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Escape from the jet age
After waiting nearly a week as an Icelandic volcano spewed turbine-mangling ash into the atmosphere — thwarting flights into, out of or through Europe — the planes were up in the air again on Tuesday. Governments, businesses and most travellers, irritated by disrupted itineraries and worried about lost productivity, are delighted. But I, for one, wish this blessedly jet-free interlude could have continued a little longer.
In the eccentric, ground-level adventures of some stranded passengers — 700-mile taxi rides through Scandinavia, for instance, perhaps a horse-drawn stagecoach over the Alps if things got really desperate — I'm reminded of the romance we trade away each time we shuffle aboard an airplane.
In the five decades since jets became the dominant means of long-haul travel, the world has benefited immeasurably from the speed and convenience of air travel. But as Orson Welles intoned in The Magnificent Ambersons: "The faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare. " Indeed, airplanes' accelerated pace has infected every corner of our lives. Our truncated vacation days and our crammed work schedules are predicated on the assumption that everyone will fly wherever they're going, that anyone can go great distances and get back in a very short period of time.
So we are condemned to keep riding on airplanes. Which is not really travelling. Airplanes are a means of ignoring the spaces in between your point of origin and your destination. By contrast, a surface journey allows you to look out on those spaces — at eye level and on a human scale, not peering down through breaks in the clouds from 35, 000 feet above — from the observation car of a rolling train or the deck of a gently bobbing ship. Surface transport can be contemplative, picturesque and enchanting in a way that air travel never will be.
My girlfriend and I recently set out to circumnavigate the globe without the aid of any aircraft. Along the way, we took the Trans-Siberian Railway across the wilds of Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, and drove a car through the empty doomlands of the Australian outback. These journeys take less than half a day if you go by plane. Each lasts a week when you stick to the ground. But taking to the air means simply boarding, enduring the flight and getting off at another airport. Going our way meant sharing bread and cheese with kindly Russians in a shared train cabin, and drinking beers with Australian jackaroos (we'd call them cowboys) at a lonely desert roadhouse. These are warm, vivid memories.
Think of the trans-Atlantic flights you may have taken. Do you remember anything about them? Turbulence, bad in-flight movies and screaming children don't count. Because flying is an empty, soulless way to traverse the planet, the best flights are in fact the ones you forget immediately after hitting the tarmac.
Now, imagine floating across the Atlantic on a ship. Do you think you might enjoy those days of transit — the joys of a starry night in the middle of the ocean, or a round of drinks with new friends as you look out across the stern railing at the glimmering water — and hold them in your memories? My hope is that some travellers stranded by the volcanic ash have been able to discover the joys of slow travel — by road, rail or water. My hope is that on your journey, you saw a plane flying overhead, you looked up at its contrail and pitied the poor people in a cramped aluminum tube. They would have arrived days before you, but they have missed out on the wonders of a trip where there is no choice but to sit back, relax and ruminate.
Seth Stevenson, who has circled the globe without getting on an aircraft, is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World
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