In the fall of 2006, news came across my yahoo home page that Steve Irwin had died. I was in my first big backpacking trek, riding the Eurail pass, drinking and eating my way through the European capitals.
In the early morning hours, I left the cramped room full of seven other snoring and butt scratching budget travelers and signed onto a shared computer in a quiet hostel in East Berlin. The keyboard had buttons with Spanish, German and English letters. After struggling to find the @ sign, I managed to log in to my first and still existent yahoo account. In those days, yahoo was king. It was like HuffPost, Buzzfeed and Google had a website baby.
The headline of that September morning was that the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ died filming on location in Australia. He died doing what he loved most, pursuing wild creatures to show viewers a glimpse of the world that is out there. A world the majority won’t and might not even want to see. A wild world, a world of crocodiles, orangutans, sharks, giant spiders, massive lizards, sluggish sloths and even those damned sting rays. I saw an episode where he jumped into a crocodile infested river in the dark with only his ubiquitous khaki outfit and a headlamp. The croc swam away! That croc probably could be heard exclaiming to its own reptilian camera crew, “Crikey, didya see that human? He came rawght afteh me!”
He was one of the heroes of my youth, among the incongruous others in the list such as Pee-Wee Herman, Mark Recchi, Chris Farley and Jack Kerouac. I loved watching animals and he seemed to put them at ease, almost telepathically informing them they were on TV and could go about their business after a quick picture. In 2005, I was working in my friends’ sandwich shop in Austin, TX, and every day after the lunch rush, Crocodile Hunter reruns came on. While sweeping up the cracked old floors and wiping off the scattered sesame seeds on the tables, I’d watch ol’ Steve take me far away from that repetitive grind to Australia’s outback, Indonesia’s forests, coral reefs, deserts or even Antarctica.
Steve Irwin revealed a world through his travels, but also with his personality. His passion was unmistakably clear. That feeling of having lost an enthusiastic soul, someone who took us out to show us what we were never going to see, came again last week with the passing of Anthony Bourdain.
He was a New Jersey punk, chef, writer, traveler and recently, an activist, all of which was on display in his globe-trotting semi-documentaries. Bourdain’s shows went way past the sparkling Greek islands and elegant restaurants of Rick Steves’ Europe. They had none of the blatant marketing of Samantha Brown’s check out this fancy hotel show. Even when strange food was presented, it wasn’t to be eaten like a dare a la Andrew Zimmern. Anthony Bourdain is a synonym for adventure and discovery. He looked comfortable in even the craziest situations. South Africans shouting at him, cooking on the Congo River with no lights, hunting in Scotland, he’s cool. Only the Tokyo robot show seemed to faze him, he looked like me at twelve watching A Clockwork Orange.
While reading all the memorials on the internet, I saw one quote that collected my feelings. It came from N.Y. Times travel writer Lucas Peterson: “And if success, respect from your colleagues, getting to eat your way around the world and generally just being the coolest person on the planet doesn’t guarantee happiness, what hope do the rest of us have?” That’s what got me. I know outwardly having it all doesn’t fix the metaphorical inner void that feels so real, but damn. It’s heartbreaking when we see people who give so much of themselves, who in the end, seem to have given so much, there was an insuperable emptiness left at the end of the day. Yet, his terminal sadness won’t be what I remember about him.
Reading Bourdain’s graphic Kitchen Confidential while working in a restaurant made me feel like a soldier among the heat of the ovens or battling the thick steam of the dish room, proud of my working sweat, earning that six pack after work. His shows were always DVR’d on my TV. I’m not sure if there was a conscious notion of wanting to travel because of his show, but it definitely made it seem possible.
He didn’t like particular things or people. I thought that was so cool even when I disagreed with him. He spoke candidly. I’m too Libra balanced to let a situation get awkward. He ate everything. I still don’t think I’d eat live octopus, chicken feet or escargot. He wrote in his voice. I write like it’s for a good grade. My natural jealousy and envy of his work was tempered by knowing how hard travel can be, especially the places he went. But, I always respected him. I respected his reporting from the forgotten corners of the globe. I respected his food knowledge, his ability to talk to anyone and his pure joy of a simple thing like a bowl of noodles.
I was in Vietnam. My crappy hostel had no A/C, so I was up at the heat of sunrise. Marching out with my backpack for a long day of who knows what, I stopped at a street stall and order Pho Bo, beef with noodles. I sat on the small plastic stool, motorbikes whizzing past my table kicking up yesterday’s dust, and I took that first bite. Memorable. So are you my man.