Jun 11, 2010

Review: Grounded by Seth Stevenson

Grounded by Seth Stevenson***Give Away: I’ll send you my spare copy. Check the end of this post!***

I’ve left the country exactly once: senior year of college, spring break, a friend and I decided we needed to break my single-country record. So we drove from Chicago to Toronto. We detoured just because we could. We got lost. We felt every single mile of that trip. Sure, we could have hopped on a plane and appeared someplace exotic, but that would hardly be an adventure. Half the fun was crossing the US border and finding that our GPS didn’t speak Canadian.

During one detour, we met the owner of a small coffee shop. He had emigrated from Ethiopia to Canada to teach theology at the University of Toronto. (How he ended up owning a roast-your-own coffee shop in London, Ontario, I am not sure.  It didn’t seem polite to ask.) He asked where we were from, and when we said Chicago, he made us sit down and tell him our story. When we explained that we didn’t really have a plan, that our plan was to wander till we made it, explore, and then wander back, he was astonished. “You are so American!” he said. “Canadians would never take a trip without an exact itinerary. No one but an American would make a trip like this.” *

So when I read Seth Stevenson’s book Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, I couldn’t help but think, Seth, you are so American! Who else would make a trip like this? Who else would quit their job, their life, and circumnavigate the globe, over land, no less.

I’ve been reading Stevenson’s articles in Slate Magazine for about two years. He writes their monthly ad column, which I read religiously, but it’s just to get me through until the real thing: his travel essays. These I save for special occasions.  He never describes his trips in terms of hotel stars or mattress cushiness. I love Samantha Brown, but you can only be wowed by a mini-bar/flat-screen/hairdryer combo so many times.  Seth doesn’t bring you on his vacation, he tells you about his adventures.

Seth Stevenson hates airplanes. Yes, he understands their convenience, but he hates the whole jet-flying process. He hates the cattle-prodding at airports. He hates the lack of human dignity in post-9/11 security checks. He hates the stale, recycled air pumped into cabins. But most of all, he hates how airplanes suck the life out of a journey. Airplane travel, he says, is cheap teleportation. You jump from point A to point B and miss everything in between. So, when Stevenson and his girlfriend decide to quit their normal lives and circle the earth, they decide to do it with their feet firmly planted.

Stevenson organizes the book by types of travel (boat, train, bicycle, car, and boat again). He gives a little history on each transportation mode, which adds weight to his argument that we should use them: when you take an ocean liner, you’re not just feeling the spray of the water and seeing the sky over the seas, you’re helping to preserve a part of the human story.

One major contradiction: whenever Seth has a difficult or unfortunate travel experience, he says, “Well, at least I’m not in some airless plane cabin”. I understand that he’s saying “Hey, a bad experience is better than no experience”, but instead of living through the smell of other passengers, or the wild sea storm, he pops a Valium and chases it with scotch. What’s the difference between sleeping through a bad flight or sleeping through a bad plane ride? There’s no life there, there’s no experience. It’s still oblivion, it’s just on the ground.

What I don’t think is coming across here is how funny this book is. I read most of it on the train, bitter that my Metra wasn’t a Japanese bullet train, and my laughter woke sleeping accountants.  (A hazard of train travel: not everyone wants to share your joke, and not everyone wants to let you sleep.)

I saw Stevenson just briefly at a book signing for Grounded. He read passages of the book, and answered questions. (My question: How did you write while you were traveling?, expecting something along the lines of “a love-worn Moleskin” or “smoke signals”. His answer: a very, very small computer.) He was funny and nervous. His girlfriend was there, I liked watching them interact. He’d answer a question, she’d correct from the back row. He’d forget a detail, she’d supply it. It fit their book personalities perfectly: he’s the traveler, she’s the navigator.

My hope was that when he signed my book, it would be with some impetus to travel, something that would just force me to do something rash, like disappear to Europe for a while. Instead, he wrote “You’re GROUNDED!!!”.

I guess I’ll stay here.

I enjoyed this book. I don’t know if I enjoyed it as much as his travel essays. Somehow I don’t know that he can sustain this sort of story for 300 pages. Sometimes the transportation history seems irrelevant, and sometimes I get a little tired of his judginess. (He doesn’t like most American travelers. Understandable, I guess, but it just gets a little old after a while.) But it’s worth the read because this book makes the world seem both bigger and smaller at the same time. The earth is conquered; you can circle it in a day. But there’s always more to see.

Read if you:

  • Want to take a travel-free trip around the world.
  • Have days where you want to pitch everything and drive forever.
  • Admired Phileas Fogg‘s determination, and want to see a modern iteration.

*He then gave us directions, sight-seeing tips, and his business card. He said if we needed anything, we could call him and he’d drive right up and rescue us. I recommend that everyone travel with an Ethiopian theology professor/barista.


GIVE AWAY: You know that thrilling feeling of going to a used book store, finding that perfect book, and then finding that the previous owner carried it around with her and accidentally underlined stuff in it? You can have that feeling delivered to your house!

I’m giving away my spare copy of Grounded to the person with the best ground-travel story. I’ll even throw in a used 10-ride train ticket, so you can imagine the luxuries of train travel.

Leave your story in the comments, and I’ll judge you like the American traveler that you are. Only in a nice way.

(Unless you’re Canadian or something. If so, welcome!)



  • The goal was to get from Chicago to LA in 48 hours. I had to be at work and I was the one that rallied to stay an extra day in Chicago (foreshadowing because I ended up moving here). Three friends and I drove straight through. We made it to Nebraska when it started to get dark, it wasn’t light again until we hit Nevada. At one point in the middle of the night I started hallucinating and thought there was a wall in the middle of the road in Utah. I hit the brakes pretty hard, the other two guys woke up suddenly, and I mumbled something about armadillos. Our spirits were high when we hit eastern California, we had good music and the sun was shining. When I made it home, I had just enough time to eat breakfast, take a show and get to work. When I strolled into work they thought I was there to pick up my paycheck. I was actually scheduled to work the next day. Turns out we rushed home, non-stop, for nothing.

  • i’ve heard of canada. flying isn’t so bad.

    one time i drove from LA to Chicago. i listened to music and sermons for 3 days straight. and then i lived in Chicago for 2 years.

  • Nice post! I sympathize with Mr. Stevenson’s view of travel. I would rather drive than fly. I don’t like airports or airplanes. I love the experience of flying, but not crammed into a plane like cattle heading to the Stockyards. While driving, I get lost catching up on music I haven’t listened to for a long while or listening to sermons, politics, etc. I do long to take a leisurely train trip somewhere scenic. Maybe along the West Coast. We did it once and I loved it, but we had 2 toddlers and a baby, so I wasn’t able to absorb the experience like I would have liked. Even when we drive to Rockford or down to southern Illinois, I prefer the two-lane highways, through the cornfields (listening to Marty Stuart live at the Ryman), to the four-lane Nascar runs.

  • I love this entry and I want to win this book! Here’s my best story about ground travel, though I didn’t really end up going anywhere:

    When I moved to South Korea in 2006, I didn’t realize how lonely of a place it could be for Americans. My roommate and I didn’t know the language, didn’t understand the culture, and didn’t really make a lot of friends. However, one thing we did know how to do well was ride our bikes. We quickly became avid cyclists and soon outgrew the little path along the river that lead to E-mart in the next town over. We had been following this routine for weeks before we realized we were actually riding between 15 and 20 miles everyday. We loved our little bike rides, but somehow we longed for a greater challenge; some epic adventure leading us to a whole new world.

    That’s when we decided to ride to Uijeoungbu. Uijeoungbu was known for its hospital, its shopping, and its notoriously difficult to pronounce name. Most importantly it was about 20 miles away, thus providing an adequate challenge for us thrill seekers. We started our journey one fateful Saturday morning; first riding the normal path until the end and then getting on the main highway that supposedly led to Uijeoungbu. The idea was to ride along the shoulder of the road until we arrived. The only problem was, a few miles down this road the shoulder disappeared. As car after car whizzed by (with an occasional horn honking or Korean man shouting out the window) I watched my life flash before my eyes several times before I finally called out to my roommate “I don’t think we can go any further!” We stopped in the parking lot of a plant nursery to discuss our new plan. Accepting defeat was not an option. So, we decided to back track, find the nearest non-death-defying road and ride it in the general direction we were heading. Surely all roads lead to Uijeoungbu, we hoped. I’m not certain what happened, but it became apparent a few hours later that the plan had failed. We wandered along random winding paths, turning every which direction until suddenly we realized – we were utterly and hopelessly lost. Not only did we have no idea where Uijeoungbu was, we had no idea where home was, where our town was, or even where that big scary road was. We wandered through rice paddy after rice paddy, occasionally running into mountains and turning around or almost getting ran over by rice-harvesting-machines. We stopped several times and laughed at the situation, but the Korean rice farmers never seemed to understand the humor. Along the way we asked several natives “Dongducheon?” in hopes that they’d point us towards our hometown. Many walked away, some rambled off in Korean, and most starred at us perplexed, as if they don’t see two white girls on bikes riding through their rice fields every day.

    In the end, we had to admit defeat and call our one Korean bike riding friend to come save the day. We handed the phone to one somewhat friendly shopkeeper (she didn’t kick us out immediately) and let her speak to our friend Jongmoon. I still have no idea what words were exchanged, but I expect he said something along the lines of “I’m so sorry my crazy white friends got lost in your rice paddy.” Regardless, he showed up on his bike a little while later, and laughed at us the whole way home.

  • […] Last week I asked you all to send in your best ground travel stories in honor of Seth Stevenson’s Grounded. The clear winner, thanks to originality in transportation mode (who rides bicycles any more?), the quality of language barrier (seriously, they named a town “Uijeoungbu”?) , and the inclusion of rice paddies (who doesn’t love rice paddies?), was Lorraine. […]

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