Chasing Life

Dan Buettner is best known as a writer and extreme adventurer who rode his bike around the world from east to west and from north to south through the Americas and Africa and Europe and Asia. He has crossed the roadless Sahara desert, numerous jungles, and active war zones. He has contracted dozens of diseases and hosted plenty of parasites. He has written three books, and has had his every move monitored by millions of schoolchildren. But Dan Buettner really got his start in croquet.

 

The first time I’d heard of Buettner, things were looking up for the crew of AfricaTrek, a record-setting bicycle trip from the Mediterranean Sea to the Cape of Good Hope. In April of 1993, the Star Tribune published one of its periodic dispatches from the trek, with this introduction: “They forded eighty bridgeless rivers, survived on roast monkey meat and bananas and gashed their legs crashing off muddy rainforest paths. Now the four men bicycling across Africa think the tough part is over.” But what stuck with me about this report was the account of a stretch through Zaire (now Congo), where dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule was violently crumbling, when the team’s wounds would not heal because of the intense humidity they were encountering. It sounded like pure hell.

Thirteen years later, at a coffee shop near Macalester College not far from where he lives, Buettner relayed even more gruesome outtakes from AfricaTrek. He enumerated the various parasites and sicknesses that caused the four riders to lose eighty pounds among them by the time they reached the Congo. He told me a horrifying story about seeing corpses on the highway while biking through Nigeria, where no drivers stopped to investigate or even move this “human roadkill.”

“I am not going to lie, it was hell, and if I had just been on my own doing it for fun, I would have quit,” he said, in a momentary departure from what one of his friends calls his ruthless optimism. “But when you make commitments, I think they really drive you through times of hardship. I had all these sponsors, I had a staff of people, I had all these classrooms following us along with CNN. Knowing we would let them let down if we quit—that was kind of our saving grace.”

Dan Buettner is forty-five years old, though he could pass for a decade younger. He’s the father of three kids ranging in age from elementary school to college. He typically dresses in a way that most baby boomers can no longer pull off. At the coffee shop, for example, he wore an ironed aquamarine shirt unbuttoned one button too far, with a beaded necklace threaded through a weathered Asian coin. But hey, I figure a guy who pushed his bike across the Sahara, which he calls “a sandbox the size of the United States,” is entitled to a lifetime’s worth of open shirts. On top of that, he dates seventies supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, who presumably requires some bold fashion choices from her companion. And that bauble around his neck? No doubt it’s a precious gift from a friend he made in some exotic, far-flung destination.

For Buettner, life gets more interesting as he gets older, and his most recent project is all about aging. “About two and a half years ago, I came across an article about baby boomers and how there were seventy million of them and every seven seconds another one turns fifty,” Buettner said. It occurred to him that these baby boomers, whose interests are shifting from the recreational drugs of their youth to prescription drugs like Prilosec and Cialis, would be interested in learning how to add a few years to their lives. He was able to enlist as sponsors and partners such respected organizations as the National Geographic Society, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to create what he calls the Blue Zones project.

Buettner says there are at least four regions on the planet that are demographically confirmed to lead their respective continents in life expectancy, in disability-free life expectancy (a measure of the quality of life in later years), or in concentration of centenarians. He has dubbed these regions “blue zones.”

This month, Buettner’s account of his initial visits to three blue zones—Okinawa Island in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, and the city of Loma Linda in California—will be published in National Geographic. Among other things, the work examines how the diet, lifestyle, spirituality, and social relations of people in these regions may hold clues to their longevity. (He declines to name the fourth blue zone at present.)

But the twelve-hundred-word article is only the beginning for Buettner. Starting October 31, he’ll be leading a new expedition back to Okinawa Island in Japan. It’s his first adventure in more than two years, and the first of four blue-zone educational “Quests” he’ll lead this and each subsequent fall (Sardinia is scheduled for 2006). This portion of his work is the real nut of the subject. He and his team of fourteen adventurers will spend ten days conducting intensive research and trying to learn more about how longevity works. Through his Blue Zones website, millions of students and interested adults will follow and supervise the quest.

In 1984, Buettner was a recent graduate of the University of St. Thomas who had returned from a year in Spain, where he had backpacked, discovered a latent talent for bike racing, and learned Spanish, among other things. As he describes it, he “blundered” into a dream job with National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. His assignment was to help the legendary literary editor and participatory journalist George Plimpton organize a celebrity croquet tournament. The event was a fundraiser for NPR but was backed by a developer in Boca Raton, Florida, who wanted to draw attention to a new development. Buettner helped recruit forty celebrities who were each paired with three big-dollar donors. Why croquet? “It was one of these sports that’s semi-aristocratic,” he said, adding that it required no special ability from either celebrity or donor.

Buettner cultivated a special knack for connecting the rich with the famous, and for getting his travel expenses paid. In addition to being flown regularly from Boca Raton to Washington to New York, where he was put up in the San Moritz Hotel, he also swung a deal where the tournament’s sponsors would fly him and several of his fellow organizers home every weekend. “But instead of saying that home was St. Paul, where it was freezing, we rented an apartment in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. So every weekend we’d get to fly to the Bahamas, and it was a fabulous experience!”

The life of the leisure class had fallen into his lap. “I think that, like most college graduates, I aspired to the same kind of life of wealth and ease that Americans generally strive for,” Buettner told me. “But this year was so wonderful to me. I got to ride around in limousines all week. We had an unlimited expense account, ate at the finest restaurants. And after nine months I was sick of it. I didn’t give a damn about nice restaurants—I mean, I wanted to go home and make a sandwich! I was living the life of someone who was fifty-six and very successful, so I had this wonderful opportunity to look ahead. It was almost like one of those Ebenezer Scrooge epiphanies where you see where you’re going to be in the future and see you don’t want to end up there. So you change your path.”

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