With the rare exception of fugitive man-hunts through our woods and the not-so-rare “incident” during rush hour, living next to Interstate 83 is a good thing. I-83 makes it possible for Hereford Zonians to live in beautiful, rural northern Baltimore County and get to everywhere else. And that’s the problem. The highway is the primary travel route for most people to get to work.
My lovely commute can take me down 83, along the “Wicked Westside” of the Beltway and out I-70. In the middle of the day or the middle of the night, the 35 mile commute takes 35 minutes. It’s all highway. But in rush hour, that same commute can take an hour and a half. It only takes one little highway incident to turn a smooth ride into highway hell.
John Steinbeck, in his novel East of Eden, observed about train schedules:
The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split hundredth, until one day…we’ll say, “Oh, the hell with it! What’s wrong with an hour?'” But it isn’t silly, this preoccupation with small time units. One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.
Over the years, traffic incidents at various points along my route have taught me all sorts of alternate (read that, “get me there quicker”) routes. Adding a GPS to the car enhanced my ability to get to anywhere from anywhere. I used to listen desperately to the travel report each morning and mentally gamble over the quickest route to work. Is there a back-up at Padonia Road? How big is the traffic jam on the west side of the Beltway? A clear report was no guarantee. One little fender-bender could throw the whole route into gridlock.
Finally I settled on a back route. It is ten minutes longer than the highway on a good day. Since there are hardly any good days, except for someone’s holiday–state holidays, school holidays, Jewish holidays, or a really gorgeous Friday in spring–I found the “long” way to be with quick way. And then I discovered that the long way wasn’t the long way after all. The long way is actually five miles shorter than the highway route. That’s ten miles a day, forty miles a month. That’s 2,000 miles in the course of a school year! With a gas-efficient average speed of 50 mph and hardly any bumper-to-bumper stops and starts, the “long” way turns out to be quicker, shorter, and cheaper.
I did not settle on my road less traveled because it was a quick, short, cheap alternate route. I settled on it because it was the road less traveled. Fewer cars means fewer drivers to fume at, less road rage, lower blood pressure and fewer headaches. And the scenery can’t be beat.
I haven’t embraced Steinbeck’s prediction that people might eventually say, “What’s wrong with an hour?” I do have to get to work. But there are days when I literally want to stop to smell the roses. Or take a photograph…
of that mystical sunrise behind the Methodist cemetary
of the white barn glowing yellow in the eastern sunlight
of the early morning mist over the fields
of the horses and riders and dogs setting out on a hunt.
I may never take those pictures. I am, in my preoccupation with staying employed, preoccupied with the small time units it would cost me on my way to work. And if I weren’t heading to work, trust me, I wouldn’t be doing that drive at that hour of the day.
I could delegate the picture-taking to someone else, but that would mean divulging my alternate route, and then it wouldn’t be a road less traveled.