Written by Dale Suderman Wednesday, 01 August 2007 10:33This summer I have been pondering about the meaning of travel—while staying at home and essentially running a weekend bed and breakfast for family and friends visiting Chicago.
My great-grandparents—the Sudermans, Steltings, Harders and Fischers traveled. They bought one-way tickets on railroads and ships and traveled halfway around the world from the Ukraine to Kansas and Oklahoma in the 19th century.
Jacob Suderman paid five rubles in 1879 for a Russian passport to take his wife and nine children across the Atlantic to Philadelphia. They then boarded a train that dumped them off in Peabody, Kansas. Along the way they did not stay in a Motel 6.
After they settled south of Hillsboro, my grandfather recalled, “When our family prayed for ‘daily bread’ in the evening it was heartfelt because the flour drawer was often nearly empty.”
I doubt my great-grandparents ever took a vacation. They traveled to see relatives and for funerals and regional church conferences, but the idea of just kicking back and going sight seeing was unthinkable in their age of a scarcity.
After World War II, travel was mass-produced for increasingly affluent Americans. Cheap motels, interstate highways systems and destinations such as Disneyland, Branson, Las Vegas and cruise ships were all parts of the mass production of pleasure and adventure in a controlled environment.
(For the truly adventurous there was the once in a lifetime trip to Europe.)
Homes were decorated with evidence of travel—a collection of silver spoons from different states, a commerative plate or a wooden plaque from Albuquerque was casually displayed as lifelong evidence of vacations taken.
(Color slides were sequentially arranged in carousels to show to friends and family. The protocol about how many years after the trip one could still claim these as new and inflict them on guests was the source of some debate.)
But as we have moved from being merely affluent to living in an abundant society a new travel phenomena has emerged. We can now often travel in a quest to demonstrate our values and not merely to collect Kodak moments.
Church youth groups travel to exotic cities and countries to serve the poor and oppressed—and perhaps spend a bit of time at the beach.
College students travel to see theater in London, visit a few museums in Paris and—and if they stay out late every night—well, this is part of soaking up the local ambiance.
Every year more than a million church members leave the United States to do short term missions. They go to help local churches, a few pass out tracts, others help out in medical centers.
(A friend told me of a plan for 12 retired couples to fly to Thailand to landscape around a local church and orphanage. We did some financial calculations. For the same amount of money being spent with United Airlines, the local congregation could employ a crew of local landscapers for five years.)
Additionally, persons travel with political affinity groups who visit the oppressed in Palestine, Columbia and Mexico, go on eco-tours or join the Peace Corp or become religious volunteers who spend a few years overseas.
All told a staggering number of Americans now travel for some purpose deemed higher than mere sightseeing.
Persons traveling from scarcity, persons traveling from affluence and persons traveling from abundance can easily mock the other groups. It is easy to see the travelers from scarcity as opportunists, parasites and threats to our lifestyle. Replace Mennonite with Mexican and you get my point.
And those who do mass produced travel moving in sanitized air-conditioned comfort—the senior citizen tour to Branson, the young family that sees Disneyland as the peak experience in their family’s life, the Carnival Cruisers, the Japanese tourists marching lockstep behind an umbrella wielding tour guide through the streets of Paris can easily be viewed as déclassé.
The cause-based travelers are also easy to mock. Suspicions of ulterior motives of narcissism, a tax deduction, and an easy grade can cause one to ask gently, “Tell me again, how much time with the orphans and how much time at the beach?”
After all, nearly all of them end their travelogues and adventure stories with a common refrain, I got so much more out of this than I was able to give.”
You can contact the writer at Dale.Suderman@gmail.com.