Annals of Mobility

By SONYA CHUNG

The dog is 13 this year; that’s 91 in human years.  He’s pretty spry, all things considered, but the changes are noticeable and frequent as of late: he is slower on our walks, resists the longer distances, has trouble with stairs and with standing up or lying down. We’ve just invested in a ramp for the car. I’m reluctant to subject him to long car rides anymore, given how stiff he is afterwards from limited space and dehydration. This is the dog who’s traveled cross country twice, and up and down both coasts several times.

But I project.

As of this writing, I am a week from my 40th birthday.  I’ve been trying to say this aloud—I’m turning 40 this year/next month/in a few weeks—on a regular basis, so that when the day comes, I can slide in to that reality with minimal confusion and shock.  All I have to do is remember how I beheld 40 year-olds when I was, say, 10—my mother, for instance—and the idea of it inflates with absurdity.  It is both cliché and true, in my experience, that the years between 30 and 40 fly by like none others; the years between 35 and 40 even more so.  Last year, when turning 39, I felt in my gut that something was “not right”—whose age is that?  This year the goal is to prepare, to not be caught quite so off guard; if that’s possible.

Like Pax the pup, my capacity for mobility is undeniably different from what it was even just a few years ago—physically, I mean.  Previously in this column, I’ve written about the more psychosocial aspects of mobility as it relates to age, but what I’m thinking about these days is more concrete.   I remember distinctly disembarking a plane in 2010 and thinking, Ouch.  And then thinking, That’s new.  Previous to that, I might dread air travel—a long overseas flight especially—because of cabin fever, a mental restlessness.  But I’d never been quite so tired, in my body, before.  Those long-distance road trips we used to do with the dog were accomplished by driving six-to eight-hour legs; now, two hours is the limit before it’s time to take both bathroom and stretch breaks.

The jet-set life has always been appealing to me—an ideal and a fantasy.  Home-base in three or four locales around the world.  Regular residencies and commissions in far-flung places.  But then there’s the reality of it, the actual travelling. When planning travel of any kind now—whether it’s an overseas trip, or errands that will take me to multiple parts of New York City—I think a lot about streamlining, which is to say, minimizing fatigue.  The older I get, the more it seems that life is lived via concrete blocks of energy and time, finite and precious. Whereas in the past I might have tried to cram in as much experience and travel as possible into a summer, now I think in terms of building in “padding” around travel—time for physical recovery and transition.

(Recently, I spent an inordinate amount of time online researching luggage for an upcoming trip: what is the perfect travel bag that optimizes mobility and minimizes energy expenditure?  Is it a convertible wheeled backback?  A separate backpack and wheeled carry-on?  Does my backpack need to have a waist belt?)

 

All this makes me wonder how other people—aging avid travelers—do it.  In our household, we’re fans of Anthony Bourdain and have been watching “No Reservations” for years.  One thing we’ve enjoyed (sadistically, perhaps, though arguably Bourdain invites it) is watching him age and seeing how he copes with it, given the intensity of his travel and filming schedule—not to mention the extreme adventures, intentional and unintentional, built into episodes (blizzards in Iceland, ATV rollovers in New Zealand, pig slaughter in New Orleans) and his absolute commitment to eating anything and everything, health considerations be damned. (He did stop smoking somewhere around Season 3.)  In the later seasons, he seems to me exhausted; baggy-eyed, froggy-voiced, forcing amiability.  How long can he keep doing this? we wonder.  He’s got expenses now—a wife, a kid.  Yeah, but how much money does he really need?  Put the guy out of his misery! 

Recently, I watched the Seattle episode of his latest show, “The Layover,” and was surprised—no extreme adventures or off-the-beaten-path challenges, just straight-up tourist dining and comfortable mainstream spots.  Hmm, I thought.  Maybe this is it for Tony. His age (he is 56) has caught up with him; he is slowing down.  But no: Bourdain has launched not one, but TWO new shows: “Parts Unknown,” which premiered on CNN yesterday, April 14, and “The Getaway” on the newly launched Esquire Network.  In the former, Bourdain “travel[s] across the globe to uncover little-known areas of the world and celebrate diverse cultures by exploring food and dining rituals,” and in the latter, he will pal around with “travel-loving, well known personalities […] who take viewers to their favorite city on the planet, giving the insiders’ track on their top spots to eat, drink, shop and hang out.”  I find myself wanting the behind-the-scenes: How much does Tony sleep?  What medications is he on?  Is he still as scrappy and rock-n-roll as he was when he wrote Kitchen Confidential, or does he now fly, and lodge, with the comforts of first-class?

Speaking of Seattle, Rick Steves—guru for Americans traveling in Europe on a budget—is another professional traveler I‘ve followed over the years.  When I was in my mid-twenties, he was on this side of 40 and was the one encouraging me to save money by taking night trains through Europe, sleeping in a couchette for $25 (that was ouch even back then; I will never do that again).  Now, at 57, a bit pot-bellied and grayed at the temples, he seems to still be going strong.  His guidebooks and videos have always been geared toward older travelers—the “PBS audience”—but a quick look at his blog suggests that perhaps his interests and schedule are aging as well: a USA speaking tour, a classical music-lovers tour (presumably somewhat sedentary), and a European Cruise Ports guidebook.

 

Exhaustion is rarely purely physical or purely mental; usually it’s some layering of the two. Isn’t much of travel fatigue related to the need for control?  The frustration that results when things go wrong, or when something inevitably takes much longer than it would in familiar surroundings?  Is it the older traveler, or the younger traveler, who is more easy-going and able to roll with the punches?  Returning to the question of luggage—and the more abstract notion of “baggage”—are we able to continue to travel light as we age, or do we inevitably become more attached to our things, our particular comforts, which, when toted along, make the process of travel more onerous and tiring?

There are questions, in other words, about both our physical and psychological adaptability as we grow older.  Fifteen years ago I could have traveled anywhere with just a backpack, and eaten just about anything that was offered to me, or whatever was cheapest.  Last year, when packing for a month-long residency, I was horrified to find that I’d just about filled a station wagon with “personal affects”—including my desk chair (to prevent back pain), the particular coffee and tea that I drink every day, my bicycle (with its extra-cushiony seat), various digestive snacks and aids, and four kinds of lotion.

 

There is, too, the cost of mental-geographical scatteredness, which, when weighed against time—having less of it going forward than you’ve already put behind you—is an expenditure against productivity.  How many different places can we “carry” with us—intellectually, emotionally, psychologically—before we become spread so thin that no place has settled deeply enough in our hearts and minds as to be real, to have shaped and transformed us, in any meaningful way?

For in the end, this is where the limitations of chronological age begin to haunt us: there is only so much time and bodily capacity—blocks of time and energy—to make meaning of our lives.  Do we best spend those hours and that energy on the move?  Or should we perhaps become, as we grow older, more mindful of preservation, limits, and sinking our anchors deeper?

 

I don’t know the answer.  But I want to be hopeful that mobility and age, adventurousness and a meaningful life, can all go hand in hand. I was recently alerted to an interesting project launched by Ed Champion—proprietor of the culture blog Reluctant Habits—called Ed Walks.  Starting May 15, Champion will walk 3000 miles across the U.S., talking with people and recording those conversations.  Citing Studs Terkel and Charles Kuralt, his goal, he writes, is to “find distinct insights into the everyday experiences we take for granted.”   He also quotes Steinbeck: “A trip, a safari, an exploration is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.”

Champion describes himself as “a Brooklyn writer with a receding hairline,” and he’s been blogging and writing for a decade at least.  I have no idea how old Mr. Champion is, but given his 3000-mile goal, along with his claims to “pitch his tent” along the way, I admire him for what seems to me an inspiringly clear sense of how he intends to converge the physical and more abstract aspects of mobility: he will cover lots of ground, geographically and culturally; he will listen, and he will record; he will have a unique journey, different from all other journeys; he will travel light; he will take his time.  And he will share what he has seen and heard with all of us—who may or not be as spry or mobile, for whatever reasons, as we once were.

 

Sonya Chung, Associate Editor of The Common, is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and teaches fiction writing at Columbia University.

Photo by Gerry Balding, from Flickr Creative Commons

Annals of Mobility

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