Slow Travel

Bar-tailed godwits fly nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand each fall. For years the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre south of Auckland has tracked them on their ~11,000 km, ~8-day journey, using colored leg bands and radio transmitters. It’s because of their good work that we know godwit #4BWRB left the Yukon Delta last week and made it some 2000 kilometers south before hitting a storm, turning around, and landing back where it started 57 hours later. A failure, but imagine the wonder of it all: a dome of stars mirrored by white caps in the North Pacific below; metronomic wingbeats; the waking dream of a storm front pulling across a tetrachromatic aurora. Some kind of throbbing magnetic yearning for the south.

One year ago, full of hubris, I tried to ride my bicycle from Boulder to Albuquerque. Like godwit #4BWRB, I didn’t make it. Three days after rolling out of my driveway, beaten down by too many miles in too little time, I pulled up at a brewery in Alamosa. I drank three beers in defeat, and accepted a warm bed with family friends. Unlike godwit #4BWRB, I was able to hop in a car and finish the trip. The full drive is beautiful, one of several stretches of highway that have etched their way into significance in my life. But the ride is better. You just see things differently from a bike. There’s a slow change to the Front Range as you approach New Mexico, one of the many gradients that shape our planet. Treeline creeps higher up the peaks; the grass dries out; cholla pop up in the plains. Watching it all from the saddle, you get the sense that this is the right pace at which to go places.

Last Thursday, I flew on an airplane for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I used to fly frequently and have retained an instinctive efficiency in airports I once found satisfying, but as I waited in security I realized this token of experience now felt more like a source of shame. It’s not that travel itself has lost its luster. There is, however, a new hollowness to the process for me, and the mental barrier I would put up to separate the worldly pleasures of intercontinental flight from the guilt of excessive fossil fuel consumption feels weaker. In 2014 I took a direct flight from San Francisco to New York and marveled from my window seat at the scale of the King Fire then burning outside Yosemite, never making the connection. I think this view would seem different today.

It’s fall migration here, too, and while there are no godwits, an errant Canada warbler landed in a shade tree by the duck pond at University of New Mexico a few days ago. We’ve also ended up somewhere hotter and drier than planned, wondering what happened and what’s next. In the endless debate in climate circles over the relative importance of structural change versus lifestyle choices, is there a middle ground between joyless carbon asceticism and the complete absolution of personal responsibility? I hope so. If it exists, it almost certainly involves trading convenience for satisfaction: paying more for better things, planting a garden and waiting for tomatoes, living in smaller houses but meeting more of your neighbors. And sometimes—at least for those of us who can, when we can—traveling slowly enough to notice the world change.