As I write this it is early morning, and from the top floor of my house, the bedroom windows look out toward a hotel not far away. I can see about a dozen windows of the guest rooms from my vantage point, seated at my desk. The sky, which just a couple of minutes ago was a deep indigo, looking like a dark and churning ocean, has now suddenly broken into patches of peach streaked with lilac. Into this sky, I can hear that one of the first early morning flights from Reagan National Airport, a few miles away, has just taken off – possibly with a friend of mine at the controls. At this early hour of the morning, none of the guests in the hotel are yet stirring, so far as I can see, for the curtains are all closed and there do not appear to be any lights on in the rooms, but no doubt some of them will be getting up soon for they will be checking out today, to begin their travels.
Last evening I met up with a couple of friends for happy hour. One is an airline pilot, and the other travels extensively for his work in energy. We spent a good deal of time discussing travel, particularly air travel, and realizing that although the glamour days flight are long-gone, there is still a thrill one has in taking a flight somewhere, no matter how many times you may have been on an airplane. The Courtier was even made fun of, by suggesting that I ought to be the focus of a documentary road trip across the country stopping in truck stops and monster car rallies, which apparently would make rather compelling television. Fortunately for all of us this is unlikely to come to pass.
Travel used to be something that was excruciating, which was why people tended not to engage in it any more than they really needed to. It took days to go from one city to another, and weeks to cross the ocean. The ability to travel more quickly and bringing rapid travel from planes to high-speed trains to express public transportation to within a price which more people can afford has certainly changed our lives in many respects.
Yet the faster travel gets, the less time we have to spend on reflection during our travels, whether it is in appreciating the marvels of modern travel itself, or in looking at what we can take away from the overall experience. For there is something ponderous about travel, within which we can find so many dichotomies that mirror life itself, in which we are all on the same journey to destinations unknown. And it is a journey we should all be trying our best to prepare for, and help others prepare for.
Think about the various emotions experienced over the years, for example, in going to a train station or an airport, when boarding a boat or a plane. There is always sense of a duality in these places, of both expectation and loss, excitement and sadness, relaxation and aggravation. We have concerns about forgetting important items, or getting separated from people, or not making connections. We may be faced with weather delays and terrorists and the just plain rude, as we attempt to make our way to our respective destinations.
However all of us, whether we live to be one year old or 101 years old, will all be taking a journey from this life at some point, to a destination with which we are totally unfamiliar. This is a conclusion which is inescapable for any traveler, in the back of their mind, no matter how savvy they may be. Will today be the day that something goes wrong, and I don’t make it home, they may ask themselves. Is it time for the journey where one may not take any carry-on bags whatsoever?
There is of course no reason to be morbid when stepping onto a train or taking your seat before take-off. Yet perhaps in our (alleged) contemporary sophistication about such things we have closed off the possibility of learning from the journey itself. It is possible that we have so insulated ourselves from what our ancestors clearly understood, i.e. that travel is potentially risky and dangerous, that we have become too detached from the opportunities for reflection provided by it.
Gentle reader, perhaps the next time you have to travel a significant distance while putting yourself in the care of someone else, you can do a couple of little things. Take a little time to reflect on and be grateful for all of the men and women who make your journeying possible in a degree of relative comfort and safety. And at the same time realize that it might do you some good to ponder where your own life is headed, and whether there are some course adjustments which you ought to consider as you continue along your way. You may be arriving at your intended destination in a matter of hours, rather than many days, but you can still make the most of that time you have to think, and then to act upon what you have considered.
Illustration of a trans-Atlantic crossing for the Louis Vuitton Co.
by Catalan illustrator/cartoonist Jordi Labanda (2009)