Harold Stephens has Died

Twenty-two years ago, in the summer of 1999, I came across a copy of Blue magazine in a Boston bookstore. What drew me to purchase it, I don’t recall: I certainly wasn’t in the “adventure lifestyle” demographic it catered to. Inside that issue was a review of the book Who Needs a Road?, originally published in the late 1960s and re-issued in 1999:

Article about Who Needs a Road? in Blue magazine, June 1999.

Second page of the Blue magazine article about Who Needs a Road?

I was intrigued, so I ordered a copy of the book and voraciously wolfed it down when it arrived.

The book chronicles the around-the-world trip, in a Toyota Land Cruiser, of authors Harold Stephens and Al Podell:

This book is about two men who wanted to drive around the world, to remote corners, to those places where few men have ventured before. They wanted to do it in a four-wheel drive, taking their own camper-trailer with them, to live at the edge of deserts and at the rim of tropical jungles, to drive the highest roads, and the lowest, to be free to make their own choices, and the Trans World Expedition was born. This is their incredible journey. That they did it, and how they did it is their tale told in this exciting book.

Toward the end of the book, as the expedition crossed over the Mexico-US border, came this scene:

We headed north toward the Rio Grande. After we cleared the Mexican customs and immigration posts, we drove onto the long bridge that connects Nueva Laredo, Mexico, with Laredo, Texas, USA. Home at last. Home. The U.S.A. After 19 months. Newsreel cameramen came racing down the bridge toward us. Chief Samuelson, the Toyota press agent, waved from the rail as he directed a photographer. And there was Asbury Nix from Trade Winds who’d flown down from Manawa (pop. 1,037) to welcome us back. And dozens of reporters. And a girlfriend of Al’s from San Antonio.

A Texas highway patrolman at a border checkpoint welcomed us hack to the States. For the first time, we had a smooth, safe, six-lane highway ahead of us. The end of the bridge. The brick customs house with our flag flying proudly above it. The Stars and Stripes fluttered in the autumn breeze. I didn’t think the sight would affect a seasoned old traveler, but I felt tears come to my eyes.

Reading that, I was curious to know if the newsreel footage of the drive over the Rio Grande had been preserved somewhere; I’m not sure why I was curious, but perhaps it had something to do with having lived, for a time, in El Paso, Texas, with a view over the river into Mexico. 

The publisher’s email address was listed in the front matter of the book; on a lark I sent off an email, asking about the footage. To my surprise, a few days later I got a reply not from an anonymous “publisher,” but from Harold Stephens himself, writing from Bangkok:

I thank you for your interest in my motor trip around the world. It’s true, we did shoot close to 10,000 feet of 16mm color film. The Public Relation firm for Toyota Motors was an outfit called Chief Samuelson in LA. Samuelson processed the film and I got a chance to see some of it. I thought it was rather good, and ended up with less than a thousand feet to review, which I still have. Toyota was rapidly growing after our expedition, and the PR firm knew its days were numbered. They did lose out, and held on to the film. I have made several attempts to locate Chief Samuelson in LA but with no luck. Nor does Toyota in LA know about him.

What happened next is perhaps the signature example of why doing things on a lark, and taking risks, can pay off in unexpected ways.

Harold and I struck up an email correspondence that lasted for the next 20 years. He gave me some clues about where I might find the footage mentioned in the book, pointing me toward press agent Chief Samuelson. And I set off on a months-long private detective-like jaunt to track him down, using skills I’d learned years earlier reading a book about “skip tracing.” Eventually I tracked his son down to Hot Springs, AK, where I found, from a helpful reference librarian, that he was working for the Garland County Sheriff’s Department. I tried and tried and tried to make contact: I left innumerable messages on answering machines, sent a letter, sent a FedEx, but never heard back.

Even though I’d failed in my quest, Steve–by this time I was calling Harold that, as his friends did–was impressed by my tenacity and research chops, and over the months and years to come he fed me a steady diet of cases to take on: a woman he’d dated in London after the war, a boat builder in Vancouver, fellow China Marines, an artist from Chicago who was with Huntley and Brinkley at NBC News in the mid-60s, the son of a Penn State anthropologist that Steve knew in Malaysia, relations of a man who was stabbed to death by Lana Turner’s daughter. It was all rollicking good fun, the kind of practical puzzle-solving I love.

In 2001, again on a lark, I sent Steve off an email suggesting that we might come and visit him in Bangkok. It was an absurd idea on many levels, none more so than that Oliver was just a year old at the time. But Catherine was game, and I figured it to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a man on the ground in Bangkok. Which is how, 19 years ago this week, we found ourselves on the way to Thailand on a grand family adventure; among other things, the trip was the first of many times I used this blog to keep an online journal of our travels.

A few years later, Steve turned his tale of our visit into an article for the Thai Airways magazine, where he wrote, in part:

Let me tell you about Peter Rukavina from Canada who wrote and asked about travelling to Thailand with his wife and their three-year old son. Based upon other couples I saw around town, pushing kids in strollers, riding on buses and on the new Skytrain, and even on the fast-moving express boats on the Chao Phraya River, I told Peter and Catherine to come ahead. None of the parents I had seen seemed worried and the kids appeared to be happy. When I wrote to Peter I suggested travelling light and to bring a good-quality stroller. 

I guess I never expected them to come. This often happens, people make plans and then their boss gets sick and they can’t get the time off or their grandmother ends up in the hospital. But not with Peter and Catherine, and their son Oliver. They were on their way and gave me their arrival information, and now I began to worry. Had I done the right thing? Here was a couple that had made only one trip outside of Canada, and that was to New York, a few hundred miles away. Now they were travelling half way around the world, so far away that if they travelled any farther they’d be on their way back home. 

As it turned out, having Steve and his wife Michelle on the ground was invaluable: Steve met us at the airport, found us our first hotel in Bangkok, and gave us the kind of insider view of the country that only an expat travel writer could offer. They generously watched Oliver for a night so we could go out on our own, they took us to church with them, and they hosted a dinner for us on our last night in the country.

After that visit I continued to do dribs and drabs of work for Steve, some of it PI-like, some of it simple web work, like maintaining his personal website. Steve’s Land Cruiser trip around the world turned out to be one of scores of adventures he’d concocted over the years, fodder for a career as a travel writer: he befriended Marlon Brando in Tahiti, built and sailed a schooner around the South Pacific, investigated the disappearance of Jim Thompson. Steve always had something on the go; in 2004 he emailed me a slice of what was currently on the docket:

I am going to follow the Silk Road through Central Asia, do a jeep trip across China and Tibet, and sail all the rivers of Asia when my new boat is complete.

He invited me to join that Silk Road trip; I seriously considered doing so, but I wasn’t able to; I can’t recall whether he ever pulled it off.

I’d always hoped we’d get back to Thailand for another visit, or, baring that, that we’d be able to rendezvous with Steve and Michelle on one of their yearly trips to the United States. But we never did.

Some years back I created a Google Alert on Steve’s name; other than a lot of false positives–Harold Stephens turns out to be a pretty popular name–it never fed me news of Steve.

Until this week. 

The article it led to in the Bangkok Post, by Roger Crutchley, let me know that Steve had died:

Someone who had just about been everywhere was travel writer Harold Stephens whom I’m sad to say passed away recently in Bangkok at the age of 93. 

This was confirmed by posts elsewhere from Steve’s longtime collaborator Doug Ingold:

I learned today of the death of Harold Stephens, a business partner and a good and generous friend. Steve, as we all called him, died at his home in Bangkok in the company of his wife Michelle. Steve was a skilled and disciplined writer who lived the most adventurous life of anyone I ever met. And, amazingly, given his charisma, he was not a drunk, a blow-hard or an arrogant jerk, though at first, I will admit, I feared he might be all of those.

And from journalist Mort Rosenblum:

I last saw Steve in Bangkok. His shelves sagged under copies of his two dozen books. He’d written about 4,500 magazine and newspaper pieces. In his ‘80s, he was well-padded with Michelle’s cooking, and I figured he was done with the road. Sure.

At 93, he finally wangled a visa to travel with a friend across hermetic Myanmar, Burma, south to north. On the road, suspicious army officers locked them indefinitely in a foul tiny cell. His friend was terrified – of his captors and of Michelle in case the worst happened. Steve, meantime, was smiling. He had a story.

Of all the things I have to thank Harold Stephens for–and there are many–the most important one is the life of travel that he kicked off for us. That trip to Thailand started us off, and, let’s face it, once you’ve taken a 16 month old baby to Thailand, you can do anything; all the trips that followed were made better by the courage and confidence that we gained there.

Steve also showed me the value of travel writing, and that to become a travel writer all you really needed to do was to travel and then write about it.

And, beyond any of that, he was a friend.

Steve wrote this in the introduction to Who Needs a Road?:

The world opened to me when I was a young boy on a farm in Pennsylvania. It opened with books of adventure and travel, for those were the golden days when a young reporter named Lowell Thomas wrote about exotic places like Timbuktu and Kathmandu, and Richard Halliburton crossed the Alps on an elephant and swam the Bosporus. To me, these places and the lives these men led spelled romance. But when the real world came leaping at me, it was like the earth coming up to meet a skydiver. There was no casual introduction; it came up suddenly-with World War II.

It is tempting to point to Steve’s death as the end of an era, and in a way it is. But his writing, and his life force, inspired and motivated many who followed in his footsteps–I know, as I tracked down and talked to many of them over the years.

So the roads, or lack thereof, that Steve travelled are still there waiting for all of us to follow.

Goodbye my friend; I will miss you.

Harold Stephens

Comments

Ton Zijlstra's picture
Ton Zijlstra on February 10, 2021 - 15:07 Permalink

What a great story to remember your friend. You never cease to amaze with the various connections you weave around the world!

Thelma's picture
Thelma on February 10, 2021 - 15:27 Permalink

What an extraordinary life, and a beautiful tribute.

Ray's picture
Ray on February 11, 2021 - 07:59 Permalink

How fortunate you were to have had enjoyed such a splendid friendship which would never have happened without your indefatigability.

So sorry for your loss.

Bruce's picture
Bruce on February 11, 2021 - 12:28 Permalink

Dear Peter,

You amaze me more and more. What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.

Your fond memory of Harold is well told and appreciated by all of us who read it, I am sure.

Linda Lowther's picture
Linda Lowther on February 13, 2021 - 10:11 Permalink

Dear Peter,
Why am I not surprised? You always write with such passion and clarity. What a well written tribute to a wonderful friend. I am sure you will miss him but I am also sure you will cherish all those memories.

Zyna Boyes's picture
Zyna Boyes on February 13, 2021 - 22:11 Permalink

Hello Peter, I came to your blog through that of Bruce Mac Naughton. What a wonderful introduction to your work, and this
fascinating story of your friend 'Steve'.

That there are still men of great 'derring-do' walking - or motoring - through this world stirs the soul! How fortunate you were to have found him. But then it wasn't by chance that you came across that book, that day, about that man. It was destined that your karmic paths would/should intersect!

At some moments in every life one finds the people one needs. He was a needed catalyst for you, and the friendship you forged was one of your life-defining moments. How very special was that bond, and how very fitting that you would write with such affection for him here, and acknowledge the courage he helped you find within yourself. You have honoured him with your words.

I will link to your blog, Peter. It was such a pleasure to find this today.