Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

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Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 9 2010 7:12 AM

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

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Fifty years ago, an American tourist on vacation might well have taken a ship to get to Europe. Fifty years before that, it was not unusual to ride in a stagecoach. For someone growing up in the first half of the twentieth century—watching the automobile and the airplane evolve into everyday conveniences—it must have seemed that humankind's advances in the field of transport were only just getting started.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

But then, sometime around the mid-1960s, the progress stopped. Air travel had its golden age in that era, and since then flying really hasn't improved. With notable exceptions like the now-defunct Concorde, the jets never got much faster. Meanwhile, they did get a whole lot less comfortable, as airlines crammed in more seats and cut out the amenities.

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Whatever romance may have existed up there in the clouds, once upon a time, it's long gone now. These days, the experience is relentlessly drab. Still, there's no puzzle as to why people continue to fly. Airplanes equal convenience. They get us places faster—orders of magnitude faster.

I wouldn't want to deny people the option of flight. At the same time, I think it's fair to acknowledge that progress comes with tradeoffs. Yes, we've gained convenience. But along the way we've deprived ourselves of some extremely wonderful things. The starry skies of an Atlantic Ocean crossing. The bleak beauty of an old Russian train chugging its way through Siberia. The jaunty freedom of a road trip with a carful of friends.

And there's no going back. Along with the ability to cross an ocean or a continent in six hours comes a societal expectation that you'll do so. Your two weeks of summer vacation time are predicated on the assumption that you'll fly to Italy for your honeymoon—not take a full week to float there, look around for an hour, and then take another week to float back.

As a result, when people think about travel these days they think purely of destinations. They barely give a nod to the actual ... traveling. The problem with this isn't just that we lose out on the pleasures of trains, ships, bicycles, and all those other terrific modes of rationally paced, ground-level transport. I think we also dim our experience of the destinations themselves. We've forgotten the benefit of surface travel: It forces you to feel, deep in your bones, the distance you've covered; and it gradually eases you into a new context that exists not just outside your body, but also inside your head. (It eliminates travel sicknesses, too: Rebecca and I never once got ill as we moved slowly and steadily between clusters of regional bacteria.)

Teleporting from airport to airport doesn't allow for the same kind of spiritual transformation you undergo whenever you make an overland trip. When you take a seven-day vacation bookended by flights, I would in fact argue that your soul never completely leaves home. You've experienced it, I'm sure: Your airplane has landed in Quito, but your heart and mind are still stuck back in Boston. The sudden, radical change in your surroundings sparks a glitch in your processor. You know you're physically standing in Ecuador, yet the sensation is more like watching a really immersive television documentary about Ecuador. And then, at last, when you begin to feel whole again, your feet firmly planted in the foreign soil (no longer some hollow seedcase that's been dropped, weightless, into an alien world), it's time to teleport straight back to the comfortable familiarity of home.

I acknowledge that for most of us, it's no longer feasible to take an ocean liner to South America on our summer holiday. But that doesn't mean we wouldn't have a better, richer experience if we did. So my advice to you is this: The next time you want to travel—I mean really travel, not just take a vacation—please consider getting wherever you want to go without taking a plane.

I promise you will look at that globe on the shelf in your study in a whole new light. You will run your finger along the curve of the sphere and think: I know what this distance feels like. What this ocean looks like. What it means to trace the surface of this earth.

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Back in D.C., our first night in our empty new place, we sleep on an air mattress we bought for fifty bucks at a local discount store. In the morning, it hits me full force: There's nowhere to go next. I haven't the energy or resources to continue this adventure. I'll sleep in this same room again tonight, and the night after that, and the night after that.

The readjustment is brutal. The little victories and losses of day-to-day existence seem ridiculous. When we get our furniture and clothes back from the storage company, I'm almost physically repulsed by the sight of them. It feels like someone else's possessions. Why on earth did we ever buy all these things, and, worse, take the trouble to preserve them while we were away? Everything I need, I now know for sure, I can fit into a backpack.

But of course the fierceness fades. Week by week, I grow softer. Comfort and routine begin to creep back in. We trade out our air mattress for a real bed and get a flat-screen TV and an Internet connection. We go out to the same bars and restaurants that we did before. We're right back in the thick of it, carving new ruts.

One day, though, a few years down the line, I know we'll blow it all up again. Perhaps we'll be walking along a beach and we'll see a sailboat, out past the breakers. I'll catch a little gleam in Rebecca's eye. And we'll both be thinking: I wonder how far away we can get in one of those.

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