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A Throwback World Journey24:09

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A map of part of Seth Stevenson's journey around the globe, without using airplanes. (Courtesy of
A map of part of Seth Stevenson's journey around the globe, without using airplanes. (Courtesy of

Seth and Rebecca had a problem. Everything in their lives seemed too familiar. Same old jobs. Same old bars. Same old TV shows.

So they quit, hopped in a beat-up Honda, and went to Alaska.

Seven years later, same problem. So they quit again. And went around the world.

Not fancy. Not first-class, or anything like it. Not even on airplanes.  In fact, no planes.

Just trains, boats, bicycle, and a couple of backpacks – all the way around the planet.

This Hour, On Point: chucking it all to travel the world – and what our travelers found. Guests:

Seth Stevenson, contributing writer for Slate. His new book, "Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World," recounts his attempt to circle the Earth without stepping foot on an airplane. (See below for an excerpt.) Stevenson's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine and Rolling Stone.

Rebecca Legrand, world traveler who partnered with Seth Stevenson in the journey. She quit her job to travel with Seth in August 2007. She's now an attorney in Washington, D.C.


Seth Stevenson and Rebecca Legrand avoided air travel altogether in their journey. They didn't like its feel, or its eco-impact. Here's a look at 24 hours in world air traffic:And here's an edited excerpt from "Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World(courtesy of Penguin/Seth Stevenson):

Rebecca and I paid $125 each for what the ticket clerk described to us as “airplane-style seats.” We’ll be sleeping in these seats for the next two nights, so we envision they’ll be like those wide, reclining thrones that you’d find in the first-class section of a plane.

Upon boarding, we discover that our seats are more like what you’d find in an airplane’s economy section—if that airplane had no windows and was shaped like a small shoebox. The forty bolted-down chairs are crammed together in a dark, airless closet on a lower deck. When we arrive, the room is already filled with other people, and their piles of luggage, and their cranky children.

Having spent the previous night on a train, and all day today wandering the boulevards of Rostock, Germany, we’re fairly exhausted by now. So we suck it up, find a spot against a wall to drop our bags, and settle into our assigned seats. We try to pretend they are fluffy beds instead of narrow, hard pews.

I can’t fool myself. The chair’s metal arms jab into my kidneys as I search for a sleeping position. My knees are jammed against the seat in front of me. From behind me emanates a sound I cannot for the life of me identify. Is it an armored personnel carrier grinding its gears? A high-powered blender liquefying coat hangers?

I crane my neck around. In the seat directly behind mine sits an elderly man swaddled in clumps of wool blankets. His eyes are closed. He isn’t moving. Then suddenly the blankets rise up with great force. His mouth gapes open. And there’s the sound! I’d never imagined it could be produced by a human being!

It is an atomic sort of snoring, with a relentless rhythm. One deafening blast is followed by another, over and over. I lie awake picturing the awful things I would like to do to this old man’s trachea.

When a ferry employee making the rounds ducks his head into the room around 2:00 a.m., another sleepless passenger—having reached the limits of his patience with the snorer—unloads with a salvo of primal anger. “This man is snoring so loud!” he shouts, pointing his finger toward the heaving blankets. The ferry worker shrugs and makes it clear there is nothing he can do.

Frustrated, the angry man shouts, “It is also smelling!” Which is true. Many shoes are off. The air is thick with the odor of feet and there’s no sign of a ventilation system down here. Again, the ship employee shrugs. When he turns and leaves, a sudden roll of the ferry slams the door behind him with a percussive force. It briefly stirs the snorer—but within a few seconds he’s settled back into his groove, louder than before.

We’re awakened at 9:00 a.m. by an announcement over the ferry’s loudspeaker. It’s the voice of an eastern European woman, I presume Estonian.

“Hi, keedz,” she says, profoundly bored. “Now ees facepainting in cheeldren’s area.” Her tone straddles the line between droning indifference and mild hostility.

I rouse myself. Most of our cabinmates are already awake, and farting. It occurs to me that this is the worst room I have ever been in.

Leaving our packs behind (there’s nowhere else to put them, so we just have to pray that nobody steals them), we climb several flights to the ship’s main deck. The sunlight here is blinding, after all the time we’ve just spent holed up in a fluorescent-lit cave. We find a pair of seats in front of a window looking out across the water.

A small child scurries past. A few desultory streaks of facepaint wobble across his cheeks. Rebecca is inspired to do a quick impression. “Hokay, keed,” she says, eyes half closed, one hand waving a pretend cigarette. She halfheartedly slaps at the nose of an imaginary toddler. “There ees paint. Now you leave.”

Those of us booked in the cheap seats down below have been granted a one-hour time period during which we are permitted to take showers in the ship’s “spa.” When the designated time comes, and I make my way up there, I find that the men’s side of the spa is a small tiled room with one plastic bench and one moldy shower stall. There are no lockers, no towels, and no attendant. (Were there an attendant, I imagine he’d just grunt and toss a wad of paper napkins at my face.) I leave my clothes out on the bench and take a quick, hot shower. It’s my first since we left Antwerp two nights ago, and by far the best moment of the ferry trip thus far. I dry myself off with the T-shirt I slept in last night, on the dustballed floor of the world’s worst room.

(From "Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World - Courtesy of Penguin/Seth Stevenson)

This program aired on April 15, 2010.

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