The Slow Route

Travel these days is not what it used to be. For big trips, we only ‘travel’ in the physical sense – i.e., transporting ourselves from one place to another. Airplanes skip over everything between points A and B, meaning that ‘traveling’ isn’t the spiritual and psychological challenge and renewal that it used to be. Travel these days is only literal. Of course, once at the new place, one can move around, talk to people, and have all the fulfilling experiences with which we still denote the term. But the modern concept of travel is much more packaged and sterilized than most of us like to admit. The adventure is no longer in the journey.

A long time ago, to travel was to see at a walking pace all of the land through which one traveled. It was to feel the heat and the cold, the hills and moon, the dust and the sunsets. It was, for better or worse, to feel the land through which one passed. However, a lot of what one feels when traveling by foot or horseback or sailboat is uncomfortable, so ancient humans must have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make travel, and life in general, more comfortable. A noble purpose, and one we continue to this day, even us ultrarunners who buy comfortable shoes and snazzy new fabrics. But somewhere along the line we must have passed the line dividing comfort from sterility, and then we kept going at top speed. So here we are now, and I’d argue that travel is just too damn comfortable.

Airplanes and airports are about as sterile as an environment can be outside hospitals. For security reasons they keep everyone bottled up in the terminals, and then the airplanes themselves have pressurized cabins and everything is upholstered in a nice, fuzzy, gray color. For their purpose, this is absolutely necessary–like, I know that airplanes have pressurized cabins so that we can stay alive at 40,000 feet. But all I’m trying to say is this: if you’re trying to have a ‘traveling’ experience, don’t take an airplane. It’s too fast. It’s too comfortable. You miss everything in between. Airplanes are great for efficiency, but not so much for lasting, valuable experiences.

That said, I do it all the time. I fly around the world and run up and down mountains and compete in races and so on and so forth. Just this past year I flew to Alaska, California (twice), Washington, Maryland, and Japan. Last year, I went to Europe twice. It’s completely absurd in a number of ways. For one, that I get to do this and make a living by it is absolutely incredible. What luck! The second is that so much flying is downright irresponsible, environmentally. For a guy who spends his life idealizing pristine mountain landscapes, my travel schedule sure does a lot to de-pristine them.

The third way that my lifestyle is completely absurd is more complicated. Having had the opportunity to run lots of international races over the past few years, my standards of travel have slowly evolved. My whole career, be what it may, is based on having adventures in the mountains. And the culture of mountain sports is often based on being ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ or, in other words, not being a showboat, liar, hypocrite, materialist, or just generally a douche. So when I find myself in a fossil-fuel burning airplane bound for, say, Alaska, to climb on glaciated peaks, or Europe, to do the exact same thing, the values that the mountain community has instilled in me are quick to call bullshit.

Not being one to take such name-calling lying down, I naturally want to defend myself. But literally the only arguments I can come up with in favor of such jet-setting are (1) that everyone else does it, and (2) that I have to in order to stay relevant in my ‘career.’ And that seems like nonsense. I shouldn’t do anything just because other people do it–actions need innate reasons of their own. For me, the greatest inspiration behind the entire world of mountain running is in the unknown. I throw the word adventure around too much, but where it really applies is in the places that are dark in our minds, the ridges and forests beyond the scope of our knowledge. And that’s the third point I’m trying to make right there–rather than fly on airplanes between mapped adventures, I should be taking the slow route. The driving, biking or walking route. That returns the adventure to the journey itself, rather than the destination.

I probably will not stop flying to races. I won’t stop consuming, just like everyone else, at least in the short term. To say that I will would put incredible pressure on me to sacrifice entirely a society I only marginally disagree with. But I would like to make a point in the coming years to give up so much flying in favor of the slow route. I want to feel the places through which I travel, not just the end goal. Life doesn’t need to be unnecessarily difficult, but we lose a lot of valuable experiences, observations, and encounters by moving so quickly. The world’s mountain ranges are pretty special, but so is much of the land and people between them. Taking the slow route is a way to fill in some of the unknowns between destinations, a way to have a real adventure. And since I have the luxury to seek adventure, I’d like to make the most of it.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever chosen the slow route for travel? If so, how did you travel, where did you go, and what did you find?
  • Is there any solution to the dichotomy Dakota describes, that people seeking adventure in far-off lands need airplanes to get there but the use of airplanes not only changes the travel experience but is also environmentally problematic?

There are 26 comments

  1. movinggreenfeet

    Hello Dakota ,

    thanks for sharing. I feel the same in many ways. I wanna add some things i find great about slow travel. a) connecting cities, landscapes, rivers, mountain ranges: something that roads do but don't. it's great to get to one city from another by foot. b) seeing what's in between: we often travel to well-known places, but there's so much history, awesome landscape, great trails and people in between. c) getting a feel for the distance: it's quite an experience to travel over 50miles within 2 days and then driving back in 1 hour (we should walk back ;-).

    It's now always easy, though: "Hey Mom, I'm coming to visit you now, See you in a month…"

  2. lstomsl

    Yes! You get it! When I travel internationally I never buy the guidebook or set a schedule. I just go, talk to people in hostels where I stay, listen to there experiences and then determine where I'm gonna go. It's not always comfortable. Sometimes it downright sucks. But then sometimes you find yourself watching the sun come up from a high ridge with nobody else around for miles, or get picked up hitchhiking after the bus breaks down. by a family that invites you home for a meal and offers you a place to stay for a few days where you can see how people really live. When I return i will page through lonely planet in the bookstore to see what they say about the area I just experienced. Invariably I find that my favorite places and experiences are not in the book. You can't tell someone how to repeat your trip because they will never experience the same things The places in between can be amazing.

  3. rfgordon2013

    My job involves lots of trave. Within the US that usually means flying. Since it's for work, not much time is wasted (not counting airline delays). When I go to Europe, though, I relish the chances to take the trains and move at a different pace. On a train I love to take in the scenery. My first trip to Norway, in 2012, brought the awesome surprise of travel by fjord boat. Wow! The scenery of water, forests and rocky landscapes were amazing.

  4. MOGBlogger

    enjoying your writing, as usual. the spoonful of sugar – your humor – helps the medicine (don't be an environment douche whenever it's possible) go down.

  5. Bryon of iRunFar

    My absolute favorite trip ever was a week on the south island of New Zealand last March. Although I'd certainly checked in with a few runner friends who lived in or traveled extensively in NZ before leaving, I didn't have a single plan as I slept the whole way from Los Angeles to Auckland. It was only once I was airborne from Auckland to Queenstown that I started forming any sort of itinerary. Within three hours of landing (I had no DOC permit nor any food), I was off on the Routeburn Track for an two-day yo-yo of the great trail. Although I had a couple ideas of places to check out, that week came together piece-by-piece, kilometer-by-kilometer. I never knew where I'd be sleeping more than two nights in advance. That rough plane-made itinerary shaped things, but was no firm guide. A day trip to Fjordlands NP gave way to a short run above Wanaka and some quiet time in town. A Kepler two-day run came together on a wing and a prayer.

    That trip has make even more hesitant to create detailed plans for my travels. I may pick a home base, but I want the wonder and beauty to unfold in its own way. I'm hoping to let this happen in Argentina in a few months. There's be a home base with room for random adventure.

  6. ClownRunner

    Top ten reasons to go slow and randomly through life:

    (1) You could wander into North Korea by accident and be invited to a birthday party;
    (2) You could find the remains of an elk in Montana;
    (3) You might be thousands of miles from water but be at peace;
    (4) You could run into an old school chum in some strange missionary compound;
    (5) You might find the lost city of Atlantis;
    (6) You could find a Dakota Jones trading card thousands of miles from any stadium;
    (7) You could run into Nick Clark trespassing on private property up on a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado ;)
    (8) No rude flight attendants down below on Terra Firma; and you can pee where you want;
    (9) The kids, the wife, the dog, the yard, the dishes…they can wait;
    (10) Getting hypothermia beats getting airplane flu, easily…

  7. senelly

    Right on Dakota! It's not easy celebrating the here and now from a coach seat at 40k while fasting (starving) and keeping one's elbows to one's self. OK… Fast backward… the year was 1969… I embarked on a trans-Pacific journey in what was for all the world a Greyhound bus with wings. That is to say, it was a tin can chock full of sardine-people. Not much has changed during the ensuing 45 years, except it now takes at least 4 times as much time to get from the front door of the terminal to the airplane. Enjoy the journey? How? It's a relief to get there, even if 'there' is downtown Newark (sorry Newark) or the starting line of a 100-miler. So, after 45 years of air-busing (yes, there is a European plane company named Airbus), and not having to be concerned with making a living while running, I am seriously considering getting to my next long run destination on foot or by bike. Maybe it'll be good training…

  8. RobCUK

    Great article, did my first proper long distance self propelled travelling this summer, mountain biked across the Pyreneese from the Med to the Atlantic. Took 16 days and took us across some fantastic mountain passes and a beautiful part of the world. Makes a huge difference when the journey is such a massive part of the whole experience. Did a 50 k at sea level about 2 weeks later with very little running in my legs, and found that my lungs performed perfectly, my legs just refused to play ball after mile 20 so i spent the last 10 miles just cramping up. Taught me how important miles on legs is.

  9. AtomLawrence

    Glad you at least recognize the hypocrisy of our existence. I would add to the issue of energy consumption the fact that we destroy a pair of shoes every month or two which was most likely made by an oppressed labor force that will never run outside in the mountains under a clear blue sky, using manufacturing techniques and materials that release synthetic compounds into the environment which will outlast us all. I'm sure you've probably thought about this too, and I'm not any better than anyone else.

  10. javieronn

    100% my travel philosophy, and I think Italo Calvino said it best:

    "To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in a place for a duration that is itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and when in which you vanished."

    My most memorable slow journey was traveling overland from Seoul to Berlin to run my first marathon. This consisted of a bus ride from Seoul to Korea's east coast, a cruise to Vladivostok, the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow, and a final train to Berlin. Staring out the train window entirely lost in thought as we rode through the vastness of Siberia was especially mind-blowing.

  11. Andy

    In response to Meghan's call for comments: As an east coaster, my first trip west at age 21 was by car. Who knew that the midwestern flatlands had a grandeur all their own? Or that the rolling hills of central Iowa were truly beautiful? But nothing could compare to driving across the plains and, little by little, beholding the majestic Rockies rise up in the distance. No matter where you go or how beautiful it is, you just can't experience it the same way when you travel at 500 mph.

  12. MattRuns

    A practical solution to the environmental dilemma is to have your sponsors pony up for carbon offset credits for travel. Good PR for them and good guilt reduction for your conscience.

  13. guillgall

    Definitely. Some weeks ago I hitchhiked from Seattle to San Francisco, in four days. Traveled the land, meeting the people. Great adventure and great trip, both physically and mentally. But afterwards, I flew back to Seattle. Sterile journey indeed. Efficient, though.

  14. Matt Smith

    I flew to Oregon from NY when I had 5 days off from work. If I had driven, I could have made to Ohio and back. Easy choice for me (nothing personal, Ohio.)

    I'd rather fly to where I want to be, and then start the process of exploring once I've arrived. While I appreciate the purist ideal of walking/driving everywhere to experience all the 'in betweens', it's not realistic or practical for many who work full time and have a family.

    Some of us have already spent decades exploring our local ranges or road tripping around the country, so the idea of more of the same isn't nearly as exciting as waking up in another time zone/continent after a red-eye to where ever.

    Traveling fast lets us slow down once we arrive where we want to be.

    Nice article, but I don't agree with the sentiment or ideals. Louie CK had it right about air travel:

  15. Sarah

    "Travel is just too damn comfortable"? Doesn't have to be–but also, when it's comfortable, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've traveled almost every conceivable way, from road-tripping across New Zealand or Europe in rent-a-wrecks, to overnight bus rides across Argentina, to days-long train journeys, to rafting and hiking and horse pack trips … all with two kids in tow … and it's all good. Having a scary, crappy flight on a Portuguese plane that seems held together by chewing gum and baling wire makes me absolutely love the cozy comforts of a cushy airliner like Virgin or Cathay Pacific. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big believer in slow, mindful travel. And I always choose to drive the 1000 miles from California to Colorado rather than fly (though that's not necessarily good for the environment) precisely so I can enjoy the experience on the road. Travel doesn't have to be "packaged and sterilized." Business and vacation travel often are, but authentic travel–living and experiencing another place and culture–doesn't have to be. In any case, I think we're stuck with airline travel, and I for one am grateful to get on a plane when I want to go abroad — and if I get an upgrade to Business Class, I'll take it!

      1. Sarah

        Actually we flew from BA to Bariloche but then took the bus to Mendoza, and then again to Santiago. Are you going to Villa La Angostora for the Salomon K42?! That would be awesome. Anyway, about the bus, read my then-11-year-old daughter's blog post on it from her mothballed blog — it's pretty hilarious and describes it better than I could:

        1. Bryon of iRunFar

          What a great report! And a decent enough experience. Sure beats Philadelphia to Elko, Nevada on a Greyhound…

          I'm thinking of heading to San Martin de los Andes… mostly for some language immersion and adventure. :-)

          1. Sarah

            The buses in Argentina are great. You can't go wrong spending time in that part of the world. I wanted to add to my off-the-cuff comment from last night re travel: I think the key to meaningful, mindful "slow" travel is connecting with the environment and the people. That doesn't have so much to do, in my view, with the mode of travel, but rather our personal behavior; that is, our willingness to connect with others and soak in the environment. It means putting down the iPad and striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the plane or bus. It means renting a house from VRBO or couchsurfing and making small talk with locals while buying groceries, instead of staying at a resort. OK, enough said!

  16. lstomsl

    In my experience busses in chile and Argentina are far, far better than greyhound. About as nice as busses can be. Granted I am pretty much insensitive to noise and motion and can sleep anywhere…

  17. rich_sweden

    Ultimately this is a philosophical question about life. One would have to ask whether the rushing from place to place is a temporary condition or symptomatic of a wider pattern? Avoiding the bigger picture of life and keeping it strictly focused on travel, I would have to chime in in agreement with Matt and Sarah’s comments. In my younger days as a college student and as an outdoor migrational recreationalist (a great job title coined with friends) time was long and money was short, and the journey was everything. A few decades on and with the time that is available in a life with a few more responsibilities I am more interested in experiencing places. Sometimes this means that it is necessary to travel fast to a place, as Matt wrote, in order to be able to “slow down once we arrive where we want to be” and to be open to the possibilities once there, as Bryon described his New Zealand experience. But it is not an either/or question and how I travel depends on the journey/destination involved, and in the end it is not a question unique to trail runners.

  18. ptityeti

    As with most questions of such a philosophical nature, the best thing is to give it a shot and try. Afterwards you will probably as yourself why you never tried before.

    Yes, I have tried to travel to races the slow way before. Some examples:
    – In 2004 I cycled from home (Belgium) to Austria to run a race that was a qualification race for the Worlds in mountain running. On my way I ran some road races in Germany and after the race I cycled back home through Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France and Luxembourg, throwing in another race in France. I was selected for the Worlds.
    – In 2005 I started cycling in Salzburg (Austria) and cycled to the European Mountain Running Championships at the Grossglockner (also Austria). After the race I cycled further to Slovakia, Hungary (running a half marathon there), Croatia, Slovenia (running the Grintovec mountain race), Italy (running Giir di Mont) and Switserland (running Thyon-Dixence).
    – In 2008 ran Hardrock. I flew to Grand Junction and started cycling there. Cycled up to Silverton, ran Hardrock and continued south to New Mexico, turned west to Arizona, turned at the Grand Canyon and cycled back to Grand Junction across Utah.
    – In 2009 I flew to Seattle and cycled from there to Easton and ran Cascade Crest. After the race I cycled on to Oregon and Idaho, cheated by taking the Amtrak to North Dakota and cycled across Minnesota to run Superior Sawtooth.
    – In 2012 I cycled from Knoxville to Frozen Head and back to run Barkley.
    Those are just some of the times I traveled the slow way that involved races somewhere along the way. There has been a lot of slow travel without races and countless times when I ran or cycled to the start of race. A few times I took the train to the station the closest to the race start, cycled the last part to the start, slept on or close to the start line and the next morning ran an won the race.

    I have enjoyed all of those travels. Well, most of the time at least. There is a lot of cycling in that list and my dream would be to replace all that cycling by running. I try to move towards that.
    The two major reasons that stop me from expanding this list all the time:
    – some of those trips were made when I was still a student. Now, working a full time job at the office there are a lot more time constraints.
    – I tend to move away from racing. I feel less and less the need for a RD to tell me where and when I should run. Now my preferred way is to go somewhere with a light backpack containing minimal cloths, sleeping back, mattress, bivvy or tent depending on the climate food for a few days and just run/hike all day and sleep (preferably in the open air) wherever I might happen to be when the night falls. Only two weeks ago I spent a week like that on Sardinia.

    When reading through the comment I strikes me that most of the commenter consider the train, car or bus as a slow way of traveling. For me it is not. For me the line between the slow way and the fast way is where you move from self-powered travel to some machine doing all the work. If I have to make the choice between flying somewhere and running or cycling the last 100 miles or skipping the flying and driving a car for the entire 1000 miles I will without any doubt chose the former.

    I know that in the early 2000's UK runner Martin Cox made a living running mountain races across Europe and did a lot of his travels on a bicycle. I might be interesting talking to him if you want to live the slow way.

    So, my advice would be to start with the low hanging fruit and replace the many short travels that everybody makes by traveling the slow way. I see less the point of replacing flights by another way of fast travel. And to replace them by slow travel would require an amount of time almost nobody has.

    To finish a quote from Thor Heyerdahl: "Tidsnød er en av sivilisasjonens fremste skyggesider. Kanskje den eksportvare vi har vanskeligst for å selge til folk som lever under åpen himmel.". In English that would be something like "Lack of time is one of civilizations major disadvantages. It is probably the export article that is the hardest to sell to people living under the open sky."

  19. @dbconlin

    May I recommend Nepal, Bolivia and China? Plenty of opportunity for "slow" travel (in Nepal, much of the land can only be accessed via multi-day foot travel) + mountains. The language barrier in China adds a whole other dimension!

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