Up in the Air

It is with some regret that I choose to fly for this year’s western hiking venture instead of taking to the western roads yet again. Rereading the account of my brooding deep-pandemic self in 2020 or my more mundane appreciation of such roads during my 2021 jaunt has me yearning for some of those cliches about western travel that are true because they are real. A recent Ross Douthat column whose sentiment I support seemed to scold my decision-making: “If you do not drive your country’s highways and byways, what path do you have to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble? If you have strong answers to both questions, good. But lacking them, you should give the open road another look.”

A Saturday spent shuttling my dad from one end of northern Minnesota’s Kekekabic Trail to the other only renews this hunger for ribbons of asphalt and gravel. It is a nine-hour dive into the wilds of Minnesota’s north, and I bob and weave along two-lane highways through small towns, some humming with midsummer tourists and others fading back into the woods. Isabella has become a ghost town, while the cluster of bustle on the central Gunflint Trail could use a name on a map, and Ely straddles two worlds. Car travel frees me to eye the wreckage of the Greenwood Fire and drink in the cool lake air of Grand Marais, and to swing off to Sugarloaf Cove, where I can meander down the beach and flip open a notebook to record a few stray ideas. We writers are suited to modes of motion with spontaneous spurts and chances to suck up little details; it is only from these mined nuggets that we can later create grand arcs and sweeps.

While much of America has retreated from air travel, I have spent more time on planes over the past year and a half than at any point in my life. A healthy chunk of that was work-related puddle-jumping to Milwaukee, but I’ve found my way to destinations across the country, too. For the seasoned veteran, air travel is both simpler and more refined, inspiring in its God’s eye view but sapped of the details that allow for immersion and meditation. By plane I give no mind to the fortunes and failings of the towns along the highway, to the Native American reservations I skirt, to the stray roadside attraction that may worm its way into my mind. I bliss out, catch up on some reading, and flip the mental switch to begin living in the world where I’ve landed. It is a simpler, more self-absorbed way to travel, any interactions bounded by the metal tube we share and devoid of any relationship to the landscape around us.

Nor have I ever known air travel as a venture of true leisure and opulence. I have only dim memories of flights before 9/11 and its subsequent security cattle pens, most of which involve my nine-year-old self vomiting into a bag on a bumpy flight from Duluth to Chicago. I’ve had only brief brushes with business or first class, and while a free drink or two is nice, it is hardly a signifier of great luxury. For most of my plane trips, I join the unwashed masses in crunching my knees into ever-shrinking spaces and hoard my bag of nuts and cup of juice. Air travel is also prone to occasional great indignities when the plans go awry, whereas the driver will simply audible and find a detour or sub out a cranky rental car.

I romanticize the road trip, of course. This year’s hike is in Colorado, and somehow the tamed fields of Iowa and Nebraska do not inspire the same sense of frontier freedom as the Dakotas or Montana; time, scarcer and more precious amid a series of new pushes in life, has me settling for the two-hour hop to Denver. I will not miss the zombified state brought on by the eastern Great Plains, nor jockeying for space with long-distance truckers, nor the increasingly antsy push toward home of a final day on the road. These ventures have resulted in two busted windshields in the past three years, and at times I am left with a choice between splurging on an uninspiring roadside hotel or setting up a tent in a campground where I will be serenaded all night by the dulcet droning of RVs. But this decision is more profound than any convenience-seeking or aesthetic impulse: on my last solitary venture I decided that it would be my last one of that nature for a spell, and that is that.

Taking to the air seems a fitting way to head for some of the highest peaks in the lower 48 states. This year’s hike, on the Colorado Trail west of Leadville, will take place entirely above 10,000 feet in elevation, in the shadows of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert, Colorado’s two highest points. It will be a test of the lungs, and if we do indeed try to summit both peaks, a test of the legs as well. I will achieve a new cruising altitude and see just how hungry I am to reach new heights. Off I go, a new adventure beckoning.

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