Grounded: traveling the world without taking a flight

Stevenson - trains and automobiles; no planes

Here is an excerpt from Seth Stevenson’s new book about travelling the world sans airplane. Of course, ground transport is just as polluting, and just as subject to snow delays as air transport, but somehow its less total – schedules are more flexible – there is always another bus, or another cargo ship coming along:

“Walking down the sidewalk, I instinctively check my pocket. There are no keys there, and it’s a bit unsettling. I find I keep reflexively patting at the void. I feel a moment of panic each time. Until I remember there’s nothing I need keys for anymore. No apartment, no mailbox, no car. I feel untethered. I’m carrying the whole of my existence in a backpack.

It’s a bright August day. We’re walking to the metro stop. Last week, my life lacked purpose, but today every step seems like a purposeful stride. Those people in front of us? They’re going to the office. Us? We’re going on an adventure.We take the subway to Union Station, where we catch an Amtrak train up to Philadelphia. The very first leg of our trip is now behind us. At a Philly camera store we buy a pair of binoculars, figuring they might be of use out on the open sea.

In our hotel room that night, we watch TV as we drift off to sleep. There are promo ads for the new fall lineup on sitcoms and dramas. They wash over us. We’ll be far, far away—in space and in mind—by the time they reach the airwaves. Tomorrow, we will board a cargo freighter and set off across the Atlantic.

It became clear that we’d first need to answer a few fundamental questions. Questions one rarely asks oneself in day-to-day life. Things like: How long would it take to sail from Singapore to Fiji? Or, scratch that—How fast can a camel traverse one hundred roadless miles, encumbered with two people, fifteen gallons of water, and a yurt?

Fortunately, Rebecca is a stone-cold genius when it comes to travel logistics. She knows all the angles and is lightning quick on her feet. When your flight gets canceled and everyone’s stuck at a snowy airport with no rental cars, she’s that fellow passenger you overhear murmuring calmly into her cell phone, arranging to hire a stagecoach and a team of Clydesdales. Her talents as a navigatrix made me so confident that we could face down any situation, I decided we could leave our plans vague for the time being. We knew we wanted to take a ship across the Atlantic and then trains across Russia.

Our timing seemed to work, as it would get us in and out of Siberia before summer ended. (By all accounts, Siberia in winter is not a good place to be.) After that, everything—routes, destinations, schedules, accommodations—was left undecided. We’d build our journey piece by piece, on the fly.

Packing and Simplifying

Next step: packing. Rebecca and I had strong feelings on this matter. We share a severe disdain for travelers whose massive backpacks extend down below their knees and up over the crowns of their heads, dangling behind them bits of flotsam clipped on with carabiners. Walk through any backpacker district in Southeast Asia and you’re sure to pass some sunburned schlub with a souvenir dideridoo bumping along in his wake. We didn’t want to be that guy. As a result, we risked going too far in the other direction, challenging each other to pack as little as possible. Rebecca at one point threatened to travel the earth carrying nothing but a lunchbox.

In the end, we settled on small backpacks—not significantly larger than the kind a book-laden college student might lug to the library. Into mine I tucked a minimal allotment of clothes, including just three pairs of underwear, which, if I hope to remain on friendly terms with Rebecca, will require frequent washing. For her part, Rebecca somehow managed to pack more digital gadgets than items of attire. (This is in her genes. Some celebrate gold and diamond wedding anniversaries; Rebecca’s parents celebrate the consumer electronics anniversary. Every year.) She included a small MP3 player loaded with songs, a shortwave radio for tuning in news broadcasts, an unlocked cell phone, and a handheld GPS to track our precise latitude and longitude at any given moment.

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4 Responses

  1. After so many violent encounters in these United States, I no longer (Physically or mentally), feel safe here and am SEriously planning to imigrate (Preferably by ANY means OTHer than air-flight). Ive HAD it,
    am SICK of it (As I am of criminals all around me.) PLEASE; Direct me to aalternate (Cargo-Ship?) method of travel you’re ‘confident is reasonably safe’. Respectfully, John Emerson

  2. I noticed Off-grid seeks info on ‘self-doctoring’, which interested me (As a retired holistic ‘detox’ practicioner), but it occurred to me: I have YEARS of
    experience in (LEgal) ‘clandestine’ communication systems engineering and fabrication, the FCC is NOT authorized to interfere in. Contact me; I’ll PROVE it!

  3. Wow…more one star reviews than any book I’ve seen in a long time. Your “severe disdain” for others, apparently shines through in your book. I’ll pass.

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