Where is the room for serendipity, for being blindsided by life and thereby made aware of something you might otherwise never know?
I’ve always had the nagging sense that flying, as a form of travel, is cheating. When I was a boy, travel for me meant one thing: long car trips between suburban Baltimore, where I grew up, and central Illinois, where I had been born and where my grandmother and a great many other relatives lived, many of them farmers in the area around Effingham and Charleston. When you drove even that relatively short distance (about 750 miles), you developed, without even working at it, a surprisingly vivid sense of the land you were passing through: its contours and places, its changing patterns of vegetation and settlement and land use, the various ways its people made their living and ate and drank and worshiped and otherwise passed the time, and the continuities and discontinuities between regions of the country, from tidewater to piedmont to mountains to farmland. This was particularly true in the days of the “blue” highways, before the interstates were built, when travel involved passing through small towns, dodging their speed traps, choosing from among a handful of unpromising motels, and risking the local road food. You felt close to the countryside, just as the driver of a low-slung sports car feels close to the road.
Flying saves a lot of time, of course. And there are often great views out the window. But flying’s instrumental virtues demand a sacrifice of all else, including the satisfaction of knowing that, after having worked your way through the journey piece by piece, keenly aware of the land around you, paying your respects region by region, you have somehow fully earned the right to set foot on your destination. “The soul,” say the Bedouin, “travels at the pace of the camel.” By contrast, there is something almost gnostic, and dematerialized, about air travel. It allows one simply to circumvent all contact with, and most awareness of, what is between here and there, reducing to nil the possibility of serendipity, of some unsought discovery or unanticipated grace encountered en route. The best flight is an uneventful one—though it may leave the soul behind entirely.