Slow Travel

“An alpinist develops his power and gives proof of it; he feels and thinks simultaneously; this superior joy illuminates the snow landscape. But he who has taken an electric train up to the top of a famous mountain does not find the same sun.”

Emile-Auguste Chartier, “Diogenes” in Alain on Happiness. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

The Chinese sage, Lao-tzu, said that: “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” We can arrive only if we begin.

But, let’s consider a specific 1,000 mile journey, from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Francisco, California. Google Maps helpfully indicates the time involved for different modes of transportation.

If flying, it would take 2 hours and 20 minutes. If driving, it would take 16 hours and 11 minutes. By bus, it takes 1 day and 2 hours. By train, 1 day and 14 hours.

However, something interesting happens when we moved to human-powered transport. By bicycle, it takes 91 hours. If we assume 8 hours of bicycling per day, it would take just over 11 days. Walking, by way of contrast, would take 324 hours. Assuming 8 hours per day of walking, it would take just over 40 days. It might be one reason, “Forty days and forty nights” used to be short-hand for a long time.

Whether you are looking at Paris to Lisbon, Berlin to Naples, Istanbul to Jerusalem, Cape Town to Durban, Brisbane to Melbourne, Nagasaki to Aomori, Kolkata to New Delhi or Beijing, China to Seoul, South Korea, the challenges of each journey are quite different, if you are biking or walking. However, if you are travelling by air, it is largely the same. It’s a slightly more than two hour flight that, in large part, is a homogeneity of experience. Air travel is the McDonald’s of travel. It is the more or less the same everywhere.

There are sites like The Man in Seat 61 that make this point about train travel.

“Many people want to cut their carbon footprint or are simply fed up with the hassle of flying – and a significant number of people are afraid of flying or medically restricted from doing so.  However, information on alternatives to flying is often difficult to find through a travel industry obsessed with flights, flights, car hire and more flights.

So the site aims to INSPIRE people to do something more rewarding with their travel opportunities than schlepping to an airport, getting on a soulless airliner and missing all the world has to offer.  It then sets out to ENABLE people to take train or ferry by giving the the confidence and know-how to book their trip themselves, or call the right people to book it for them at affordable prices.”

About Me, Seat61,com

The hassle of flying is that it is merely a means of transport and offers little in terms of experience. It is something to endure and get through. What makes travel rewarding is the experience of the journey itself, of being faced with challenges and surmounting them.

It is interesting to note that the main difficulty addressed above is of confidence and imagination. Flying is what everyone does in a world where there is a premium on efficiency and time. Seat61.com is trying to operate by a different set of values.

Of course, if we take this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion, then whatever advantages that train and bus travel provide in terms of making the journey itself worthwhile, then biking and walking offer even more advantages. If we look at it strictly in terms of time, presumably an extension of time by 45 in the case of bicycling and 162 by walking increases the richness of the experience by some function of that time, which factors in difficulty of arranging accommodations, food, water and the other necessities.

Maybe like with the Slow Food movement, we need a Slow Travel movement. If nothing else, it will help more people to see more possibilities beyond the default, live richer lives and contribute to increasing the possibilities of human flourishing.

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