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?