I last took a flight in January 2010. I was still in my mid-to-late 20s, of no fixed abode (no change there) and had only been taking writing seriously for a year. I didn’t own a bicycle, had never worn a beard or grown my hair, and knew Cairo better than I knew any town outside London and my county of birth.
In the 27.5 years until January 2010, I had taken 78 flights in my life. As illustrated in the mindblowing chart below (the yellow bars are flights, the red are holidays):
In the 8.1667 years since January 2010, I have taken precisely zero flights. Not because I give a shit about the environment (I’ve wasted more than my fair share of electricity, water and gas in that time), but because I find that flying means I travel less, and with less creativity.
Without wanting to blow my own, but rather as an illustration of the breadth of my travel in the last 8 years, I have:
- Hitch-hiked to Ben Nevis in Scotland and back, and to the Lake District and back.
- Walked the pilgrim routes to Canterbury, and the other way to Winchester.
- Cycled 4,110 miles around Britain, and another couple of thousand to the Sahara; also from London to Vienna, and numerous other short day, night or weekend rides.
- Travelled by ferry, bus, train and car through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria (3 times), Spain, and the Netherlands.
The last 8 years have taught me everything I need to know about life: that it’s not about always being somewhere special; but that you can always find the special in anywhere.
Having said that… I’m now taking a flight from London to Vienna so that I can go to the Elevate Festival and basically have a party with my friends.
And it’s blowing my mind.
Since buying that ticket with Austrian Airlines, I’ve felt moments of existential panic. Not flying has been a part of my personality for so long and I’m only a little ashamed to say that sometimes I’ve felt quite smug about it. What part of me am I destroying by flying again? This flight feels sometimes like an obliteration of self.
But I think that’s a good thing. We shouldn’t hold onto ideas of ourselves forever: that only sets us up for disappointment sooner or later. Create a vision of yourself and then rejoice in tearing it down!
But I am worried about what will happen when I board that plane. I’m glad that a friend will be sitting next to me to hold my hand. After 8 years, it’s only natural to feel trepidation, but I’m also excited to feel the engine power of take off, the thrill of the clouds and beauty of the sky, to revel once more in the miracle of flight.
Less than two years ago I cycled from London to Vienna – it took six weeks. The return journey was made by bus and took 36 hours. I’ve actually been to and from Vienna 8 times in the last 8 years and each time the journey has been the adventure: bicycle, coach, ferry and train. This time it’s the turn of the aeroplane.
Aeroplanes aren’t evil. Nothing is evil. I never stopped flying because of the environmental impact, but because flying was an impediment to my own experience, it blunted my own imagination. I’m a totally different person thanks to my 8-year rejection of flying: I never travelled less, I travelled more, and more again. I learnt that travel is as much a factor of the mind and body as it is the displacement of either.
Cycling to Vienna was a unique sequence of memories and experiences that have gorged themselves into my mind in unforgettable rivers. A displacement of being that no flight to the same destination could ever come close to matching.
And there is no suggestion that this one aeronautical adventure will open the departure gates. One flight every 8 years seems to me to be a good balance. For my life and lifestyle, I have no need to fly for work or family reasons, but I see no reason not to value flying as a thrilling, carpe diem experience in itself.
Flying is one of those spectacular miracles that all too easily subsumes itself into the humdrum – as you can see from my chart of flights. 11 flights in one year? That’s commuting. But as a very occasional experience, a trip in an aeroplane is a call to wonder; an acute reminder that life is fleeting.
Or it might turn out to be a complete nightmare.
Either way, here’s to another 8 years of creative travel!