EVERYWHERE — First, take out a map of the world.
Next, stick a pin in every country.
What does that tell you?
It tells you where Stephen Negler has been for the past 30 years.
Technically, Stephen is a resident of Farmington, where he owns a home and gets his mail. But in reality, his address is planet Earth.
Ever since he retired from the Air Force in 1984 with a full pension at the age of 44, he’s roamed the world, visiting this corner and that, sometimes staying a day, sometimes a month. Slowly but surely he took it all in, culminating two weeks ago when he stepped off an airplane in Tel Aviv, Israel, the final destination, and checked it off his list.
Of the 195 countries officially recognized by the United States State Department, he’d now been to all 195.
He celebrated by taking a long, pleasant walk in the Israeli countryside, his customary way of seeing scenery up close and personal, and by allowing himself a satisfying exhale.
“Well,” he remembered thinking, “no matter what happens now, if I get caught by terrorists or what, I did it.”
On his return to Utah last week, he expected to get off Delta Airlines flight 462 at the airport, take the shuttle bus to his car, and enjoy a leisurely drive home to Farmington. But his sister Lindsey had other ideas. She rounded up family and friends, got them to take time off from work or school, and positioned everyone at the bottom of the escalator next to baggage claim.
Utah’s Marco Polo never saw it coming.
“Hey, Stephen! Congratulations!” they shouted as his great nieces Ami and Mia held “You’re #1” helium balloons high in the air.
As Lindsey hugged Stephen, bystanders looking on wondered who this smiling, fit, 74-year-old man was and where he might be coming from.
They had no idea.
* * *
The quest started out innocently. Thirty years ago when Major Negler retired from the Air Force, single and free to move about the world as he pleased, he decided the first thing he wanted to do was indulge his passion for climbing mountains. With a little help from his military pension and a lot of help from mutual funds investments that hit the jackpot, he traveled to some of the world’s most enticing tall mountains.
He climbed to the top of Aconcagua in the Andes, he summited Kilimanjaro in Africa, he scaled the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador, he trekked at 20,000 feet on the flanks of Mount Everest in the Himalayas.
All this climbing got him to many countries. One day he idly started counting just how many in his head. He’d been in over 60 countries. He was still a young man. What if ...?
And so it began. His goal: to visit every country on Earth. If the State Department said it was a country, he was going there.
Ever since he’s checked them off. Six one year, three the next, a dozen the next. During one stretch he hiked the length of Europe, from south to north, knocking off 200 miles or so every year for six straight years. In 1998 he traveled through every country in Central America, in 2008 he made his way through western Africa, and so forth.
He was always revising his list. When the Soviet Union broke up, it gave him 16 new countries to visit. When Yugoslavia dissolved it gave him five new ones. When South Sudan seceded from Sudan three years ago it meant another trip to Africa.
He saved Israel for last because some Muslim countries will not let you in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.
Sometimes he traveled with organized tours — it’s how he got into places like Cuba (2013), Afghanistan (2014) and North Korea (2010) — and sometimes on his own. No average stay-at-the-Hilton tourist, he spent weeks-long stints with the Inuit tribes in the Arctic Ocean, with rain forest tribes in the Amazon, and with the Tree House cannibals in the jungles of New Guinea. (“They left me alone,” he said, smiling, “not enough meat.”)
He visited the top of the world at the North Pole, the bottom of the world in Antarctica, the middle of the world at the equator, the world’s highest waterfall in Venezuela, the world’s deepest gorge in Nepal. He made friends anywhere and everywhere. Every April, he returns to Nepal to visit Surya Giri, a person he met while trekking who has become his best friend in the world.
He said he found no correlation between wealth and happy people. Instead, he observed the opposite. “I find that in the poorer countries the people seem to be happier,” he said. “In Africa in the poor villages, they’re always laughing and having a good time. In wealthier countries they’re not as friendly, not as outgoing.”
He ran into very little trouble traveling the world. He had his wallet stolen once in Morocco and had his watch yanked off his wrist in El Salvador, “but no one has ever tried to injure me personally.”
As for lost luggage by the airlines? “Not for a long time, and not many times at all. Maybe 10 in all the years.”
His best tip for successful traveling?
“Plan ahead,” he said. “Think about where you’re going and what you’ll need. That’s the secret.”
You can get a glimpse of Stephen’s travels at his website deedstravels.com, along with spectacular pictures he’s taken along the way.
As for What’s Next? he has no intention of stopping, or even slowing down, if that’s what you’re thinking. Early next year he’ll travel to the Faroe Islands off the coast of Scotland for a total eclipse of the sun. He’s seen every total eclipse since 1995, 14 in all, and plans to see each one in the future. “That’s an open-ended goal, to visit all the total eclipses,” he said. “Other than that, I just want to continue to go to more places. There isn’t an end goal now, but I don’t want to stop.”
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org