Travel means getting away, getting hopelessly lost, and eventually getting sick on weird food from the only restaurant open within 100 miles. But that’s not why we look forward to it so much. Americans love to travel to break away from their day-to-day routines, and pretend that they’re the kind of adventurers who like to sleep on the ground on half-inch foam pads in puddles of warm beer that their tent mates tipped over with just the sound of their snoring.
Now that summer travel season is in full swing, I have to figure out the best way to get from home to our paradise vacation destination — or in my case, Aunt Gertrude’s condo in El Paso. This year we should be able to go by air. We have oodles of frequent flyer miles and the trip is well over 1,000 miles, so this certainly seems to be the best option. Except that every possible day that we could go is blacked out on the frequent flyer calendar. I decide to search for the cheapest available tickets and see that it is possible to get from Cleveland to El Paso for only $1,129 each, provided we’re willing to switch planes three times, switch airlines twice and spend a night in the Oklahoma City Holiday Innertube Express (conveniently located next to the sewage treatment plant and a 24-hour truck stop). I contemplate being sandwiched in the middle seat in the last row of the plane between a genetically altered corn-fed lobbyist and an oil fracking overseer: I’d rather be dragged off the plane by my nose-hairs to make room for an off-shift co-pilot who needs to visit his own Aunt Gertrude.
Maybe we should take the train! We haven’t taken a long-distance train trip in America for over 30 years. I’m sure things must have improved tremendously since our last trip, when the train broke down outside of Billings, Montana, and we were stranded without air conditioning or food (other than sour cream and onion chips and orange pop) for 24 hours until the next scheduled train came along. For $376 each, we can get coach seats for the 48-hour journey — which leaves the station at 3 a.m. (the one and only westbound train that leaves Cleveland daily). Well, what the hell, maybe we’ll give it a shot. But when I go to buy the tickets, the Amtrak website crashes. Not a good omen. Hmm, what are our other choices?
Well, we could drive our own car. Google says we could drive the 1,775 miles in only 26 hours and calculates that the fuel costs for the round trip would be about $300. We could stop whenever we felt like it, listen to our own music or podcasts, and enjoy the exquisite scenery that only America’s interstate highway system can provide at the peak of the summer orange barrel season. Or we could avoid the interstate and drive on state and county roads for about the same distance and make the trip in only 33 hours, and actually see a little of the kitschy American landscape. But doing this trip means burning 125 gallons of gasoline contributing about 2,500 pounds of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere. Do I really want to kill the planet just to visit my aunt for a bellyful of her reheated tuna-noodle casserole and an earful of her sister’s goiter troubles?
But wait, we could bike there instead! Google believes we could do this trip in 153 hours of pedaling, each way. No carbon impact, great exercise, and lots of fresh air, except for the exhaust from the ten thousand or so cars, some of which will try to run us off the road, or accidentally cut us off while the driver sends urgent texts to his girlfriend who is justifiably dumping him. If we start now and ride for eight hours a day, we could make it there and back in only 39 days (alas, my poor hemorrhoids). Unfortunately, I have only a two-week vacation — this option is also not available.
In the midst of our travel confusion I get a phone call from Aunt Gertrude. It’s 111 degrees in El Paso and she desperately wants to leave for a couple of weeks. “Could I possibly come and stay with you this year, instead of you coming down here?” she asks. “I just saw that the temperature of Lake Erie right now is 72 degrees. I’d love to go to the beach with you.” I feel as though the huge weight of a hundred truck stop meals has just been lifted off me.
“We’d love to have you, Aunt Gertrude. But how would you get here?”
“I’m not sure,” she answers. “I was hoping you could make a suggestion.”