The Adventures T-Man 1: Stories Of A U.S. Treasure Agent
I had come in the middle of his breakfast preparations. He was stirring a block of frozen orange juice into a pitcher of water.
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This was April , exactly 20 years after my first trip to Europe. I had come to see Steves in the most exotic place possible: his home. He lives just north of Seattle, in a town so rainy it has a free umbrella-share program. There is nothing particularly exotic about the house itself. It has beige carpeting, professionally trimmed shrubs and a back deck with a hot tub.
What was exotic was simply that Steves was there. He had just returned from his frenetic speaking tour of the United States and would be leaving almost immediately on his annual trip to Europe. For now, he was making breakfast: frozen blueberries, Kashi cereal, O. But of course, he could not. Steves is gone too much, yo-yoing between the misty forests of the Pacific Northwest and the sun-baked cathedrals of Europe. Every year, no matter what else is going on, Steves spends at least four months practicing the kind of travel he has preached for odd years: hauling his backpack up narrow staircases in cheap hotels, washing his clothes in sinks, improvising picnics.
He is now 63, and he could afford to retire many times over. Among his colleagues, Steves is a notorious workaholic. On long car rides, he sits in the back seat and types op-eds on his laptop. His relentless hands-on control of every aspect of his business is what has distinguished the Rick Steves brand.
It is also, obviously, exhausting — if not for Steves, then at least for the people around him. He has two children, now grown, and for much of their childhoods, Steves was gone. He was building his company, changing the world.
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For very long stretches, his wife was forced to be a single mother. She and Steves divorced in after 25 years of marriage. Every summer, when the family joined Steves in Europe, his pace hardly slackened: They would cover major cities in 48 hours, blitzing through huge museums back to back. The kids complained so much, on one trip, that Steves finally snapped — if they were so miserable, he said, they could just go sit in the hotel room all day and play video games. They remember this day as heaven.
One year, while Steves was away, the children converted to Catholicism.
His son, Andy Steves, eventually went into the family business: He now works as a tour guide and even published a European guidebook. Steves is fully aware that his obsessive work ethic is unusual. He admits that he has regrets. But he cannot make himself stop. He has the fervor of the true evangelist: The more people he meets, the more cities he visits, the more lives he might change. At one point, as we talked, he pulled out the itinerary for his coming trip — from Sicily to Iceland, with no down time whatsoever.
Just looking at it made him giddy. What would I do if I stayed home?
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Not much. Nothing I would remember. In his house, Steves offered up a little show and tell.
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He pointed out an antique silver cigarette lighter shaped like the Space Needle. He sat down at his baby grand piano and lost himself, for a few happy minutes, playing Scarlatti. He took me to a room filled with books and reached up to a very high shelf. When Steves was 13, he decided, for no apparent reason, to conduct a deep statistical analysis of the Billboard pop charts.
The lines were multicolored and interwoven — it looked like the subway map of some fantastical foreign city. You could see, at a glance, the rising and falling fortunes of the Beatles red and Creedence Clearwater Revival black and Elvis Presley dots and dashes. Steves kept this up for three years, taping together many pieces of graph paper, and in the end he summarized the data in an authoritative-looking table that he typed on the family typewriter. This is what was in that binder: a systematic breakdown of the most successful bands from to , as determined by the objective statistics of an analytical adolescent weirdo.
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It was ridiculous. But it was also a perfect window into his mind. Even at 13, a powerful energy was coiled inside him — an unusual combination of obsession and precision, just waiting for some worthwhile project to burst out in. And that, coincidentally, was exactly when he found it: the project of his life. In the summer of , when Steves was 14, his parents took him to Europe. They owned a business tuning and importing pianos, and they wanted to see factories firsthand. Steves approached this first trip abroad with the same meticulous energy he brought to his Billboard graphs.
As he traveled around the continent, he recorded the essential data of his journey on the backs of postcards: locations, activities, weather, expenses. One day, Steves spent 40 cents on fishing gear. Another, he met a year-old man who had witnessed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. To keep everything in order, Steves numbered the postcards sequentially. He still has them all packed lovingly into an old wooden box.
go On that same formative trip, the Steves family visited relatives in Norway. They happened to be there in July , when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Europe was a crash course in cultural relativity. In a park in Oslo, he had an epiphany: The foreign humans around him, he realized, were leading existences every bit as rich and full as his own. That first trip set the course for everything that followed. When Steves was 18, he went back to Europe without his parents. Soon, life in America became a series of interludes between travel. He taught piano to earn money, then stretched that money as far as he possibly could, sleeping on church pews and park benches, in empty barns and construction zones, from Western Europe to Afghanistan.
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He turned his cheapness into a science. Instead of paying for a hotel room in a city, Steves would use his Railpass and sleep on a train for the night — four hours out, four hours back. He would stuff himself on free breakfast bread, then try to eat as little as possible for the rest of the day. Naturally, he recorded all this, and today he has an impressive archive of old travel journals. Their pages preserve, in tiny handwriting, shadowy young dissidents in Moscow, diarrhea in Bulgaria, revolution in Nicaragua.
In his 20s, Steves brought his wide-roaming wisdom back to the United States.