Fast travel? Slow travel? What’s the right speed for you to see the world? Here’s one way to find out.
The bus roars into a lower gear, and up we go, following the road as it winds up a colossal standing wave of rock and dusty earth. Behind us, the landscape is exhausted; up here, it feels like nothing grew in the first place. The Spanish plains fall away behind us, and true to the saying, they’re where most of the rain is falling. Sunlight flares, the bus driver curses and drags the sunshade down, and the tops of the hills around us light up in their true colours – fired brick, dirty charcoal, weak tea. We crest the hill, raindrops racing down the windows…
And suddenly, there’s more Spain ahead. Much more.
If you want to understand how big Spain is, take the bus from Barcelona to Madrid. You’ll pass through an increasingly vast series of landscapes stitched together with mountains, escarpments and rolling hills. Some of it looks like it’s being excavated and the archaeologists are on their tea-break somewhere. Some of it looks uninviting. Some of it isn’t pretty. But it’s always awe-inspiring.
Beyond the plains surrounding the Ebro, Spain rears high. You can’t see as far, but you still feel its size. The road from Zaragoza threads a pass between mountain chains. You could walk this land – it’d be hard on the body, but maybe not as tough on the mind as in the plains, where nothing seems to get nearer until you’re almost there. You could walk it, but nobody does that anymore, surely? The bus rolls on.
Then – jarringly, oddly – the buildings of Madrid start to flick past the windows. Congratulations! You’ve made it. And you’re still nowhere. Spain remains colossal in all directions, including the ones you haven’t yet gone in. Conquering Spain? LOL. You’ve barely set foot in it.
Welcome to the fascinatingly subjective world of bigness.
To a person like me, from a small, densely populated country like England, Spain feels really, really big.
If you’re American, you’d laugh long and hard at this definition of the word “big”.
(Both images via IfItWereMyHome.com & Google Maps)
But none of that matters if you get on a plane.
Before the arrival of commercial airliners, world travel from London looked like this:
That’s travel in 1881. By 1914, travel times from London had started to shrink:
(via Intelligent Life Magazine; h/t Sarah Button)
And here’s what this map would look like today, thanks to the work of reddit user r2r_:
It’s often said that technology is making the world smaller. Nowhere feels remote anymore because it’s so easy to get there, at a speed that a century ago would have felt like magic. If your definition of travel is “getting from A to B as quickly as possible,” the world is now only 2 days in circumference. Two sleeps. You could leave on Monday and have done it by Wednesday. You could fit 180 laps of the Earth into a single year (although, please don’t, that would be truly horrible).
Luckily, this isn’t how bigness works with human beings.
Flying is low-resolution travel. You get somewhere really efficiently (and really cheaply) at the expense of sensory travel data along the way – ie. “the journey”. This makes perfect sense if your time is limited and you just want to make the most of a destination. It also throws a lot of what many experienced travellers regard as “travel” out the window, fuelling endless heated debates about the difference between ‘travellers’ and ‘tourists’. Whatever. The world may be shrinking, but life remains short, guys.
Other ways of travelling are high-resolution, but require more chronological bandwidth. Trains take longer, but throw lots of exciting scenery past your window. Ships are a little slower, but take you into the excitingly weird realm of Sea, where the land is runny and can be whipped up into terrifying shapes that can do awful things to you. Cars are equally sluggardly, bicycles and motorbikes still more so, but you can steer them in a highly untrainlike way…
And then there’s walking.
I’m biased. Don’t get me started on walking. It takes forever to do (at least seven years, if you want to walk across the world) but nothing will get past you. You will be present for every experience along the way, whether you like it or not.
The speed you travel determines how big the world feels – and everyone wants a different-sized world. If you love flying, you’ll be intoxicated by how accessible everything feels, how many adventures are a few boarding passes away, and maybe how stunning our planet looks when you’re up high. If you want a world that size, anything slower will frustrate you. Can we please get a move on?
Lots of other people, myself included, feel in our bones that flying is moving too fast. It makes the world too small. In a weird way I can’t articulate terribly well, it feels like cheating.
Hopefully I’ll never be enough of an ass to claim it is cheating, because that’s absurd and pompous, because this is just how I feel, and how I choose to behave. What works for me is clearly a bad fit for other people, especially anyone who loves flying. But…this is my definition of big. If I’m not flying, the world feels big enough. If I am, it doesn’t. (Yet. Maybe I just haven’t flown far enough.)
There’s an interesting analogy from modern videogaming. The open-world roleplaying epics from Bethesda (Fallout and Elder Scrolls) allow players to jump between game locations using something called Fast Travel – and plenty of gamers think this hobbles their enjoyment of the game. Others think it allows them to skip the tedious bits. (A few players prefer the version of fast travel featured in the game Morrowind, where only a limited number of fixed routes are available, and they cost you money to use – just like real life.)
There’s no agreement with these games because everyone wants a different world experience. Their sense of bigness is irreconcilably different.
My favourite game, below, which I’ve written about before, dodges the fast travel question entirely. You walk, or you die.
(Or you walk, then you die. That’s much more common.)
On Friday morning, Spain will feel a little smaller. My girlfriend and I will be getting on a train at 6am, and we’ll be roaring down to the south coast, to the former sleepy fishing town of Conil where we’ll be based for the month. Spain will shrink visibly, and I’m a little sad about that. It’ll require some adjustment, via a few long walks that go nowhere, until Spain is big enough to intimidate and appal me again.
But here’s the thing: I can do that. I don’t have to accept the modern world of travel feels too small. I can adjust. That’s the amazing power modern travellers have, if they can successfully juggle their time and their budget to fit. Maybe technology has shrunk the world, but we can either embrace or avoid that technology, calibrating our rate of movement through land, sea and sky against what feels right, however tricky it is to explore that feeling. I reckon it might take me a while. Maybe the rest of my life.
But for now, I’ll catch the train and see how it feels.