A Slow Trip to the Unexpected

The recent Public Television special on Thomas Jefferson was memorable for many reason, but there was a line of commentary that struck me in a lasting way. It regarded a time when Jefferson, worried about his wife, was filled with an intense burden of longing because, as the commentator noted, Jefferson "lived in a three miles-an-hour world."

That point was made to denote the disadvantage of living in a time when there were no mechanical means of transportation, and where trips measured in hours by today's standards took days or weeks. But I couldn't help thinking of my own preference for slower travel even when more expeditious means are available.

This was brought home to me most powerfully a few years back when I got it into my head to sail, rather than fly, from Iceland to Denmark. The trip took two days. As the ship diligently plowed its way east over the gentle waves of the North Sea, it dawned on me that, except for the very end of the ship's passage, I was never in imminent danger of arriving anywhere. Real- izing this, I found myself presented with opportunities to read, walk, become acquain-ted with other passengers, and sometimes just rest my eyes upon the great breadth of the sea.

At the time, I was reading a book by Lawrence Millman called "Last Places," about his travels in the boreal reaches of the earth. In it he makes a telling statement, one that immediately resonated for me: "One of the purposes of travel is to avoid your destination at all costs. Once you're there, you're there, and you'll never be permitted that long-bated breath of anticipation again."

As an American, I can't think of anything more countercultural than this. To suggest there is a sort of joy in moving slowly, without fixation upon one's destination, seems to go against the grain of living in a nation that pioneered space flight.

No one ever talks about the emotional perils of the mad rush to "arrive." Whenever I fly home from abroad, the experience is almost surreal. Within a matter of hours, I find myself transplanted from one culture to another, without much time to emotionally let go of one before I face the other. This is said to have been one of the things that compounded the difficulties faced by Vietnam veterans returning home: One moment they were on the battlefield; the next they were on Main Street USA, watching television. (By contrast, World War II veterans sailed home, having days to deal with their transition between worlds.)

Back aboard my Denmark-bound ship, there were periodic announcements that we had passed through another time zone, whereupon we passengers would dutifully reset our watches. But the act of marking time was almost incidental, and the announcements of the zone shifts came at long intervals. The time unfolded languidly, the way we wish it would when we are really enjoying ourselves. And, as Millman had noted in his fine book, I felt the pangs of letdown when we arrived in Denmark; but I knew it would have been far worse had I flown.

Since that journey, I have tried to maintain a personal commitment to moving slowly whenever possible. In my walks, I have discovered streets in my town that I never knew existed, I've profited by chatting with people across fences, and I've watched the dense summer woodlands turn transparent in autumn, revealing yet more treasures within.

Last spring, in fact, I tried to convert my 11-year-old son, a tried-and-true devotee of travel by car. We were planning to go into town, about a mile away from our home. As Alyosha began to climb into the car, I suggested that we walk the railroad tracks instead. He resisted for a moment or two, but assented when I offered to throw a ball with him as we went.

The beauty of railbeds is that they tend to follow the natural contours of the land. As we walked along - counting ties and throwing the ball - we passed through a forest seemingly untouched despite its proximity to a town. Suddenly, to our right, there was a commotion. We couldn't believe our eyes: There, in a shaded hollow, were five young foxes romping around the opening to their den. We crouched and watched for a few minutes before moving on. As a sort of door prize, we arrived at our destination as well, but the quart of milk and loaf of bread we bought paled in comparison with those fox pups.

I still feel sympathy for Jefferson as he brooded over his wife, because the scientist in me acknowledges that there are periods when time is indeed of the essence and the obstacle of distance must be surmounted as quickly as possible. But I suspect that the slowness and concomitant natural quiet of Jefferson's world also gave him the peace of mind to think deeply in the way that he did.

For this reason I envy him, and I try, as best I can, to move slowly in the hope that discovery will continue to come to me, too, if only in humble measure.

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