My new book, Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, is a collection of travel essays that celebrate a wandering life. While I love being at home, travel is one of my central tenets. When I was a boy, my father’s work with the U.S. Forest Service took our family from one place to another every few years, and I came to depend on and love this rhythm, and to love the excitement, risk, and novelty of the next new place. For me, this translates into a life devoted to travel, and to writing the stories of my travels.
We live in a different world now. When I was growing up, the earth’s population was about 4.5 billion, and the U.S. population was about 225 million. Today the earth’s population is over 7.3 billion, and the population of the United States is at 320 million. Every day some 80,000 commercial planes transport people around the world. That’s every day. And carbon levels in our atmosphere have risen 36 percent since 1958, faster than at any other time in the earth’s history. As a result, our planet is warming, sea levels are rising, and species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate. We live in a time of extinction, a time when our climate scientists, looking a few decades down the road, can see the collapse of ecosystems that will drive the collapse of human civilization.
I don’t mean to spoil anyone’s fun, but I can’t help asking if airplane travel in the name of adventure or vacation is the right thing to do. I wonder if it is even an ethical thing to do. In “Getting to Grey Owl’s Cabin,” the title essay of my book, I calculate the carbon cost of making a journey from my house in Texas to the cabin in Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, where Grey Owl lived and is now buried. I ask whether the carbon cost is worth it. It’s self-defeating to devalue journeys we’ve made, but perhaps such questions can help us evaluate the need and purpose of future journeys.
As a species, we are and have always been explorers. Our ancestors traveled out of Africa and took up residence in almost every place on earth. We have even begun to make real plans to colonize other planets, starting with Mars. I do not wish to deny us what we are, nor to deny myself what I am, but it feels right to face the environmental cost of travel. Jetting around the world or driving hundreds of miles for a weekend vacation is not sustainable on a planet with so many billions of people. We need alternatives.
I’d like to make a plea for walking, for simple travel on foot. It’s cheap, it’s easy (most people can do it), and the carbon cost is almost zero. If it rains, use an umbrella; if it’s warm outside, wear a hat. Walking betters our health too. An interesting new study shows that walking, especially walking in nature, offers psychological and emotional benefits, and, of course, physical benefits too.
Why not explore your area? If you live in a town or a city, take a weekend walk from your home to an inn for an overnight. What you save in fuel or airfare you can spend on the room and good local food and drink. If you live in the country, walk to a friend’s house and stay over. The great American nineteenth-century saunterer, Henry David Thoreau, mostly made walks near his cabin on Walden Pond and sometimes into town to visit friends. You might also make walks of utility—to the market, the movies, the gym. We could do a great deal, of course, to reorganize our cities around people instead of cars; that would help a lot.
If you wish to make grander journeys, walking can get you there. Two of the greatest traveler poets—Wordsworth and Coleridge—mostly sojourned on foot into the countryside near their homes in England’s Lake District. As a young man, Wordsworth tramped all over Europe. Paul Salopek is currently retracing the migration route of early humans from Ethiopia to the southern tip of South America. And Istvan and Ferenc Ivanics, brothers from Hungarian, were midway through a walk around the world when I met them a few years ago in Spain. When I pressed Istvan about why they were walking, he said, “Well, it is rich in details.”
Before you book passage on yet another airplane, consider going for a walk. Perhaps the greatest adventures of our near future will necessarily be on foot, sojourns that will open us to the richness of our places, improve our health, and improve the health of our neighbors.