Author writes about a different kind of travelingby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Tony Hiss writes about travel, but not in terms of exotic spots to visit. He writes about the actual movement from place to place.
His new book, "In Motion: the Experience of Travel" argues that all travel, including the daily commute, offers the chance to see the world in a mind-expanding new way. He calls it 'deep travel.'
Tony Hiss says it began with the mailbox outside his Greenwich Village apartment.
"It sits there demurely, battered, humble," he said.
Hiss has lived in the same place since he was a boy. He worked for 30 years at the New Yorker. He'd passed that mailbox countless times. But one day as he stepped out to get coffee it got him thinking.
"One the one hand it was just a few cubic feet of public space, put aside to receive mail," he said. "But on the other hand it was the near end of an enormous and global system that redistributes letters and packages to every place on the planet. And it also, partly thanks to its squeaky handle, has a certain irrevocability to it, because once you have committed something to that box there is no way of getting it back."
Tony Hiss has written more than a dozen books, including a memoir about growing up as the son of cold war icon Alger Hiss. So he's not given to flights of fancy.
But he says seeing this mailbox in an entirely different way made him aware such mind-expanding moments are available everywhere, if we are open to them.
"Things we're familiar with, we have sort of come to terms with, and we think we know enough about them. Well, we know they know they are not going to attack us and they are not going to run away from us. So we can ignore them. But that doesn't mean we have fully explored them, or really enriched ourselves with what is there."
Tony Hiss began reading. He found travelers accounts describing how they entered this other state where the world seemed brighter and fascinating. He became convinced it's something many, if not all of us, have experienced, but not been able to name. He calls it deep travel.
Hiss began wondering about inducing this state at will. Then his former college roommate, who recognized what Hiss described, gave him this suggestion.
"And he said 'Well, lets just imagine for a moment that we are not just sitting in a Madison Avenue coffee shop. Imagine that we're in, lets say, in Warsaw, Warsaw in Poland. Suddenly we would have to pay attention to almost everything, because we wouldn't know what might be important to need to know over the next few hours in order just to get through the day.'"
The friend even suggested pretending he couldn't understand what people were saying. He'd have to try to pick up clues in other ways -- from the tableware, the behavior of the wait-staff, even the size of the lunch crowd.
"Everything would be new to us," Hiss said. "Which is another wonderful aspect of this deep travel. Suddenly we resume a tentativeness about life. We feel far less certain about everything, and suddenly we need to, or want to, or are ready to learn more and to suspend judgment for a moment, and just take everything in."
Hiss devotes 300 pages in his book "In Motion" to the scientific and physiological underpinnings of deep travel. He examines public policy implications, and how greater awareness could literally reshape human existence through better design. He writes about the importance of travel as a human activity, and suggests how the daily commute can become interesting again.
"It looks as though ever since Medieval England at least when the Domesday Book was written, people have been trudging to the fields about 20 minutes each way. So an hour a day seems to be a fixed part of most people's commuting life for the last thousand or more years. So a message of the book might be lets reclaim that hour. Let's make it as valuable and rich as the rest of the day."
Hiss suggests focusing on what makes each commute different, the most beautiful, or ugly moments or things -- what is new, and what might never happen again.
Tony Hiss admits it may be a while before his ideas are broadly accepted, but in the meantime he is collecting readers experiences of deep travel on his website.
- Morning Edition, 12/13/2010, 8:45 a.m.