Saturday, June 17, 2006

On Not Taking Travel for Granted

As I prepare for my upcoming long drive to a conference, I am humbled by two thoughts. (1) A huge number of Americans take car trips like this, and longer, all the time, and would regard it as no big deal. (2) I’ve been following Marshall Massey’s walking journey with great interest and enthusiasm. His original plan was to walk from Omaha, Nebraska to Harrisonburg, Virginia (a distance of 1150 miles), meeting with Friends along the way, and ending up at Baltimore Yearly Meeting on July 31 to give the keynote lecture about living in harmony with God’s creation. He set off on his journey on May 13, but along the way, he has developed bursitis in his ankles, which has limited the amount of walking that he can do, but he is still trying to do some walking each day as he continues his journey after medical attention.

I still do think that long journeys are a big deal, whatever the mode of transport. I am very attracted to making such journeys on one’s own power, and in the past, I did some bicycle journeys of my own. I have always dreamed of doing a long walking journey some day. So I am very moved to read Marshall Massey’s account of his adventures.

Even though Marshall is finding himself daunted by his own physical limitations, somehow this aspect itself seems to be an important part of his story, and an important lesson to all of us. We have come to take for granted the luxury of today’s modes of travel. How many of us today could physically endure even 1% of the travel we routinely engage in without incurring serious injury?

Marshall’s story reminds us of our own fragility as biological beings. Our technology has protected us, but also has weakened us and alienated us from the earth which nurtures our life. The “protection” might be an illusion, as long as we continue to build our technological systems at odds with the biological health of our planet. As Marshall continues determinedly to limp as best as he can across our beautiful but scarred land, his story is all of our story. We may think ourselves healthy as we zoom through the same landscape in the air-conditioned comfort of our cars, but we carry the spiritual wounds of alienation as the beauty of the landscape blurs past mostly unnoticed through the fog of our rapidly spinning anxious thoughts.

My journey won’t be as long or as physically taxing, but it will still be a journey: a journey through my own fears and my ambivalence about car culture. I will try to notice the landscape and be aware of my body in motion across the land. But most of my attention will be occupied with negotiating with other vehicles along the highways, doing my share, as best as I can, to keep the roads and highways safe.

It is bizarre and surreal that we engage in this form of transportation where small errors of judgment can yield disastrous consequences in an instant. Why do we accept this? Or maybe I should ask a different question: how do we accept this? Answer: through denial. And so because we can, we do, and we never really get to the “why?” question.

The truth is, we as individuals don’t think we have much choice. This just is how things are. If we want to be fully-functioning, productive members of society, this is the kind of thing we must learn to do, without questioning it. Maybe we even convince ourselves that it is fun, or that it is really wonderful that we can do this. And it is true that it makes much possible that would have been impossible before. But the fun has worn off. Technology that used to be fun and exciting when it was new has now become a necessity. It controls us; we don’t control it.

What will it take to get us back to living in better harmony with our natural environment? I think the answer is, at least in part: when we begin to do a better job refusing to let our technologies and systems control us.

This may be what I find most inspiring about Marshall’s journey. He reminds us how hard it really is to get from one place to another place very far away. The wounds he takes on reminds us of the real costs of such journeys: costs we have transferred to our cars which then in turn inflict the wounds upon the earth and the atmosphere; these wounds then ricocheting back upon us in more subtle ways, through environmentally caused illnesses, stress-induced illnesses, and spiritual alienation.

But Marshall is trying his individual human best to regain control over one kind of technological dependency. His limited success and his physical pain in the process soberingly demonstrate how powerless we are as individuals. The systems we have created are huge and complex; individual choices within these systems are limited and individual efforts to challenge the systems are mostly ineffectual. Marshall vividly bears witness to this, and those of us who watch his journey bear witness too. His story presses upon us the urgency of the need for change, if we wish to restore our harmonious relationship with the biosphere that supports our life.


  1. I have been thinking of this of late as well.

    I am planning on attending FGC Gathering in two weeks (well, I'm leaving in two weeks) I had planned to take the train for the whole round trip (Minneapolis to Seattle) but have decided to fly back because for one it's $50 cheaper, and for another (?) I want to spend that last day off before the work week begins with my sweetie and not alone on a train (I love being "alone" on a train - but she's gone this weekend, and I will be gone for two whole weekends if I train back.)

    I have been conflicted about this. it does feel "right" to some extent, and I am relieved in ways to have allowed myself this indulgence. BUT,

    I took the train back from Gathering in Johnstown a few years ago and found it was JUST the thing to "cushion" the "re-entry" persiod that I have heard so many folks speak of. Train trips are the closest thing I have experienced in my life to spiritual retreats. they have an enforced quietness about them, and enforced community (I don't get a sleeper car, and often sleep next to a stranger, though I always hope to get a set of seats to myself)


    There is something fundamentally different about at least seeing, or having a chance to see, all the landscape in between departure and destination. It helps me feel more rooted, more on-the-planet (well, literally I guess). I have found it strange to get on a plane in 30 degree weeather and off it in 90 degrees (though it's usually nicer than the other way around!)


    Flying is unsustainable. If I was master of the universe, it wouldn't happen, except perhaps in emergencies. I am starting to believe folks who say it actually won't happen much in a few more years, with the cost of fuel going up and no change in course in sight.

    I don't own a car. But as of a bit over a year ago I'm dating someone who does. We don't use it as much as we could. We both love to bike, and find most of what we need within a 3 mile radius, but it's there. I have to go grocery shopping in the next 24 hours, and the tempation to use it is niggling. I used it yesterday to take my cats to the vet 5 miles away, when there is another vet (whom I know nothing of) 4 blocks away. I also used it to drive to the movie theater 5 blocks away because I was runnning late and planning on meeting a friend. We can convince ourselves that we "need" things sometimes with an overly liberal definition of "need" (I find)

    A lst note. I hate the car. I feel something in my dying, or going dormant, almost any time that I'm in one. I don't know if this is a result of mostly not being in them (maybe half an hour to an hour a week) or what, but it's, well, creepy. I often wonder if that feeling is unique to me, or rare, or simply repressed in the majority of americans? i don't know.


  2. Pam,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I am so glad to know that I am not the only one with these concerns and this ambivalence.

    It will be interesting to watch how things unfold as oil prices continue to rise. Maybe this apparent "crisis" can actually provide a helpful opportunity to adjust our expectations and simplify our lives, as a culture.

    Individuals already make choices to try to simplify -- can we as a culture also collectively make such changes? Some subcultures can and do restrain the unfettered adoption of all that is new and trendy -- can the mainstream cultures of wealthy countries learn to do the same?

  3. I have to say I don't have much hope of the entire cutlure "learning" enough to make changes on a big enough scale.

    For one thing, it seems like if we could stop *wasting* oil pretty much *now*, we might be able to use what's left to make the transition to a diferent sort of lifestyle much smoother, but I suspect that even though some people make "good" choices, plenty of people are excited about owning a hummer, and that will be accomodated until it *can't* be - and we will drill in ANWAR so that people can drive them for an extra 6 months before the crisis hits.

    And it will hit all of us. I live in a big city, and my food is mostly shipped from far away. perhaps in 5 or 10 years we won't even be able to economically ship food 100 miles, and then I will be in trouble, because there are too many people in my city for us all to grow our food here.

    It's hard to even imagine what it will be like.


  4. I think cars are scary too. I haven't every gotten a license, because I get a panic attack whenever I drive. It is too easy to kill people with a car! a car seems to dangerous!

    But I like it when Jeff gets a Zipcar so that we don't have to carry an air conditioner 2 miles. Or so that we can go camping. Or to the beach.

    So . . .

    I have been thinking a lot about flying, too. I live a 15 hour train ride, or 12 hour car-drive, or 2 hour plane ride, away from my family and all of my little brothers and sisters. When I take time off work I want to spend as much of it actually with them as I can, because I only get to see them 2/ times a year, and they are growing so fast. I always look at amtrak, and always think about paying the extra money, but then I shy away from spending the extra time - a day each way.

    It's still a dilemma to me.

    Thanks for this post, it's keeping me thinking.

  5. From what I hear driving a car alone is roughly equivalent to flying on a full plane, so I don't think there's anything to choose there - flying is less work! :)

    I guess I have a different experience of family. visiting my mom stresses me out, and it's lovely to have a little retreat before and after (though now I'm usually taking care of her affairs and in a rush, so I mostly fly, because I simply dont' have the time not to!) I am a 35 (?) hour train ride from where I grew up, and I still would rather take the train when possible, but I find it "possible" less frequently lately. Oddly, I started flying more after 9/11, when my family life got more demanding and hectic.

    I reall love the train, and would reccomend it, especially as I find that flying saps more time than it claims to (airports are generally further out than train stations - so you have an extra 1/2 hour of travel time on each side there, plus you dont' have to be there an hour early for the train (or at all early if you're not checking baggage) and well, it stresses me out less. I don't think I'd even feel like I was saving time if it was maybe a 10 hour train ride, but most that I take are longer. I totally understand wanting to spend time with you family, though, especially with little kids to watch growing up!

  6. Thanks for this post. I feel like you articulated something that I've been struggling to find words for. I'm 18, and haven't even started learning to drive yet, for a lot of the reasons you talked about. I take buses and trains and ride with others (I fly a lot, but I haven't yet figured out a way not to- Quaker work in my case requires a lot of weekends). My family is pushing me to learn to drive, and I haven't been able to articulate what you have here- that driving feels unsustainable, and inauthentic, and incredibly reckless. So thank you. I feel like I have better words now.

  7. Kody & Amanda-

    I know how you feel. I have a drivers license, which I finally got at age 33, mostly because I wasn't managing not to depend on other people for rides and whatnot, and becaue there was an element in it as well of fearing growing up and taking the responsibility.

    But I do think driving is pretty terrible. If I could, I would abolish cars and drastically minimize airplane use. I really like not having a car, though I struggle not to overuse it when I do.

    I had a car for a few months a few years ago, and when I signed up for insurance, I said I would be driving some incredibly small amount - like 30 miles a month or something, and they laughed at me. I was basing my estimate on how often I thought, without a car, "wow, I really wish I had a car for this trip" - but form me owning one lent to the temptation of sleeping an extra 20 minutes and driving rather than biking to work, etc. I don't have a TV for the same reason. Some people have more self-control, but I find both technologies really insidious!


  8. "... when we begin to do a better job refusing to let our technologies and systems control us."

    Hi CS,

    This part of a sentence of yours really sums it up for me.

    That's why I'm religious! God has to be the power that can release us from the traps of a sick human civilisation and use us to show another way is possible.

    What I experience as Christ/the living and present God is the power which releases me from the traps of the culture. I'm not saying the work's complete - I have to be ready to take my hands off what doesn't belong to me, but as I am able to trust God/Love, I am set free more and more from the things I have been taught in the wider culture are essential.

    I'm another adult who doesn't have a driver's license, and so far I've refused to use aeroplanes either. I keep wondering whether it would be right to get a driver's license in order to be able to share driving when I do occasionally get in a car with others. The question for me is whether I trust God and myself enough: would having a license tempt me to increase my fossil fuel use? When I know the answer is know, I think I will feel free to drive.

    But anyway, enough about my own current place with the car stuff. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I love that there are drivers who are paying attention to what they are doing, in spite of the emotional cost of not ignoring it! God speed your journey and I hope Gathering is just overflowing with God's grace and goodness for you all.

  9. I really appreciate all of these comments and reflections, and it really means a lot to me to discover that I am not alone in my concerns!

    Once upon a time, I felt really embarrassed about my ambivalence, and tried to hide the fear that was mixed in with the more principled concerns. I thought that if I revealed the fear part of my ambivalence, people in mainstream culture would think there's something wrong with me.

    But now I am realizing that the more I share about all aspects of my ambivalence, including the fear, the more I learn how much more common this is than I had previously realized. The reason I didn't know this before is that others tend to be as good at hiding it as I used to be!

    There's nothing wrong with anyone who is uneasy about hurtling along at breathtaking speeds in a tiny and flimsy metal box, alongside other such contraptions, each going different speeds, darting in and out among the others. This particular kind of anxiety counts easily among the "reasonable" fears!

    Anyway, I did in fact make it there and back again and now will next turn my attention to a posting about the trip itself.