The Time Machine

A personal case for taking the train in the age of full-body scans, runway delays, and other indignities of airplane travel. 


You may recall, early last September, my resolution to abandon air-travel. It is a work in progress, given how often I have to leave home. I took my first step last week, taking a nine- hour train ride to Pittsburgh instead of the one-hour flight. The common calculation holds that the flight--even with delays, boarding, and the TSA--would have saved time. I think that's true in terms of quantity, but less so in terms of quality.

More often than not, my flights end with a stressed-out call to my wife, and me re-enacting some beef over cramped legs or ridiculous delays. These are minor annoyances that don't really register in my mind on a moral scale. More disturbing is the security theater, the virtual, and actual, rifling through luggage, and the rather outrageous abuses that all too regularly reach our ears. The result is that I spend way too much time thinking about the perils of flying (not crashing) and the time I save is effectively experienced as "negative time."

Last week, I began my attempt to opt out. I was scared I'd be bored to tears, but at the same time I didn't feel like I should be too entertained. I declined to install the Baldur's Gate saga on my laptop, and resolved to bring only my books and my writing. It's true I endured a few askance looks from my wife, but once I explained my thinking, she was in support.

The train, in all aspects, was a superior experience. The first thing was the feeling of everything melting away, of someone else taking control. When flying there are generally so many rules to be obeyed, and times when specific things can happen that I generally feel like, as a passenger, I'm actually a co-pilot. Lights tell you when you can and can't move. Announcements indicate (because I use a laptop and iPad) when it's safe to read, write, or listen to your music. Food and drink are administered at precise times. All of this within a confined space.

But there was a freedom on the train that you may need to be taller than six feet to really understand. You could walk as you needed to. You could sit in the cafe car and watch the scenery. You could fall into your book. Or you could just sleep, something I can't really do on airplanes. 

Finally there is the fact that, as much as possible, I should avoid supporting airline travel in its current American iteration. As I said before, I don't do this expecting any kind of policy change--but the God of Policy is not omnipotent. I expect an end to that sick feeling I get whenever I see passengers arbitrarily herded into full-body scans, or stranded on runways for hours, or yanked from their seats and strip-searched. There is still value in looking oneself in the mirror--whatever one might hope to see. Thoughtful resistance, in and of itself, is valuable.

As surely as I would not appeal to policy, I would neither appeal to your private morality. I had a cheeseburger as soon as I got to Pittsburgh. I do not evangelize. You have your own religion to keep. I am seeking mine.

The photo above is from the horseshoe curve in Altoona. Pennsylvania really is a gorgeous state.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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