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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.


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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? Not much.


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  • Nothing I would remember. In his house, Steves offered up a little show and tell. 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.

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    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.

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    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.

    Steves laughed. 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. 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.

    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.

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    In his 20s, Steves brought his wide-roaming wisdom back to the United States. He started to supplement his piano teaching with travel seminars. His signature class, European Travel Cheap, ran for six hours. Steves could have talked longer than that, but it struck him as impractical for his students. In Europe, he rented a nine-seat minibus and started to lead small tours.

    Eventually, his seminars and tour notes morphed into his books. It had no ISBN and looked so amateurish that bookstores assumed it was an early review copy. This was the birth of the Rick Steves empire. Rick Steves both is and is not his TV persona. Offscreen, he allows himself to be much more explicitly political. He has the passion of the autodidact. Growing up, Steves led a relatively sheltered existence: He was a white, comfortable, middle-class baby boomer in a white, comfortable, middle-class pocket of America.

    Travel did for him what he promises it will do for everyone else: It put him in contact with other realities. He saw desperate poverty in Iran and became obsessed with economic injustice. He studied the war industry and colonial exploitation. In the early days, Steves injected political lessons into his European tours. Sometimes he would arrive in a city with no hotel reservations, just to make his privileged customers feel the anxiety of homelessness. In Munich, he would set up camp in an infamous hippie circus tent, among all the countercultural wanderers of Europe.

    Today, Steves is more strategic. His most powerful tool, he realizes, is his broad appeal. He has an uncanny knack for making serious criticism feel gentle and friendly. But other nations have some pretty good ideas too. Steves learned this strategy, he said, from his early days running tours, living with the same people for weeks at a time.


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    Survival required being pleasant. Instead, he pointed out different perspectives with a smile. He became fluent in the needs of American tourists. I want to preach to organizations that need to hear this, so I need to compromise a little bit so the gatekeepers let it through to their world. This balancing act has become increasingly difficult over the past two decades, in a world of terrorism, war, nationalism and metastasizing partisanship.

    After the Sept. They canceled tours and cut back budgets. Steves, however, remained defiantly optimistic. He promised his staff that there would be no cuts, no layoffs and no shift in message. He insisted that a world in crisis needed travel more, not less. Soon the shock of Sept. In his hometown, Steves caused a controversy when he walked around removing rows of American flags that had been set up in support of the war.

    It was, he argued, an act of patriotism: The flag is meant to represent all Americans, not just war supporters. Lately, Steves concedes, his political message has begun to take over his teaching.