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for people who care about the West

Extreme commuters are maybe even you and me

 

This spring was a kind of religious experience. A couple of hot days in May, followed by an entire Memorial Day weekend of rain. On a hike, we looked over rolling green foothills and were moved to sing "Danny Boy" melodramatically, into the fierce wind. The lilacs this year were a purple-white fireworks show, and the fragrance still seems to cling to every tree leaf and blade of grass. It follows us, in the grocery store and the office, in our cars. We are crabby for not being outside. We are wound up like schoolkids.

We read an article one morning on the Internet (slacking off at work) about “extreme commuters.” These are people who every day commute to work more than 90 minutes, one-way. This is the lifestyle of "exurbans," people who have been driven -- literally -- beyond the suburbs, seeking lower home prices, better schools and what passes for a little peace and quiet. In their cars, though, they worry about not having time to play with their kids. The U.S. Census bureau says this is the fastest-growing group of commuters, in spite of $3-plus a gallon for gas and the news on the radio of the most recent roadside bomb in another part of the world.

One of these guys, Steve, says he likes his "Zen time" on the road. We wonder: When did a way of life emphasizing humility, gratitude and meditation become synonymous with sitting in traffic? It's like praying the rosary with your Wal-Mart receipt. Laying your prayer mat in a parking lot. Eating Passover dinner at Taco Bell.

It's not that we're any better. We have our own kind of extreme commuting. We'll drive across the state for a basketball game. Pearl Jam plays in Missoula, and $3-plus a gallon suddenly doesn't matter. We have been known to spend entire days driving around, looking for the perfect campsite. But isn't there a difference? Not morally, no, we can't hope to justify the carbon emissions we've poured into the atmosphere, no matter how rocking that concert was, no matter how long we've been waiting for our team to take State.

Let's take a moment and give thanks to God or to bad winters or to a poor economy, or to whatever else has ensured that for now, we're not required to spend our lives in our cars to get to work. At least when our long drive is over, we have the tension of the game between our shoulders, a great song ringing in our ears. Or we have that perfect campsite, flat and green, like a cool stone in our pockets.

We know things are changing. Chain restaurants and big-box stores sprout on roadsides like knapweed. Housing tracts too; they have no natural predators. How is it that this town will support three different mega-hardware stores? Only by building more, we suppose. Only by creating suburbs and exurbs and ex-exurbs. We could be extreme commuters before we know it, wondering what happened to our ex-life.

In the morning, before we go to work, we wade around the flowerbeds in our good shoes. We pull stray grass and deadhead spent flowers. When we get to the office, we have dirt under our fingernails. Every moment spent inside feels like a lost drop of water in the desert. We hurry through the day, distracted, sloppy. The sun is shining, and summer may really be here. Or it's not. Either way, we need to get out and play. Unfortunately, that often means driving somewhere.

Alison James is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Helena, Montana, and works as the development director for a nonprofit corporation.