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the space between
flying is for the birds
by roger striffler
11.27.02
general


I recently traveled from my current home in Raleigh back to the beautiful countryside of upstate NY to visit my family. It was just a weekend trip, planned somewhat spontaneously to surprise my parents and siblings since I will not be seeing them at Thanksgiving this year.

Naturally, my friends assumed I would be flying. In fact, several of them said, "You're flying, I assume." Most were shocked to find that I was not flying, but driving. My assurances to them that, "It's only 11 hours, and it'll be a nice trip" were met with the same closed-eyed, disapproving head shake that you might receive if you told them, "Well, no, I didn't actually see his badge, but he said it was an emergency and he'd bring my car right back." They might just as well have told me I was crazy. In fact, several did.

Now, there are plenty of reasons to drive rather than to fly. For starters, there's the whole terrorist thing, and the delays, hassles and grief caused by increased security. Regardless of the length of the flight, you generally end up spending most of the day travelling, and on someone else's schedule. There's also the cost. Even with a little planning, round trip tickets for my travelling companion and I were going to cost nearly $400. Compare that to $150 in gas and an oil change. Kinda makes the road more appealing, eh?

But these are not the reasons for my choosing to drive. I've traveled pretty extensively by plane, and am very comfortable doing it. The problem with traveling by air is that it has the very subtle effect of removing you from the world, not just for the brief time that you're in the sky, but long afterwards. It takes you away from one place, and plops you down in another without any context.

Think about it. You stand around in a big building for a couple of hours, then get in a big metal tube. It moves and shakes. You get out of the tube and find yourself in a different big building, in a different city, presumably the place you wanted to go. You spend time in this place, perhaps meeting new people and seeing new things, then you get back in the tube and go home. Where was this place? What separates you from the inhabitants there, other than a few hours? Better yet, what connects you?

Pick a place. How about New York City? Have you flown in, maybe for a night or a weekend, and experienced the overwhelming presence of the city that never sleeps? Even if you haven't, you probably feel like you know a lot about it. Since September 11th, 2001, the entire world knows about New York City. Everyone recognizes the Twin Towers, the Brooklyn Bridge and the emblem of the NYC Fire Department. And yet amazingly, 51% of young Americans questioned could not find New York State on a map. The city, and the events that took place there, are an entity outside of the context of your familiar corner of the world, and so we can't help but feel a bit distanced from them.

Ah, but drive, and things take on a whole new perspective. You'll find that New York City is just a small piece of a state that expands out between New Jersey and Connecticut to include sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains, and sparkling lakes that shimmer in the basins of tree-covered valleys left behind by the glaciers that crawled across the state eons ago.

Another example? Take The Grand Canyon. Chances are you've seen pictures of it. You might know where it is. Maybe, if you're lucky, you've actually been there. If not, believe me - it is GRAND. Despite what you may have seen in pictures or films, seeing it in person is a truly awe-inspiring experience. But do you want to double, may even triple that awe? Drive up to The Canyon from Phoenix. You'll see the flat desert landscape slowly change, and the cactus gradually replaced by scrub brush. As you gradually gain altitude you'll find rock outcroppings and small pines. Stop to splash your feet in the icy cold waters by the falls in Oak Creek Canyon, or wander through the ruins at Tuzigoot or Montezuma's Castle National Monuments, and you'll find vivid reminders of the history of this place and these people. Leaving Flagstaff, the landscape will stretch out before you, making it difficult to tell where the land ends and the sky begins. And when the ground falls away before you at your first view of the Canyon, I guarantee it will take your breath away.

But none of this can be had from the climate-controlled comfort of your airplane seat. Air travel allows us to visit places, but we experience them in isolation. They become like push-pins in a map, or a box of colorful postcards. Take the map away and you have a collection of points, seemingly unrelated. Dump the box and you have a scattering of pretty pictures. You lose the connection between these places; the things that tie them all together.

Cherish the map. Paste the postcards in a journal and tell a larger story. Get in your car, choose your destination and immerse yourself in the journey. Experience the millions of subtle details that connect the moments, and the miles.

Celebrate the space between.


ABOUT ROGER STRIFFLER

See that job title? Check it out: "Spy". How cool is that? I know, you're probably wondering what it means to be a spy for an international organization like Intrepid Media, huh? Well I'd love to tell you, but I can't. It's all part of the spy game, baby.

more about roger striffler

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COMMENTS

eloise young
11.27.02 @ 3:07a

One of the things I cherish most about having ridden a motorcycle across the country is the memory of the smells that wafted in through my helmet. Differences in the air's humidity, temperature, amount of industry, livestock agriculture, pollen crops... all could be noticed in the air I breathed.

I'd challenge that, apart from walking or going by bicycle, there is no way to be so well connected to the space one is passing through/over than by enveloping oneself in its air.

russ carr
11.27.02 @ 3:59a

Bugs in your teeth?

Are there any two words more thrilling than "Road Trip" (as long as we're not referring to the Tom Green movie)? I've driven the unavoidable-if-you're-a-mid-Atlantic-resident stretch of I-95 countless times, and it was nearly always a glorious time. Pit stops were always made at the most local-looking gas stations, so I could scrounge around their coolers for local/regional sodas that I'd never tried before. I've stumbled through little towns during parades and fairs (and, yes, construction ad nauseam) and I wouldn't change any of it.

In defense of flying, though, it can have its moments. Flying into Seattle for the first time this summer afforded me a stunning view of Mts. Rainier and St. Helens that couldn't be equalled from ground level, because there's no perspective. It was a jaw-dropping "my God this planet is beautiful" moment because I was "atop" the mountain, looking down -- not unlike your perspective on the Grand Canyon.

tracey kelley
11.27.02 @ 9:24a

I love road trips.

It's a feeling of freedom, of spontaneity. Even with the drawbacks of contstruction, heavy traffic, bad/rude drivers, there's still the road mix tape, snacks in the cooler, conversations brought up in the safe confines of the vehicle that are not usually shared...and the landscape. The roadsigns. The pit stops. The true visual of a place or people that you can't get any other way.

Rog, I've taken part of that drive up to the Grand Canyon. You are so right. And at night - it looks like you could reach up and literally choose any star.

Russ, I'm with you flying over mountains, or the ocean. The immensity of it all just can not be measured any other way.

roger striffler
11.27.02 @ 9:55a

Ok, I have to agree completely that there are benefits to the perspective that you can get through an airplane window. It can be humbling, awe-inspiring and just plain amazing.

Unfortunately, the majority of passengers don't get a window seat (maybe we need to work on that formula for transparent aluminum), but most of us have access to a car, bike or bus.

robert melos
11.27.02 @ 11:22a

I'm definitely a road trip person. I didn't like flying before 9/11, now getting me on a plane (a place where I not only have to trust the person in the cockpit, but everyone else on board) is nearly impossible. I will fly in private planes with very rich people, but that's about it for air travel. Besides, there is so much beauty to be seen on the ground.

jael mchenry
11.27.02 @ 11:49a

I don't have a car, so I tend to fly or take the train for long trips, but even if I had a car I would still fly to California. Planes make it possible for you to see beauty you could never drive to. Not in a reasonable amount of time, anyway.

That said, Roger, there are great thoughts. My mom and I drove from Phoenix to Flagstaff (for a spa trip to Sedona) and that whole stretch is just amazing. It springs vividly to mind reading your column.

heather millen
11.27.02 @ 12:05p

I love road trips. And my cross country drive was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. No matter how many times I'd flown from east to west coast, I never really thought about what was in between. It was awesome to see each state and watch the changes as time and distance progressed. And you're right, Roger... how GRAND the Grand Canyon was is truly fantastic.

Unfortunately, now that I'm on the other coast, road trips home are obselete. I would love to jumping in the car for a quick trip to Pennsy for Thanksgiving. Ahh, well...



matt morin
11.27.02 @ 12:26p

I'm with everyone on the road trip lovin'. But you all keep forgetting something - the drive home.

After a long weekend, when you're tired (and probably hungover) there is nothing worse than getting back in a car and knowing you still have 11 hours ahead of you when all you want to do is be home.

roger striffler
11.30.02 @ 7:43p

Ok, you win. There is an awful lot ot be said for flying, and as Jael says, sometimes driving just isn't practical. I really have nothing against flying, I just think that it's become all too easy to overlook the alternative, and there's so much to miss out on if you do.

As for the trip home...sometimes I agree 100%, and other times (and especially after visits to see the family) it's a really nice time to reflect back on the vacation before diving right back into the flurry of day to day life.

stella starr
12.2.02 @ 10:17p

Been there, done both, often didn't have a choice: the Corn Palace is in my HOMETOWN, and it'll cost you almost $600 to take a $99 flight from there to Chicago. Smaller the destination, the more it costs you and the carrier to make the flight worthwhile. Good thing I love road trips. That said, and despite my fun-filled 6 hours this weekend at O'Hare trying to nap on a bench like a wino, there's interesting stuff to gain from people-watching at our nation's aviation hubs. But once I asked myself just how old I WILL have to get, to get to that "wanna do it someday" list and learned to fly a small plane, I gotta tell you: fly yourself. Sure, by the time you're done with the training you could have saved enough for the down payment on a one-bedroom bungalow. But after that you pay only for time the engine's running when you rent a plane. And you can turn to go look at that bike trail you took in summer, take a route up the river, do steep turns around an elevator to find the name of a small town (most, is seems, are named Cargill) and recapture that feeling from dreams when you could stretch your arms out and fly. I sing a lot, careful not to key the mike on my radio. At 3000 feet, you see everything, the way you wish you could in a car. It'd still take me $600 to round-trip to Chicago, plus a ramp fee to park. But I see the land the way God sees it, and neither drugs nor love will take your spirit that high.



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