Manifesto for Travel

This morning I sat down to begin the long process of narrating the audio version of my new travel adventure book Out in the Cold. As I reread the preface (it has been a little while since I wrote it), I thought it stands alone as a pretty good manifesto for travel. So I thought I’d share:

OUT IN THE COLD
PREFACE

I’m pretty sure the discovery of America started with a bar fight and I believe I can persuade you that it is so. The chain of events that brought Norse ships to Newfoundland began when a court in Norway found Thorvald Erickson guilty of murder and tossed him out of the country.

The Saga of Eirik the Red, Thorvald’s son, doesn’t say exactly what his old man got up to that night, just that he was exiled “because of some killings,” so Thorvald and the clan loaded up the truck and they moved to northwest Iceland.

Eirik grew up and married a local girl. When Thorvald died they moved south where before long the local sheriff found Eirik guilty of murder just like his old man, and Eirik was banished from Iceland. Thorvald’s bar fight led to Iceland, Greenland and the New World. We will visit the settlement his grandson built in Newfoundland.

But this is not about the Vikings, although they are here. This is a collection of northern tales from the frozen-tight Svalbard archipelago, 800 miles from the North Pole, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Atlantic-facing Canada.

•••••

A daiquiri on your cruise ship balcony may imply that you are on vacation, but it does not mean that you are traveling. Crowding people together on “fun ships” to share viruses for several days holds up as well as socks from Wal-Mart.

Once, in the Himalayas, in a place called Sikkim, whose very geography required vocational derringdo, a mad driver told me “Man didn’t evolve from apes to act like sheep.” He meant that you must engage.

Your free time is as surely an asset as your home or your car. I say, get out there and put some of it to good use. If the unexamined life isn’t worth living (Socrates), get to examining. Compare and contrast your experiences to those of others.

In these pages we will meet an artisan carver of narwhal bones in Greenland. We’ll cruise the streets of Reykjavik with an ebullient Icelandic author, hike with a part-time tour guide in Labrador who cannot imagine why you’d want to be anywhere other than on the tundra, and spend time with others whose lives, objectively, are nothing like your own.

We will shake hands with the President of Iceland and stand naked and alone on the side of the glacier Vatnajokull (separately from the president). We will drop in on the last French outpost in North America, talk shop with a diplomat and eat wind dried sheep in the Faroe Islands, dine with strangers alongside icebergs at a lighthouse north of Newfoundland, and find Greenland so beguiling, we will visit twice.

•••••

Who ever thinks they are finally and fully grown up? Not me, not in my 20s, or 30s or even 40s. I still think people who wear adult clothes and enjoy it, skirt and blazer, suit and tie, selling investments or copiers or conjuring income from intangibles like air time or web space – those people are grown up, or at least grown up in a way I’m not, in the western businessy way.

I will never be a winning jockey in the Great American Corporate Advancement Derby. I don’t enjoy yard work or the NBA and I don’t know anything about grown-up stuff like the American Automobile Association or why you should be a member. Or what those ads for active traders are talking about, when you be honest.

I don’t buy clothing with the logo of its manufacturer or shop on Black Friday. That others do, that’s real nice. I just don’t have their motivation. But I think I’ve got one thing on them: I’m pretty sure the flame burns brighter in my magic adventure lamp.

Let us all think of a place that sounds exciting, take ourselves there and see what happens, minding Nelson Mandela’s words: May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears.

•••••

Imagine a range of actions: At one extreme, you never leave your house, and at the other you drive into Somalia honking your horn and waving an American flag. I like it just inside the go-too-far side of that tent, poking on the fabric with a dull knife, trying not quite hard enough to cut through.

Within reason, mind you. Cut through the fabric and you end up kidnapped in Niamey, blasted in two in Helmand or beheaded in the new Caliphate. So let us stick with adventure reasonably achievable. In this case, starting 800 miles shy of the North Pole, chasing a total eclipse.

•••••

Preface from the book Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Buy it in paperback here. Read other excerpts here. Kindle version soon. The audiobook version, begun today, should hit in the fall.

Also published on Medium.

Friday Photo Quiz 2

Win free stuff, once a week this summer. Every Friday I’ll put up a random photo from one of the 120 countries on EarthPhotos.com, and you play sleuth. Where on earth can it be?

Leave your best guess as a comment. I won’t publish the comments so no one can give away the answer.

I’ll put all the correct answers into a hat, draw one, and the winner of the drawing will win a copy of the audiobook version of my book Common Sense and Whiskey.

New photo every Friday, drawing the next Thursday, winners notified by email Friday.

Good luck. Have fun.

So, take a look at this week’s photo. What country is this?

Animals with Personality

I’ve been reading lately about the prevalence of traits we think of as human traits in animals. The idea of animal “personality” is problematic by anthropomorphic definition. But still. Here are a few creatures we’ve met down through the years. For me, it’s hard to imagine them not having personalities.

Click them for bigger versions at EarthPhotos.com.









Titanic History

Object of Rearrangement:
Deck Chair from the Titanic, from the
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

105 years ago tonight the Titanic met its fate. Short excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold:

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either….

Friday Photo Quiz, Thursday Edition

Let’s have a little fun. Are you game to test your geographic knowledge? Fridays through the summer I’ll put up a random photo from one of the 120 countries on EarthPhotos.com. For starters we’ll do this first one a day early. You play sleuth. Where on earth can this be?

Leave your best guess as a comment. I won’t publish the comments so no one can give away the answer.

I’ll put all the correct answers into a hat, draw one, and the winner of the drawing will win a copy of the audiobook version of my book Common Sense and Whiskey. Free stuff, once a week.

New photo every Friday, drawing the next Thursday, winners notified by email Friday.

Good luck. Have fun.

So, game time: from what country do you guess this first photo comes?

Free-ish Bird

This week’s United Airlines debacle raises questions besides the violation-of-decency-in-search-of-corporate-efficiency one. The Libertarian blog Reason makes a salient point under the headline Why Should Police Help United Airlines Cheat Its Customers?

Blurring the lines between private enterprise and quasi-law enforcement bodies makes me nervous. When it’s just you and me, hapless Joes trying to catch a flight, who really knows who has what authority in airports?

The men who hauled that United passenger down that aisle were Chicago Aviation Police, unarmed, sorta real cops who play “an important, supplementary role in keeping [Chicago airports] safe by overseeing access points.”

Would you know that at the moment they muscled their way down the aisle? Does it matter? Should you just instantly cave in forfeiture of your rights to anybody in uniform? It seems like that’s what the enforcement cadres would prefer, in the name of keeping you safe.

There are God knows how many entities said to be looking out for your best interests in airports. Homeland Security people, uniformed TSA people, your local police, anybody an airline or rental car agency or for that matter, TGI Fridays down in the food court might slap a uniform on. If the guy who drives the Marriott shuttle and wears the official cap yells and screams real authoritatively, what about him, too?

In a sympathetic article from many years ago, “Chicago-area airport security chief Jim Maurer” says “What I think is unique about airports is this is a business. And our job is to make sure that that business is conducted efficiently. We’ve got to get people in and out of the airport and we’ve got to get them to their destinations. There’s a whole different perspective.”

Sure is a different perspective. We’re not enforcing laws. We’re making sure business, like United Airlines’ business, is conducted efficiently.

So why are they called police? Why are government bodies in service of private profit-making?

•••••

I was flying around doing reporting trips for my book Out in the Cold in 2015, and once after returning from the Arctic, I found a card the size of the customs form inside my bag.

Notice of Baggage Inspection from the Department of Homeland Security: To protect you and your fellow passengers your bag and its contents may have been searched for prohibited items. At the completion of the inspection, the contents were returned to your bag.”

Come now.

They say “may have been.” I’m pretty sure that if they didn’t open the bag I wouldn’t have found the notice inside. You figure?

“If the TSA security officer was unable to open your bag for inspection because it was locked, the officer may have been forced to break the locks on your bag.”

May have been.

“TSA sincerely regrets having to do this, however TSA is not liable for damage to your locks….”

Of course not.

•••••

The Department of Homeland Security claims their entitlement to the inside of your property in the name of your security. This is unsettling because what might they need to seize next to keep you safe? Your social media passwords?

Oh, wait.

Unsettling too because this week cops can haul you bleeding from your paid-for flight. Note that after auditioning all the other options, United CEO Munoz finally apologized, but no enforcement organization I’m aware of has distanced itself from the Chicago Aviation Police.

You just wait for the day that TGI Fridays cop splays you out on the floor on account of your complaint about the cold fries.

YOU’RE IN THE AIRPORT. I’M HERE TO KEEP YOU SAFE.

•••••

Also published here on Medium.

The Price to Be Paid for Vile Customer Service

When a constituency has been beaten down for long enough a crystallizing moment can prove fatal. Beware tonight, United Airlines. Beaten Down: Airline passengers. Average seat pitch formerly 35 inches, 31 now. Fees, fees and more fees. United Airlines, already last in customer satisfaction, richly deserves the pain coming from it’s just really ugly, unforgivable police action today.

The frowning, sometimes dimly-qualified, testosterone-pumped enforcement cowboys whose gauntlet you must run these days to all the airlines’ friendly skies may wish to think otherwise, but the interior of an airplane is not a war zone. Although you wouldn’t know it on this day.

Honest now, most likely United Airlines chairman Oscar Munoz, like a thousand other captains of industry, kissed his wife and kids and obeyed traffic rules this morning on the way to the office. There is no reason to believe he did anything besides look after his shareholders’ interests right up until, entirely outside his control, an incident occurred on board one of his planes waiting to leave O’Hare airport.

Mr. Munoz’s company needed four of its employees to be somewhere other than Chicago and all of the passengers declined to volunteer their bought and paid for seats for the airline’s benefit.

The airline tried to bargain with its customers. The first offer? $400. No takers. The second? $800. Again, no takers. People gotta go where they gotta go. Interesting to note: rules are, passengers are eligible for up to $1,350 for such a disruption but United Airlines apparently decided not to offer more than $800. They preferred to enlist strong men to haul a paying passenger from his seat instead.

It would appear that in the wake of the incident, after a wavering moment of incipient decency in which Chairman Munoz called the incident “an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” the chairman tilted awry by calling the bumped passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” Said he, the airline agents “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”

Oh, Lordy, whether the passenger was belligerent or not (and none of the emergent videos, see here, here, and here, demonstrate such), this was exactly, precisely, even perversely the wrong response.

The passenger declined to be forcibly bumped from a flight he had paid for with money or airline miles, because the airline thought a better use of his seat was to transport its own employees. (And answer me this, why should police abet the airline in the airline’s wrongdoing?)

A single event won’t usually overtake a career. On this one, Mr. Munoz, who was under fire just last week for denying passage to teenage girls for wearing leggings, just might get caught up in the deluge. Sometimes, a constituency beaten down for long enough will rise up. Sometimes a big enough misstep from the loftiest heights can lead you over the corporate cliff.

Even while I have written just now, I see 2310 new Tweets with the hashtag #United. Since Mr. Munoz kissed his wife and kids this morning, I wonder if he may have kissed his job goodbye.