Chasing Life

George Plimpton also played a role in Buettner’s redirection. Plimpton, who died in 2003, made a career out of creating unique opportunities for himself, such as playing for the Detroit Lions and sparring with a professional boxer, and then writing about them. He helped Buettner to think about what made for an interesting life. “I call him the thinking man’s Walter Mitty,” said Buettner.

With these new insights and with the tournament over, Buettner dropped his earlier plans to go to law school. Instead, he dreamed up the idea of bicycling from Minnesota to the southernmost tip of Argentina. The tournament also taught Buettner a thing or two about how publicity could net sponsors for an event, so he inquired with the people at the Guinness Book of World Records about whether they would consider this a world-record ride. They told him no, but that a bike trip from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego would be. With that, Buettner began a series of cycling feats that included 15,536 miles traversing the Americas north to south in 1986-1987; 12,888 miles around the width of the world in 1991; and 12,172 miles down the length of Africa, from the Mediterranean to the Cape, in 1992-1993.

The motivations for explorers and adventurers are complex, but many of these sojourners are solitary types who may be as driven to get away from society as they are drawn to wilderness. Obtaining sponsorships is often their least favorite part of the job, and the speaking tours and even the educational components can appear to be necessary evils in facilitating expeditions. By contrast, Buettner is gregarious and a consummate salesman, and this aptitude serves him well in arranging sponsors for his adventures. For example, he recently secured the support of Davisco Foods in Le Sueur, Minnesota, a whey-based products company, which is allowing him to offer the Blue Zones curriculum free to any classroom that wants to participate in the quest. (Previous quests had cost one hundred dollars per classroom.)

“Dan is a great storyteller who is really good at charming people over dinner,” according to Sarah Kast, his assistant at Blue Zones, who told me that he often returns with a sponsorship check. The connection between making a pitch and traveling emerged when Buettner was a teenager selling newspaper subscriptions door to door. “I found out I had a knack for it,” he said. “I was fourteen and the paperboy was making three dollars each week delivering papers. I was making seventy-five dollars a night selling subscriptions. They’d also award the top sellers a trip, and every year I won. I ended up going to Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Spain.”

Buettner’s appetite for travel and adventure was not exactly new. “I was fortunate to have a dad who, instead of taking us to Disneyworld, would take us up into the mountains for four weeks,” Buettner said. “Or he would take us up into the Boundary Waters for weeks at a time every year.” Although Buettner’s eleven-year-old daughter, Irene, recently declined to come to Okinawa with him for fear of missing too much school, Buettner takes his kids on some of the travels he writes about, and is proud of his eldest son’s adventuring tendencies. (Dan Buettner-Salido is mountaineering in Colorado on break from school at the University of Colorado at Boulder.)

But it was the overseas trips on the newspaper’s dime that truly planted the travel bug within Buettner (he would contract many other bugs later) and first got him dreaming that he might be able to travel for a living one day. “I was in Spain’s Costa del Sol. It was my senior year in high school on one of these newspaper company trips. I was waking up on this sunny morning and back here in Minnesota it was ten below and I said, ‘I want to do this!’”

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