Chasing Life

Like many of his peers in outdoor adventuring—which include fellow Minnesotans like Ann Bancroft, Lonnie Dupre, and Will Steger—Buettner’s professional life has evolved to the point that he considers his main role to be less as an explorer and more as an educator. The Blue Zones quests are a case in point; in Okinawa, Buettner and his team of scientists, writers, and producers will not only be visiting a developed country, but for the first time they won’t be using bicycles to get around. In contrast to the younger man who was most interested in figuring out how to have someone pay him to travel for a living, his recent years have been spent guiding educational quests. “There was a certain sea change from wanting to be the adventurer to getting the thrill out of the education,” he said.

“For seven hundred years, ever since Marco Polo went to China, the way exploration worked was a group of people, usually men, went to a faraway part of the world and endured hardship and then they came back and they told us what they found, and we as an interested public could read their books or magazine articles,” Buettner said. He believes that there are not many “firsts” left for adventurers, and that exploration achievements are becoming more convoluted rather than impressive. “Most things that are billed as expeditions today amount to little more than a stunt,” he said. “I really believe that expeditions of the future, the ones that will make a difference, will do one or more of three things. They educate, they add to the body of knowledge, and increasingly they can convey a sense of adventure and discovery to people who don’t have the wherewithal or the inclination to get up and go.”

One of Buettner’s longtime collaborators is Jocelyn Hale, who is now a program manager for the Best Buy Children’s Foundation. She told me she can remember a clear point of transformation for Buettner. It was after he’d returned from his trip around the world east to west. He’d undertaken the expedition with a Soviet cyclist in the latter days of the Cold War, and it had become a cause célèbre in the media. Hale said, “He saw how much press he was getting and thought maybe there’s more he could do with these things, to make them richer and deeper experiences.” Thus was born the idea and the inspiration for AfricaTrek, which happened in the wake of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Buettner put together a symbolic team to cross Africa. It consisted of his brother, an African cyclist, and an African-American doctor. “It was to be a message of peace,” Hale said.

With the help of Jennifer Gasperini, who founded Hamline University’s Center for Global Environment Education after spearheading Will Steger’s educational outreach, Hale and Buettner worked with a map company to build a curriculum guide for students who could monitor AfricaTrek. The grueling trip succeeded on many levels. Much of the expedition was communicated back to the world via telephone (making use of one of the first demilitarized satellite phones available). Buettner eventually coproduced a television documentary about the trip for PBS; it won an Emmy award. “Ultimately, it was very cool for kids to follow. The kids’ response and teachers’ response were amazing,” said Hale. “There was great excitement for Dan in talking to thousands of school kids. That changed his life.”

The revelations coincided with the rise of the Internet, and Buettner understood early on that this was a technology that would revolutionize his work, allowing a new convergence of education and adventure for kids in classrooms. Hale said, “I think it was a natural progression that paralleled the path of what was happening in technology—and, at the same time, his development as a person.”

In 1995, at the dawn of the worldwide web, Buettner founded Earthtreks Inc., under which he led nine interactive quests over the next seven years. Under his “quest” model, he hires a team of experts, “the very best I can get—they’re usually the top in the world—who assume the position of an enlightened conduit.” Those members of the team are complemented by journalists who report to the online audience each day through articles and videos.

“Each expedition is based on a mystery,” he said. “It’s not based on seeing if we can get from point A to B; it’s seeing if we can solve a real problem or unravel a real mystery.” For example, MayaQuest, the first quest expedition, allowed kids in participating classrooms to solve a classic mystery: Why did ancient Mayan civilization collapse? In time, 1.3 million people, including students in thirty thousand classrooms, participated in the quests, which explored regions in East Africa, Australia, the old Silk Road in Central Asia, the Galapagos Islands, Greece, and Central America, among other places.

The newest Blue Zone expedition to Okinawa comes after a three-year hiatus, one that was not entirely voluntary. In 1997, Buettner sold Earthtreks Inc., to Classroom Connect, an educational software company, which was then bought by publisher Harcourt. According to Buettner, Harcourt decided to focus its investments on its principal textbook line rather than online education. “The writing was on the wall,” Buettner told me, “and I quit two months before my non-compete clause expired,” he said. Ever since, he has been busy raising his kids, helping to create an educational program for Minnesota Public Radio, speaking on the corporate and college lecture circuit, and writing as well as researching and planning the Blue Zones expeditions.

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