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The accomplishment gave him not only the adventure he craved, but also the platform to build the Dan Buettner brand. People loved his stories of pedaling through Alaskan wilderness and Mexican fishing villages. Buettner milked the public-speaking circuit and found that he could work one day a month and make $900. With a low overhead because he still lived with his parents, that was all the money he needed.
In 1990, Buettner embarked on a second record-setting tour, this time 12,888 miles around the world via the Soviet Union. He wrote a book about the journey, winning a Minnesota Book Award.
By his third trek in 1992, Buettner had passed the age of 30 and wanted his travels to have more existential meaning. South Africa was still gripped by apartheid, so Buettner and his brother Steve decided to cycle the length and width of Africa—12,172 miles—with a multiracial team, including Chip Thomas, an African American doctor. F.W. de Klerk, president of South Africa, said the cyclists would be welcomed with open arms.
The trek across Africa was grueling. The cyclists pedaled for days on washboard roads and rutted mud, sometimes through war zones and often on no more fuel than bananas.
"As we were cycling south through Algeria, we heard all sorts of stories about travelers being kidnapped and killed," Thomas says.
When they reached one South African town, Buettner got off his bike and pulled out his map, as was the team's custom. A group of men circled him. One pulled out a club and whacked Buettner over the head. Buettner fell to the ground but managed to whip out his pepper spray and fend off his attackers. He ran to his bike and pedaled away as fast as he could as the men pelted him with rocks.
"That was scary," Buettner says.
Steve captured the trip and its emotions on a Hi8 camera, and Buettner's team kept in touch with students from 50,000 schools across the country via CNN and newsletter. Teachers used the expedition to teach the children about geography and social studies. Buettner wrote a book and produced an Emmy-winning documentary.
In 1995, Buettner and his brother Steve formed an educational company. Buettner would travel the globe in search of answers to the world's greatest mysteries, and his quests would be beamed into classrooms via satellite and the internet. Schoolchildren could participate in real time by telling the explorers where to go.
Buettner spent the next several years probing the fall of the ancient Maya, exploring humanity's origins in Africa, re-tracing Darwin's route through the Galapagos, and following Marco Polo's trail over the Silk Road. When Buettner sold the company in 1997, he made enough to buy his home on Lake of the Isles, where real estate runs in the millions.
"I do have a charmed life," Buettner says. "I was supposed to be a fireman in Roseville. You know, it's a result of strategic serendipity more than just dumb luck. I think you create your own charm when it comes to life."
IN 1998, Buettner was speaking at an education and technology conference in California when a woman from Japan approached him. Her company wanted him to do an educational quest for schoolchildren in Japan—would he be interested?
Buettner blew her off. But a few weeks later, the woman hopped a plane with three of her colleagues and flew to Minnesota to get Buettner's attention. It worked.
"The first thing I had to do was find an interesting mystery," Buettner recalls. "We looked at ancient bronze-age culture. They were all too esoteric."
Buettner stumbled upon his next obsession when his brother Nick turned up a World Health Organization report that said Okinawa Island had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world.
"I said, 'That's a good mystery.'"
In the spring of 2000, Buettner stood behind a low-roofed home in the tiny fishing village of Ogimi as 99-year-old Ushi Okushima showed him the herbs growing in her terraced garden. Under her gentle care, ginger, turmeric, and wild onion flourished.
Over steaming cups of green tea shared on tatami mats inside her simple home, Buettner had pestered Ushi to show him her plants. He was convinced that some exotic herb growing innocuously behind the house held the key to Ushi's longevity.
"Yes, I do have longevity foods," Ushi told him.
Now, in the garden, Buettner pointed at a wild-looking herb. "Is this it?"
"No," Ushi said.
"No, it's in the house, I'll show you later," Ushi said.
She waddled back into the house to the pantry, which held her secret to long life: a can of Spam.
Buettner laughed. Like him, the Spam had come to her all the way from Minnesota.
Everywhere, people were interested in longevity. Buettner could see it in the Web traffic following the Okinawa longevity quest. "It wasn't just kids anymore," he says. "There were dot-coms and dot-nets. So we knew that adults were interested in this."
When Buettner suggested a story on longevity hotspots to an editor at National Geographic, it was greeted with excitement.
"Now there you've got something," the editor said, urging him to do more research.