It’s 5:22 a.m., and I’m in a Supershuttle, headed to the Tampa/St Petersburg airport. I got here less than 48 hours ago, and I’m on my way home. William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices is playing on my iTunes, which gives a curiously spiritual feel to the trip. It’s not a ride to the airport, its a pilgrimage.
I was thinking about why I like to travel– not just like it, but really look forward even to short trips like these.
Novelty. Going to new places is really interesting. Going to London and Singapore is no longer novel, but I’m far from exhausting what’s interesting about those places (the only time I’ve been to the British Museum was with my wife, a year and half ago, and I spent most of it staring slack-jawed at the Rogers courtyard).
I’m good at it. I know how to pack, how to get ready for trips, how to navigate airports and customs and security, how to get what I need from hotel and conference center people, how to find decent restaurants and interesting things to do with a free couple hours. There’s a craft to travel, and even though it’s as idiosyncratic as writing– everyone’s style is different, even if their objectives are the same– I’ve learned to do it pretty well, and am still improving.
There are clear goals. Success is easy to measure: you catch your plane, get to the hotel, get prepared, deliver the talk, facilitate the meeting, build the map, please the client, etc. Not a lot of ambiguity most of the time. This contrasts with a lot of my life, where there are very big, but long-term and amorphous, goals, and the linkage between completing them and the reward is– not unclear, exactly, but not very tight. You finish a piece for a client, and it may be a month before you get any feedback; six months pass between sending an article to the editors and getting reprints; and I’ll probably be years before some of the things I do for the kids pay off (if even if they do, I might never hear about them).
On the road, though, I can practice a measure of decisiveness and focus that’s hard to exercise in my normal multitasking, collaborative life.
I think a lot when I travel. Some of my most productive hours and best ideas come on planes. Partly this is a matter of necessity– often I have to 16 hours to finish that keynote or else– but there’s something liberating about having 10 hours sealed in your own little pressurized, caffeinated world, with nothing to do but think and write. (The fact that most of the time the movies are lousy is a godsend. Singapore Airlines’ 100 channels is a bit of challenge for me, but I usually manage to avoid it until the return flight.)
Away from it all, uninterruptible, and accustomed to having good ideas pop into my head, it’s easy to get into that state where good thoughts appear. And even if I don’t have some intellectual breakthrough, I usually get enough e-mail written to feel okay about the trip.
The privilege. Business travel is stressful in some ways, but luxurious in one important way: you spend a certain amount of your time around people whose job it is to take care of things for you. Not quite take care of you as a person; but in my normal life someone else isn’t carrying my bags, doing all the driving, serving the food, getting the conference room set up, etc. At home my wife and I share the labor, I’ve got the kids doing more things, and they help with small tasks like carrying in groceries; but that’s not the same as being in situations where it’s someone else’s job to do things for you.
And often I’m lucky to be going somewhere as someone’s guest. I may be working for them, but the act of traveling imposes certain obligations and courtesies on all parties. Even if you’re picking up the cost of a person’s trip, you’re still nice to them.
Of course, there are also times when it’s disorienting and alienating. Sitting in a near-empty terminal in the pre-dawn hours, it’s easy for that “what the hell am I doing here” sense of anomie to settle over you. But for now, at least, it’s a price worth paying.