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HuffPost Personal. Special Projects. Pride I tried to conceive of the situation as a geometry problem. Yes, some number of bears roved this landscape, I wrote: relatively tiny, independent blips, going about their business randomly, just like us. In all that empty space and confusion, a lethal collision of their moving blips and our moving blips would be an improbable coincidence.
It was embarrassing, really. I was reminding myself that freakishly horrible things are, by definition, unlikely to happen. Even now, my reasoning feels sound. Day 2 was a slog. We paddled through a spitting drizzle in an endless straight line, along the high granite walls of the coast. We talked less and less, just pushed through the emerald chop. Then eventually we gave up, hauling in our boats and making camp in a wide, crescent-shaped cove, short of the site that Jon originally picked out on his map.
In the s, one prospector built a cabin not far from our campsite and brandished a gun at the Alaska Natives who passed through. We intuited that the scenery was beautiful, but we could see very little of it through the fog. Soon, the big rain started. We rushed through dinner, then loafed in our tent until, eventually, the loafing turned to sleep.
Gale winds, with gusts up to 59 miles per hour, turned back two cruise ships in Skagway, about 85 miles north. Around 2 a. We heard torrents of water lashing down and the waves crashing in the cove. We got up three or four hours later. The rain and wind no longer felt ferocious but were still too gnarly to paddle through; there was no question, Jon said, that we were staying put.
We cooked breakfast and took turns playing chess in the tent. By late morning, the storm seemed to have passed. We were antsy. We figured we would take a look around. The terrain was crammed with thickets of alder and spruce, underlain by ferns and a furor of prickly things. The plant pierced fleece and hurt like fire. There were no trails. We followed it downstream, looking for a way across, and eventually found it bridged by a hefty tree trunk. It seemed like an easy crossing. Jon stepped up and led the way, and Dave and I waited in a single-file line on the stream bank behind him. The creek was loud, like a factory with all its gears and rollers churning.
But I must have scanned those trees long enough to feel satisfied and safe, because I know I was turning my head, to go back to my friends, when I saw the dark shape rushing forward in my peripheral vision. What I heard must have been roots popping. If a tree is large enough, you can apparently hear them cracking underground like gunfire.
The thud was seismic. The trunk crashed down right next to me. Mapping out bits of evidence later, we concluded that the tree must have been about 80 feet tall and perhaps two feet in diameter.
It was some kind of conifer — a spruce or cedar. When I got to him, he was crouching, stunned but O.
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The sight of Dave going down had canceled out everything else. It had narrowly missed his head, struck his left shoulder, shearing it from his collarbone and breaking many of his ribs. Jon had heard nothing, seen nothing. He was turning around to help Dave onto the log — again, feeling responsible for our safety — and the next thing he knew, he was in the water. He tried to reach out his left arm but could not make it move.
He could not move his legs. He felt a bolt of pain down his spine. Jon later described flashing through an idiosyncratic sequence of thoughts, all in a few milliseconds, as if watching a deck of cards fanning across a table. One was an image of himself in a wheelchair, sitting behind a mixing console in a fancy recording studio. He had never worked in a recording studio and, though he played music, he had no particular plans to.
Still, this vision apparently felt like an acceptable future and freed him to resurface in the present. That was when he registered me, screaming his name. He knew from his many wilderness first-responder trainings that moving a person with spinal injuries risks paralysis. He somehow hoisted himself out of the stream before Dave or I got to him, using his right arm and his chin and biting into something loamy with his teeth, for additional leverage.
He reassessed the situation: better. Also: worse. He now realized that we were at least a mile inland from our camp. Suddenly, his body was walking; his legs just started working. Dave and I put him between us, supporting his frame. He was moving faster than we expected, but uncoordinatedly. Then he crumpled between us. We tried again; Jon was dead weight. Dave noticed that his breathing was shallow and his voice was low — signs, Dave knew from med school, of a collapsed lung. He began battering Jon with a pep talk, telling him, firmly, that he had to get up, that we had to get out of here.
He looked down to see why this log he was resting on was so lumpy and realized that he was, in fact, sitting on his left arm. Jon had zero feeling in it. He found it amusing, this sensation of complete estrangement from one of his limbs. Jon had been stressing that it was important to stay together. But this was another theory of wilderness survival that appeared to be breaking down in practice. Someone would have to get on the radio back at our camp.
By chance, while marooned in our tent during the rainstorm the night before, Jon showed us how to use the device, though he did it almost as a formality; the hand-held VHF unit was merely a line-of-sight radio, he told us, meaning its range was small, its signal too weak to pass through most obstacles. There was a moment of discussion, or maybe just an exchange of looks between me and Dave. I told Dave he should go. Besides, I took for granted that Dave would make it.
He was more capable in my mind, less likely to cinch himself in indecisive knots. I know that you, growing up, definitely felt insecure about things, and I think you looked at me and thought, Dave has everything figured out. But I had so much anxiety. But I guess I thought of the tremor as strictly physiological. What if he broke the radio, foreclosing whatever marginal chance we had of getting help? There were lots of ways to screw this up, Dave realized.
More occurred to him as he ran. He found the radio. He turned it on. He was lying near a log on his injured side, his beard and glasses flecked with dirt and tendrils of moss. He seemed to be on the brink of losing consciousness. Still, I knew I was supposed to keep talking to him, to tether him to the world with my voice somehow.
I started vamping platitudes: We were going to get out of here soon, and so forth. But I could feel myself treading water, even blundering, at one point, into a long-winded apology, worried I overstayed my welcome that one Christmas with his family. I was afraid that the helplessness in my voice might be counterproductive, unsettling Jon instead of steadying him.
It was a tremendous silence to fill. What can a person say? I had two literature professors in college who made us memorize poems. You never knew when some lines of verse would come in handy, they claimed. One liked to brag that, while traveling through Ireland, he found that if he spat out some Yeats at a pub, he could drink free. This is how I wound up reciting a love poem to Jon.
After that, I imagine I also did some W. Auden; I knew a fair amount of Auden back then. Jon and I would spend about an hour and a half together alone on the forest floor. I ran through everything in my quiver — Kay Ryan, A. Ammons, Michael Donaghy — padding each poem with little prefatory remarks, while Jon said nothing, just signaled with his eyes or produced a sound whenever I checked in.
I felt like a radio D. I must have also done at least one by Hayden Carruth, my curmudgeonly pen pal at the literary magazine. Hayden and the animal pass a moment in stillness together. The foot patrol boat normally spent its time coursing through the Gulf of Alaska, inspecting halibut-fishing vessels, or circulating, as a terrorist deterrent, near the oil terminals at Valdez. It was home-ported in Seward, hundreds of miles from Glacier Bay. But the crew was transiting to Juneau for a training when, a few days earlier, they were smacked by the same storm that later poured inland, over us.
For two days, the boat swished around in foot-plus seas. Finally, the Mustang slipped into Glacier Bay to find some protection. The weather started to ease.
Yukon Delta, Alaska
That afternoon, as Roberts piloted the Mustang east, toward Dundas Bay, his pallid crewmates were finally staggering back up to the bridge, asking where the hell they were. Our signal would have covered two or three miles at most. And yet, a boat — a Coast Guard boat, no less — happened to be passing through that exceedingly small window at precisely the right time. A moment earlier or later — seconds, potentially — and we might have slipped out of alignment. The moving boat would have cruised out of range, uncoupling from us forever. It was p. Then he turned and asked his watch commander to pull out all the standardized search-and-rescue paperwork.
He was steeling himself, resummoning his professionalism. Roberts was the crew member on the Mustang with the most current medical training; he would complete his E. We were nautical miles from the nearest hospital; a half-day trip, even in ideal conditions. He was still in front of our campsite, facing the water. He aimed straight up, then watched as the bright tracer rose and arced somewhere far behind him, deep in the woods. He was uncertain whether this counted as a success. He started scanning the fog in front of him, but the Zodiac never appeared.
And yet, this was lucky: they wound up coming ashore much closer to where I was waiting in the woods with Jon. Soon, whatever poem I was reciting was interrupted by whistles blowing and voices calling, and eventually three shapes, wearing hard hats and heavy orange rain gear, rushed toward us out of the trees. Roberts was especially impressive, a reassuringly large Boston-area native with a booming voice. The information was troubling: his pulse was 60 beats per minute; his breathing, fast and shallow. They put his neck in a brace and eased him onto a kind of truncated backboard, called a Miller board, to move him out to the beach.
Dave had returned by then. Later that night, lying down to sleep in a bed-and-breakfast in Gustavus — stunned and depleted, but dry and warm — Dave and I would talk and talk, reviewing the entire ordeal. We had drooped into a long silence, coasting toward sleep, when Dave spoke up with one last observation. When we were getting ready to lift Jon on the backboard, he said, it occurred to him that this was one of those crisis moments you hear about, like when mothers are suddenly able to lift a car off their baby.
Dave expected we were going to have superhuman strength. We did not have superhuman strength. Then, in one motion, they took off downhill, with negligible help from us. The network had sent crews to other Coast Guard stations around the country too, though this assignment appeared to hold the most dramatic potential. Air Station Sitka was unique: Its pilots were responsible for 12, miles of coastline, a sprawling, treacherous wilderness riven with fjords, inlets and glaciers, often buffeted by implacably horrible weather.
She was taking the call from behind a semicircular counter, like the reception desk at a midlevel corporate branch office. Karl Baldessari, informed everyone that this mission would take longer to plan. Baldessari was a year veteran of the Coast Guard, a fast-moving, sinewy man in a blousy flight suit, with a tidy mustache and spiky hair. His role at the air station was that of a firehouse chief.
He was responsible for the safety of everyone working there, which meant making judicious decisions about what warranted sending them hurtling through the sky. That calculus got knotty in conditions like these, though there was a baseline volatility to flying in Alaska at all. Visibility in Alaska was frequently poor; conditions changed quickly. It was like taking an exit off the interstate, except there might be a granite wall in front of you wherever you chose to get off.
It was possible the pilots would travel very far — a half-mile away from whoever needed their help — only to discover that the last leg was too risky and be forced to turn back. This Inian Pass, right here, is the worst place we could possibly go. Inian Pass is a slim channel near the center of the Icy Strait, the long, interconnected system of waterways stretching through Glacier Bay. Conditions in the Icy Strait can be bad days of the year, Baldessari recently told me; wind, rain and storm surges all push through it fast from the open ocean. But Inian Pass is a narrow keyhole at the center of the strait — a mile-wide opening between a few uninhabited islands and a rocky point — where all that weather speeds up.
The only way for the pilots to reach us would be to fly straight through it. Nothing in the National Geographic footage, at this point, feels reassuring. The flight surgeon holds his hand over his mouth and bites his lip. The co-pilot, Chris Ferguson, only a few months into his posting in Alaska, mills around and fidgets with his ear. Lying on his backboard like a burl of driftwood, Jon was conscious and cognizant of his pain, but he had started to feel somehow buffered from his body, uninterested in connecting with the world beyond it.
It was a very passive experience. He was confused and felt impatient. This was supposed to be the simple part, when everyone rushed him to the hospital. Instead, his condition deteriorated. Within 10 minutes of reaching the beach, Jon threw up. I took out my wool cap to wipe his face, and he retched a second time, straight into my hat.
It made Roberts anxious. He reported back to the Mustang that Jon had thrown up, then soon radioed again, explaining that Jon was going into shock. He kept giving and requesting updates, trying to gauge how long this might take, and eventually started erecting a makeshift shelter out of plastic sheeting and medical tape, hoping to keep Jon out of the rain. Out of earshot of us, Roberts explained to his crew mate Eamon McCormack what the vomit meant: The possibility of Jon dying, here under their care, was real. They would go and give it a look, Baldessari explained over the radio, but the outlook was iffy.
The guys on the beach, he said, must be prepared to get Jon back on their cutter and haul him to a hospital themselves, as fast as they could. One evening this winter, my phone rang, and it was Karl Baldessari. Long retired from the Coast Guard, he was teaching aviation at a community college in Oregon, where I left a voice mail message earlier that day. I meanwhile had metamorphosed into a year-old father of two and fumbled to explain to Baldessari that, as thrilled as I was to have tracked him down, I was, at the moment, racing to finish a risotto for my daughters before gymnastics practice and would have to call him back.
However dramatic it remained for me, I assumed it would have been obscured in a yearslong wash of more sensational incidents. But everyone I spoke to did remember it, immediately and in detail. It was almost like it was yesterday. There was something about the supreme freakishness of the accident that left a lasting impression. For those who came ashore, the experience was also marked by a feeling of subtly escalating chaos and the pressure to surmount it. McCormack told me that ours was a story he retold endlessly, often to the younger Coast Guardsmen he was eventually tasked with training.
McCormack was not supposed to be landing an inflatable boat on an unforgivably rocky Alaskan shoreline, for example. But there he was, anyway, beaching the Zodiac as gingerly as he could, so that Roberts and the other men could load Jon aboard. As relieved as Jon had been when the Coast Guard first arrived, he also felt instantaneously more vulnerable. Strapped to the back board, his neck in the collar, he surrendered control of his body, however imperfect that control had been.
He was being hauled around as an object now, with no ability to wriggle or shift positions, to manage his pain or even to turn his head and see what was happening. He was helpless, entirely dependent on the upright people operating around him, those voices he could hear discussing him on the far side of some gauzy divide.
One side was completely deflated. Instead, McCormack found the puncture and wedged the nozzle of a small pump inside. Then — steering the boat with one hand, operating the throttle with the other — he started working the pump with his foot, essentially doing leg presses, to keep the fender partly inflated. The ride was already bumpy in four-foot seas. Roberts and the other Coast Guardsmen on the Zodiac leaned over Jon to shield him from the splash.
The pain was heinous; Jon seemed to be passing out. Roberts talked to him, held his hand. Roberts felt crushed, he told me; he was torturing this guy in order to save him. Jon was still battened to the backboard, wedged up to keep the weight of his body on his less-painful side. Dave and I knelt and rubbed his feet. The helicopter was going to make it. Now the crew got busy below: tying down anything that could be blown off by the rotor wash or stashing it in the mess. Instead, I remember only a heavy door to our left swinging open to reveal, like a scene from an action movie, the silhouette of a man in a blue flight suit, feet planted shoulder-width apart to steady himself as the ship rocked sideways.
Soon, everyone was working to squeeze him back through the narrow doorway and onto the deck where the helicopter, an MH Jayhawk, was idling overhead.
Until recently, the story I told about the accident unfolded in two basic acts: the tree fell, instantaneously unleashing a kind of unfathomable chaos; then the Coast Guard appeared and, just as swiftly, regathered that chaos into order. It was like watching footage of an exploding object, then watching it run in reverse. The maneuver the Coast Guard was readying to execute now, on the deck of the Mustang, would be the climax of that progression.
The helicopter hovered 30 or 40 feet over the boat, mirroring its speed and trajectory, while both vehicles moved slowly forward. Forward and right The whole procedure, from our vantage point, seemed seamless and routine. In a way, it was: After the agonized deliberation at the air station, the pilots exited off their GPS route into fairly manageable conditions around Inian Pass. Ultimately, scooping Jon off the deck of the Mustang would resemble a standard exercise that the pilots drilled in their trainings.
A few moments earlier, as the men scurried around Jon on his backboard, packaging and fastening him for the hoist, Jon worried that the second he got airborne he would start twirling uncontrollably, like the feathery end of a cat toy, and potentially thwack his head on the equipment on deck. But now, he was levitating smoothly — a solitary, swaddled bale of a man, perfectly perpendicular to the ground. Dave and I watched it happen: our friend rising steadily away from us, improbably, to safety. As Jon floated higher, he could hear the Coast Guardsmen on the Mustang beneath him begin to cheer.
He felt it was safe to open his eyes. When he did, he saw someone, hunched in the open cargo door of the helicopter, pointing a television camera at him. Jon was rushed into surgery at the hospital in Sitka that evening. His spleen had been macerated into countless flecks.
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After awakening from surgery, Jon was disappointed that the doctors had swept those shards into a bag and thrown his spleen in the trash; he wanted to get a look at it, maybe even keep it preserved in a jar, alongside his cyborg-banana. He felt he would need to face conversations like these if he was going to be a doctor. I guess, logistically, we did. We had zero sense of accomplishment, or even agency. In our minds, all we did was avoid screwing up until the real help could arrive and save him.
From the instant he willed himself out of the water, he felt all of us locking into that same seamless flow of order steadily displacing chaos that Dave and I only experienced once the Coast Guard arrived. It was amazing to him how the three of us managed to generate solutions for each successive problem. The feeling of inevitability that day became only more pronounced for Jon as time passed and the entire story of our rescue receded into a prologue to the rest of his life.
The surgery in Sitka was only the first of half a dozen, and it would take several years for him to regain 60 percent of the use of his arm, wrist and hand, as the nerves gradually regrew along his injured side. He could repair kayaks but needed help lifting them. He was unable to wrestle the mattress corners into the fitted sheets when he made the beds. After that, he started working at a recording studio in Portland, just as he envisioned while stuck in the water, and he now runs his own audio-mastering company: Spleenless Mastering. Eventually Jon seemed to have recovered from the accident without any conspicuous disabilities.
But his life has been quietly corroded by chronic pain and, almost equally, by the stresses of navigating the doctors, medications and their side effects to manage it. About two years after the accident, he learned he had PTSD. It manifested as a kind of unbearable empathy for anyone who was suffering. He would hear interviews with natural-disaster victims or the homeless on NPR and have to pull his car over. There continued to be other tribulations, too — more mundane ones. A few times a year, he still rebreaks a rib out of nowhere; once or twice, Jon told me, all it has taken is an especially affectionate hug from his wife.
Jon found early on that he could cordon off this suffering, both in his own mind and in conversation, by making jokes about the accident itself and sticking to the happy ending of our rescue, a trick that got much easier after the National Geographic show aired later that year.
The soundtrack was all heart-thwacking synth drums and shredding guitar.
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Initially, the schlockiness of the production felt like a blessing. The show depersonalized the accident, giving us all a shorthand to convey how dramatic that day had been, without confronting how destabilizing and senseless it might have felt. But we never realized the degree to which that kitschy shorthand started to obscure the real story — then, gradually, to replace it. The morning after the accident, Dave and I traveled back to Dundas Bay to pack up our campsite and collect the kayaks we abandoned the previous evening. We were shuttled there from Gustavus by the same boat captain who dropped us off three days earlier, a forbiddingly taciturn commercial fisherman named Doug Ogilvy.
He asked if we had waders. We did not. So Ogilvy put on his, climbed down the ladder and told Dave to get on his back. Then stoically, like an ox or an old-timey strongman hauling a safe, he trudged through the thigh-high water, dropped Dave on the gravel beach, then lurched back and hauled me the same way, as if I were a man-size infant in a papoose. That is, he half-expected to find evidence that the accident had been fortuitous somehow, that there was a reason, or redemptive value, behind it.
My mother had the same instinct when I called her the night before. On the phone I strained to emphasize for her — she was only two years into her cruelly premature widowhood, and I was new at being the overprotective son of a widow — that Jon was going to be all right, and that Dave and I were safe. She told me that my dad must have been up there looking out for us somehow. I resented all the supernatural thinking. A tree fell in the woods. It might not have, but it did. As strange as it sounds, it was years before I realized that the tree could have hit me — and only after a friend pointed this out, as I told the story around a fire one night.
And it was only a few weeks ago, while on the phone with Jon, that it occurred to me that the tree could have hit all three of us — we were standing in a single-file line, after all, waiting to cross the creek — and that we all might have wound up clobbered and scattered in that river, dying slowly and watching each other die. And so, the real meaning of the accident, if I felt compelled to find one, might be that it validated my most exaggerated fears.
But instead, it somehow helped cleanse me of them. There was comfort for me in accepting the arbitrariness of what happened, in regarding it as a spasm of random damage in time and space that, just as randomly, a small number of human beings got the opportunity to repair. We were more capable than I had understood. We were also far more helpless. On the ride back to Gustavus with our gear, I pictured myself, again, as a small blip in empty space. The ride was rough and jumpy as Ogilvy impatiently pounded his boat through the last vestigial wave energy of the storm; Dave and I had to hold on, to plant ourselves on the bench behind him.
But there was a moment when I felt so safe that I loosened my grip, leaned slightly into the motion of the boat, and, closing my eyes, felt myself lift off the seat. Jon Mooallem is a writer at large for the magazine who is working on a book about the great Alaska earthquake of His last feature for the magazine was about our climatological future. Rick Steves can tell you how to avoid having your pocket picked on the subway in Istanbul.
He can tell you where to buy cookies from cloistered Spanish nuns on a hilltop in Andalusia. We were, at that moment, very much inside the Western Hemisphere, 4, miles west of Rome, inching through Manhattan in a hired black car. Steves was in the middle of a grueling speaking tour of the United States: 21 cities in 34 days. New York was stop No.
He had just flown in from Pittsburgh, where he had spent less than 24 hours, and he would soon be off to Los Angeles, Denver and Dallas. In his brief windows of down time, Steves did not go out searching for quaint restaurants or architectural treasures. He sat alone in his hotel rooms, clacking away on his laptop, working on new projects. His whole world, for the time being, had been reduced to a concrete blur of airports, hotels, lecture halls and media appearances. In this town car, however, rolling through Midtown, Steves was brimming with delight.
Man, oh, man! It was almost the opposite of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most recognizable structures in the world: a stretched stone cathedral. This was its unloved upriver cousin, a tangle of discolored metal, vibrating with cars, perpetually under construction. The car hit traffic and lurched to a stop. Steves paused to scan the street outside.
Then he refocused. This was correct. He reclines jauntily atop the cliffs of Dover and is vigorously scrubbed in a Turkish bath. The show has aired now for nearly 20 years, and in that time, among travelers, Steves has established himself as one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr.
Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird. Like them, Steves is a gentle soul who wants to help you feel at home in the world. Like them, he seems miraculously untouched by the need to look cool, which of course makes him sneakily cool. To the aspiring traveler, Steves is as inspirational as Julia Child once was to the aspiring home chef. You never knew exactly where his Rickniks as the hard-core fans call themselves would materialize en masse. Some Steves appearances were mobbed; others were sparse.
His appeal is slightly cultish. For every Ricknik out in the world, a large contingent of average people have no idea who he is. We arrived, however, to find the bookstore overflowing. A solid wave of applause met Steves at the door. Fans had been pouring in, the organizer told us, for two solid hours. People sat in the aisles and stood in the back. I noticed a group of hipster somethings standing near the back, and at first I assumed they had all come sarcastically. But as Steves began to speak, they grinned and laughed with absolute earnestness.
Everyone here was, apparently, a superfan. At one point, Steves showed a slide of tourists swimming in a sunny French river underneath a Roman aqueduct, and the whole crowd gasped. When he mentioned that his website featured a special video devoted to packing light for women, a woman in the crowd actually pumped her fist. At the end of his talk, Steves offered to sign books — but not in the traditional way. There were too many people for a signing table, he said, and anyway, single-file lines were always inefficient.
This is one of his travel credos: avoid waiting in line. Instead of sitting down, Steves walked out into the center of the room and invited everyone to open their books and surround him. He pulled out a Sharpie. And then he started to spin. Steves held out his pen and signed book after book after book, fluidly, on the move, smiling as the crowd pressed in. A woman asked him where to celebrate Christmas in Europe.
Steves, in midrotation, still signing furiously, told her that he had made a whole special about precisely that question and that it was available free on his website. As he spun, Steves thanked everyone and gave quick, off-the-cuff advice. In an astonishingly short time, he had signed every book. The people were satisfied. The crowd thinned. Steves finally came to a stop. Rick Steves is absolutely American. He wears jeans every single day. He drinks frozen orange juice from a can. He likes his hash browns burned, his coffee extra hot.
He has a great spontaneous honk of a laugh — it bursts out of him, when he is truly delighted, with the sharpness of a firecracker on the Fourth of July. Although Steves spends nearly half his life traveling, he insists, passionately, that he would never live anywhere but the United States — and you know when he says it that this is absolutely true. In fact, Steves still lives in the small Seattle suburb where he grew up, and every morning he walks to work on the same block, downtown, where his parents owned a piano store 50 years ago.
On Sundays, Steves wears his jeans to church, where he plays the congas, with great arm-pumping spirit, in the inspirational soft-rock band that serenades the congregation before the service starts, and then he sits down and sings classic Lutheran hymns without even needing to refer to the hymnal. Although Steves has published many foreign-language phrase books, the only language he speaks fluently is English. He built his business in America, raised his kids in America and gives frequent loving paeans to the glories of American life.
And yet: Rick Steves desperately wants you to leave America. The tiniest exposure to the outside world, he believes, will change your entire life. The more rootedly American you are, the more Rick Steves wants this for you. If you have never had a passport, if you are afraid of the world, if your family would prefer to vacation exclusively at Walt Disney World, if you worry that foreigners are rude and predatory and prone to violence or at least that their food will give you diarrhea, then Steves wants you — especially you — to go to Europe.
Then he wants you to go beyond. He wants you to stand and make little moaning sounds on a cobblestone street the first time you taste authentic Italian gelato — flavors so pure they seem like the primordial essence of peach or melon or pistachio or rice distilled into molecules and stirred directly into your own molecules. He wants you to hike on a dirt path along a cliff over the almost-too-blue Mediterranean, with villages and vineyards spilling down the rugged mountains above you. He wants you to arrive at the Parthenon at dusk, just before it closes, when all the tour groups are loading back onto their cruise ships, so that you have the whole place to yourself and can stand there feeling like a private witness to the birth, and then the ruination, of Western civilization.
Steves wants you to go to Europe for as long as you can afford to, and he also wants to help you afford it. Much of his guru energy is focused on cutting costs. Out of this paradoxical desire — the enlightenment of Americans through their extraction from America — Steves has built his quirky travel empire. His guidebooks, which started as hand-typed and photocopied information packets for his scraggly s tour groups, now dominate the American market; their distinctive blue-and-yellow spines brighten the travel sections of bookstores everywhere.
Steves is less interested in reaching sophisticated travelers than he is in converting the uninitiated. Steves teaches his followers everything from how to pack a toiletries kit to how to make themselves at home in a small hotel room to how to appreciate a religious tradition they may have been raised to despise. In order to enjoy St. He is simultaneously goofy and dead serious; he can ping, in an instant, from golly-gee Pollyanna cheerfulness to deep critiques of the modern world.
I can testify, firsthand, to the power of Rick Steves. In , he spoke at my college. Nothing about the encounter seemed promising. Our campus was a tiny outpost in a tiny town, and Steves delivered his talk not in some grand lecture hall but in a drab room in the basement of the student union. I was poor, shy, anxious, sheltered, repressed and extremely pale. I was a particular kind of Pacific Northwest white guy — blind to myself and my place in the world. I had never really traveled; I was more comfortable on Greyhound buses than on airplanes.
Going to Europe seemed like something aristocrats did, like fox hunting or debutante balls. My girlfriend dragged me to the talk. I had never even heard of Steves. But what he said over the next hour or so changed the rest of my life. He paces, gesticulates and speaks very fast.
He tells his favorite old jokes as if they were eternally new. Onstage, he is a combination of preacher, comedian, salesman, life-hacker, professor and inspirational speaker. Steves told us, that day, how to pack our entire lives into a single bag measuring 9 by 22 by 14 inches. The back door, by contrast, led to revelations. He showed us impossibly enticing photos: cobblestone piazzas teeming with fruit stalls, quirky wooden hotels among wildflowers in the Alps, vast arsenals of multicolored cheese.
He made travel seem less like a luxury than a necessary exploration of the self, a civic responsibility, a basic courtesy to your fellow humans. It seemed almost unreasonable not to go. Above all, Steves told us, do not be afraid. The people of the world are wonderful, and the planet we share is spectacular.
But the only way to really understand that is to go and see it for yourself. So go. My girlfriend and I left the room converts to the gospel of Rick Steves. We bought his book and highlighted it to near-meaninglessness. We started mapping itineraries, squirreling away money, asking relatives for donations. In probably the worst phone call of my life, my rancher grandfather expressed shock and dismay that I would ask him to support this meaningless overseas lark.
Eventually, over many months, we scraped together just enough to buy plane tickets and order minimalist Steves-approved supplies, including a travel towel so thin and nonabsorbent that it seemed to just push the moisture around your skin until you forgot you were wet.
We packed exactly as Steves taught us: T-shirts rolled into space-saving noodles, just enough clothes to get us from one hotel laundry session to the next. Then, for the first time in our lives, we left North America. When I opened it recently, the reality of that long-ago trip hissed out with fresh urgency. My year-old self recorded everything.
On our first day in Europe, we bought imported Austrian apples with fat, heavy English coins and saw a woman stumble on a staircase, breaking an entire bag of newly bought china. We arrived at our first hostel, the Y. As we tried to make out the names of the dead, songbirds sang strenuously in the trees all around us.
This juxtaposition — old death, new life — blew my jet-lagged American mind. Reality fills its gaps. That, more or less, was the theme of the trip. For six weeks, we followed the Steves game plan.