“YOU CAN’T SEE ANYTHING from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.”
— Edward Abbey
It’s been nearly 50 years since Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire, a declaration of love to the Southwest whose ripple effect left a legacy of environmentalism in its wake. But, in a world of expedient travel, do his words still carry weight? After walking, bicycling, and driving across America, this is what I have learned we sacrifice by traveling too fast.
On my first long-distance trip — a bike tour — I frequently told myself to avoid distractions that would cause me to delay my itinerary. This was on my mind the morning I crawled out of my tent to find myself surrounded by decorated caravans. There was an impromptu art festival taking place in the small riverside town of Stockholm, Wisconsin.
As jugglers drifted by and painters set up their stands in the early sunlight, my traveling partner and I debated whether to stay or make more miles. Four years later, I have never regretted deciding to stay and explore the little town that quadruples its population once a year.
My journey from New Hampshire to Georgia was a harrowing 30-hour bus ride. I witnessed a drug deal, an attempted religious conversion, and a loud conversation about erotic dreams. During the night, I was woken every few hours by a scratchy PA system, prodded into a fluorescent bus station, and after ten minutes of blaring televisions, returned to my stiff seat.
My trip back took six months, covered nearly 2,000 miles by foot, and was much more enjoyable. I experienced violent illness, hail, and poisonous snakes, but always with the driving reminder that if I quit, I would have to take the bus home.
Traveling quickly saves time. But time is a nebulous concept that has been measured in everything from money to distance to cups of tea. I have learned that I prefer to measure my time in quality. For me, 30 hours on a bus was longer than six months in the woods.
Hail the size of peach pits was pockmarking our bare legs and arms with reddish welts when we finally reached shelter in the Greyson Highlands. But the hectic sound of the deluge was replaced by our laughter as the hail suddenly stopped and a rainbow broke out of a countryside teeming with wild ponies. I would walk through a hailstorm daily if that were my reward each time.
Struggle, difficulty, and uncertainty are not words you’ll find in a tourist brochure, but they are words intrinsic to long-distance travel. Our lowest moments on the Appalachian Trail made us truly appreciate our highest.
Driving appealed much less to me. Watching the country go by behind glass made me feel separated from it; I spent most of my time looking in the rearview mirror. Hiking, we found that people in town wanted to talk to us, and our leisurely schedule afforded us the time to listen. We witnessed the gradual changes in landscape and local attitudes as the Deep South transitioned into the Northeast.
On multiple occasions, traveling slowly has forced me to spend a lot of time with someone completely different than me. If we were seated next to each other on the bus, one of us probably would have moved. But instead, we always find common ground and often stay in touch after the trip is over. The bond between travel partners is made out of stronger glue than friendships built on similarities.
Bike touring and hiking, my immediate future was usually uncertain, and that vulnerability made me seem approachable. I made dozens of unlikely friends this way. In a car or on a bus, people treated me as one more tourist. They were polite, but distant.
I spent several months in Montana before I got used to the “big sky.” It was an optical illusion — because the mountains were separated by flat expanses, the sky appeared larger. Similarly, after a week in Seattle I was shocked to realize that, unlike in Boston where honking is a hereditary instinct, no one honks their car horns in traffic.
I’ve always thought these quirks and small mysteries shape a place’s personality. When I’m on a schedule, though, I skip smaller things in favor of larger ones. Traveling the US by car, I made sure to stop at Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, and Nashville, but I failed to visit numerous small canyons I had read about, hike through Joshua Tree, or have a real conversation with a stranger.
By comparison, when I was cycling across the US I toured the last standing Cold War-era missile site on a whim. Hiking, I visited abandoned mining towns hidden in the woods of Appalachia.
Travel, like most things in life, depends on your priorities. If you want to see something beautiful without any context, you can drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and be on your way to New Mexico by sundown. Or you can forget about your destination and crawl.