Rick Steves, author of dozens of Europe guidebooks, host of nationally syndicated TV and radio travel shows, owner of an 80-person company, and even a crusader for drug-policy reform, is currently engaged in something he's never done in his 56 years: an American road trip.
Officially, it's to help public broadcasters raise money, and as such he's giving a travel talk in Memphis on behalf of WKNO on Saturday. (Tickets for the event are sold out.)
But Steves does something like this every year, what he calls his "10 cities in 10 days tour," jetting around to major markets and then returning to his headquarters near Seattle. This time, though, it's by car — 20 talks in 20 days — and he's going to smaller cities like Grand Junction, Lincoln, and Tallahassee.
In fact, something else Steves thinks he has never done: visit Memphis. He even admitted at the onset of a phone interview that he gets Memphis and Nashville confused.
"It's pathetic how little I know about the United States. That's a big reason I'm doing this: It's time for me to get out and see my own country."
What he does know is Europe, perhaps better than anyone, and the benefits of travel in general. And he has a message for you, wherever you live: Quit being comfortable at home; get out there and be an honest bumpkin on the road.
"You can go to Orlando the rest of your life on vacation and not learn very much," he says. "There's nothing wrong with Orlando, but if you never see Morocco or Belize, it's such a shame. A lot of people are not encouraged by the world they live in to get out of their comfort zones. The free spirits who do are so thankful, and their whole existence becomes carbonated with the experience of being the odd one and seeing that different people have different dreams." One of his favorite quotes is from Thomas Jefferson: "Travel makes us wiser and less happy." This is where the conversation — and, often, his talks — turn to politics.
"The U.S. leads the world in self-evident and God-given truths," Steves says. "But it's so beneficial to the whole world if we get out there and realize that reasonable people have different ideas and different dreams."
"Fear," he likes to say, "is for people who don't get out much."
Speaking of politics, even longtime readers, watchers, and listeners might not realize that Steves is a major advocate for the legalization of marijuana. He's co-sponsoring a ballot initiative in his home state of Washington to legalize, regulate, and tax pot, and he's pausing in the middle of this road trip to give the keynote at a drug-policy conference in Houston. He also bought a 24-unit apartment building in Washington and runs it as a shelter for homeless mothers.
He says that such ideas come from years of being a "bumpkin" in Europe: remaining open to the experience of others and realizing that reasonable people can look at the same situations and come up with reasonable, but different, solutions.
"Be wide-eyed and curious," he says, in a common refrain. "Don't try to be a sophisticate when you're not. If somebody is really enthusiastic and wants to share something with you, they're not saying they're better than you; they're just excited to share something with you."
Rick Steves' Europe airs on WKNO-TV Channel 10 Sundays at 1 p.m.