Adventure in Cyberspace
More than a million students followed Buettner's five-week trek down the Amazon River last October. It was his 12th journey worldwide since he started the interactive expeditions with a visit to Mayan ruins in Guatemala six years ago. In the process he has set three Guinness World Records for long distance cycling. And he won an Emmy for a PBS documentary on his 272-day trek across Africa eight years ago. "I let kids see what's out there, what they can do, the impact they can have," he says. "I try to teach and inspire them. And I have a great time, an adventure, doing it."
Born in St. Paul, Buettner, 41, the oldest of four brothers, grew up in a family that stressed education and adventure. His father, Roger, 66, was a teacher and assistant superintendent of the city's school district; his mother, Dolly, 63, then a homemaker, earned a college degree in business and finance at age 50. Summers were spent outdoors. "My father would load us up and take us canoeing or into the mountains for weeks at a time," Buettner says.
After graduating from the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic college in St. Paul, in 1983, Buettner hit the road. He spent two years in Europe and came back ready to ride: a long-distance bicycle trip from Alaska to Argentina, a record-breaking 15,500 miles in all. "That first trip was a lark," he says. "I wanted to travel. After that, I realized that this was a way of life for me, not caprice." He soon discovered he could make money at it, getting both corporate grants and speaking engagements. "If you set a world record in endurance, you have an entrée to speak on many subjects—motivation, goal setting, physical fitness, lots of things," he says.
His early expeditions tended to be connected to world events. He rode his bicycle across the Soviet Union as it was collapsing and across Africa with a mixed-race crew just after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992. By then he had married Rafaela Salido—now 42 and a Spanish teacher in St. Paul—whom he met while studying in Spain during his junior year in college. The couple recently divorced and now share custody of their three children—Daniel, 14, Irene, 7, and Rafael, 4. He plans to take them to the Yucatan in January. "I want to show them caves you can swim in and wonderful ruins," he says. "It will be great."
In 1993 a California company called Classroom.com persuaded him to use his globetrotting experiences to teach earth sciences, geography and social studies to students from kindergarten on up. During the trips, Buettner and his six-member team beam videos and kid-oriented feature stories to classrooms via two portable satellite dishes. He also poses ethical questions he calls Dan's dilemmas—Should he give money to child beggars? Should he return an artifact he found?—and lets the kids vote electronically. "We give kids control over their learning environment," he says. "We've been surprised many times by what the kids decide."
By all accounts, his students are hooked. "It's really an interesting way to learn," says Katie Moss, 12, a seventh grader at Cyber Village who has followed three of the treks. "It's a personal connection." Teachers agree. "He goes out of his way to bring information and critical thinking opportunities to kids," says Cherie Neima, a teacher at Cyber Village. "He literally goes the extra mile for kids."
How other cultures survive is the big picture that Buettner hopes to get across. "These indigenous cultures have so much to teach us. We're just the conduits," says Buettner, whose next trip will be to Greece in February. "It's kids who will make the difference on these issues over time."
Mary Powers in Lima, Peru, and Margaret Nelson in St. Paul