BE OUR GUESTS: Adam with (from left) Mariella Swain, Flory D. Ellis, Kaitlin Backlund and Kelley Alison Smith, all enjoying the luxurious Grand Del Mar in San Diego.
Robert Dahey
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The 7:30 a.m. flight from San Diego to ­Dallas/Fort Worth is always packed, and the other day, once comfortably seated and buckled, I noticed a lot of familiar faces. Or maybe they seemed familiar because we were all on the same inbound days earlier. Or maybe I didn’t recognize them at all but I really wanted to know them ­because they were reading American Way cover to cover, and the smiles on their faces indicated they were enjoying what they were reading.

I was in San Diego for my favorite event of the year: the American Way Road Warrior Contest photo shoot. We flew our five winners and their guests to San Diego and put them up at perhaps the most spectacular resort in all of California: The Grand Del Mar. (Actually, we flew four of them and three of their guests, the exceptions being our second-place winner, Jerry Swain, and his lovely wife, Mariella — they live only four miles away, so they drove — and Ruban Selvakumar’s wife, Chital. More on her later.)

My 7:30 a.m. flight out of there was scheduled to make a brief stop at DFW before flying on to LGA. I was en route to the New York Times Travel Show in New York City, where I’d be lecturing on whether print media — in the digital age — still matters. I was, therefore, acutely aware of who was reading print materials at the photo shoot, who was reading print materials on the airplanes, and who wasn’t.

At the Road Warrior photo shoot, this group immediately connected. After our first meal ­together — and there’d be many more phenomenal dining indulgences enjoyed right there on the grounds of The Grand Del Mar — they were pulling practical jokes on each other, as well as on the AW staff.

Not surprisingly, I noticed during it all that Road Warriors and their guests are voracious readers. When you spend as much time up in the air as they do, you read everything you can get your hands on. And smart, well-read people clearly befriend and bring smart, well-read guests. Flory B. Ellis’ mother, Flory D. Ellis, was almost never without her tablet. Michele Nishiguchi’s guest, Kaitlin Backlund, read every single magazine in the suite, of which there was no shortage. Mariella Swain is so well read that whether the magazine articles were in English, Italian or her native Spanish, she absorbed them all.

And then there was our grand-prize winner, Gillian Smith. Her sister, Kelley Alison Smith, a writing instructor and project manager at Brown University, read everything from books to magazine stories to news updates on her phone to the ingredients on the soap. They knew I was studying their habits because I was trying to gauge whether they read only digital stuff or whether print still mattered to them. And it does. But hold that thought.

You might be wondering about Ruban Selvakumar’s guest — well, she was a little busy. You see, Ruban and his wife, Chital, welcomed their first child into their lives a mere two weeks before the photo shoot, so Chital stayed home to care for baby Millan. But as the father of two, I’ll venture an educated guess that she was at home reading The Happiest Baby on the Block whenever Millan went down for a nap. The Road Warriors’ guests came from different backgrounds, were at different stages in life, had different careers — and had they not all been tossed together for this once-in-a-lifetime event, their paths may never have crossed. The Road Warrior experience, however, has a Krazy Glue effect on the winners and their guests. They bond in the beginning, then they indelibly stick.

This year was no different than the past 10. The Road Warriors bonded during their photo shoot, and the guests bonded while watching their loved ones mug for the camera.

Which brings us back to whether print still matters. After a week of high-society pampering at San Diego’s gorgeous Grand Del Mar; after an incredible day of whale watching with Next Level Sailing; after an unforgettable tour of the USS Midway Museum; after an unparalleled dining ­experience at Top of the Market; and after luxurious car service provided by Avis, the guests agreed that print still matters. After all, were it not for print, none of their friends or family would have entered the Road Warrior Contest.

Blessed be the tie that binds.

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Adam Pitluk