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.