Traveling the World Without Taking Flight

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

By Emily Grund

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World by Seth Stevenson is a nonfiction journey that takes readers around the world without ever taking flight. As he circumnavigates the world with his girlfriend Rebecca, Stevenson describes each leg of each trip in extensive detail.

Their decision to travel the world and why they decided not to take planes revolves around one desire: adventure. By taking cargo freighters, trains, and even bikes, the couple is able to explore cultures and landscapes during their travels as well as during their stay. No stone is left unturned as they discover the challenges, humor, and beauty of spontaneous travel with no itinerary.

Getting lost in translation and understanding the familiarity of awkward culture shock is Stevenson’s strong suit. He is able to accurately portray the honest emotions and thoughts of a traveler, as well as capture humor through dialogue and amazement through cultural comparison. A play by play of certain activities gets a bit dull at times but that is generally during the dull points of his travels such as long boat rides with nothing much to do.

His negativity towards flying can be a bit off-putting at times. Those who may find some joy in flying, or have no choice in their mode of transportation, may find parts of this book almost insulting. However, if you can look past the negativity, there is a lot to be learned from his optimism in being grounded.

This excerpt from the introduction of Grounded:

Years ago, Rebecca and I might have planned our journey by spreading open a big, dusty atlas on our coffee table. These days, we fire up Google Earth on a laptop. The computer application lets us spin a model globe around on the screen and zoom in on whichever country, or region, or street corner we please.

It’s a fantastically fun and easy program to use. But it turns our there’s a significant danger in this approach. On a twelve-inch laptop screen, things look mighty close together. Rebecca and I sat side by side on our couch one evening, tracing a hopscotch route across the pixels with our index fingers.

“Okay, we can go here…then here…and then here.” Voila! Seemed so effortless—until we realized we were looking at a quarter of the earth’s surface. And that the path we had blithely proposed went straight through the heart of the Gobi Desert.

It became clear that we’d first need to answer a few fundamental questions. Questions one rarely asks oneself in day-to-day life. Things like: How long would it take to sail from Singapore to Fiji? Or, scratch that—How fast can a camel traverse one hundred roadless miles, encumbered with two people, fifteen gallons of water, and a yurt?

Fortunately, Rebecca is a stone-cold genius when it comes to travel logistics. She knows all the angles and is lightning quick on her feet. When your flight gets canceled and everyone’s stuck at a snowy airport with no rental cars, she’s that fellow passenger you overhear murmuring calmly into her cell phone, arranging to hire a stagecoach and a team of Clydesdales. Her talents as a navigatrix made me so confident that we could face down any situation, I decided we could leave our plans vague for the time being. We knew we wanted to take a ship across the Atlantic and then trains across Russia.

Our timing seemed to work, as it would get us in and out of Siberia before summer ended. (By all accounts, Siberia in winter is not a good place to be.) After that, everything—routes, destinations, schedules, accommodations—was left undecided. We’d build our journey piece by piece, on the fly.

Packing and Simplifying

Next step: packing. Rebecca and I had strong feelings on this matter. We share a severe disdain for travelers whose massive backpacks extend down below their knees and up over the crowns of their heads, dangling behind them bits of flotsam clipped on with carabiners. Walk through any backpacker district in Southeast Asia and you’re sure to pass some sunburned schlub with a souvenir dideridoo bumping along in his wake. We didn’t want to be that guy. As a result, we risked going too far in the other direction, challenging each other to pack as little as possible. Rebecca at one point threatened to travel the earth carrying nothing but a lunchbox.

In the end, we settled on small backpacks—not significantly larger than the kind a book-laden college student might lug to the library. Into mine I tucked a minimal allotment of clothes, including just three pairs of underwear, which, if I hope to remain on friendly terms with Rebecca, will require frequent washing. For her part, Rebecca somehow managed to pack more digital gadgets than items of attire. (This is in her genes. Some celebrate gold and diamond wedding anniversaries; Rebecca’s parents celebrate the consumer electronics anniversary. Every year.) She included a small MP3 player loaded with songs, a shortwave radio for tuning in news broadcasts, an unlocked cell phone, and a handheld GPS to track our precise latitude and longitude at any given moment.

With the itinerary and provisions taken care of, we were left with only one more thing to do: systematically disentangle ourselves from every attachment in our lives. Rebecca gave notice at her office, and I told my editors I’d be off the grid for a good long while. Again, reactions to this news varied from total bewilderment to open envy.

We began scraping off the cushy trappings we’d built around ourselves. Our apartment building didn’t allow sublets, so we ended our lease. We spend eons on hold with customer service hotlines—canceling the cable TV, the phone, the Internet, the gym membership. Automated telephone menu options rarely fit our situation. When the cable company’s computerized voice asked me for the address we were moving to, I said, “A cabin on a transatlantic cargo ship.” Replied the computer, “I’m sorry I’m having trouble understanding your response.” There were infinite odds and ends to take care of, and at times it seemed we’d never achieve full extraction. At frustrating moments, I pictured myself on the open ocean, a salty breeze in my face.

The final night in our apartment, we threw a bon voyage party. We tried to empty the place of all remaining objects, giving away as much as we could. By the end of the evening, Rebecca was pressing board games and toaster ovens into the arms of tipsy guests. The next morning, whatever we couldn’t bear to give away or throw out we stuffed into a large storage locker. Then I parked our car on a quiet street in a distant, leafy corner of D.C., dropping off my keys with some friends. They promised to watch the poor old thing rust until we came back for it.

Seth Stevenson

That evening—our very last night in D.C., until we closed the circle upon our triumphant return—we got drinks at our local dive bar, bidding a quieter good-bye to a few of our closest pals. When the gathering broke up, we crashed at our friend Ariane’s apartment. We had nowhere else to sleep.

The next morning, walking down the sidewalk, I instinctively check my pocket. There are no keys there, and it’s a bit unsettling. I find I keep reflexively patting at the void. I feel a moment of panic each time. Until I remember there’s nothing I need keys for anymore. No apartment, no mailbox, no car. I feel untethered. I’m carrying the whole of my existence in a backpack.

It’s a bright August day. We’re walking to the metro stop. Last week, my life lacked purpose, but today every step seems like a purposeful stride. Those people in front of us? They’re going to the office. Us? We’re going on an adventure.

We take the subway to Union Station, where we catch an Amtrak train up to Philadelphia. The very first leg of our trip is now behind us. At a Philly camera store we buy a pair of binoculars, figuring they might be of use out on the open sea.

In our hotel room that night, we watch TV as we drift off to sleep. There are promo ads for the new fall lineup on sitcoms and dramas. They wash over us. We’ll be far, far away—in space and in mind—by the time they reach the airwaves. Tomorrow, we will board a cargo freighter and set off across the Atlantic.

Emily Grund

Emily Grund is writer who lives in the Boston area.


Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World


The following two tabs change content below.
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer's guidelines.