Something occurred to me while my wife and I endured the 16-hour return flight from Sydney, Australia to the Dallas/Forth Worth airport. Tracking the path of the flight about 11 hours in, I shamefully wished to skip over northwestern Mexico and just get to Dallas already. Never mind the inherent beauty of Baja California or the wisdom on the indigenous culture there, we were flying here! If you imagined a native Brooklynite bellowing “flying here!”, you get the idea.
For what it’s worth, jet travel is the easiest way to expose ourselves to new cultures, to their cuisines and languages, to new landscapes, and alien yet awe-inspiring fauna and flora. Sydney’s glorious Royal Botanic Gardens are testament to the joys of visiting foreign locales. Jet travel to distant place can open our minds to what’s possible and expand our empathy for humans and non-humans who live on the other side of our planet.
That said, jet travel is also distancing. It whisks us up and away from the earthly surround. Looking out an airplane window, we see two dimensional landscapes, oh, and then clouds. Significant places below are empty voids to jet over. The midwest and western mountain regions of the U.S. become “fly-over” country.
Even in the siloing car, we perceive gradual shifts in landscape, tune our radios to local music, and take stock of changes in weather. And while walking or cycling, we imbibe the passing terrain in peripheral vision, breath in the circulating air, register the breeze upon our skin, smell and touch the honeysuckle that climbs over rusting fences.
But up at 50,000 feet? The persistent drone of the airplane cabin, soulless beverage services, and out-dated “no smoking” signs blunt our animal senses, leaving us to crave manufactured entertainment. Jetting about should be seen for what it is: another form of privileged, nature-damaging consumption.
In our culture, there’s a certain cachet associated with having been places. Frequent flyers enjoy wowing us with their tales of backpacking in Vietnam, sampling exotic foods in Morocco, ice-picking in Patagonia. And many of us are envious of such rich lifestyles. We wonder how the frequent flyers have done it and how we can pull it off ourselves. In a way, you could say that we’re obsessed with the destination. But what of the journey?
What would travel look like if the journey were the focus? If the journey were central, would it revive interest in Kerouacian cross-country road trips? Would more people gather around campfires to tell of epic bike rides? Would journalist Paul Salopek enrapture more people’s imaginations with his two-footed trek from Africa to South America’s Tierra del Fuego?
These older, slower forms of travel connect us with a past. They reveal to us ways that our forebears traveled, developed knowledge of and lived in places. Riding, cycling, and walking connect us with each other and with nature.
It seems to me that the different ways we get around vary along at least two dimensions: one is social potential; and the other is nature exposure. I selected these dimensions because those who research these things tell us that social inclusion and engagement with our natural world are central to our well-being and vitality.
Looking at six main travel modes, I’ve placed them along these two dimensions:
|Social Potential (down) Nature Exposure (right)||Low||Low-Med||Med||Med-High||High|
- When walking, if we see someone we know and like, we’re bound to stop and catch up. And if we’re so inclined, when we encounter natural beauty, we just might stop and savor it.
- When bicycling, we can wave to people and strike up conversation with riding partners, yet we’re not likely to stop and chat with others traveling in opposite directions. And with the focus on forward movement in bicycling, we’re not as likely to stop and smell the roses, as when we are walking.
- On a bus or train, conversations are somewhat limited to our fellow passengers, and we can only really watch nature through windows. Thankfully, bus and train travel usually involve a fair amount of walking.
- When traveling in a car, our social world involves those in the car with us – but most of us travel solo for most trips – and exposure to our natural world is similar to being on a bus or train – i.e., through the window.
- When up there on a plane, we can talk with the lucky person seated next to us and that’s about it. And nature, yeah, it’s that thing we fly over.
While categorizing these travel modes, something else occurred to me. If we started focusing on the journey over the destination, would we start privileging the “slower”, “active”, “healthy”, travel modes – walking, cycling, transit – over the speedy modes – car and plane travel? And if we did privilege walking, cycling, and transit more, what would that mean for our shared places?
That is, if more people walked from place to place, would we take more time to enliven the look and feel of the landscape we travel through? What if more people biked from place to place? Would people notice each other – and perhaps even greet each other – as they headed to their jobs or to the store? Might grander works of public arts adorn our common spaces with more eyes to look at our common spaces? What about the trees and flowers? Would they hold greater value in a place that championed sauntering?
Also with more eyes on the street, would crime go down? With more ears in the street, would demand for – and supply of – live music go up? With all this walking and cycling around, would neighbors and friends encounter one another in public more often? Would we see – and participate in – more dancing? More laughing? Would more people start noticing the ugly powerlines that slice through our view of the sky? Would droves of night-time walkers demand the ability to see the stars at night?
What if the journey were the destination and the destination the journey?Follow SethLaJ307