August 19, 2006

No-fly zone

A day or two after the recent dismemberment of the plan to bring down nearly a dozen U.S. passenger jets over the Atlantic, National Public Radio's Weekend America interviewed flight attendants about their vocational risks and the fears they carry with them on the job. One of the show’s hosts asked an interviewee what it would take to make her quit, and the guest, noting that many flight attendants she knew were "on the edge," said if terrorists brought down one domestic plane, that would be it. She and others would fold their wings and quit flying.

I thought the response of the flying public, airline and security personnel, and the British and American governments to last week’s alleged mass murder plot was well done. The intended victims (you, me and everyone we know) were patient and understanding, and the people with the hard task of protecting us were quick, efficient and effective.

Collectively, we delivered a great, global "up yours" to the thugs who spent big chunks of their time on this earth figuring out how to make bombs from Gatorade.

As admirably as we’re adapting to our world's sick craziness, it’s understandable that even veteran vagabonds now feel anxiety when moving about the planet. The statistical risk of being murdered by al-Qaeda or its clones or wannabes is minuscule, but mathematics are small comfort when you’re afraid or unsettled, and perception is everything. If my daughter perceives that our family will be in danger if we take a night flight over the ocean to Europe, should we make that flight?

After he’d interviewed the flight attendants, the Weekend America host asked listeners to consider a life without flying. The questions posed went something like, "Suppose you decided, That’s it – no more flying. How would you live? How would you live a rich life without air travel? What would you do? What would you do differently?"

I was listening to this show while driving to the supermarket. I looked like a mom in a minivan rolling through suburbia to buy milk, but as the host drew out the discussion, I morphed into my vagabonding alter ego. I kept my ear to the radio and my mind on the atlas in my head.

A life without air travel? What would I do?

It being a given that I wouldn’t stay home, I flashed an image of the Americas across my brain.

Why, I’d drive the Pan-American Highway from Mexico to Chile. Take a train across Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Drive to Miami and board a boat to the Bahamas, where I'd island-hop for a sunny month. Make another road trip across America (and write another book). Hike the Appalachian Trail. Bike the old Lincoln Highway. Drive to a city I’ve never visited and coast my way through it on one of the kids’ old fold-up Razor Scooters. Take the ferry from Portland, Maine to Nova Scotia and run great, sweeping stretches of the Cabot Trail. Haul my pontoon boat to New York and cruise the Erie Canal. Ice-skate Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. Kayak down the Hudson, from upstate all the way to the Statue of Liberty.

I’d adapt