindling funds, as well as face criticism from those who thought she didn’t spend enough time in each country (she was in each place for two to three days).
“I had to learn to disregard the criticism and keep my eyes on reaching my goals,” she says. “I learned to use things people said that might have deterred me from finishing as fuel for my fire to finish what I started.”
What does she hope others can learn from her adventure? “I hope my experience inspires others to not judge people and, instead, take the time to learn their stories,” she says. “I also hope it inspires them to dream big, but achieve bigger, and feel the satisfaction of doing something all on your own.”