On Commuting

It’s never a good sign when people come up to you at work and ask, “So how’s the commute going?  You surviving?” I get this all the time.

Or when neighbors hear where you work and say, “Really?  Wow, how do you even get there from here?”

Or, “What is that, three hours away?”

In fact, my commute — from the North Country of New Hampshire to Montpelier, Vermont — is 57 miles and takes 65 minutes.  I cross eight  towns, four school districts, three counties, and two states.  I spend just over 11 hours per week in the car.  

The fact is, this is not uncommon up here.  Although jobs are hard to get just about anywhere, the sheer scarcity of them in northern New England took me aback when I first moved back up here from Washington, D.C.  I was stunned when, plotting which of the, say, four teaching jobs advertised in all of northern New England to apply to first — I realized that Vermont’s entire population was less than that of the single Maryland county in which I lived.  I remember thinking I could probably cull together every single person in the state of Vermont working the same job as I do (teaching high school English) and fit us all together in the same large auditorium.  I could probably do the same in New Hampshire for every teacher from Lake Winnipesauke to Canada — and wouldn’t even need that large of a room.  And so even though long commutes are a fact of life for many Americans no matter where they live (both my father and my grandfather made commutes of over 45 minutes for the bulk of their careers), it was particularly unsurprising to learn how common the long commute is up here in the north.  Although I’m the only New Hampshire license plate in the whole parking lot, a number of my own coworkers drive long distances every morning.  A number of them traverse the Burlington-Montpelier corridor each morning — a commute almost as long as mine, but thicker with traffic.  Others travel north from the heart of central Vermont: small towns to the south like Chelsea, Northfield, Sharon (for two years, I did this commute too — from Randolph — over the hilly pass in Brookfield that seemed to be covered with snow most months of the year).  My coworker’s husband is the superintendent in the town where I live here in New Hampshire — meaning that he drives the same mileage I do — except in reverse direction, and from 25 miles farther away.

“You must listen to good books in the car, right?” I’m often asked.  

I always surprise people by saying no, I don’t.  Although I’m an English teacher, and a reader, apart from an old cassette tape of a comically abridged Anna Karenina that I wore out in college, and from a decidedly unabridged version of Great Expectations that I listened to during a summer spent driving to hang gliding adventures, I’ve never taken to books in the car.  Right now an otherwise engaging Bill Bryson book on CD is gathering dust in my seat pocket.  I gave up on it this fall after constantly finding myself two chapters in and ten miles down the road with no idea what’s going on in the narrative.  The fact is, I much prefer being alone with my thoughts in the car.  John Updike called cars our contemplation cells.  They have always been mine.  For one thing, I’ve always been comfortable behind the wheel; on long kayaking road trips I’ve taken with friends, I’ve always insisted on being the driver.  And, as an introvert, I’ve always looked forward to the chance to recharge on the drive home by mulling over the day, often doing so against the backdrop of music, or listening to something innately topical like the NPR news.  Listening to a book after a day of reading and discussing them with students feels too mentally taxing.  

And in the morning, on my way to work, I like the chance to listen to the simple sound of the car racing across the highway, or — as I’ve taken to doing this year — mentally reviewing or even mentally planning my lesson plans for the upcoming day.

I remember during my first year of teaching in Vermont I would traipse into school in the dark and spend at least an hour and a half furiously planning that day’s lessons, finishing in a flourish just before the eight o’clock bell.  Meanwhile, down the hall there was a veteran history teacher who’d had a high reputation at the school for challenging her students and running a vibrant classroom.  Every morning she’d sidle in about two minutes before the first bell, unburdened by the kind of heavy book bags that normally draped over my shoulders, and settle into leading her five classes expertly through the course of an entire day.  One time I asked her how she did it.  She told me that she typically came up with her teaching plans in the car on her long commute to work.  “Well, that and I also have twenty years of experience,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” she told me.  “You’ll get there someday.” She was right.

Sometimes, when I’m in crusining along the backroads of New Hampshire on my way to work, I think about some of my old commutes back when I was living in Washington, D.C. after college.  In a lot of ways, even though my current commute is certainly the longest I’ve done, it’s not actually the worst.  There are several reasons for this.  After all, a commute should be measured by a number of different factors.  So without further ado, let me break it down — my current North Country commute against some of my old ones from back when I lived in Washington, D.C.

Scenery:

My New Hampshire commute cuts across the White Mountains into the Green Mountains, features miles and miles of unspoiled forest and farmland on either side, and offers multiple pull-off overlooks so scenic that you often see tourists (and often even locals) pulled over taking pictures.  The most spectacular of these overlooks, in Danville, Vermont, offers a great look back toward home in the morning for me — at the sunrise over Mt. Washington:

Sunrise 1

On the other hand, the Washington, D.C. Mormon temple was kind of nice to look at while I was either locked in traffic on the Beltway, or sprinting around at 75, inches away from about four different collisions at once.

Mormon-Temple-3960

Major edge:  New Hampshire

 

Weather:

While I don’t really mind driving in the snow per se, it is a factor on any commute, because it does take a lot more concentration, and it does set me back a good twenty-five or thirty minutes these days.

Although the single largest snowstorm I’ve ever lived through happened while I was living in D.C. (24” in 2010), it being D.C. I think we got approximately two weeks of school off, so it wasn’t like I was driving in the snow anyway.  And in D.C. snow typically only made a cameo appearance.

On the other hand, we get a lot of snow up here in the White Mountains (over 100 inches last year) and they rarely close school.  (If they closed every time we woke up to two or three inches, we’d meet our classes only sporadically from December to March).  Another problem is that each school district decides for itself whether to close or not.  They try to gauge the conditions in the district, and because I live so far away, I’m often subject to slightly different snowfall totals.  That means that sometimes I wake up to nothing, only to find halfway out the door that school is actually canceled, or other times that I’m fighting some midwinter blizzard through three or four closed school districts until I come over the mountains and almost nothing on the ground near school.

Edge:  Washington

 

Temptation:

I’ve always been bad about snacking and eating between meals, and over the years on my commutes and road trips I’ve eaten a large number of my meals in the car.  Of course, I try not to do this, especially as I get older, and as a result the question of temptation — in the form of food places on the way to work — is an important one to consider.

My current commute features the kind of highway exits that don’t even have a gas station: you just go immediately to dirt roads.  And once I’m on smaller roads, the only things I’m passing are a few ancient gas stations and a couple of vintage Vermont general stores that look like they might’ve been frequented by Teddy Roosevelt (and where you can weigh the deer you shot this hunting season).  There are almost no coffee shops, bakeries, or diners tempt me.  There’s not even a single Dunkin Donuts on the way.  This is a good thing.

On the other hand, it’s almost impossible not to pass tempting food in the D.C. area.  The commute I did during my last year there, from Silver Spring up to Howard County every day for grad school took me right past a murder’s row — Chipotle, Five Guys, Starbucks, Panera, Dunkin Donuts, a couple of pizza and Chinese places . . .  It was bad.

Edge:  New Hampshire

 

Parking:

Now, if I’d have never lived in a city, I wouldn’t have even thought to include this as part of a commute.  But having lived in D.C., the parking at the end is just as important to a car commute as the landing is to a plane flight.  Having worked at a charter school in D.C. where the parking was a free-for-all on the street (and at which the playground was essentially the same free-for-all on the same street . . . ) I never take it for granted when all the schools up here have these huge swathes of green playing fields, or webs of cross country trails through the forest, and acres and acres of parking right next to the building.  (Reminds me of the old saying among college administrators:  “Students want sex, faculty want parking, and alumni want football.”) What a luxury nowadays to be able to park in any one of three ample lots, all of them within a twenty second walk of the building, and even if I were to show up two hours late, not be relegated to parking off site.

A quick side note: at one of the schools where I taught in Vermont, there was a back row nearest the street where all the junior and senior farm boys parked their jacked-up, patchwork-colored pick up trucks.  Then, in the winter, the line of trucks was replaced by the line of snowmobiles that they drove to school and often raced around the soccer field after school.

On the other hand, the parking situation on my various Washington commutes ranged from reasonably close to work (in the suburbs), to “if I’m two minutes late, I better be ready to improvise,” to “this parking garage is incredibly expensive and almost makes having a job not worth it,” to “it’s so hard to find street parking that I think I’m actually parking closer to home than to work.”  This last instance was during the two months I worked at a public charter school in D.C.  And because street parking there was only allowed until 3 pm, that meant that on days when I had to cover an after-school study hall, I had to teach my final class, sprint out to my car, move it even farther away, and then sprint back inside to cover class.  Otherwise I was risking a $100 ticket (which I did end up incurring one time).  It’s not a surprise that D.C. was once voted the least car friendly city in the U.S.

After living there it took me years to cool my parking anxiety.  The first big shock came the afternoon when I drove up to Montpelier for the first time to register my car in Vermont.  “I hope I can find parking, I hope I can find parking . . .” I kept repeating, steeling myself to do battle — the trawling the streets up and down, the blunt questions fired out the window to pedestrians (“You leaving or what?”), the seismic sensitivity registering any vehicular movement within four-blocks, the willingness to finesse my car into any space larger than a phone booth.  So there I was, hardened veteran, thousand yard stare in my eyes, ready to charge on State Street in Montpelier like a heat-seeking missile.  Imagine my shock when I found not only a plethora of open spaces on the street, but plenty of open spaces in front of the DMV!  (I think what happened was that I reflexively swerved into the first one I found, about a half-mile from the DMV, until I looked ahead, saw the whole street with open spaces, and drove incredulously closer and closer to the building, eventually parking so close I might have opened my passenger door partway into the lobby.  By the way, these spaces in front of the DMV also happened to be directly across the street from no less an apparent parking attraction than the Vermont State Capitol!  At 3 pm in the afternoon!  After I parked, I walked about a mile up and down the street incredulously, searching for the inevitable No Parking sign.  But there wasn’t one.  (Nor was there a line in the DMV, either — equally astounding.) I may never get used to this.

Major edge:  Vermont/New Hampshire

 

Traffic Lights:

What I remember most was going out at night in D.C.  I’m talking about late at night.  Those times when I just had to go get some food, or those times when I was coming home from friends’ houses.  What I remember was the incredible penned-in frustration at catching every single stop light on the way back — despite the roads being completely empty.  That was the city — my D.C. commutes were all dominated by traffic lights, and often my day was determined by my ability to catch these lights at just the right time to slither through.  

My very first D.C. commute was short — about six miles — but usually took me a full 25 minutes.  The reason?  Traffic lights.  There were lots of them — 14 of them, I seem to recall.  They defined the commute.  Miss the light at River Road?  You’ll wait an extra three minutes and miss the next one at Carter.  Show up and there’s a line in the left turn lane at Wilson?  You’ll wait three cycles at the light and be late for work.  And what if you’re approaching the light at Goldsboro and it starts to turn red?  Should you take a right on Democracy and try to fight your way around?  Would that take longer than just waiting?  I spent years fine tuning my commutes and storing up contingency plans based on the whims of the lights.  Anyone who drives in the city for long enough gets to be an expert at this kind of improv.  I had all kinds of cut-throughs.  If you’d ridden along with me through the city during those years, I’d have probably taken you on a high-speed tour of some back alleys, bank parking lots, U-turns, and one way side streets.  

What’s ironic is that I saw so many more impressive sports cars idling at stop lights in the District than I’ve ever seen roaring the backroads of New England.  Great, you made Junior Partner at 38 — we can tell — but owning a Porsche in Georgetown is a little like owning a nice pair of skis in Connecticut: sure, you’re technically using them, but are you really getting your money’s worth?  

On the other hand, my current commute is 57 miles long and contains only three traffic lights, one of which I’ve never seen turn red.

Major advantage:  New Hampshire

 

Police Presence:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cop running radar in the morning on my current commute.  I’ve seen it a couple of times on the way home, but that was only when they were working on the bridge.  Half the towns I pass through don’t even have police.  It’s not exactly like I’m driving through Summersville, West Virginia.

As for D.C., you don’t tend to see a lot of cops running radar right in the city, either — or in the dense suburbs.  Like skiing at Bretton Woods, there’s just nowhere to get any speed.  What was also strange was that you rarely saw cops running radar on the Beltway either (more on this in a minute).  So generally my D.C. commutes did not have a lot of speed traps along them.

Still, there were other ways that law enforcement made their presence known in the city.  For one thing, there were police cameras everywhere.  First were the red light cameras.  Even think about shaving a yellow light too close, and you’d find a picture taken of your license plate and a fat ticket in the mail.  Even worse were the infamous speed cameras, which were usually set up around school zones and which also sent you automatic tickets if you whispered a hair over 25 miles per hour.  Part of the issue with these cameras was that they were in effect even when school wasn’t open.  I had a friend who was ticketed for doing like 27 miles per hour on a Sunday morning on his way to go kayaking.  It wasn’t as though I was getting tickets from these machines, but it was the constant nagging sense that Big Brother was definitely watching.  Still, I always wished they had versions of these cameras that would send out tickets not just for speeding, but for completely moronic driving: “That’ll be seventy-five dollars and two points on your license for tailgating, passing in heavy traffic, and being a general dick . . .”)

The final kicker was the gestapo-like parking police who lorded over the lots downtown.  This kind of parking enforcement, which is usually carried out by some lovably bumbling town officer here in New Hampshire, was an utterly ruthless professional operation in D.C., carried out with a near-vindictive efficiency.  Leave your car three minutes late at a meter?  You were always getting that ticket.  So Washington had that going for it.

Major Edge:  New Hampshire

 

Traffic:

Part of what makes my current commute tolerable is that, while it’s a long commute (in terms  of time), it’s an objectively long commute (in terms of mileage).  You feel like you’re actually getting somewhere.  My commutes in Washington never felt this way.  The difference, besides the traffic lights, of course is the traffic.

For a while after I moved back to the north, I had to laugh whenever anyone described the collection of five or six cars at a stop sign in, say, Randolph, Vermont as “traffic.” As far as my current commute, there’s no question: I’ve done far worse.  First of all, I’m not exactly fighting my way through a major population center every morning; I’m loping up and down the hills and river valleys of such metropolises as Dalton, New Hampshire (population 979) and Marshfield, Vermont (population 261).  The largest town I drive through is probably the hill town of Danville (population: 2,196).  And while I’m not exactly hopping out of the car to scratch my head at unmarked, Robert Johnson-down-at-the-crossroads-style road junctions or speeding past farm boys shooting baskets on the sides of barns and feed stores, sometimes my commute does remind me of the famous opening scene from “Hoosiers”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUqhPsZh93Y

Still, traffic can be a subtle problem — the way it is anywhere you’re driving two lane roads for long distances without many places to pass.  After I turn onto Route 2 about a third of the way into my morning drive, I know that I’ll only have a few miles of four lane road on which to position myself for the rest of the drive.  If I’m not paying attention, I know I’ll be spending the next 30 miles face-to-face with the tail lights of some underpowered farm truck lugging a roomful of hay all the way to Montpelier, or locked in behind some middle aged woman who seems to have adopted the strict formula for proper driving speed that my mother used to prescribe to her heavy-footed teenage son (something about dividing the speed limit in half and then subtracting a further quantity).  As a result, I know when I turn onto Route 2 that I’ll only have a few miles in which to make my moves, and I’ve developed a hawk-like eye and a predatorial instinct for spotting these road-cloggers.  Many of them are easily picked off in the first mile, but my toughest moments invariably come when I round the final curve to the last straightaway where the road necks down.  There is almost always one lone vehicle, chugging along at a cyclist’s speed across the no-man’s land between where I can safely still pass and where I’d be forced to swerve into the oncoming lane to do so.  That car is always there, forcing a decision.  Every morning.  

But most of my drive is spectacularly empty of traffic, especially the first leg, which is conducted on the sort of barren stretch of major highway that is so well maintained yet so deserted that one often suspects the state is going to someday repossess it, or maybe even close it down for lack of traffic.  You keep thinking someone in an office somewhere is going to say, “This road’s working out fine down toward Boston, but we’re going to be closing some of our northern branches.  Y’all have to do more with less now, ya’ hear?” 

That said, all of this sure beats the traffic situation I used to encounter in Washington, D.C.  For a year back in 2006-2007, my commute required me to take my chances with that infamous symbol of Washington gridlock culture: the Beltway.  For those who’ve never had the luck to drive the Beltway during evening rush hour (which lasts from approximately 8 am to 8 pm), the first thing to know is that the Beltway is not the perfectly Euclidean circle it appears to be on maps.  The road itself is surprisingly sinuous and not at all flat.  And as anyone who has ever kayaked a flooded river knows — combining a high volume of water (or cars), lots of curves, other constrictions (rocks pushing in from shore, or cars getting on and off at exits), and even some gradient — and you get heavy, heavy turbulence.  Rivers start to behave in very strange ways when there’s a lot of water in them.  Highways are no different.  Theoretically if the Beltway were just a straight road with no hills or exits, it would be a simple caravan of thousands of cars all humming along at 75.  But it’s not like that.  All it takes, is for one guy to tap his brakes over anything — a merging car, the crest of a hill, the thought that the Redskins haven’t been competitive in two decades — and suddenly a massive chain reaction of similarly-tapped brakes goes hurling back behind him for miles, causing progressively deeper and deeper depressions of the brake pedal and, before you know what happened, all five lanes have ground to a halt and everyone all the way back down into Virginia is basically idling in place.

The worst is when you finally arrive at the scene of the initial disturbance.  You can feel traffic starting to loosen up as you approach the top of the hill, or where the accident had been three hours ago — and then — viola!  You pass by nothing at all, and suddenly everyone’s driving at reckless speeds again.  It’s such an incredible letdown — even though you never want to see anyone hurt, if you’ve waited that long in traffic, there’s a part of you that wants it to at least have been because of some spectacular carnage — like a passenger jet that had to land right on the highway, or an escaped herd of wildebeests being chased onto the roadway by a pack of tigers.  Instead, you realize that the hour of your life you just wasted in traffic came about simply because 8,000 cars were prudently tapping their brakes at the top of a hill.  That’s it.  It’s enough to drive you to drink.

Or to dip.  I’ve known friends whose agonizing Beltway commutes were the impetus for prolific vices.  One friend dipped tobacco — a habit even he considered loathsome — but which was the only thing he could find to calm him down in the traffic.

And yet, part of what made the Beltway even more infuriating was that it wasn’t always a parking lot.  Sometimes, there would be just as many cars, but traffic would flow smoothly.  While you could predict that all five lanes would be jammed with cars switching in and out inches from each other (it was here that I learned the technique of never, ever using my turn indicator — otherwise the shark-like attorney in the Saab with the Redskins flag would gun his engine and refuse to let you in, lest he be slowly sent further and further back by opportunistic passers), and while you certainly could predict coming within inches of an accident on most evenings (which would have taken days to clean up, I’m sure, as the cops seemed to let nature take its course on the Beltway; I never saw them running radar out there, whereas they were plastered all up and down I-270), you could not predict on which evenings the traffic would be fluid, and on which evenings the two-mile stretch from Silver Spring (the sign on the Beltway that once inspired the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name) to Bethesda would be completely and utterly — as we used to say in kayaking — “unrunnable.”

So while the current commute does have some subtle traffic, it’s not even close.  

Edge:  New Hampshire

 

And in the end, while my current commute is long, there are a lot of parts of it that are much more enjoyable than the city commutes I’ve done in the past.  Here’s to hoping it won’t always be so long.

Overall Edge:  New Hampshire

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