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Indignities of air travel make one nostalgic for modes of old

Sun., July 7, 2013, midnight

The airlines are about to do the impossible: make their bathrooms even smaller.

This is the last straw. It’s time to take a hard look at the way we travel today. We need to make a sober assessment of whether modern jet travel truly qualifies as an improvement over, let’s say, the covered wagon.

Or, for that matter, the Iron Horse, circa 1910. Or cross-country canoe-paddling circa David Thompson, 1810. And let’s throw in the way humans traveled for a million years before the airline potty was invented: walking.

Let’s break it down into categories:

Leg room

Covered wagon: Plenty of room up on the driver’s bench. And if you were riding back in the covered part along with Ma and Betsy, you could stretch out and take a nap on a homemade quilt next to your spotted dog, Jethro.

Iron Horse: Decent space between the seats. Plus, you could get up and walk down to the cigar car for a stretch and a smoke.

Canoe trek: Leg room was not one of the selling points of the birch bark canoe. But there were numerous excellent opportunities to stretch your legs. These were known as “portages.”

Walking: Yes, your legs could get tired while crossing, for instance, the Alps. Yet from a strictly leg-room standpoint, it was the best form of transport ever invented.

Modern jet travel: Leg room is adequate if you are a toddler. Torture for everyone else.

Winner: Walking.

Loser: Modern jet travel.

Baggage handling

Covered wagon: Amazing baggage capacity. That’s what the “wagon” part was for.

Iron Horse: You never had to pull your own suitcase around on wheels. Porters would load your seven giant steamer trunks onto the baggage car for you, although you had to tip them a nickel per trunk.

Canoe trek: Beaver pelts rode free.

Walking: Everything had to be carry-on: Carry it on your back or on your head.

Modern jet travel: People wrestle their carry-ons into the overhead bin and curse silently while they repeatedly try to slam the door shut. Or they pay extra for checked baggage that they will never see again.

Winner: Covered wagon.

Loser: Modern jet travel.

Security lines

Covered wagon: No security lines, although occasionally passengers had to circle the wagons and dodge a few arrows.

Iron Horse: No security lines, although there were occasional stoppages while Butch Cassidy blew up a baggage car.

Canoe trek: No security lines, although one occasionally had to stop and smoke a peace pipe.

Walking: No security lines and absolutely no delays to speak of, unless on a particularly popular pilgrimage.

Modern jet travel: People stand in turtle-slow lines, taking everything out of their pockets, doffing their shoes and then doffing their dignity while a machine examines every inch of their naked selves. And then they get frisked with a wand.

Winner: Walking.

Loser: Modern jet travel.


Covered wagon: Yes, there were scalding deserts, snow-swept passes, and the aforementioned arrows. Yet covered wagon collisions were uncommon and rarely fatal at 4 mph.

Iron Horse: Sometimes trains plunged off trestles, were buried by avalanches and smashed into each other head-on. But when the locomotive broke down, at least it didn’t descend in a 35,000-foot death spiral.

Canoe trek: Rapids were an issue. Even calm, flat water was an issue for travelers who suddenly decided to stand up. But if you knew how to dog-paddle, you could survive.

Walking: Yes, there were twisted ankles and pinkie-toe-sprains. Yet collisions were rare, and, depending on whom you collided with, could be quite enjoyable.

Modern jet travel: People are traveling at 600 mph in a cylinder filled with fuel, miles above the ground. They’d better hope they never hit a seagull.

Winner: Walking.

Loser: Modern jet travel.

Food and drink

Covered wagon: You had a keg full of salt bacon and all of the pigeons you could shoot. A little whiskey washed it all down.

Iron Horse: There was a dining car with white tablecloths, fresh oysters and grilled chops. After dinner, it was off to the saloon car for a brandy and a cigar (as long you were male, that is).

Canoe trek: You had venison along the shore and fresh trout in the river. If you could rustle up some huckleberries, you had a traveling feast.

Walking: You could carry some jerky in a bundle or forage for roots and berries along the way. Or better yet, you could stop into a traveler’s inn for a bowl of stew and mug of ale.

Modern jet travel: Peanuts! Two bags, if the flight attendant likes your looks.

Winner: Iron Horse.

Loser: Modern jet travel.

Bathroom facilities

Covered wagon: The good news: the prairie stretched out forever. The bad news: sometimes there were no bushes to hide behind. People learned to avert their gaze.

Iron Horse: The facilities on every car were a wonderful convenience for the passengers. Not so pleasant for anyone standing alongside the track, but that was not the travelers’ problem.

Canoe trek: The wilderness stretched out forever and bushes were plentiful. Things could get awkward if you were a long way from shore (see “suddenly deciding to stand up,” above).

Walking: The entire world was your facility.

Modern jet travel: The bathrooms are noisy, smelly, cramped and about to get more cramped. Soon, people will have to plan their entry carefully, because once they get in, they will not be able to turn around.

Winner: Iron Horse.

Loser: Modern jet travel.

So, there you have it. Modern jet travel loses in a landslide. Some might say that categories such as “speed” and “the ability to simply fly over all obstacles” might have resulted in a better showing for modern jet travel.

I’ll have plenty of time to ponder that issue during my next vacation, as I walk to New York.

Jim Kershner is a senior correspondent for the Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at

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