Driving the point home
St. Louis to Charleston by car, which is better for the planet than planes.
By Lisa Brunette
Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.
~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road
It had been about a billion years since Anthony and I took a road trip. Sure, back in our footloose-and-fancy free youth, we frequently engaged in this great American pastime. I’ve made more than one trip from the Midwest to Key West and back, and once a bunch of girlfriends and I piled into a van and trekked to the Grand Canyon via Route 66, our Thelma-and-Louise gal-pal sojourn, minus the tragic ending. Anthony’s longest round trip was between his mom’s house in Oregon and college stomping grounds in Minnesota. As American Gen Xers, we saw road trips as a right of passage; like Jack Kerouac, we were supposed to heed the call of the open road before settling into stationary lives.
Here in middle age, though, the two of us stuck to the friendly skies. Up until this past December, neither of us had made more than a day trip by car in about twenty years. So we were pretty rusty at road tripping when we hopped into the hybrid and lit out for parts unknown.
The destination was Charleston, South Carolina, and our reason for heading there by car was manifold, the most important of which was cost. I’ll let Anthony dig into the economic aspects in a separate post. As a side justification, we also knew that driving would be better for the planet.
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CO2 for Two
Sustainable Travel’s online calculator shows that a round-trip flight between St. Louis and Charleston carries more than twice the carbon footprint as driving the same distance.
However, it’s actually worse than this because St. Louis is not a major airline hub and there are no direct flights from St. Louis to Charleston. So, assuming we’d have to fly through Atlanta, and not a city even further afield, we’re talking about a carbon footprint of .73 metric tons, compared to only .32 for the drive.
Granted, our Prius is a hybrid, so we emitted less CO2 that way. But even a standard car would make the journey with a lighter footprint, at .48 metric tons.
What’s Good for the Gander
Note I’m not about asking regular folks to make sacrifices for the environment when neither monied elites nor our political leaders (who are themselves monied elites) model this behavior. It frankly ticks me right off to see them jetting around the globe for so-called climate-change conferences, not to mention living daily lives of fossil-fuel extravagance, often at everyone else’s expense.
It’s All You
And there are reasons to fly instead of drive, for sure. Time is one. Convenience is another. The biggest drawback is pretty obvious: You have to drive.
Yeah, you can’t just sit back and let someone else convey you to your destination. You must remain alert, stay vigilant, and make good decisions. Driving takes a huge toll on the body, even if you stop frequently and get some exercise. I don’t love driving, and maybe you don’t, either, so there’s that.
Driving vs. Flying
But if you can be flexible about these things, there’s a strong eco argument for driving vs. flying. There are also some awesome personal benefits:
You don’t have to reduce your hygiene regimen down to the size of a quart bag.
You don’t have to relegate yourself to the wardrobe that will fit into a carryon because you’re too afraid to check baggage after bad experiences.
You don’t have to subject yourself to the tortures of modern air travel: TSA security screening, masking, bad airport food, delays, canceled flights, lost luggage, recycled airplane air, and more.
You’re the master of your own volition, so you don’t have to rely on any other person, or company, or government, to get you where you want to be. That’s a powerful feeling.
You can stop whenever you want and take a break, get up and stretch, exercise, even.
Last but not least, you can break up the journey into as many days as you want, and thereby see more sights. While our destination was Charleston, we took the opportunity to visit smaller towns along the way. This experience was nice enough to warrant a future post of its own.
If you’re like us and haven’t taken a road trip in a while, give it a try instead of flying if you can. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Don’t blanket-trust your phone GPS. Mine said our trip would take 12 hours. It took 17 to get there and about the same on the return because the phone doesn’t factor in construction, traffic accidents, inclement weather, and stops for gas, food, the bathroom, etc., which all add up. I also have some things to say about phones vs. paper maps I’ll save for an upcoming post.
If you’re traveling in winter, account for a much shorter stretch of daylight. We made the mistake of not leaving until 9 am the first day, and we didn’t get into our destination until much later than we’d anticipated, after slogging through a sparsely-populated stretch of Tennessee during a heavy rainstorm with frighteningly low visibility.
Break up the drive, smartly. Our plan was to drive for two six-hour days, which made it sound like we could easily stop for a two-hour break midway each day. But doing this put us off the first day, so when we hit traffic + heavy rain + a pitch-black stretch of rural highway, we were blown wildly off-schedule. On the return, we got an early start, ate a quick rest-area lunch, and rolled into our destination in the afternoon, giving us plenty of time to get out for a bit to explore a new locale, stretch our legs, and get dinner.
Skip to the lou. You can actually skip around the rest areas; yep, I said skip—it’s a great way to kick up the heart rate in a small space, and who cares what you look like? Skipping is fun! But sure, if this is too much, give it a walk and a stretch.
In a slowpocalypse world with skyrocketing airline costs and volatile gas prices, travel is increasingly a luxury. We undertook our sojourn in order to visit our son, Zander, who could not get away from his Navy duties during the holidays. It was well worth the aches and pains—even my frantic moment of night blindness—to spend quality time with him.
I often wonder what will become of travel as our fossil-fueled civilization continues to meet its resource limitations and decline. It’s a big question, one I can’t answer, but I do know that even in the past five years, my relationship with travel has changed dramatically, and not just due to the pandemic restrictions. Will a future coming-of-age story even include a perspective like Kerouac’s? When the world shrinks to the size you can afford to navigate, will everything still seem like it’s ahead of us, or will the rear-view mirror show that all lies behind?