Way Off Road: The New Grind of Travel

Joe Louis Fist 2
All photos by Randy Stern

The only way to travel is…um…hmm…

Our planet loves to travel. It is a well-known fact, if you look at any portal for travel worldwide. Travel is our escape from the mundane routine of home – even if it is for work. No matter the distance, the geographic border, the reason and the method, travel takes us away for a period of time to put the daily routine on pause.

V&R has covered travel topics before from various angles. For this series, plenty of soul searching was undertaken to find what could be said differently than in the past. Travel by automobile has been the most obvious angle this site usually takes – it is an automobile site to begin with.

Think about the notion of "Way Off Road" for a moment. The idea is to augment the automotive lifestyle with life itself. In terms of travel, you can still have one foot in the foot well of an automobile, the other on different territory. Does it mean public transport, air and train travel, intercity bus rides, hotels, restaurants (oh, wait, we covered that, did we not?) and tourist attractions? Perhaps, still, this piece needs a hook.

Of course, this series revolves around observation and experience from my own perspective. It is not about absolute ideas or singular philosophies. To me, life is experiential – you have to be in it to understand it. Curiosity becomes the methodology for all things experiential. To ask "why" is to eventually "do."

In terms of travel, I do enjoy it when it is for a good reason. However, I have seen my purpose for travel change in the course of a few years. For example, I undertook six major trips in 2009, whether by car or airline. The purpose for the majority of these trips was mainly for pleasure. Since February of last year, I again took six major trips – a mix of planes, cars and intercity buses. Every one of them was done mostly for business.

The change is purpose for travel has been a mirror of the change in my own purpose in life. With a focus on delivering solid automotive writing, there is now an expectation that every time I board a plane has something important waiting upon exiting the Jetway. Instead of just some guy going on a cruise or visiting friends and family somewhere, I have appointments, meetings and other points on the schedule.

Certainly, it is something that I have dreamed of doing, but how is that cause for envy? What makes my travel routine any different than anyone else's?

Wait…what envy? Recently, when I happen to run into a few friends and acquaintances, they remarked about the trips I made recently. Yes, I did go to Detroit and Chicago for auto show work – but, how is that different than the other friends who did their winter gateways on cruises or flights to sunnier destinations?

Plus, I may have joined the number of friends who are traveling on business. I know their pain between waiting at airport lounges, employing their loyalty status and getting comfortable – even in the face of smaller aircraft. Though I am devoid of any loyalty or actual status, I just somehow feel part of that crowd when I am off doing V&R/Lavender-related business.

The change is welcomed. Yet, I know the rewards may not be complete. Frequent miles do not have the cache they once had for me. I earn them, but not as insanely as I had in years past. They are just a matter of plugging away with every opportunity I get. It is not that I am flying more frequently, but the purpose of these opportunities is indeed a premium experience.

Hello Detroit!

Still, one scans through social media by stumbling upon vacation photos, updates from different locales and Foursquare check-ins from who-knows-where. The frequency of these updates and images might induce envy.

There are two arguments to this – I could only justify one of them. In the case of social media-driven outlets – V&R included – perhaps the strategy of taking the reader/follower "along for the ride" serves as an integral part of the coverage of an event. This comes heavily into play for auto show coverage. While some of us are already "there," those who are not would be interested in following along the path to get the sense of "being there."

On some level, this social media strategy has always been there in this work. It is not an original idea, however. The "oversharing" aspect of social media is somewhat universal. The habit of going on Twitter with a photo from your smart phone to upload it with the message of "look, this is where I have been!" is part and parcel of the social media world. Members of the media corps do it, but there are rules of engagement to follow. For one – we cannot tweet, Facebook or write-up anything until after the media embargo is lifted.

Though I travel for this work, there are moments when I do squeeze some personal time on the road. There is a curiosity to feed and I try to fulfill that whenever I head somewhere I have not been in a good amount of time. A walkabout from the hotel helps to get familiar with a place that I have never been or have not been in a while. If I have friends, acquaintances or other creatures that are in that town, perhaps I can invite them to meet me somewhere. Sadly, that has not been successful in the past couple of trips.

The opportunities for "free time" have become rare of late, I am afraid. In some hotel room, I am working on the write-ups, the photography and other associated items supporting the coverage. Perhaps it is the life of a solo artist. No pity is needed here.

In the vein of enjoying less freedom, am I the only one who is finding airports less enjoyable than before? It has become a routine going through the Transportation Security Agency's checkpoint at any given airport. You have to take off your shoes, your belt, empty your pockets, separate your computer from your bag…and hope you do not moon anyone behind you when going through the machine. After you dance around getting your stuff together and dressed up again, it is the hurry-up-and-wait routine to find the flight and hope for an on-time departure. When you land, it is a mad scramble to get out of the airport and get to where you need to be in the next hour or less.

What have we become in the face of TSA? One can argue that it is for our safety. I argue that it has induced more of a pack mentality where anything is possible – from crying babies in mid-flight to being the fat guy next to some person with space issues. The last flight I took, some guy decided to recline his seat, as I was about to do some pre-auto show work en route to Chicago. If I were younger, I would have lost my temper. Try not to do that these days, because you could be arrested by the air marshals.

There is one mode of transport where I found serenity and happiness. I still find enjoyment and the true spirit of travel is when I am behind the wheel. A car or crossover is a place where there is peace and happiness even hours at a time.

Think about the advantages of driving. There is no TSA line to go through. You are comfortable behind your own steering wheel. You can stop whenever you want for food, drink and a bathroom break. Granted you have to pay for your food and beverages, but at least the bathroom has more space…

Peace Plaza 2

Sadly, my driving adventures may not be as advantageous as they should. Usually, I find myself considering a destination, even at the wrong time. Opportunities for wanderlust over tarmac just need to be more calculated these days. Fuel prices skyrocketed in February causing a bit of anxiety on the budget. Even in Minnesota, the idea of $4.00/gallon fuel – regardless of grade – is still a bit discerning.

It is interesting that air travel seem to be stable through fuel price increases. A quick check on airfares show even discounted rates for key short and long haul routes out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Believe it or not, airfares are a bit more expensive than Amtrak. However, we all know the game on flight bookings – easy come, easy go.

With Spring Break looming for many students and parents, one wonders how the financial burden of rising fuel costs, lines everywhere and any other annoyance of travel will effect us. For both business and leisure travelers alike, I rather not have a concrete answer to parse out.

At this point, my travel future is a bit uncertain. The opportunities are there, but no concrete plans have been firmed up. I am looking forward to the next adventure – wherever it may take us.

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