Prior to traveling home from a turn around trip to Seattle, I, as usual, purchased a paperback to while away the 4-1/2 hours spent flying the friendly skies.
Well, not really friendly. More of “watch your knees and elbows, please, before we sheer them off with our snack cart.” And believe me, I was very much watching my knees and elbows in my aisle seat, but that seemed to make little difference to my left shoulder which took the brunt of one particular flight attendant’s right buttock on three separate occasions.
In between the intermittent physical attacks and surrounded by a sea of mournful faces, framed by orange jerseys, I found myself reading one of those classics that you’re quite sure you’ve read, perhaps in college, but then realize you haven’t after all. So I cracked open the slim volume of John Steinbeck’s delightful Travels with Charley, and settled in with a second Bloody Mary (there was turbulence) to enjoy this true account of Steinbeck’s driven loop around 1960 America in a converted bread truck with his faithful standard poodle, Charley.
What was astonishing to me was how he mirrored the grave concerns of today when he wrote his first assessment. Besides Russia being threateningly in the news with all eyes and cameras on Khrushchev speaking at the United Nations, his observation of our culture, a full 60 years ago could have been written today:
Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use…I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness—chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move.
It just so happened that the flight attendant brought me my meal as I was reading that very paragraph. I looked at the plastic container before me and counted a plastic knife and fork contained in cellophane, a plastic tray with a clear plastic lid. A plastic cup in which to pour my plastic bottle of water, an assortment of fruit and cheese with flatbread crackers wrapped in plastic, and a cookie, natch, wrapped in plastic. No fewer than 7 items which would be “disposed of,” not recycled, as the attendants came down the aisle a half hour later with a large garbage bag for everyone to toss their remnants.
There were probably 150 people on the plane.
I’d only gotten to page 52 as we began to descend towards Atlanta, and in that time, I had mentally tagged along on Steinbeck’s excursion to Deer Isle and farther up the coast of Maine. He wrote of the danger of traveling during the fall in places rife with hunters—and he, himself, grew up hunting:
…it isn’t hunger that drives millions of armed American males to forests and hills every autumn, as the high incidence of heart failure among the hunters will prove. Somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity…I know there are any number of good and efficient hunters who know what they are doing; but many more are overweight gentlemen, primed with whisky and armed with high-powered rifles. They shoot at anything that moves or looks as though it might…four automobiles were hit on opening day.
If I weren't inherently lazy I would like to write a second novel, myself. I would call it Travels with Mr. Steinbeck, and I would endeavor to follow the exact route he and Charley took to circuit the entire country—just to see if any of the sights he observed were still standing or remotely the same. Of course Niagara Falls and Yosemite remains majestic, and to our collective relief the “cheerleaders,” the self-named white women he described who returned each day to jeer at tiny black children who were entering or leaving an elementary school in New Orleans during the fall of 1960, are long gone. Witnessing the event, he was asked by a local if he was traveling for pleasure. Steinbeck replied, “I was until today.”
We live in an amazing country and yet so many of us, like Steinbeck prior to his months' long excursion, have never really known her until we’ve made the effort to get off the freeways and explore her thoroughly. It doesn’t have to be in a bakery truck with a dog and a crate of liquor as well as cans of corned beef hash, but as I tucked this jewel of a book away and glanced out the window, it certainly can’t be done at 30,000 feet.
It’s convenient to fly. It’s faster. It’s convenient to use disposables; it’s less effort. It’s a relief to put in ear pods and not be bothered by engaging with whomever is seated next to you. But in the end I wonder if we’re only fooling ourselves when we consider ourselves “well traveled.”