Sunday, August 11, 2019

Planes, trains, boats, cars, feet

The crows were laughing at us. The caw of a crow in general sounds mocking, but the glossy black birds of the Pacific Northwest seemed particularly derisive. Ha! Ha! Silly humans. How you ooh and ah at the natural beauty, too dim to realize you hardly see any of it, stuck as you are plodding along the earth while we soar. Also, you have no clue how many French fries you drop. We’ll be taking those, thanks.

K and I were visiting my family in the PNW, a journey that involved all of the forms of transportation mentioned in the title of this post for one reason or another. There were planes to get here, a train ride to a waterfall, a ferry boat to a National Park, cars to take in between these, and feet to take us to cars. Feet also carried me through a 22-mile run Friday morning. Slow, plodding miles, granted, but a satisfying run along a lake surrounded by towering green mountains can still feel a bit like soaring.

That said, travel in any form always seems to be at least a little uncomfortable. I enjoyed my run for the most part but I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t pain involved. And of course traveling by plane, even at its best, can make you never want to leave your own zip code ever again. But we do leave. Wanderlust calls; away we go, and the discomfort is actually a key part of the experience. We’re moving, out of the routine, away from the familiar. I’m not a stranger to running long distances, but still the majority of my daily existence is not running, which is why the nearly four hours I spent on the lakeshore had a hint of epic journey about it.

Such a sentiment would no doubt earn me more corvid cackling. After all, most of us will never truly journey into the unknown, and our wanderlust tends to push us less toward wandering and more toward moving along a preset path. I didn’t create the trail I ran on; a railroad company did over a century ago. I knew where I would start and where I would finish, just as the people who rode those long-since-gone trains did. And yet—laugh if you will!—there’s still the undeniable element of adventure in knowing there is a starting point, a destination, and time to pass in transit between them, time that often comes with a heightened awareness that it is in fact passing, that we are in fact alive and moving through the world.

The train ride we took to the falls included a stop at a historic railroad museum which featured a number of restored, semi-restored, and not-at-all-restored old train cars and a knowledgeable guide wearing one of those fun-looking railroad hats. Many people have written about the romance of the railroads, the strange fascination people have even today for this particular mode of transportation, and while I can’t say I’m an avid train-o-phile, I did find the museum’s stories compelling. The railroad changed America, the Pacific Northwest in particular. This was tough, wild terrain. Trains made it accessible, and exploitable for its abundant natural resources, and now there’s Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Facebook, Google, and a whole lot of people who buy expensive gear at REI so they can seek out whatever wildness is left.

And the railroad? Now people like me run on it. We’ve come full circle, back to the original human mode of transportation—the mode some argue started our evolutionary journey in the first place. It seems counterintuitive; one would think that creating “civilization” means staying put and amassing stuff. But before we could settle down and start collecting all the things, we had to eat, and before we farmed, we hunted. We weren’t strong or fast like the things we wanted to eat, but that was OK. Human bodies were, and are, far more equipped for long-distance travel than any other terrestrial creature—the key advantage, some say, that allowed us to flourish as a species.

Yes, I did say terrestrial. Crows and their avian kin may have the last, grating laugh on us when it comes to travel, as nothing beats flying for both speed and distance, plus birds don’t have to worry about their luggage getting lost or some stranger’s elbow in their ribs for three hours. That’s fine with me. Perhaps a fascination with birds, with trains, and with running very long distances all reflect the same thing: a longing for a different place and time, a different experience, even while that experience connects our places, times, and lives together.