The Human Experience: Navigating the Seas of Consciousness - with Study Guide

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About two years after the accident, he learned he had PTSD. It manifested as a kind of unbearable empathy for anyone who was suffering. He would hear interviews with natural-disaster victims or the homeless on NPR and have to pull his car over. There continued to be other tribulations, too — more mundane ones. A few times a year, he still rebreaks a rib out of nowhere; once or twice, Jon told me, all it has taken is an especially affectionate hug from his wife.

Jon found early on that he could cordon off this suffering, both in his own mind and in conversation, by making jokes about the accident itself and sticking to the happy ending of our rescue, a trick that got much easier after the National Geographic show aired later that year.


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The soundtrack was all heart-thwacking synth drums and shredding guitar. Initially, the schlockiness of the production felt like a blessing.


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The show depersonalized the accident, giving us all a shorthand to convey how dramatic that day had been, without confronting how destabilizing and senseless it might have felt. But we never realized the degree to which that kitschy shorthand started to obscure the real story — then, gradually, to replace it.

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The morning after the accident, Dave and I traveled back to Dundas Bay to pack up our campsite and collect the kayaks we abandoned the previous evening. We were shuttled there from Gustavus by the same boat captain who dropped us off three days earlier, a forbiddingly taciturn commercial fisherman named Doug Ogilvy. He asked if we had waders.

We did not. So Ogilvy put on his, climbed down the ladder and told Dave to get on his back. Then stoically, like an ox or an old-timey strongman hauling a safe, he trudged through the thigh-high water, dropped Dave on the gravel beach, then lurched back and hauled me the same way, as if I were a man-size infant in a papoose. That is, he half-expected to find evidence that the accident had been fortuitous somehow, that there was a reason, or redemptive value, behind it. My mother had the same instinct when I called her the night before. On the phone I strained to emphasize for her — she was only two years into her cruelly premature widowhood, and I was new at being the overprotective son of a widow — that Jon was going to be all right, and that Dave and I were safe.

She told me that my dad must have been up there looking out for us somehow. I resented all the supernatural thinking. A tree fell in the woods. It might not have, but it did. As strange as it sounds, it was years before I realized that the tree could have hit me — and only after a friend pointed this out, as I told the story around a fire one night.

And it was only a few weeks ago, while on the phone with Jon, that it occurred to me that the tree could have hit all three of us — we were standing in a single-file line, after all, waiting to cross the creek — and that we all might have wound up clobbered and scattered in that river, dying slowly and watching each other die. And so, the real meaning of the accident, if I felt compelled to find one, might be that it validated my most exaggerated fears.

But instead, it somehow helped cleanse me of them. There was comfort for me in accepting the arbitrariness of what happened, in regarding it as a spasm of random damage in time and space that, just as randomly, a small number of human beings got the opportunity to repair. We were more capable than I had understood. We were also far more helpless. On the ride back to Gustavus with our gear, I pictured myself, again, as a small blip in empty space. The ride was rough and jumpy as Ogilvy impatiently pounded his boat through the last vestigial wave energy of the storm; Dave and I had to hold on, to plant ourselves on the bench behind him.

But there was a moment when I felt so safe that I loosened my grip, leaned slightly into the motion of the boat, and, closing my eyes, felt myself lift off the seat. Jon Mooallem is a writer at large for the magazine who is working on a book about the great Alaska earthquake of His last feature for the magazine was about our climatological future. Rick Steves can tell you how to avoid having your pocket picked on the subway in Istanbul. He can tell you where to buy cookies from cloistered Spanish nuns on a hilltop in Andalusia.

We were, at that moment, very much inside the Western Hemisphere, 4, miles west of Rome, inching through Manhattan in a hired black car. Steves was in the middle of a grueling speaking tour of the United States: 21 cities in 34 days.

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New York was stop No. He had just flown in from Pittsburgh, where he had spent less than 24 hours, and he would soon be off to Los Angeles, Denver and Dallas.


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In his brief windows of down time, Steves did not go out searching for quaint restaurants or architectural treasures. He sat alone in his hotel rooms, clacking away on his laptop, working on new projects. His whole world, for the time being, had been reduced to a concrete blur of airports, hotels, lecture halls and media appearances.

In this town car, however, rolling through Midtown, Steves was brimming with delight. Man, oh, man! It was almost the opposite of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most recognizable structures in the world: a stretched stone cathedral. This was its unloved upriver cousin, a tangle of discolored metal, vibrating with cars, perpetually under construction. The car hit traffic and lurched to a stop. Steves paused to scan the street outside.

Then he refocused. This was correct. He reclines jauntily atop the cliffs of Dover and is vigorously scrubbed in a Turkish bath. The show has aired now for nearly 20 years, and in that time, among travelers, Steves has established himself as one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.

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Like them, Steves is a gentle soul who wants to help you feel at home in the world. Like them, he seems miraculously untouched by the need to look cool, which of course makes him sneakily cool. To the aspiring traveler, Steves is as inspirational as Julia Child once was to the aspiring home chef. You never knew exactly where his Rickniks as the hard-core fans call themselves would materialize en masse.

Some Steves appearances were mobbed; others were sparse. His appeal is slightly cultish. For every Ricknik out in the world, a large contingent of average people have no idea who he is. We arrived, however, to find the bookstore overflowing. A solid wave of applause met Steves at the door. Fans had been pouring in, the organizer told us, for two solid hours.

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People sat in the aisles and stood in the back. I noticed a group of hipster somethings standing near the back, and at first I assumed they had all come sarcastically. But as Steves began to speak, they grinned and laughed with absolute earnestness. Everyone here was, apparently, a superfan. At one point, Steves showed a slide of tourists swimming in a sunny French river underneath a Roman aqueduct, and the whole crowd gasped. When he mentioned that his website featured a special video devoted to packing light for women, a woman in the crowd actually pumped her fist.

At the end of his talk, Steves offered to sign books — but not in the traditional way. There were too many people for a signing table, he said, and anyway, single-file lines were always inefficient. This is one of his travel credos: avoid waiting in line.

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