Friday, July 4, 2008

On Travel

As I’ve sat aboard the Coast Starlight over the past dozen or so hours, I’ve thought about why it is that people travel. There are the old reasons: to find a new home, to find food or a livelihood, to conduction business, to buy or sell goods. Then there is leisure travel, conducted by those with means not for survival or to earn a profit, but rather to gain pleasure or enjoyment. Yet this is not a simple distinction; today’s resorts are descended for European sanatoria, which were health resorts in climates seen as more favorable to the treatment of disease. And the modern cruise infrastructure was built from old transatlantic transport ships.

So why travel? One reason is to go to a more favorable climate during some season or another. Certain parts of the country see their populations cut by half or more come Labor Day and the cultural end of summer. A variation on this would involve going somewhere to do an activity available only part of the year: skiing, boating, hiking, etc. Other destination activities like gambling or shopping are available indoors year-round. Another reason to travel might be to be at an event such as a festival, world premiere, or fair. One might visit an individual who lives in another city, state or country. Or they may simple wish travel with people they know and love, and by being away from the distractions and responsibilities of home, get to appreciate those people’s company. There are also more problematic reasons for travel. Medical tourism (an ironic anachronym in a post-sanitarium world) in which people go for procedures that are prohibitively expensive or, more often, illegal in the places they reside. And sex tourism almost always involves human trafficking and sex-slavery.

I pose this question because when I set out, I answered the question of why train travel, but I never considered why travel. Having traveled all my life, it seemed a given, yet now as I approach Vancouver, I’m not quite sure why I’m going there. Many people have told me they liked visiting the city, and I’ve researched a number of places to go. Yet spending time in LA the best part was the time I spent with my friends, not the very interesting places I visited. I’ve traveled alone before, and I’m not someone who minds doing things like eating out or seeing a movie by myself. Yet as I visit a new city in a (somewhat) foreign country, with the real possibility I’ll leave having not really met or known a single person, is somehow a lot lonelier then riding solo for any length of time. Perhaps the fatal flaw of my trip, revealed just 10 days in, is that I didn’t try to find a friend will and able to take the trip with me. Having planned this for months, it seems likely that I could have found someone willing to share with me the journey.

More so, I think this underscores my own concern that living in Kansas City over the passed year, I have failed to create any kind of peer social network, and whether that is due to inaction on my part, or if living there is not socially viable at this point in my life, something I don’t want to think about, as living elsewhere would make it extremely difficult to maintain the level of closeness with my family I value, especially given my decision not to fly.

These questions stray from the original topic, but delve into the heart of what this blog is about. A week from Friday, I am to meet my parents in Minneapolis and accompany them to Herzl Camp to visit my brother on Visitors Day. However, if the Empire Builder is as late as the Southwest Chief was, the plans won’t work. Transportation connections, business travel, and event start times (including the Sabbath) are just a few of the massively important reasons why a form of transportation needs to be reasonably punctual if it is going to gain wider use, especially when trains leave just daily. A weekend visit is made much more difficult (and may in some instances require an additional 24 hours of leeway) when the potential window of lateness is 7 hours or more. Taking a train to Houston for my friends’ wedding was simply not possible given my work schedule. Until these things improve, train travel may be relegated to a quaint old practice. But in a classic Catch-22 dilemma, it may only get the infrastructure improvements it needs if it can make itself more relevant. Rising fuel prices and concern over global warming may help, but there is work ahead if we are to have a rail system that is worthy of our place in the world.

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