Saturday, June 19, 1999
In the last 15 months I’ve been on over 70 aeroplanes. Since this January, from my base in Kansas, the list of cities I’ve been in seems ridiculous – Atlanta, DC, Chicago, Dallas, Tucson, San Francisco (twice), Dublin (twice), Galway, Cincinnati, Denver, Santa Fe (three times).
You can spin this unlikely itinerary in a number of ways. Either it’s a fact of modern day business life, and something that an increasing number of people do all the time.
The dystopian version of this points to the grind of long distances, the soullessness of airport hotels, the grim-faced grey acceptance of the folks at the gates in business attire carrying bulging laptop bags.
Or it’s a glamorous jet-set lifestyle of expense account living, a new shiny city every week and a year-round tan.
My truth lies somewhere in the middle. I have little enough luxury on the business trips – I fly coach and eat as many Burger Kings as lobster bisques on the road – but I get treated pretty well (big hand for the deeply stylish W Hotel in San Francisco) and I appreciate the opportunities it gives me to see all kinds of stuff I wouldn’t otherwise know about.
Reading the local papers and watching the local news wherever I am is crucial – to read the unctious USA Today (the calling card of the travelling salesperson) placed outside your hotel room door is to participate in the pretence that where you are is exactly the same as where you’ve been.
This is so bad because the one thing that can never be forgotten is how completely unnatural this all is. No matter how many times you get in a metal tube in one city and get out of it 400 miles away, or ring your kids on your calling card from an airport telephone, you should never once think that this is what you’re meant to be doing.
Your body knows how weird it is. You can rationally understand jumping continents at your employer’s bidding, can justify your astronomical travel expenditure with a convincing business argument and can even develop tips and techniques to make it all seem a bit more normal, but all the stress of this time travel is building up in you somewhere or other.
People aren’t designed to do such bizarre things as fly across the Atlantic, go to work the day they arrive, go out drinking that night, put in another couple of days’ work, then fly back home like it was an hour’s drive up the motorway.
Human’s flexibility is at once our great strength and our fatal weakness. We can adapt to all kinds of things we didn’t ought to get used to, and can overcome by force of will the nagging reminders that we’re not designed to do this.
This is not to say that I’m not enjoying myself – I’ve been able to do some amazing things through all this travel, and have learned a great deal along the way. But I can only see myself doing this for a limited time – it’s an adventure, not a way of life. It doesn’t take too long doing this before the losses more than outweigh the gains.
This is last time I’ll write from Manhattan, Kansas, which between my travels has been my home for the last 15 months. I’m going to rest up back in Ireland and England for a couple of months, before moving to San Francisco. A pause before the adventure begins again.
But the brightest moments of the last few months have all involved doing very grounded things – riding horses on the prairies, or mountain bikes in the Rockies, walking the hills of San Francisco or the beaches of County Clare, going for brunch in Santa Fe or pints in Dublin. And of course, in all of these activities, it’s been the friends and family that I’ve been with that have made the most sense in this unlikely life.
(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, June 1999)