Stepping out of our 'fast food' travel culture

A couple of weeks ago, I drove 1,000 miles on a business trip to Michigan, leaving my electronic air ticket stranded in virtual reality. I just didn't feel like getting on a plane.

It was a lovely drive. Leaves deepened into red as I headed north, and warm breezes flew in the window along with fresh smells of fall. As I consumed a cup of vegetable soup in a small family restaurant in rural Pennsylvania, I read the paper.

"President Bush implored Americans to do their part against terrorism by flying on commercial airlines again ... " shouted the lead story. The president then exhorted: "Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disneyworld in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."

Is it really time to get back to "normal," as the president keeps declaring? I am a tried and true traveler, a veteran plane hopper, and I wonder, what is "normal?" Who says that what we had before was normal?

Over the past few decades, travel has become just another commodity. The "fast food" travel culture has touched us all. We fit travel into smaller and smaller spaces in our busy lives, and do more of it - without really thinking about what we're doing - than ever before. We zoom in and out without taking the time to see or understand the communities we visit. This instant-gratification travel has been, in large part, a result of the way in which we traveled - more and more, by air.

That this kind of travel is now equated with patriotism amazes me. According to Mr. Bush and the airline and hotel industries, flying is now a civic duty. It gained this lofty stature by becoming yet another way that American consumers spend to buoy our economy. A post-attack "patriotic" banner hanging on a hotel-industry office building near Washington declares "Thanks for Traveling" right next to an American flag.

Is it not more sensible, in the aftermath of tragedy and with the possibility of more attacks on the horizon, to spend more time at home - sharing meals, conversing, reconnecting, just being? Is this not an appropriate time to replenish our souls, reconsider what is meaningful, and strengthen frayed ties with our own communities? It makes perfect sense for Americans to reevaluate travel plans, not necessarily out of fear, but out of the need to stay close to home.

Be it for leisure, business, or love, easy air travel has transformed our sense of community. For some, neighborhood and family are less central as we create national and international networks. Sometimes, though, we travel because family is central. Children travel to see noncustodial parents, spouses travel to see each other when work causes them to live in different cities. We travel for family events. In the business world, employees are expected to fly to a training seminar in Seattle, a conference in Orlando, or a lunch meeting in Boston at the drop of a hat.

A lull in air travel is like a blizzard that shuts down the town, keeping us at home for a few days, weeks, or months. Soul-weary travelers with lives punctuated by trips have a moment to find relationships, solidify marriages, raise children, or rethink far-flung living arrangements.

Some people I know seem downright relieved not having to fly so much. Many have canceled trips, finding other ways to get the work done. Others have decided to travel less often or at a slower pace, by car or train. Amtrak has seen ridership rise from 60,000 to 80,000 riders a day. And taking the train is more energy-efficient than flying.

Air-travel culture is built upon several assumptions, which it may now make sense to question. Safety is one. What of those oft-quoted statistics that tell us it's safer to fly than to drive? Perhaps these statistics need to factor in new variables?

Another assumption is on-time travel. I have always found it amazing that people assume they can catch a plane at 8 a.m., arrive in Chicago at 9:35 a.m., make a meeting by 10:00, then be home for another meeting at 3:00. What about the real world out there - you know, winds and rainstorms and lightening, let alone crazy people - variables that we can't controI?

Until the 20th-century, there was no such thing as reliable travel. In Jules Verne's "Around The World in Eighty Days," Phileas Fogg and Passepartout manage to circumvent the globe using timetables for newfangled trains and steamships, a revolutionary feat. Still, they experience all the risks of travel, including narrowly escaping being killed by religious fanatics.

We travel at a faster pace, but the nature of travel (and humans) hasn't kept up with technological prowess. True, travel is safer and more reliable than in the pre-20th-century world. We are not likely to be traveling in caravans that encounter raiding parties of Visigoths, Cossacks, or Mongols. But barbarians still exist, with new causes and new methods of attack.

All this said, meaningful travel, the kind that helps Americans get to know other communities while continuing to nurture their own, has brought us so much. The technology of air travel is wondrous, and flying is not a commodity but a valuable freedom, which, like all freedoms, needs to be used with wisdom and an awareness of risks. When the time is right, each individual will know when it's time to return to the sky.

Nadine Epstein is a writer and artist. Her latest book is 'Rainforest Home Remedies' (HarperSan Francisco, 2001).

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