"The computer and e-mail were sold to us as tools of liberation, but they have actually inhibited our ability to conduct our lives mindfully, with the deliberation and consideration that are the hallmark of true agency."
The first e-mail was sent less than forty years ago; by 2011, there will be 3.2 billion e-mail users. The average corporate worker now receives upwards of two hundred e-mails per day. The flood of messages is ceaseless and follows us everywhere. We check e-mail in transit; we check it in the bath. We check it before bed and upon waking up. We check it even in midconversation, blithely assuming no one will notice. We no longer make our own to-do list. E-mail does.
It's time for a break.
In The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman takes an entertaining look at the nature of correspondence through the ages. From love poems delivered on clay tablets to the art of the letter to the first era of information overload (via the telegraph) to the vast network brought on by the Internet, Freeman answers the difficult question, Where is this taking us?
Put down your BlackBerry and consider the consequences. As the toll of e-mail mounts by reducing our time for leisure and contemplation and by separating us from one another in an unending and lonely battle with the overfull inbox, John Freeman -- one of America's preeminent literary critics -- enters a plea for communication that is more selective and nuanced and, above all, more sociable.
We've all experienced the "tyranny of e-mail": the endless onslaught, the continual distraction, the superfluous messages clogging our inboxes. Freeman, acting editor of Granta magazine, captures viscerally "the buzzing, humming megalopolis" that "tunes into this techno-rave of send and receive, send and receive." And he draws effectively on psychological and social research to describe the harm this "tsunami" of e-mail is causing: fragmenting our days, fracturing our concentration, diverting us from other sources of information and face-to-face encounters. Freeman is best when he is on point. But when he drifts into history--granted, to make the salient point that this feeling of life speeding out of control overwhelmed people with the arrival of the railroad and the telegraph (though, strangely, he omits the telephone, our e-mail enabler)--he offers more postal and telegraphic details than most people will want and hammers his main points into the ground (e.g., we need to be needed, and receiving e-mail gratifies that need). But his closing "manifesto for a slow communication movement" could fuel an e-mail rebellion, and his tips on how to slow down are sensible and mostly doable, except perhaps for the most hard-core e-mail addicts. (Oct.)
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October 17, 2009
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Excerpt from The Tyranny of E-mail by John Freeman
Words in Motion
I watched a letter that I had written start off on its journey
in a howling snowstorm, high in the mountains of Finnish
Lapland. The postman was a gnarled little Lapp and his means
of transport a flat-bottomed sleigh, drawn by a reindeer....
After three or four hours and perhaps a spill or two in the snow,
it would travel five hours by bus and then a day and a night
by train to the Finnish capital. From there it would go by ship,
steaming in the channel cut by an ice-breaker through the frozen
sea to Sweden. Swedish postmen would convey it across their
country and put it on an ocean liner. On arrival in New York,
the United States Post Office would take charge, and finally an
American rural postman would deliver my letter on his rounds
in a small Midwestern village. I had paid the equivalent of
fourpence for all this service. What is more, I had paid the
Finnish Government alone, not the Swedes or Americans.
-- LAURIN ZILLIACUS, From Pillar to Post: The Troubled History of the Mail
The success of mail in modern society is, to this day, something of a marvel. By our simply dropping a letter into an iron box, an object we have held and inscribed with words that only we can form may travel around the globe in a matter of days. On such a journey mail has been carried by foot and by horse, by chariot and by pigeon; it's journeyed by balloon and by bicycle, by train, truck, steamboat, pneumatic tubes, airplane, and even missiles. If a thing can move, it has probably carried mail. Bringing this service to people without a title took thousands of years. Roads had to be carved into fields and blasted through mountain passes; durable, cheap writing utensils had to be invented and men and women organized into labor forces. To this day, the U.S. Postal Service is the second-largest employer of civilian labor in America, with nearly 800,000 employees (compared with 181,000 in the UK, 160,000 in Germany, and 100,000 in France).
In ancient civilizations, mail was haphazard for most people -- a luxury, a stab in the dark. So the act of sending and receiving a letter was a momentous occasion. Without the highly efficient systems we possess today, letters were delivered informally, through friends or acquaintances planning to travel to a certain location. Along the way the messenger might be robbed, injured, or killed; the absence of a reply was so common that many ancient letters contained complaints about the failure of the recipient to respond to a missive. It would be hard to blame the messenger, though.
There was very little letter technology. Although clay envelopes dating back to several thousand years b.c. have turned up in Turkey, the paper envelope is a recent invention. Until the late 1800s, schoolchildren in America learned to fold a letter so that it didn't need one. The stamp, which came into being in India and England in the 1840s, is new, too, along with paper (which appeared in 3500 b.c.), to say nothing of pens (an invention of Egypt in 3000 b.c.) and zip codes (first used in the United States in 1963). Prior to all these developments, people addressed letters on the back of the missive itself or right on top of the text. Seals were important for this reason: they were a stamp of authenticity.
The history of mail is a tale of how, with the invention of postal systems and the democratization of their use, words began to knit more than just nations together. Words written by hand, then carried by the saddlebags of travelers, kept friendships alive and gave shape and texture to the daily experiences -- and the thoughts -- of people who wanted to communicate but were not within speaking distance of one another. In arcing across that gap, letters and mail helped create (and remind us of ) another gap -- the one between the inside and outside world. "It's separation that weaves the intrinsic world," H?l?ne Cixous writes of letters. "A fine, tender separation...like an amniotic membrane that lets the sound of blood pass through."
Mail has been the world's most important artery for transmitting our pulse across that separation. As words and then language were democratized and mail extended to larger parts of the world's population, that sound has become louder, syncopated, cacophonous. Governments and businesses have listened in; tricksters and thieves have posed as lovers and bearers of good news. Our current age is not the first in which people struggled to keep their inbox tidy. And speed, that perpetual, beckoning messenger, threatens to obliterate the very thing -- distance -- that made us want to write to begin with. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, the mail just had to get there.
The Pillar of Empires
In the beginning, mail was a tool of a few -- of governments and militaries and kings. It's not hard to fathom its usefulness. A well-organized postal service knit enormous stretches of land together; it announced news of battles lost and won, collected intelligence, and delivered the occasional expression of courtly love. Not surprisingly, all the major early empires had some system of carrying letters from one place to the next: the Aztecs, the Incas, the Chinese, the Assyrians, the Romans, the Mauryans. In most cases only government officials could use the service. This was not an enormous deprivation, as most citizens could not read or write. In very important circumstances, they could have letters written for and read to them.
In the sixth century B.C., the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great boasted a well-organized relay service that could carry mail at a rate of up to a hundred miles a day. The man carrying the message would ride from one post to the next, where he would trade his tired horse for a fresh one, rest, then continue upon his journey. Herodotus sang this system's praises when he wrote in the histories a comment now inscribed on the Farley Post Office Building in New York City: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
The Persians' mail service, like so many, was not a benign network, however. It was a tool for making war and controlling an expanding population, upon whom the postal carriers spied and reported back. All the emperors did it. Kublai Khan had more than ten thousand postal stations and some fifty thousand horses at his disposal -- and the people who lived near the postal stations learned to fear the carriers. Caliph Abu Jafar Mansur, who ruled the Arabian Empire in the eighth century, expressed mail's military importance most bluntly: "My throne rests on four pillars and my rule on four persons: a blameless cadi [chief justice], an energetic chief of police, an honest minister of finance, and a faithful postmaster, who gives me true information about everything." In 860, the Islamic caliphate boasted 930 post stations.
News of military victories traveled via these early official postal systems, as did instructions for slaughter. As Laurin Zilliacus reminds us, the Book of Esther describes "the use of posts to order the slaughter of the Jews throughout Persian-ruled territory, and then the swift sending of the counter-order that saved them and turned the tables on their persecutors."
"And he wrote in the name of the king Ahasueres and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback," goes the verse, "riding on swift steeds that were used in the king's service, bred of the stud." All of the books of the New Testament, save the Gospels, are written in the form of letters.
It was not always horses doing the carrying, however. The Arabs later pioneered the use of pigeons. The Greek city-states reserved some of their loftiest poetry for the mind-boggling feats of their athlete-runners. They were known as Hemerodromes and were often called into service when a very important message was to be delivered. Philonides, the courier and surveyor for Alexander the Great, once ran from Sicyon to Elis -- 148 miles -- in a day. Wealthy families had stables of runners, and since nearly all the work was taken care of by their slaves, citizens of leisure had little to do but share their thoughts and gossip in letters to one another. Not surprisingly, a huge volume of correspondence was produced during the height of Greek civilization.
Augustus Caesar established one of the most impressive ancient postal services. It relied upon the Roman Empire's superior road network, with stopping-off points -- or post houses -- where couriers could rest and trade horses. It is for this reason that the word "post" comes from the Latin positus, meaning "fixed," or "placed." Mail traveled by horse and chariot, and the postmen of the era wore feathers in their caps, signifying speed. The service was eventually expanded to the general public -- those who could write and afford it. When the Roman Empire fell, the network collapsed, and organized communication throughout western Europe disappeared with it.
Filling the Gap Where Governments Leave Off
Guilds, trading companies, feudal lords, and marauding armies maintained private messaging systems after the fall of the Roman Empire, but only the Catholic Church possessed anything approaching the organization of the service Caesar had run from Rome. During the medieval period apostolic and pastoral letters "circulated doctrinal rulings, decisions of Episcopal synods, temporal and political matters," as University of California professor Charles Bazerman has written. The growing orders of monks also kept in touch through lay brothers traveling from one monastery to the next, trips that could take as long as several months, carrying scrolls called rotulae, an early, low-tech version of a Listserv. A scroll would leave a central monastery with simply, say, a list of names of brothers or benefactors who had died and ought to be remembered. At each monastery an addition would be made to the scroll, the local abbot acknowledging receipt of the message and perhaps adding comments or further news. The additions were attached by "thin intertwining parchment strips, so that the lengthening scroll continued to be a very long single sheet," as Zilliacus describes. One rotula dating from 1122 is 28 feet long and 10 inches wide, covered with writing on both sides. It contained one piece of news, the death of Abbot Saint Vital; all 206 entries that followed paid tribute, some in prayers, some in poetry.
In Europe, a single family kept mail going outside the realm of government for several centuries. The princely Thurn und Taxis clan carried the mail from Rome to Brussels and beyond, beginning with Ruggiano de Tassis, who began a postal service in Italy. In the early 1500s, they established a postal service based in Brussels and reaching to Rome, Naples, Spain, Germany, and France by courier. The service lasted until the eighteenth century, when it was purchased by an heir to the Spanish throne.
But the story of the post is not concerned only with past events.
It is a continuing saga of man's attempts to shrink the world by
improving the communication of the written word.
-- DMITRY KANDAOUROFF, Collecting Postal History: Postmarks, Cards and Covers
Bridging the Darkness
It took another three centuries for mail to resemble anything we would recognize today. Most people were illiterate, and paper was enormously expensive. For a woman to mail a letter from the American colonies to England in 1650, for example, she would have had to be exceptional indeed. In From Pillar to Post, Zilliacus imagines such a letter's journey. The woman would have had to pick out a piece of rag paper, inscribe her message, then fold it four or five times, bind it in silk and seal it with wax, and perhaps draw a sign of the cross on it to signal that this letter traveled under the sign of Providence. Then there was the issue of the recipient's address, which required a bit of space: "To my most noble brother, Mr. John Miles Breton," wrote one woman, "at Ye barber shoppe which lieth in the land hard against Ye taverne of Ye Great Square in shadow of Ye Towne Hall in Stockholm, these."
After she took it to her local tavern -- America's first postman, Richard Fairbanks, pulled pints as his day job -- the letter would have to jump aboard a trading vessel and essentially bribe its way across the seas and every step of the way. It was expensive and very likely bound for failure. "Letters were treasured," writes Frances Austin in "Letter Writing in a Cornish Community in the 1790s," "read to neighbors and handed round to friends. Items of news were passed on, often almost verbatim." In one case, Austin discovered that a woman had copied a letter from her brother and mailed copies to each of her siblings.
Imagine, then, living at this time. If you emigrated to a new country and left relatives behind, they would in all likelihood be lost to you forever. At the close of day, eating by candlelight, going to sleep in the obsidian darkness beneath a sky punctured by a blizzard of stars and unmarred by the electric pulse of distant cities or the blinking of far-off satellites, you would be alone, save for those around you. A knock at the door could spell danger or bad news. If the visit brought a letter from far away, it would probably feel like a small miracle. "The letters delivered in the countryside have marvelously multiplied," wrote Richard Jeffries in The Life of the Fields in 1884, "but still the country people do not treat letters offhand. The arrival of a letter or two is still an event; it is read twice or three times, put in a pocket and looked at again."
The Dawn of the Golden Age of Letter Writing
Between the dawn of the printing press and the end of the early to middle nineteenth century, societies arose in England, France, and Germany that broke down the barriers that had previously kept many people in the dark concerning the written word. Books became more available and began crossing national boundaries. By 1873, more than 129 million book packets traveled through the post every year in Great Britain.
The printing press and changes in the epistemological makeup of religions forged the way for a new reading public. In many Christian religions, only pastors and priests were trusted with the word of God. Besides, books were scarce; monks used to teach from texts chained to the lectern. In Sweden in the eighteenth century, though, the Lutheran Church issued an injunction that everyone must be able to read the word of God, and a massive literacy campaign was launched. Within a hundred years the nation boasted a 100 percent literacy rate. The decline of illiteracy in England was equally sharp but took much longer. Between 1500 and 1900, literacy rates rose from 10 percent to 95 percent for men and from less than 5 percent to 95 percent for women. In the early American colonies, where religious injunction required that believers be able to read the Bible themselves, men had a 100 percent literacy rate.
Mandatory schooling helped democratize words, too. In 1790, "Pennsylvania made provision in its constitution to provide free education to the poor, an effort endorsed by a number of cities and states in the first half of the nineteenth century," according to Naomi S. Baron in From Alphabet to Email. In 1827, Massachusetts underwrote common schools through taxation, and in 1852 New York was the first state to require statewide compulsory education. The earliest English public schools were chartered to educate the poor, but it wasn't until the middle of the eighteenth century that religious organizers began providing systematic day school and Sunday school education. Parliament started funding schools in 1833, while also restricting child labor, and by 1880, all of England and Wales "were required to establish minimum education standards."
Letter-writing manuals sprang up to allow the "middling sort" to "pursue their claims to social refinement and upward mobility," as one scholar put it. One of the most popular, Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions, was published by Samuel Richardson in 1741 and portrayed letter writing as "suitable for all occasions in life and for all people in society." At the same time, penmanship manuals, spelling books, grammar books, and dictionaries took off. Between 1750 and 1800, nearly four hundred such works were published in the United States alone. Guidebooks to letter writing multiplied, in the process transforming the use of the English language. The oral quality of early letters returned and was encouraged: "When you write to a friend," wrote W. H. Dilworth in The Complete Letter-Writer, "your letter should be a picture of your heart." "When you sit down to write a letter," another advised, "remember that this sort of writing should be like conversation." Dilworth again: "Your language should be so natural...the thoughts may seem to have been conceived in the very words...and your sentiments to have sprung up naturally like lilies of the field."
In a new development and with increasing regularity, these appeals were directed at women. Until this point, it was generally assumed that only men wrote letters. But from the mid-eighteenth century, the gender division of letter writing began to be questioned publicly. The Ladies Complete Letter Writer appeared in London in 1763 and was imported to America. "Your sex," wrote one adviser, "much excels our own, in the ease and graces of epistolary correspondence."
Letter writing also became an important part of childhood instruction, in both England and America. Benjamin Franklin believed young boys should learn by putting pen to paper to send a message. "The Boys should be put on Writing Letters to each other on any common Occurences, and on various Subjects, imaginary Business, & c. containing little Stories," he wrote in Idea of the English School in 1751. "Accounts of their late Reading, what Parts of Authors please them, and why....In these they should be taught to express themselves clearly, concisely, and naturally, without affected Words or high-flown Phrases."
Franklin extended such advice to writers of business letters. In April 1777, he replied at length to a gentleman who had written offering some assistance to the American colonies in the coming War of Independence: "Whoever writes to a Stranger should observe 3 Points; 1. That what he proposes be practicable. 2. His Propositions should be made in explicit Terms so as to be easily understood. 3. What he desires should be in itself reasonable. Hereby he will give a favourable Impression of his Understanding, and create a Desire of further Acquaintance."
Inventing the Modern Post Office
For letter writing to really explode, however, it needed to be affordable to the masses. Charles I was the first monarch toextend mail service to his subjects in 1635, largely because he needed money, and even then it was too expensive for most people to use it. In 1680, William Dockwra, an ex-merchant in the African slave trade, set up a penny post in London. For the first time, anyone could mail a letter anywhere in the city for a penny -- the equivalent of roughly half a pound, or $1, today -- which was a boon to business but not much help to people whose relatives and friends lived a hundred miles away. The government absorbed the service and then later squashed an attempt to establish a half-penny post in London. Sending letters was still very expensive, since rates were charged by distance and letters had to travel by armed coach. Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, however, could use the service for free.
Most of the features of modern mail come from the suggestions of a retired schoolteacher named Rowland Hill, who in 1837 published Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicality. Hill argued that mail should cost a penny, wherever it went; he believed the postage should be paid in advance; and he wisely suggested that envelopes be used. By 1840, every one of these suggestions had been taken to heart by the British postal service, the Royal Mail, and letter writing had exploded. Between 1839 and 1853, English letter volume shot up sevenfold, from 75.9 million per year to 410.8 million. By 1873, the Royal Mail was handling 1 billion pieces of mail, employing 42,000 men and women, and boasting more than 12,000 post offices.
The Royal Mail quickly went global. As early as 1860, mail traveled once a month via the Suez Canal between Great Britain and the Australian colonies, including Tasmania and New Zealand. It was dispatched from Southampton on the twelfth of each month. Postage for these international shipments had to be paid in advance: it was thirty-three cents per half ounce for a letter. Newspapers were sent for just four cents each.
Most impressively, the Royal Mail made money doing this. In 1860, a report showed that it had earned $6.5 million for the government. By 1873, the sum was creeping up to $8 million. The service became the model for mail systems the world around, its facility paving the way for a heyday of print. People wrote and read more and thereby began to develop a sense of their own ideas. The events of their lives mattered because they were being recorded. They wanted to be heard. Letters pages, like those Richard Steele had inaugurated in The Tatler and The Spectator in the previous century, filled with an array of new voices.
British citizens also seemed to enjoy testing the limits of this new civic invention. A report in 1874 revealed that among the curios to turn up in the dead-letter office were a horned frog (alive), a still squirming stage beetle, white mice, snails, an owl, a kingfisher, a rat, carving knives, a fork, a gun, and cartridges. One dead letter turned out to have more than ?2,000 in banknotes in it; another, which arrived opened, was stuffed with Turkish currency. Thought to be old lottery forms, it was given to children of postal officers to play with.
The Business of Sending Mail in America
Tasked with covering enormous distances in a countryside prone to violence, where gun ownership was a constitutionally defended right, and a strong federal government was deeply distrusted, the U.S. mail faced far greater problems than the British. Early mail routes were marauded; carriers, who had to ferry all letters COD, many times couldn't collect or simply pocketed the payments; bootleg companies covered the same terrain, often at cheaper rates. The postal service was also seen as a sinecure, a system of patronage. Far more letters than should have been were franked or sent for free, depriving the fledgling network of much-needed revenue. As postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin appointed his older brother postmaster of Boston; when James Franklin stepped down from the $1,000-a-year post, Benjamin Franklin appointed his brother-in-law as his successor.
And mail remained, for a long time, hideously expensive. In the early 1800s, it cost twenty-five cents to send a single sheet of paper more than four hundred miles. In a country where the average wage was a dollar a day this was beyond the reach of most Americans, and, not surprisingly, mail volume remained very low. In 1815, the entire United States was serviced by just three thousand post offices, doing a little more than $1 million of business. Two decades later, mail began traveling by rail and then by private stagecoach companies, operating under contracts that were so lucrative that if a company failed to get them renewed it immediately retired from the business. But the two coasts remained separate. To get to California, mail had to travel around Cape Horn, after which coaches and trains took it to the Oregon Territory.
One of the most famous chapters of U.S. mail history involved the shrinkage of delivery times across the country to a matter of days -- a vast improvement, considering that in 1845 it took President James Polk six months to get a message to California, and a necessary one financially once gold was discovered in the state in 1848 and San Francisco's population rocketed from 500 to 150,000 in just three decades. News of discoveries had to travel somehow. The problem was serious enough that in 1855 Congress even allocated $35,000 to exploring the use of camels to haul mail from Texas to California.
As has happened throughout the story of communication in America, government turned to private industry to solve the problem. Postmaster General Aaron Brown later awarded a $600,000 contract to the stagecoach entrepreneur John Butterfield to carry mail end to end if he could do it in twenty-five days. By 1858, after spending $1 million to set up a network of two hundred relay stations, two thousand horses and mules, and more than twelve hundred employees, Butterfield had done it. There was even a manual of employee behavior, in which lay this recommendation: "18. -- INDIANS. A good look-out should be kept for Indians. No intercourse should be had with them, but let them alone; by no means annoy or wrong them."
Coaches left from Saint Louis and arrived in San Francisco, carting mostly mail but passengers, too, in quarters cramped enough to make airline "coach" seats seem a luxury -- especially as coach travelers paid $200 in 1860, the equivalent of $4,500 today, for a one-way fare from Saint Louis to San Francisco. Raphael Pumpelly, who rode the line west to Tucson, remembered, "As the occupants of the front and middle seats faced each other, it was necessary for these six people to interlock their knees; and there being room inside for only ten of the twelve legs, each side of the coach was graced by a foot, now dangling near the wheel, now trying in vain to find a place of support."
But for those with money to spend, a need to travel, and a desire for adventure, it was worth the discomfort. The travel also facilitated the exploration and imagining of the American landscape. In Roughing It, Mark Twain described traveling around the western part of the United States on several coaches just like the one Pumpelly packed himself into, though not of the Butterfield line. "We three were the only passengers, this trip," he wrote. "We sat on the back seat, inside. About all the rest of the coach was full of mail bags -- for we had three days' delayed mails with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall of mail matter rose up to the roof. There was a great pile of it strapped on top of the stage, and both the fore and hind boots were full. We had twenty-seven hundred pounds of it aboard."
It says a lot about America's idea of itself that Butterfield's sensible, pioneering line -- which never suffered an Indian attack in the two and a half years of its operation and never missed its twenty-five-day deadline -- was eclipsed by the even shorterlived Pony Express. Speed and brutality trumps efficiency in the imagination. This colorful solution was proposed by California senator William Gwin, a pro-slavery southerner who once participated in a duel (neither party suffered a gunshot, but a donkey was killed) and later traveled to France in 1864 in an attempt to interest Napoleon III in settling American slave owners in Sonora, Mexico. Gwin was a strong proponent of westward expansion and had carried through the U.S. Senate a bill appropriating money for steamers traveling between California, China, and Japan. He was also an early proponent of purchasing Alaska from the tsar. His notion of mail would be similarly spectacular.
In January 1860, Gwin met with the Missouri freighter William H. Russell to discuss establishing a ten-day relay service to California. Gwin was enthusiastic enough to encourage them to go ahead; they had sixty days to do the job. Ads for riders went out in March of that year. They recruited 80 "skinny" young fellows, whose weight was not to exceed 125 pounds, and 400 tough characters to staff 190 relay stations over a 1,900-mile route from Saint Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. It was dangerous work, for which the young men were paid $50 per month plus room and board. In the beginning, the riders rode with bow knives, revolvers, and at least one rifle, eventually thinning down to just a pistol.
It was also expensive: $5 per half ounce. The saddlebags contained letters, some relaying news of gold discoveries in California, and condensed versions of eastern newspapers. In just 18 months of business, the Pony Express transported 30,000 pieces of mail a total of 650,000 miles. Its fastest delivery set a record in carrying President Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address from Saint Joseph to Sacramento in seven days and seventeen hours. If only Lincoln had had Obama's BlackBerry! At just fifteen years of age, William F. Cody was the youngest pony rider to carry the mail. On his second year on the job, he rode up to a station and, discovering that his relief rider had been killed, rode on with a new horse, covering some 384 miles without rest.