The Spiritual Meaning of Slow Travel
Is the Universe Telling You to Brake for a Break?
Slowing down can allow our habitats to renew and our fellow earthlings to thrive.
“Obey the Speed Limit. Preserve Our Wildlife,” reads a sign along the lush Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway that runs from Virginia to North Carolina. A supplemental message follows below in all caps, “35 MPH MAX,” pleading drivers to take note: This parkway is not a highway.
Speed limits are a recipe for frustration for some people, causing them to travel out of sync with their own momentum. Yes, by “some people,” I mean me. After cruising Interstate 81 at 75 miles per hour for a long duration, shifting to a new velocity on the parkway felt jarring.
Eschewing the Need to Speed
I confess that before seeing the sign I was engaged in a heated phone conversation with my sister. Clearly, my spiritual tools had not clicked in yet, as I hemmed and hawed about my frustration with someone who had not responded to my urgent email.
Amusingly, when I read the sign, I first bristled at the command to “Obey,” then my heart melted at “Wildlife.” I was jolted out of self-centeredness by the awareness that if I am not mindful, I increase the potential of harming others. So, I disengaged my van’s phone and reduced my speed.
I noticed my breath became deeper, my mind clearer, and my heart rate slower. Within moments, two adolescent deer bounded across the pavement. Luckily, because I was traveling slowly, I missed colliding with them. In fact, my eyes even connected for a split second with one of the beautiful creatures. At that moment, I thought, I see you. I am willing to slow down so that you will be safer. I eschew my assumed privilege of choosing my speed.
For the next 300 miles, I shared the roadway with woodchucks, red squirrels, skunks, and American black bears. Above and around me flew peregrine falcons and ravens. Stopping at scenic overlooks every few miles, I heard the calls of black-throated green warblers. Excitedly, I spotted bobolinks in meadows. Sadly, I removed more than one lifeless being from the parkway, giving them a sacred sendoff.
The Toll of Roads on Wildlife & Spirit
While most drivers think wildlife collisions are a serious issue, we prioritize ourselves over others we share roadways with most of the time. In one study, researchers suggested a few reasons why. First, we have become used to seeing road-killed animals (“exposure”). Further, perceived familiarity with roads leads people to believe they can safely drive on them at faster-than-posted speed limits. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, we are wary of the inconvenience of slowing down.
Indeed, while we may prize mindfulness on our zazen cushions, many of us revert to Andretti-mode once we get behind the wheel. But what if we didn’t? Can approaching speed limits as a spiritual practice improve our state of mind? And can it increase safety for the more-than-human world?
What if we went further? A growing movement suggests we should. Concerned about the ecological footprints of air travel, advocates for so-called slow travel encourage people to travel by land, travel at slower speeds (which use less fuel), utilize public transport when possible, and stay longer in chosen destinations (rather than hop from location to location). We animal lovers and earth warriors should take note. Whether we’re driving to work or planning our dream pilgrimage, how we journey matters.
5 Tips for Slowing Down
- On the road: Rather than viewing posted speed limits as authority to rebel against, view them as guidance from experts in road ecology on how to keep life flourishing.
- Off-road: When planning vacations, rather than jumping lightspeed from city to city to pack it all in, limit yourself to flying to a single location you can explore on a micro level, immersing yourself at an adagio pace by foot.
Give yourself space for surprises.
- On the road: Traveling at slower speeds provides more time to react when an unexpected living being enters the roadway.
- Off-road: Packed itineraries leave little space for exploring new opportunities that pop up along the journey.
Step up your mindfulness at dawn, dusk, and just after the sun sets.
- On the road: During these periods, animals are often traveling. Frequently scan pavement edges for movement, especially near where brooks, rivers, and other waterways are present.
- Off-road: Often, during holidays or vacations, spiritual practices are set aside in favor of new activities. Regular schedules are tossed to the wind, especially when changing time zones! Challenge yourself to include daily mindful moments with the sun’s schedule.
Avoid “outrunning” your headlights.
- On the road: This term refers to not being able to stop within the area lit in front of you. On poorly lit roads, this usually means not exceeding 40 mph. Using your high beams can help expand your visibility.
- Off-road: Likewise, packing too much into your travel plans means you can outrun your own energy—or short circuit yourself on an adrenaline crash. Traveling can be tough on our immune systems, as can the pre-trip frenzy of wrapping up one’s daily life to go “offline.” Slowing down travel may help avoid the aptly named “leisure sickness.”
Brake, don’t swerve.
- On the road: If an animal enters the roadway, AAA suggests braking rather than swerving, as the latter can lead to flipping your car or hitting oncoming traffic, trees, or other hazards. Further, because animals regularly travel in groups, swerving to hit an animal you see might, unfortunately, lead to hitting one you don’t because she enters the roadway second. (Of course, always assess your own safety based on the road conditions and other drivers who might be behind you.)
- Off-road: Sometimes, plans fail, like when a torrential downpour washes out your plans for a trek. Travelers can be quick to try to fill “empty” space. Instead, take time to pause and ask if perhaps the Universe is signaling to you that it is time to brake for a break.
With over 1.42 billion cars, 7.8 billion humans, and over 28 quintillion other-than-human beings, the planet is teeming with constant activity. Slowing down can allow our habitats to renew and our fellow earthlings to thrive. Perhaps we’ll soon find ourselves humming a playful rewrite to Sammy Hagar’s 1980s anthem. Yes, we can drive 55. And even slower.