I had the joy of traveling for work recently: Milwaukee, WI to San Jose, CA. It had been a while, and I forgot how much I hated air travel.
It’s not that flying bothers me: it’s amazing to travel thousands of miles in a few hours. It’s not that packing bothers me: indeed I rather like planning and compressing my needs for a week down into what I can carry. Rather, I hate the ceremony and the complete loss of control that comes with modern air travel.
“The Ceremony” is simple: if you fly in America today you have a taste of what it’s like to live in a police state. You need various identifiers and identification; if your name does not appear exactly on your driver’s license as you booked your flight, you may not get to fly. The US Government can put you on a “no fly list” without telling you, and without giving you any due process of law that would allow you to see why you are on the do-not-fly list, and without a clear legal path to getting off of it. Furthermore, in the United States you will soon need a “Real ID”, much closer to- or equivalent-to a Passport in order to fly.
All this to fly domestically. In the “land of the free”.
So you need “your papers” in order to fly: something the average middle-class traveler in Soviet Russia would certainly understand. But wait, that’s not where your privacy violations end. You are going to get SCANNED.
Consider first the “millimeter wave” scanners deployed at almost every US airport now. Depending on which article you read, this may or may not present TSA officers with a high resolution contour of exactly what you look like naked. The thing that people forget about TSA officers is that they are just like all other officers: they are just people. That means they are no better or worse than the average American. Some of them will be ethical and honest, with their mission in the forefront of their minds as they do their jobs. Others will behave as though they were a 14 year old boy who suddenly had X-ray vision into the girls’ locker room.
The TSA can also simply embarrass you. Suppose you, like my father, have various iron and titanium pins in your legs due to severe injuries from motorcycle accidents. The metal detectors are going to alarm as you walk through. You’re going to have to explain yourself at the very least. Maybe you’ll get “extra screening”.
Finally, the TSA can search your luggage at any time and for any reason. If you have a diver’s computer, a special piece of hardware for work, or maybe a particularly flashy pack of condoms in your luggage: someone with close to zero training is going to be flagged that they should look through your luggage. Did you bring a pair of fuzzy handcuffs on your vacation with your wife, or did you bring something to clean your CPAP, or are you traveling with a few things to spice of the bedroom while you vacation in the Caribbean? The TSA can poke, prod, and confiscate any of that.
Here’s the thing: once you reach a certain age, a doctor is going to poke around your most private parts and ask you uncomfortable questions. This is a part of getting older: we get pap smears, testicular cancer checks, breast cancer scans, prostate checks, and so on. But being a doctor is not easy: when you drop your pants for a doctor you are doing so for someone who has gone through 8-12+ years of school and has seen it all before and has everything to lose from being accused of sticking their finger in the wrong place. A TSA agent is different from a doctor in all the wrong ways.
Once you are physically on your flight, you lose even more freedom. You must obey a US Air Marshal or any random Southwest employee or face felony charges. Sure, nearly every flight goes well, but how do you feel about the idea of being beholden to someone who didn’t like the political message on your jacket? Remember, people are just people…
If, by Odin’s grace, you don’t make your flight, you are likely fucked. Did you get trip insurance, or did you get the kind of tickets that will not be refunded? You see, Americans have decided over the past 25+ years that all they care about is the cost of a flight. It doesn’t matter if they are sitting literally on top of someone who is hand-pumping their colostomy bag out into their neighbor’s coffee, if they can get to Vegas for $50 less they’ll deal with it. They will not remember this experience and vote with their dollars to have a more dignified flight next time. So, you are likely missing a day or more of your vacation if you miss that flight. Does it matter that it’s Spring Break and Airline X didn’t staff their counters enough? Nope, go back home loser.
Maybe you get bumped from an overbooked flight. Maybe you have to hand over a prized pocketknife you had in your jeans out of pure habit. Maybe the counter was too busy and they leave without you…
But the Road Won’t Leave Without You
Now, suppose you are instead packing for a motorcycle trip. Assuming that everything you’re packing is legal, you have nearly zero concern for anyone looking at it. The chances of you getting pulled over and searched are, anyway, incredibly small.
Suppose it’s spring break for some local schools and you start out a little late?
Oh well, you sit in traffic a little bit. You don’t miss your flight, you don’t lose a whole day of your vacation.
Suppose a tornado tears across the road a few miles in front of you? OK, you wait, and you move on when it’s safe.
Suppose the thunderstorm of the century tears across the state you’re riding through and you find yourself stuck in a rest area in Knoxville?
Fine, that’s great. Survive. There is no large insurance company who will not let your bike take off without considering a billion variables: you can leave whenever you feel like you can ride. If you take off and discover that the roads are really terrible, you can pull off on the side of the road and sleep anywhere you’re equipped to sleep. Sure you shouldn’t build campfires on someone’s private property but you can judge for yourself. You are in control. Maybe you do pull off the highway and park your bike in a ditch and throw your bivy over yourself. Rain pours, lightning strikes. Thunder follows. A man who is shurely Clint Eastwood reincarnated rides a horse near the tree you’re camped under and politely but firmly asks what the hell you’re doing on his property. Flustered, you explain how you’re on a motorcycle trip and you pulled over to escape the storm and you meant no disrespect to his property rights…
There was a time when he might have said at best “Why don’t y’all come up to our cabin” and at worst “Y’all take care, feel free to camp on my land, but ride up and tell me if you’re staying past tomorrow.” The way we treat each other today, that’s a topic for another day…
You see, the Road won’t leave without you, and the Earth won’t refuse to let you sleep there. When you are traveling on your own steed, you have so much more freedom. An airplane cannot decide to camp underneath an overpass. An airplane cannot ask the bar owner if you can pitch a tent out back. Your saddlebags know that anything packed in there is not for anyone else to know about. You can pull over to the side of the road and wait out traffic if that’s what makes sense. If not, you roll on by in your rain gear.
If you make a mistake, you leave a little late. If the road is unsafe, you choose another road. You decide how much risk to take, you decide how long the “layover” is. You travel with your rights and dignity intact. You can even carry a bottle of water if that suits you.
The airlines will leave without you, they’ve already got your money and quite frankly you dropping dead in the check in line or not is all the same to them. Out on the road, though, you’re in control. There may be challenges and decisions to make, but the road won’t leave without you.