The Lost Journey
The part of travel that we don’t experience so much anymore
Last month my parents came to visit me, staying in an AirBnB in Annapolis, close to the beaches so that their new dog could swim in the Atlantic Ocean. Baltimore is only about 20 miles from Annapolis: a car ride would have taken less than an hour, they could have picked me up, no sweat.
Out of a desire to hold up my supposed low-carbon values, I told them that I would bike and meet them there. From a purely emissions-based point of view, this probably doesn’t make any sense: the fossil fuels involved in the production of the calories I needed to burn to transport myself were probably much more than the extra gallons of gas it would have taken to modify their route to pick me up in Baltimore. (Actually this probably isn’t true: a gallon of gas is 31,000 calories. There’s about a 10:1 fossil fuel calories:food calories ratio in modern agriculture. I burned probably around 800–900 calories biking 20 miles. This puts me at 8000–9000 calories, which is still more efficient than a gallon of gasoline). However, from a deontological perspective, if I want bike travel to be a thing, I have to walk my talk.
The ride was pleasant enough, given the hot and humid Maryland summer, due to most of it being on the bike-only Baltimore-Annapolis trail. There were some tricky sections when I was actually in Annapolis, navigating on high-speed limit roads trying to find where my parents were staying. The experience certainly improved my confidence in the bike infrastructure of this part of the country, although there is much work still to be done. What I was not expecting was the sense of accomplishment: like I had finished journey. That’s not something I have usually experienced traveling, let alone to somewhere as close as Annapolis. Why? I’m still not entirely sure, but I suspect it has something to do with me being the active participant in my journey, rather than a passive observer.
Travel, Modern and Ancient
In many ways, modern travel is great. The speed of aeroplanes and cars makes it possible to cross distances in times that would have been unimaginable two hundred years ago. This speed, coupled with ubiquity and cheapness of fossil fuels as an energy source have made it possible for more people to travel further, bringing our world closer together in some ways. However, speed did not come without cost. In terms of resources, our current speed and rate of travel will not outlast the temporary bonanza of fossil fuels, and is a contributor to our slow-moving ecological collapse. In terms of our connection to other human beings, fast-travel fosters the existence of “fly-over” country, and the accompanying dehumanization of its inhabitants. In terms of our own psychology, the current modus operandi of travel strips of agency, and engenders a sense of passivity, that is only reinforced by many other aspects of our culture.
Consider the journeys of Bilbo in the Hobbit. To get to the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo did not book a flight on Shire Air. He had to walk, or ride a pony, in a journey that took many months. Without the growth and experiences obtained on that journey, he would not have been equipped to deal with Smaug or participate in the Battle of the Five Armies. Modern travel does not require any of this growth: other than the difficulty of procuring a ticket and making it through airport or train station security (admittedly more difficult than a few decades ago), you don’t have do anything other than sit quietly. All the character development in modern travel thus must occur at the destination.
There’s plenty of growth that can occur wherever you are traveling too: I certainly learned a lot about myself and our world during my 10 weeks in Israel. (Exotic destination is no guarantee of personal development: many of my classmates did exactly what they did in the US during our time in Israel: drink). However, without the journey there’s something missing.
That’s why pilgrims still walk the Camino to Santiago de Compostela when they could just fly. And why I will be taking more trips on my bike.