Podcast #166 — What Is The Meaning of Travel?

Reindeer are ruining my cabin porn

Trying to plan an August trip amidst dueling state quarantine lists and rapid lockdown changes while writing off my September plans for Barcelona. What’s worse – hotels cutting back on housekeeping or breakfasts? And talking with Emily Thomas about her new book The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. All this and more, or listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below or by following this direct link to download the podcast file .

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #166:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois after managing to front-run the city’s quarantine order on Wisconsin. Went up to Milwaukee to meet up with some friends and do a bit of biking a couple of weekends before the Chicago Health Department added Wisconsin to their list of 22 states where you’re required to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning from a trip. Mind you, they’re not setting up roadblock checkpoints like New York City is — at least not as of the time of this recording. Reasonable people can differ on this — New York’s governor claimed similar efforts back in March by Rhode Island and Florida aimed at New Yorkers were “unconstitutional” but seems OK with it when it’s pointed the other way — but it does make travel planning for law abiding citizens a bit more of a challenge. And making me wonder about our downsizing move into Chicago last year — was missing the yard, the extra rooms, and the basement gym in the suburbs during the lockdown earlier in the year; now after Chicago’s quarantine rules, am missing freedom of travel.
  • All this adds a couple orders of magnitude of complexity to our efforts to plan a week out of the city in a couple of weeks. Not only do we need to check Chicago’s quarantine list, but also the quarantine plans of any potential destinations. While New York isn’t on Chicago’s quarantine list, Illinois is on New York’s. Mapping it all out, we take the “clean destination” intersection of that quarantine Venn diagram and then look at what restrictions are in those places; if nothing’s open, it’s not worth traveling there. I’ve eaten more meals in my hotel rooms over the past 3 months than I have in the last couple of years. 
  • But things are changing so fast, that even after you figure out what’s open now, we then start following local papers on Twitter to get any early warnings on new restrictions. Which also means paying a lot more attention to hotel cancellation policies than I ever did. And then overloading our itinerary with outdoor activities like hiking and biking so last-minute closures or restrictions don’t leave us with nothing to do. Which means spending more time trolling the AccuWeather and Weather Channel web sites because an outside-heavy itinerary is more vulnerable to big storm fronts and hurricanes. And to think I used to bitch about having to navigate TripAdvisor ratings.
  • Bridge Music — funkyGarden by Jeris (c) copyright 2020 Licensed under a Creative Commons Noncommercial Sampling Plus license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/VJ_Memes/61356 Ft: airtone, SackJo22, Analog By Nature

Following Up

  • First, a couple of shout-outs to folks who are helping me spread the word about the podcast
  • Thanks to GHLGB, an apparently long-time TravelCommons listener, who gave us a 5-star iTunes review the day after the last month’s episode dropped, writing:
    • “Mark does a great job of relating the world of the road warrior with a bit of branching out to those of us who are miles and points nutty. Always a calm and reasonable voice one that’s been in my ears for four years”
    • Thanks for that. I appreciate the words, and the effort of wading through the iTunes interface to leave them
  • Also, in last month’s episode, I mentioned Kev Monteith, a TravelCommons listener and Amtrak travel blogger, but didn’t thank him for calling us out in his 2020 Favorite Podcast list on his Travels With Kev website. So, I’m fixing that right now. Thanks, Kev! Check out the show notes for links to his site.
  • Back in episode #164, we talked about how hotels are pulling back on housekeeping during stays — the Hampton Inn in Spring Hill, TN said they’d be 3 days between room visits while the Residence Inn up the road in Franklin said 7 days, which seems a bit excessive; more like a COVID-washing a cost-cutting move. Replacing the breakfast buffet with a “grab-&-go” breakfast bag makes all the sense in the world, but here again, hotels are grabbing the opportunity to trim costs. Most of what I’ve seen is a brown lunch bag with a bottle of water, a NutriGrain breakfast bar, and an apple — a banana if I’m lucky. But the Residence Inn in Wauwatosa, WI, just outside of Milwaukee, was having none of that a couple of weeks back. You had 4 options for the main breakfast course in your bag — a turkey and waffle sandwich, a peanut and strawberry sandwich, an egg and cheese quiche, or one of 13 kinds of cereal boxes, accompanied by your choice of chocolate milk, or orange or apple juice. I’m not passing judgement on the food choices, but I was awfully impressed by their ambition — yeah, we can’t lay out a breakfast buffet spread, but we’re gonna try our damndest to give you a decent alternative. I just had to give the turkey & waffle sandwich a go. I had visions of a Fyre Festival-like trainwreck of a sandwich — a deli slice of turkey breast between two Eggo waffles. But it was a little more reasonable — a small wrapped sandwich of turkey sausage between two small waffles, meant to be heated in the microwave. I grabbed it on the way out for a bike ride, so missed the microwave step, which, I think, was critical. But like I said, I give that RI team huge props for the effort.
  • But outside the Wauwatosa gang, if this stripped down hotel service stays the norm for the next 12-18 months, it’s probably going to drive some big changes in the year-end traveler gift guides — shifting from Away luggage and Aesop travel kits, last year’s big recommendations, to sets of wine tumblers, collapsible bowls, and camping mess kits. And, of course, all sorts of upscale sporks.
  • Back in episode #161, at the end of March, still in a bit of shock from the COVID lockdown and trying to figure out how long it was going to last, I said “I’m nothing if not an optimist. In the midst of this week’s unraveling, I found a deal on a direct American Air flight from ORD to Barcelona — 8½ hr 787 flight — so I booked it — 2 weeks in Barcelona at the end of September.”  But here we are five months later and as we all know, things haven’t “re-raveled”. At the beginning of July, American announced that direct 787 ORD-BCN flight won’t restart until next summer. I checked our reservation on the AA iPhone app after I read this. It still showed us on that direct flight — until I clicked through, which then, I guess, forced the app to pull the latest information from Dallas, and now showed us flight BA through Heathrow. Not that it really matters. The EU isn’t letting Americans in any time in the near future, and, last time I checked, Barcelona is in a voluntary lockdown because of a new spike in COVID cases. News articles are showing shuttered-up stalls at the La Boqueria market; like I said earlier, if nothing’s open, why go? It was a gamble, and really, not even a big one. There’s no change fee, so it’s a push. We won’t lose any money — unless American goes belly-up, but that’d never happen — would it?!
  • Last year, in episode #150, (these show notes are gonna be chock full of backlinks), I talked about switching my carryon bag — from a Timbuk2 backpack to a Timbuk2 messenger bag. I gave two reasons for the switch: I wanted to carry something a little smaller that would stand up under a plane seat; and I wanted a non-black interior, I kept losing things in my backpack — my tablet, my Bose headphone case. But also because the backpack was breaking down a bit – the seam on one of the side pockets had blown out and one of the strap clips had broken. I was going to pitch it during our last downsizing binge before moving into the city and a friend said “You know, Timbuk2 bags have lifetime warranties.” Huh. So I hung onto it because I still like the bag. And about 14 months later, I finally got around to sending it back to them in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure if they’d re-opened their factory, so I was ready for it to take awhile for them to process the bag and repair it. Tracking the package, I could see they received it on a Friday. I got a note from them the following Monday saying they’d inspected it and yes, it was covered by the warranty, and had the bag back in my hands that Saturday. I have to tell you that I am pretty damned impressed. I won’t be switching back from my messenger bag, but I have found that the backpack can carry 4 four-packs of 16-oz cans, perfect when I’m biking a circuit of Chicago microbreweries using curbside no-contact pick-up to grab whatever’s their newest thing. Timbuk2 is definitely “TravelCommons Approved.”
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along — text or audio comment to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or our Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Xena’s Kiss / Medea’s Kiss by mwic (c) copyright 2018 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/mwic/58883

The Meaning of Travel

  • This seems to be the existential question for a lot of travelers — why do we travel? — now that can’t, or at least can’t as easily and, well thoughtlessly is too strong a word, but when we could travel without having to plan as much. It’s been a whipsaw — from overtourism to 36% unemployment in the travel and hospitality sector in the the US — so a bit soul-searching/navel-gazing is to be expected, if not encouraged. So when I saw the new book, The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad by Dr. Emily Thomas, associate professor in philosophy at Durham University in the UK, immediately bought it and read it — and then thought that I needed to have her on the podcast. Lucky for me, she’s a very nice person and agreed to spend a bit of time talking about “the meaning of travel”. It was a fun conversation; I hope you enjoy it.
    • Mark: I’ve got to admit that, as an engineer and an IT guy, my philosophy knowledge pretty much starts and ends with buying a T shirt that said “I Drink Therefore I Am.” It was a fundraiser for the Philosophy club for my undergrad. Emily, the first chapter “Why Do Philosophers Care About Travel” got me because you get straight into a topic we’ve discussed often on the TravelCommons podcast about how travelers build travel bubbles around themselves. They isolate themselves from the places that they traveled to. Oftentimes they do it in the name of efficiency, maybe to keep themselves safe from experiencing what you call the “otherness of travel.” What do philosophers say about that difference between everyday journeys and traveling?
    • Emily: So, I think the difference between these kinds of everyday journeys, like popping to the grocery store, visiting your grandmother and what we think of as travel lies in how much unfamiliarity or otherness we experience along the way. And it seems to me that when I popped to the grocery store, everything is super familiar. I know how things work; I know the roads; I know the products I’m going to buy. If I were to go grocery shopping in an unfamiliar country, that experience is going to be really different. I don’t know how the roads work anymore; I don’t necessarily recognize the writing on the signs of the products; I may not understand the languages that I’m overhearing. And so, an everyday experience becomes much more unfamiliar. And then seems to be much more about travel in the deeper sense. And several philosophers, including folks like René Descartes and Michel de Montagne, have talked about how the benefits of travel lie in experiencing otherness, that this broadens your mind, that it forces you to think past the familiar everyday world of your experience and think about how things might be otherwise, how they could be in other places and they think that’s a really good thing.Frequent travelers often build travel bubbles around themselves that isolates them from the places they travel to; doing it in the name of efficiency, but also perhaps to keep themselves safe from experiencing what philosophers call “the otherness” of travel
    • Mark: I was thinking about this — is there a spectrum of otherness? I’ve got the complete travel bubble at one end; in the middle, curated sidebar experiences — you find a local restaurant, or hunting down a microbrewery or a taproom in a not-great section of town that you would not normally go; and then at the other end, full immersion – I live here, I’ve got a flat.
    • Emily: I definitely think there’s a spectrum. And you can imagine, in your bubble, it might not be the full-blown experience of taking all the same clothes with you and you using all familiar airports. But even if you have your laptop and your mobile phone with you, part of the way that you’ll be connecting with the world is through these really familiar mediums. Maybe you’re going there, and you’re still using Trip Advisor to look for recommendations like you would back home or you’re still using Google maps to navigate your way around the streets. And again, I think that’s going to provide you with this kind of buffer between you and the unfamiliar.
    • Mark: Later on in the book, you riff on Henry David Thoreau and Walden and Cabin Porn and Solitude. When the lock down started, I just decided I was going to dig into some early American literature that I had been threatened with in high school and college but never really got into. And so I kind of flipped a coin between Thoreau and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and, heads so it was Thoreau. I will admit I did this in the beginning of April, and I still have not finished Walden yet, and here we are in August. So it has been a bit of a slog, but I’m still working it. But before I get into that, I gotta ask – “cabin porn.” That’s a new one on me – the term, not so much the porn. But the term cabin porn, what is that?
    • Emily: And so despite what you might think (laughter), Cabin Porn refers to photography of beautiful, isolated cabins. So, picture wood-built cabins nestled in the woods with smoke curling from the chimney. Or maybe they are stone cottages perched on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a crevasse. And there’s this whole industry dedicated to people taking photographs of these gorgeous cabins. The idea is that they’re kind of aspirational. If you stick these into Google images, you will find some of the most astounding dwellings; places that you can rent and live for a little. Walden seemingly kicked this whole thing off. So, Thoreau describes building a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond and while the book can be a little bit of a slog in places, there are beautiful bits of the book. When he’s describing living in nature in this really kind of rustic way, lots of people credit their cabin aspirations to Walden.
    • Mark: What is the strain about solitude and travel and in the balance with “otherness”?
    • Emily: Solitude is often held up is one of the things we can get through travel that’s hard to get home. Although it seems like you can go out into a crowded cafe or a bar and be alone there, it seems like it’s much easier to do that by venturing out into wilderness, that you’re not going to meet other human beings and you have objects in front of you – trees, plants, creatures – that you can connect with. So the idea is that you’re not being solitary in the sense of just introspection, but you’re also connecting with some part of the world around you. It might in turn cause you to reflect on that world, and then your own part in that wider network. And that’s very much what Thoreau is all about. He thinks that being alone in wilderness allows you to better understand wilderness and your own part in the wider universe.
    • Mark: I often find when I’m traveling, it is kinda easy to hold yourself at a distance, especially if, where you are, you don’t speak that language. It’s almost like white noise.
    • Emily: Yes, when you spend large chunks of time without hearing words that you understand is a strange experience. I think it allows you to focus on other things. I think then you end up paying more attention, maybe to like the sights and the smells, the things that you can understand. I quite enjoy it, actually, the experience of being somewhere and not understanding anything that’s going on.
    • Mark: (laughter) The only challenge, though, is because you’re so used to people saying things and you don’t understand it that you just don’t listen. And then when you actually come back to the UK or the US and people are talking to you and you’re just so used to tuning them out, just like “Oh, wait, you said something to me?” There was another piece in the book that you talked about global homogenization. And I’ve felt this, I would say over the past 10-15 years. I started traveling a lot in the mid-80’s, back in the Dark Ages. In that chapter you talk about that it’s an old complaint. You talk about Rousseau bitching about it, and John Stuart Mills…. Are we just repeating the same thing?
    • Emily: So, people like Mills and Rousseau are writing a couple of hundred years ago, and they are bitching about how Paris and Rome “seemed to me to be the same city” and reading this now, it just seems so implausible! I am sure that a large part of this feeling has to do with context. I would imagine that these men are moving in intellectual circles and then they’re going to be around people who speak the same kind of languages, and value the same kind of things that you would like to hope that if they had broken free of those circles that they might have found things that were more unfamiliar. I do suspect that the world has been becoming more the same now than it was before, and simply because of the rise of global companies – that was just not around before. And the idea that you can go into a city and find the same shops and restaurants that you do back home is really strange. I mean, that would not have been there back in the 17th and 18th centuries. That said, I do think what we were talking about before – using technology to find your way around – I think that’s going to give you the impression that things are all the same because you’re looking at them through the same medium. That is an illusion. The real world is not all the same. New York is very different than Paris. Something in the US that I personally am really fond of is investigating small towns that are not listed in guidebooks, in search of what Bill Bryson once described as Anywhere, USA. I really enjoy that. Seeing how these small towns do differ from each other, but also what they have in common. For me, there’s a reall attraction in that, especially in the US.
    • Mark: Are there any that are top of the list for you?
    • Emily: Yes, Silverton, Colorado. I enjoyed that enormously. As a British tourist, so much of it is totally unfamiliar, even though I got the impression that, to the people who lived there and are from Colorado, this is all just par for the course. It’s regular looking houses, it’s regular looking shops that, as is a non-American trying the local bars, seeing the local kind of pancake breakfast, all of this was completely new and really stunningly beautiful.
    • Mark: Just to wrap up, if you look forward and you think about philosophy and travel, what are some of the new things that philosophers are thinking about on travel?
    • Emily: I think the big thing right now it is the ethics of climate change and how best to travel responsibly. I think that issue is going to dwarf everything else in the philosophy of travel for several decades to come. Whether or not we are partaking in carbon off-setting schemes is enough, whether or not we should be looking to educate ourselves more about the places that we travel, possibly even traveling less but aiming for higher quality experiences. I think that stuff is really going to dominate. However, there is other stuff going on too. Looking at the issues posed by space travel and space tourism, which I don’t think is that far away, actually. I mean in the immediate decades, it’s going to be the province of the super wealthy, but I think past that it will become more and more accessible and that’s also going to pose some ethical issues like the cost of fuel to get people up out of the atmosphere is gonna be enormous. But also, that will prompt us to think about our place in the world. I obviously have not been up into space, but were I to go, I imagine it would cause me to reflect on how little the planet Earth is in the grand scheme of things. And I wonder whether that will lead us to reconsider our place in the world and how we’re treating the planet that we live on. I think space travel is going to be really rife with opportunities for philosophical reflection.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #166
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