Reimagining American Community

Railroad TravelThe truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space.’ It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. –C.S. Lewis


ravel has, from the beginning of time, involved a significant element of drudgery. Through his innovative strivings, man has slowly eliminated that element of struggle and discomfort. He first subdued the horse and ox; he later harnessed the power of steam; now he has come so far as to conquer the air itself. Such are the wonders of man’s creative capacities. Yet, even when it was still quite arduous, there was always something about travel that apparently made it worth the effort.

From Christopher Columbus to Captain Cook, men have known that the adventure promised by the journey was worth the dirt, sweat, and discomfort. There was poetry in the pilgrimage, and there was romance in the return home. Is it possible that, as we have made terrestrial movement faster and easier, we have at the same time made the experience cheaper? In short, when we removed the drudgery from travel, did we convert travel itself into drudgery?

John Ruskin seemed to think so. For him, travel by rail was:

. . . in all its relations a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man from a traveler into a living parcel. For the time he has parted with the nobler characteristics of his humanity for the sake of planetary power of locomotion. Do not ask him to admire anything. You might as well ask the wind. Carry him safely, dismiss him soon: he will thank you for nothing else.

To condemn technological advances simply because they move at a higher speed is to be a bit of a grouch. Ruskin, at first look, seems to be this grouch who decries progress simply because it is progress; who laments the cure for polio because it eliminates the poetic inspiration of the paralytic. But I think that this first impression would not be the whole truth, and rather that he was simply making a good point in a grouchy way. He saw that some of the simplest pleasures in life are impoverished through speed and efficiency. You cannot savor a delicious steak efficiently. And who wants to rush through a stroll in the park?

C.S. Lewis, a zealous preacher of pedestrianism, knew that there were certain subtle dangers posed by modern transportation. He apparently shared some of the sentiments of Ruskin:

I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive… The deadly power of rushing about where I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room.’

G.K. Chesterton, although characteristically more cheerful than Ruskin, seems to at least agree with him on this particular grumble. He spoke of motorized travel destroying distance:

It is inspiriting without doubt to whiz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice fields.’

It seems that travel, if it is to remain an authentically human experience, should be cautious to always keep the man small so that the world can stay big. Man desires to be active in all his adventures, but no one is more passive than the “passenger.” His participation is not only impoverished but non-existent. It cheapens the experience by making it a bit too quick and a bit too comfortable. This makes the world smaller, and making the world smaller is a nightmare for the spirit of the adventurer; it wreaks havoc on the heart of the explorer. When we make man too big, and the world too small, man runs the risk of what Chesterton called “being out of proportion with the universe.”

Lewis agreed, saying this represented “a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.”

So what can be done to revive the gift of space in a shrinking world? The simple first step is as easy as taking a step on the grass; more steps on the ground and less stepping on the gas pedal. If you can walk to a destination, why not do so? It is a mark of wisdom to use the simplest means available to accomplish a task, and only resort to complex technologies when they are needed. If we want to take full advantage of this glorious gift of space, we don’t have to play the grouch, rejecting the wonders of the modern world; but we do, occasionally, need to play the pilgrim. We might even find that the slow pilgrimage can offer the pilgrim an experience of space which not even NASA’s space-travel can equal.

About the Author
Daniel Schwindt is Editor-in-chief at Solidarity Hall. He hails from the plains of central Kansas, a cultural navel of the world, and from there hurls his literary lighting bolts far and wide. His writings include Letter to my Generation: On Identity, Direction, and Disbelief, The Pursuit of Sanity, and Holocaust of the Childlike.