Sunday, March 04, 2007

So much to see

I have long held a theory that tolerance of commuting is carried on a chromosome. I can’t cite scientific evidence, but have observed that people who say that you can get used to long travel to work in fact can get used to it. Others, myself included, launch into new travel patterns with enthusiasm, but sputter and fail.

The last time I was faced with any significant travel to work was the fall of 1983. My husband and I lived in Princeton, and we each traveled long distances to work. I took the train north to Manhattan, and he took the train south to Philadelphia. Lots of people did it.

But the ninety minutes I traveled in the morning stretched to more like two hours in the evening, worse if I missed my usual train during budget season. On those occasions I spent an hour watching the rats run up and down the tracks, waiting for the next train. I was spending far too much of my day cooped up with stressed-out polyester-clad men and women, who streamed like cattle through the PATH train turnstiles then scrambled for seats on an overcrowded train. My husband fared no better. He hated his job, hated the commute even more that I did, if that were possible.

I tried to read, tried to sleep, tried to focus on the positive—that at least I wasn’t driving—but when I fell down the stairs of Penn Station that Christmas, I knew that commuting was not for me. By New Year’s, my marriage was over, and I was living in one room in Brooklyn, convinced that I was constitutionally incapable of commuting. For the next several years, I traveled one subway stop to work and back, then moved to Staten Island.

From my tumbledown Victorian on the north shore, I traveled almost exactly an hour, most of it on the Staten Island ferry. Now that was a great commute! Drink the coffee, read the paper, watch activity in New York harbor, nod to Lady Liberty, or just stare into the dawn—highly restorative. Come 1998, my job disappeared, and I had an offer in mid-town. An hour and a half away. I wasn’t sure I could take the commute, so I moved away.

Until now, I have avoided any commute longer than half an hour, especially driving. It’s not that I mind driving; often I enjoy it. What I mind is the enforced timetable gridlock, and I mind other drivers. Many people are at their worst when driving, although Vermont’s ration of road rage is smaller than more traveled places. Still, it’s a matter of probabilities. The more you are on the road, the more the probabilities are against you—probabilities that someone will make a dangerous, even fatal error. Since I have never held the illusion that I am any better than an average driver, and since my reaction times have deteriorated with age, I figure the probabilities are stacked against me.

All this weighs in against driving to work an hour each way, and yet I am now doing it. Opportunities in Vermont are not so rich as elsewhere, and I know myself well enough that once a job feels like a trap, it is time to do something different. So I am taking the calculated risk to commute, trading off the downside of much more time on the road against the certainty of new interests, new people, new horizons.

Having made that tradeoff, I find pleasant surprises in the drive. It offers quiet time to enjoy my own company. Gnarled thoughts disentangle themselves, as the Vermont landscape rolls by. Barns and fields, mountains and meadows. I haven’t seen a moose yet, although there are signs of moose crossing areas even on the interstate. I have even found some alternate routes to work, a startling achievement in a state with so few roads that there is generally only one route from A to B, if that. There is a lot to look at.

In another reminder that more time on the road brings new dangers, I was also—for the very first time in my life—stopped for speeding. Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised at this perfect record; I am the original Goody Two Shoes when it comes to authority. But yes, I was doing 37 mph in a 25 mph zone. Something I said must have struck a chord with the young Waterbury policeman—he let me go with only a verbal warning. Since then I have heard from others that Waterbury seems to have a revenue program, so perhaps I will trade that village for more scenic alternatives.

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