Show of hands: who believes time travel is possible? If you said yes, you’re in the minority (39% of Americans) but in good company that includes Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and NASA. "People like us, who believe in physics,” said Einstein, “know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." Very zen, Al. Very zen indeed.
Time travel science is way above my pay grade (I hear it involves going faster than the speed of light via cosmic strings, traversable wormholes, and something called Alcubierre drives). It’s still largely theoretical and baffles our best minds. “If time travel is possible,” Stephen Hawking once asked, “where are the tourists from the future?” Well, I can tell you where some of them are, Steve; at county fairs like the one I just attended. If Napa Town & Country Fair wasn’t time travel, it was very, very close. I felt I’d jumped back half a century.
When was the last time you saw Kool-Aid on tap, ate a funnel cake, or spun madly on a ride? When you were twelve? Twenty? At the gate, I asked the burly young security guard with the shaved head if he had any recommendations, and he leaned forward confidentially. I leaned in, expecting to hear about the tattoo booth or a motorcycle demo. “Don’t miss the quilt exhibit. It’s really wonderful!” Wow, did not see that coming!
Among the joys of travel are the constant surprises and the sensation of journeying back in history. Old-fashioned railway carriages, Victorian mansions, Gothic cathedrals, medieval castles, ancient pyramids — and, yes, county fairs — all conjure up our collective past and let us indulge in some cozy nostalgia.
“Would you travel back to the past if you could?” I asked Rich yesterday.
“Not permanently. The dentistry alone…” he said with a shudder. Recent work on his teeth has convinced him (as if any more proof were needed) of the value of modern pain killers. “And remember how dangerous air travel used to be?”
The so-called “Golden Age of Air Travel” may have been more elegant, but it was risky business; the year 1959 saw 40 fatal accidents per one million flights; today it’s around 0.1 per million. Statistically you have more chance of being killed riding a bicycle or getting hit by lightning. When Rich was a kid, there was one horrifying, freakish two month period (December 1951 to January 1952) when three separate planes crashed down on the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, just 25 miles from Rich’s home. Airports began installing kiosks selling flight insurance. And in the 1960s and 1970s there were so many hijackings — 225 attempted, 115 of them successful — that “Take me to Cuba” became a standard punchline for comedians.
The only unsolved hijacking in US history was by D.B. Cooper in 1971. He took over a flight going up the West Coast on a day I happened to be driving directly below his route. I heard about it on the radio and watched the sky the whole time but never saw him parachute out with his money. Nobody else did, either. He disappeared and remains a legend.
“If I could travel in time,” Rich told me, “I’d much rather see the future.”
As it happens, most Americans agree; if we could move safely through time, 53% of us would go forward, while only 40% would head back to the past. Where the other 7% would go is a cosmic mystery; a parallel universe, perhaps? Cuba? An armchair in front of the TV?
Curiosity about the future is part of our DNA; no doubt our protohuman ancestors sat around caves by those newfangled fires speculating about where the bison would head next and how long the rain would last. Zipping ahead to modern times, we’re overrun with futurists who are, as the saying goes, “Often wrong, never in doubt.”
One of the most famous prognosticators is Ray Kurzweil, an inventor who helped give us optical character recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, and the transhumanist movement, which advocates using technology to enhance humans by mechanizing parts of our bodies and brains. Because what could possibly go wrong with that? Kurzweil is 74, so we can check his track record over time, and 86% of his predictions — the fall of the Soviet Union, the growth of the Internet, computers beating humans at chess — have come to pass. So what’s next?
"2029 is the consistent date I have predicted for when an AI will pass a valid Turing test and therefore achieve human levels of intelligence," says Kurzweil. By 2045, he says, we’ll have Singularity — the moment when technology becomes smarter than humans, moves beyond our control, and becomes irreversible.
I know, but please, try not to panic. Because if history has taught us anything, it’s that nobody, not even Kurzweil, is always right.
During the first half of the twentieth century, leading minds dismissed such “fads” as electricity, automobiles, telephones, musical recordings, and television. In 1955, the president of a vacuum cleaner company said confidently, “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years.” In 1966 Reader’s Digest insisted by 1999 we’d have rocket packs on our belts, flying cars, and climate-controlled cities under glass domes. And in 1997, Wired magazine demanded that Apple admit it was “out of the hardware game.”
So how can we get our arms around tomorrow? “Begin by looking back. As it turns out, futurists are closet historians,” says a report on the Technological Summit of the 2021 World Economic Forum. “Don’t predict the future, predict several of them.” It adds, somewhat consolingly, “Our historical, and projected, capacity to create game-changing solutions — from stone tools through to quantum computing — gives us an edge in responding to emergent perils.” In other words, we may be able to survive, even thrive, in the coming robot apocalypse. I mean the Singularity. Or whatever actually happens.
As for the question about where are the time travelers of the future, they’re all over YouTube and Google. The really surprising part is that no futurist in any era predicted the deluge of obvious hoaxers, hucksters, and loons who would try to pass themselves off as being from the next phase of human history. Time travelers' predictions, such as the American Civil War of 2015, usually fail to happen.
And that’s for the best. As much fun as it would be to fast forward, it’s probably enough, for now, to live in the present moment and advance through time as humans have always done: one second per second. "We all have our time machines, don't we,” said H.G. Wells. “Those that take us back are memories ... And those that carry us forward, are dreams." Sweet dreams, everyone!
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Technology. What can I say?
So we get off the train at the station – more of a shed, really – in the dark, in a small village deep in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, and despite email promises, no one is there to meet us. The unpaved road holds no taxis, cars, or even the horse-drawn carts we’ve been seeing in villages along the way.
Part of the reason I love train travel is that it makes me feel like I’m living in the 19th century. An era, I now recall, that has some pretty dark chapters, including a few set in this very region. “Are those bats?” Rich asks, as something flutters by at the edge of my vision.
A smiling man appears suddenly out of the gloom. “I take you!”
“Did George send you?” I ask.
The man seizes our bags. “I take you!” And off we go in his car.
There are moments when you simply have to trust your instincts, your luck, and whatever saint watches over travelers now that St. Christopher’s been debunked.
Some 30 km later, we arrive at his snug wood and cement house, where his wife and a hot meal await us.
And in the morning, we look out our window to discover that we have gone back 700 years and are in the midst of the medieval village of Botiza. Despite evidence of various modern conveniences – electricity, indoor plumbing, a cell phone tower – most of the villagers still live in much the way their ancestors did back when Vlad the Impaler was a boy.
We are charmed and dazzled by the opportunity to hang about the village, exchanging polite greetings with the locals, who seem utterly unfazed by the presence of a couple of foreigners – who might as well be time travelers, given the differences in our lives. This is no Disney version of ye goode olde days, but a place where things change very, very, very slowly.
Most families build houses and barns by hand from wooden planks cut from trees in the nearby forest. They raise chickens and may own a cow for milk and/or a horse for transportation and labor.
In September, they scythe the hay, haul it back in a horse-drawn cart, dry it on racks made from saplings, then pile it into haystacks handy to the barn.
They work long and hard every day and go to church on Sunday. When I asked what they did for fun, I was told that some Saturday nights there are weddings, with music and dancing, and the whole village attends. Other than that, once in a great while someone might stop by for a beer. This is the central bulletin board that lists all present and upcoming activities in the village.
Not surprisingly, most of the teens are counting the days until they can head to the nearest city, dye their hair, get tattoos and piercings, join a rock band, find a desk job, and forget they ever came from this nowheresville. As for their elders, some have part-time jobs in town, but mostly they’re hanging on to the old ways.
Looking to the future, many have already bought their coffins, tombstones, and burial plots in the village cemetery. But modernity is creeping in. Their ancestors would never have used an exclamation point on a gravestone, but thanks to Facebook and other social media, punctuation standards have changed!
What is the afterlife coming to?
See more of my photos of Romania.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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