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The Travel Evangelist 

by MARY STOVER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & few years ago, I had one of those rare "holy crap!" moments when I ran into travel writer Rick Steves at the Blarney Castle in Ireland. I was on a tour, surrounded by Australians and East Coast Yanks, apparently the only one in the group enthralled with seeing Steves at this popular tourist spot so very far from home. There he was with his film crew, at the base of the castle, practicing his script for a new PBS show. I was gagging to have my picture taken with him, so a few newfound friends volunteered to pull out cameras and oblige me. It was completely surreal; his arm around me, Steves spent the entire time memorizing his lines, repeating them over and over, in that annoyingly over-enunciated speech pattern of his.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Rick Steves again. He was here to conduct a travel seminar for KSPS, and I was lucky enough to get a pass to the meet-and-greet beforehand.

This was NOT the man I met in Ireland. This was a travel evangelist, well versed, extremely knowledgeable about politics, and funny. Later, during his lecture to a crowd of several hundred, Steves spoke about packing light, avoiding unnecessary items like travelers' checks, and how to develop a trip itinerary --"Why get diarrhea early? Go to the less-challenging places first."

When you're excited about something, the way I'm excited about travel, the chance to meet and speak with someone who is living the dream can be overwhelming... and if anyone knows travel, it's Rick Steves. It's his way of life, and he wants everyone to join him on the journey.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o many people have adopted Steves' vision that he's become rich and famous. And for a guy with such liberal views, he's a helluva capitalist. His shows on exploring Europe have been viewed by millions and are available on DVD. His guides and travel books are some of the most popular in the nation. His company, Europe Through the Back Door, guides hundreds of tours every year. He bankrolls his own weekly public radio travel program (with a little help from American Airlines). He writes a weekly newspaper column and has his own Website. The man has been featured on 60 Minutes. He's living the American dream. MY dream.

Steves has grown more comfortable with his stature. He is the new guru of travel and has leeway to say what he wants. And when he talks, people listen. Need proof? See how many people in this audience are holding his guidebooks. Steves' KSPS disciples pledged more than $80,000 in membership fees during his six-hour stint on the station a few weeks ago.

He's got a strong political platform, and he's now comfortable preaching it. "I love my country, but we're on the wrong track," he says. "Most people in Europe like Americans, but they hate our leaders. They think that the U.S. government is screwing up overseas. And I think that's hurting our country.

"If you care about your loved ones, take them to Europe," he counsels. "The less we travel, the greater the risk is going to be. Don't let terrorism keep you away from travel. Europeans are still thankful for what we did in freeing them from communism and fascism. They are happy to see us abroad and are shocked that, as Americans, we feel safer at home, rather than abroad."

Aside from encouraging travel, Steves also persuades his audience to think more open-mindedly about those from less-familiar cultural or religious backgrounds.

"You owe it to yourself to look at Islam," he says.

Unlike many other guides, Steves encourages travel to Turkey. Aside from the money-saving buys, it can be what he calls the "cherry on top of a European vacation." While many would avoid such a place because of rumor or past disturbances, he says adventure and experience await those who would consider a new destination, path, or idea.

Getting people to travel doesn't always earn Steves money, make his name more popular, or offer him any incentives -- rather, the man sincerely believes in the power of travel and the expansion of ideals and memories because of a new travel experience.

So the next time you see him on TV, describing in vivid over-enunciated detail all that is Europe, think about what you could be missing. Underneath the geeky exterior lies a man whose mission in life is to get you off your couch and out of the country. A man after my own heart.

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