I’m Not Flying Over Flyover Country

Here is a snippet of a conversation I had in Natchez, Mississippi:

Resident of Natchez: You know they call this ‘flyover country’.
Me: I’m not flying over flyover country.

This is literally true in the sense that I am not flying at all during this trip. All of my long distance travel is done by train or bus.

Right now, I am in Memphis, Tennessee (yes, I’m falling a bit behind on posting about the individual cities/towns I’m visiting, but I’ll catch up eventually). Just as in New Orleans, I’m staying in a hostel, so I’m with the type of people who stay at hostels again. Nearly everyone traveling through Memphis is going to or from New Orleans, since long-distance tourists tend to pair them together. However, most of them are getting around by airplane, unlike myself.

While discussing travel with my fellow guests, something I hear again and again is that they don’t have time to get around by train/bus. That’s fair enough – trains/buses are way slower than airplanes. And I hear about them spending a week in [city name], and how if they did not use airplanes, they would not be able to spend so much time in the cities they want to see.

Now, I have no objection to visiting cities – a) I reside in a city and b) I have visited a lot of cities. However, this habit of getting around by airplane really does limit tourists to the cities, and offers much less opportunity to see places which aren’t part of a major metropolitan area.

To me, all of the time spent on the train/bus is not a waste – I want to see the United States of America, and I can see a lot more of the USA from a train or a bus than I can from a plane. In particular, I get to see much more of the places outside of major cities than I would if I were getting around by plane.

Furthermore, traveling by train/bus gives me many more chances to not just see but also visit towns which aren’t serviced by airports. As it so happens, there are only three towns on my itinerary (and I’ve already visited two of them – Natchez and Vicksburg – though I haven’t written about them yet) but three is still more than zero. Stopping in those towns simply would not have been possible by plane.

Natchez, weirdly, gets a lot of European tourists, but very few tourists from within the United States who live more than a state or two away. Vicksburg sees very few tourists from outside of the region (and most of them are probably Civil War nerds). In both towns, people expressed their appreciation that someone came to visit from California.

Natchez and Vicksburg, of course, are not representative of all towns outside of metropolitan areas – heck, they aren’t even representative of towns in Mississippi (for example, they are both currently black majority towns, whereas Mississippi as a whole is a white majority state).

There is also a class aspect to traveling by plane vs. traveling by train/bus. Most people who are doing tourism by plane that I’ve met on this trip, even if they are doing it on a budget, come from affluent backgrounds. By contrast, most of the people riding the buses are not affluent – it’s a very sharp contrast. The train is the most mixed in terms of class, and that is one thing I like about it. And along with class, there is race – a disproportionate number of passengers on long-distance buses in Mississippi are black (yes, I was traveling through a black-majority region, but the passengers were even browner than the overall local population). I admit that, at times, being a white person from an affluent background has felt awkward.

What about road trips? Well, it depends on one’s travel style. Some kinds of road trips offer much deeper immersion than what I’m doing (for example, I am limited to places which at at least have long-distance bus service). On the other hand, it is travel by private vehicle, which is not the same as traveling in the same bus or train as the local people.

The United States currently has deep divides both between classes and along the rural/urban divide (and racial divides, though at least among the travelers I am meeting, there is more contact across racial lines than across class or urban/rural lines). These divides are contributing to a lot of problems in our country. I think that if more affluent city people made the switch from traveling by plane to traveling by train/bus, it would help bridge these divides.

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4 thoughts on “I’m Not Flying Over Flyover Country

  1. I actually really wish I could make a switch to traveling by trains at least, if not by bus (unfortunately I will absolutely guarantee myself a miserable time if I go any long distance by bus, because I easily get carsick). When I was living in Tokyo, I discovered that I don’t have nearly as bad of a physical reaction to traveling by train as I do any other way of traveling. But sadly, there aren’t a whole lot of trains available where I live (there’s the line you took, but even then it doesn’t stop that close to where I actually live), at least not passenger trains. And even though I’m well below the poverty line myself, I’m in a weird situation where flying is actually MUCH MUCH cheaper for me than anything else, because of frequent flyer miles my family has accrued from work-sponsored travel. Most of the time, I still have to just drive though, because I’m not going anywhere that actually has an airport, or even a bus route that goes there as far as I know. I almost never visit cities.

    • Another problem with the Sunset Limited is the infrequency – it only runs three times a week. And if one is getting on/off at a station which is scheduled at, say, 1:30 AM, well, that can be inconvenient, or worse. And if one has to stay on the train overnight, and can’t afford to get a sleeper, that can be a physical comfort issue too.

      I think it would be great if there were more train routes (which used to be the case in the USA prior to WWII) and if all of the major long-distance train routes were more frequent.

      I’ve met a lot of people who react physically better to trains to than to buses. Which would be another reason to expand the passenger train system. I also met people on the train who, for medical reasons, cannot travel by airplane.

      I’ve also taken the airplane at times when it was financially ridiculous to choose any other option. In Japan, for example, it is much, MUCH cheaper to travel between Osaka and Sapporo by airplane than by train, because the cost of the high-speed rail is that ridiculous, and Japan has cut a lot of alternative long-distance train routes which used to overlap with the high-speed rail (i.e. there is often no middle ground between high-speed rail and local trains which stop at every little station).

  2. This is yet another reason why people in the US need more vacation time from their jobs!
    Like going back to CA for the holidays, I feel like I HAVE to fly because I only have 4 days of vacation at this point. It’s definitely not my preference…there’s the environmental toll, and also I get really airsick sometimes. I think I don’t get sick on Amtrak because it moves so slowly. I thought I was going to die (if anyone has ever died of motion sickness) on some of the faster trains in England. @_@ To me (having lived on both coasts), the Midwest is “exotic” and I’ve always wanted to visit there. 🙂

    • I completely agree about vacation time from jobs.

      I am going to pass through the Midwest on this trip, but I hope I will be able to make a real visit to the Midwest at some point. The main reason I decided to focus on the south rather that other regions in the USA during this trip is that the south has better weather in December.

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