The travel conundrum

Sally and I took a road trip through the Deep South last week - my first extended car trip in several years. That's not us in the picture, just to be clear. We rented an economy car. But driving across the South we saw remarkably few fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. We covered a lot of ground in a week of driving that took us from the Ozarks of southern Missouri to New York City, via the southern tier and Eastern Seaboard. It was a memorable trip, with some great experiences along the way. The civil rights museum in Birmingham, AL, was a highlight. And Charleston, SC, is a stunningly beautiful city. The Great Smokies are spectacular in their ancient, weather-worn way. But my body was stiff as a board by the end of the trip, and there was never any doubt that we were skimming over the surface the whole way.

It was a relief when we got to New York City, and swapped our rental car for our own two feet. I've come to love the Big Apple for just that reason. When I'm there, I don't even think about getting into a car. I can walk for miles through the city and never get bored, and the subways stations are everywhere when I need to get somewhere fast. I love the human wildness of the place, the endless variety and swirl of cultures and in-your-face human energy. Interestingly enough, the average carbon footprint of a resident of New York is one-third the national average. Most of my friends in New York don't own a car. This is an irony I think about a lot. I so love the natural beauty of my home on Whidbey Island, but getting by without a car is almost unthinkable in the sprawl and spread out life of rural Puget Sound. Its also much harder in Seattle than New York to pull off a car-free life, because the city is a child of our car-culture - much more spread out and infected with sprawl, and public transportation is an ill-conceived afterthought.

Lately I've been drifting back into a more car-dependent lifestyle, and I don't like it. My work as an MBSR teacher increasingly requires commuting into Seattle. It is a nasty commute, no matter how you slice it. Seattle has some of the worst gridlocked traffic in the country. My teaching schedule rarely lines up with the commuter bus schedules, so to use public transportation adds at least two hours to the commute if I'm not going right downtown in perfect alignment with the commuter schedule.

Even now, four years after I ended my car-free experiment in 2008, I hate how driving makes me feel. The memory of all those months without a car - the physical pleasure of moving so much more slowly through the landscape - is still imprinted in my genes. Mind you, I take a certain amount of comfort from the fact that I drive a hybrid car to the city, and an all-electric vehicle on the island. I'm using the best available technology, and that feels like the least I can do. But the fact is, I genuinely dislike how I feel physically and emotionally when I've been in a car. This is how I described the visceral benefits of car-free living in my book The Circumference of Home.

“Six weeks into my year of local living, I can begin to feel the pace of my body slowing down. The inner residue of hurry and restlessness is gradually seeping out of my nervous system. It is a subtle shift, and it has taken this long to begin registering in my conscious mind. I am able to sit still for longer periods, not because I am more determined to do so, but because I just want to. My mind is more available to what I am seeing. With less wanting of things to be different, less pursuit of external stimulation, I simply see more of what is right in front of me.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this shift is the way I can literally feel the geography around me growing in scale and stature. A circle I drew on the map that felt small to begin with, and potentially confining, seems huge now, since it takes an entire day on foot to cover a small portion of it. Fifteen miles of walking is about what I am good for, yet such a day is filled with far more sensory input than a comparable day of driving that could take me halfway to San Francisco. I end my days physically tired, but emotionally full, with a sense of having transited a whole world of hard terrain. Curiously enough, I can end an equally long day of driving or flying almost as tired physically, but emotionally exhausted at the same time, not sure that I have connected with anything real beyond my desire to cover as much ground as fast as possible."

My livelihood needs, and my love of teaching, have conspired, for now at least, to get me back in a car a lot more than I'd like. Granted, I drive less than I did before my year in circumference. And I use my bicycle and public transportation much more regularly than before - whenever they offer a reasonable alternative to driving. But climate change is rarely far from my mind these days. And the benefits of self-powered travel, both physically and emotionally, are deeply embedded in my heart.

Maybe it's time to consider moving back into the city. As a wilderness guide and nature junky, I never thought I'd hear myself say that. But the price of this kind of spread-out life is really getting steep, especially with the consequences playing out on such a massive scale with climate disruption. From a practical standpoint, I'm still looking for the sweet spot (if there is one) between an all-or-nothing approach to the fossil fuel conundrum. But four years out from my car-free year, I still rarely feel more alive, or more at home in the world, than when I set out on foot, or climb aboard my beloved bicycle, to get where I'm going under my own power. It just doesn't get any better than that.