THE mental coda that Labor Day brings to summer (the official coda comes in 15 days) also caps one of the year's busiest travel periods. By all accounts, it is likely to break records.
Travel is not immune from the human propensity to quantify, which carries its own jargon. The United States Travel Data Center, for example, forecasted prior to the season that Americans would take 230 million person-trips this summer. (A person-trip is one person taking one trip of more than 100 miles.) The organization now anticipates that summer travel is likely to exceed that figure.
According to the American Society of Travel Agents, the vast majority of agents in a recent survey report the summer as either very good or the best ever. Business is brisk, particularly in trips abroad for Americans. Yet domestic destinations retain their attractions - from the mechanical at places such as Disney World and MGM's new theme park in Las Vegas to the natural at national parks around the country.
Many in the tourism industry attribute this season's increase to the improved economy. More money in pockets and pent up demand from several years spent in the backyard's Camp Wecannott or on paint-the-woodwork ``vacations'' seem to have energized the torrent of travelers.
Economics may help explain the sudden release from satisfying the desire for deferred entertainment. But economics doesn't explain the desire to ``read'' first-hand the steel mills, farm fields, and crumbling adobe buildings for the history they bring to life. Nor does it explain a willingness to test - however gingerly - one's limits, if not one's culinary endurance, along a mountain trail.
Journeys take on value not just from destinations but from one's traveling companions. To attempt to use a transcontinental train trip to spread the country out before the eyes of a 10-year-old and then hear him tell fellow travelers that he now can see why New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment is to see these same sights with fresh eyes. The endless questions - perhaps with the exception of: Are we there yet? - confront us with our own need to understand more deeply the world we traverse and the people we meet.
Indeed, the simple ``Are we there yet?'' carries the challenge and lure of travel: The less superficial the reasons for making a trip, the more often the answer is ``no.''