Seems like all the news these days is about someone else getting dragged off, beaten, forced to pee in a cup, or otherwise just generally having a poor time during air travel. But me? I love flying! Sign me up! In fact, my flights are always fantastic! Why? Because we’ve never had it so good.
Just go back a few generations – 150 years or so – and you’d probably beg for a middle seat on a flight between a couple of sweaty sumo wrestlers. Here’s what it was like to travel across the country just a short time ago:
New York to California
In 1852, a mere 165 years ago, Ulysses S. Grant, the future President, traveled from New York to California.
In those days, there were no airlines. There also were no highways or paved roads. There wasn’t even a railroad to California. Rather, there were only three ways to get from New York to California:
A) You could walk. (No thank you)
B) You could get on a boat, sail south to Brazil, around the tip of South America through storms and 40 foot waves, and up the Pacific Coast to California. That took about 6 months.
C) You could take a shortcut to Panama on a steamboat, cross the isthmus on mule, and then catch a different boat up the coast of Mexico to California. This took about 3 months.
Overbooked Economy Seating
Grant went through Panama. In July, he sailed from New York. The boat was overbooked by several hundred passengers. So the conditions were a bit crowded – maybe even worse than flying coach.
And have you ever been on the tarmac when they turn off the air? I know, it’s hot, but this was hotter. They were sailing through tropical heat, below decks, in a frickin’ over-crowded steamboat with no air-conditioning! They didn’t even have cold beverages. Yeah, it was hot.
They reached the east coast of Panama eight days later.
It was the height of the wet season, and it had been raining. The port town in Panama was flooded with 8-10 inches of water in the streets. They had to walk on raised planks to get around in the flood.
Plus, they had tons of gear with them. This was, after all, back in the day before baggage fees. So, people didn’t pack lightly. The passengers struggled in the mud and rain and the miserable tropical heat.
From the port town, they took a short train ride inland just a few miles to a river, where the train tracks abruptly ended. Here they boarded what were effectively dugout canoes piloted by mostly clothes-free natives using poles to push the boats upriver. In this steamy, remote jungle, the passengers must have felt like they were at the ends of the world.
They could only travel about 1 mile per hour up river this way, and only a few passengers at a time. So it took a few days to get all the passengers up river to the next town. This was very inconvenient, because everyone had things to do in California, and this was all taking longer than they had anticipated. Eventually, they reached the town of Gorgona.
No Idea Where The Attendants Were
Gorgona was where the cholera first broke out. According to Grant, within a few days, passengers were dying by the hour. There was not much they could do to prevent the disease. They were far away from any medical attention, and had no communication with the outside world. There were no attendants to speak of either.
Then there was the problem of the food. There was literally nothing on the menu. They were starting to run out of food, because everything was taking much longer than anticipated. Their only choice was to ration what remaining food they had, and to keep moving.
Missed Connections and Lost Baggage
From Gorgona, the original plan was to take mules over the mountains to the west coast of Panama, where another boat was waiting to take the passengers to California. The mules were definitely the best way to get all the heavy luggage through the jungle, over the mountains, and to the coast. Unfortunately, thanks to a small miscommunication, and a few broken promises, the mules were nowhere to be found. This must have felt somewhat like missing your connection and waiting a few hours for the next flight: some things never change, huh?
After waiting several days while passengers continued dying like flies, they finally gave up on the mules. They carried what they could on foot, and left the rest of their belongings behind. They were unable to make any claims for the lost baggage.
Another Small Delay
By the time the group made it to the Pacific Coast, about one out of every seven passengers were dead. Unfortunately for them, they were now faced with a quarantine situation, because California didn’t want a shipload of cholera patients docking in San Francisco. So, now they had to wait 6 weeks on their new boat off the west coast of Panama, waiting for the disease to run its course.
They weren’t allowed to go onto shore – they had to stay on the boat for six weeks. I guess it’s kinda like when you have to wait on the tarmac for some thunderstorms to pass. I’m sure everyone was getting upset by now.
To make matters worse, there was no wi-fi, and no personal in-flight entertainment in those days. If there were any personal electronics (which there weren’t), their batteries would have easily died by now. It was absolutely miserable.
Meanwhile, more passengers kept dying. Their bodies were just thrown overboard into the ocean, while everyone else waited for their own fate. Keep in mind, this was before anyone understood how diseases were even transmitted. They just had to sit on that boat, not knowing who was next or why.
Eventually, the quarantine was lifted, and the remaining passengers sailed north to San Francisco. The whole trip took about 3 months, Ulysses S. Grant was one of the lucky survivors, and of course, he later went on to become the 18th President of the United States.
My Flights Are Always Fantastic
What would Grant say today if he knew he could fly from New York to San Francisco in less than a day? With air conditioning, wi-fi, a bathroom, and food and drinks for your pleasure? He would think our airlines are absolutely fantastic!
Keep in mind, that all this happened only a few generations ago. Grant was alive at the same time as my Great-Great Grandpa. How far we have come in just a few generations! I try to keep this history in mind, and this is why my flights are always fantastic.
Change Your Perspective
So the next time you think you’ve got it rough, think again. Whatever you’re experiencing, it’s probably not that bad. In fact, you don’t even have to go back in time to find harder travel conditions – just go spend some time in Africa or South America. That will change your perspective. You’ll be amazed how fantastic your flights are too.