Recently, I made a trip to say goodbye to a close friend – he is moving south. It’s likely the last time we’ll visit face-to-face, so it was a bittersweet episode. But as the time approached to traverse the 85 miles to his house, I found myself becoming apprehensive in a manner that had no connection to our farewell visit. In fact, it felt like the day of a high school or collegiate wrestling match, where I’d turn inward to steel myself for the upcoming contest. Why?
It was the anticipation of the drive. This is peculiar, because my friend’s house is on the route I used to follow for my work commute. I have literally logged over two hundred thousand miles along this track and can recite every facet of the trip – from the blinding sun at mile 6 on Bulls Head Road to the inevitable traffic pile-up at Golden’s Bridge. My commuting trips usually started at 5AM and brought me sightings of coyotes and bobcat that I never would have otherwise seen. There were beautiful sunrises and sunsets and plenty of flowering trees in season.
But, there also is the high speed choreography of flocks of commuting cars and trucks. In good weather I choose the Taconic Parkway, just to break the monotony, starting in an easygoing manner with a clear road ahead. Smooth sailing to Baird Park. However, cars start to pass me and I find myself pressing the accelerator a bit harder, while watching the abrupt merging opportunities from side streets. The shoulders are minimal and road banking is nonexistent, so focus heightens. The truth is, I have avoided rush hour commuting for two decades and a good part of my apprehension is loss of confidence.
By the time I reach the former gas station in the center island ten miles from route 84, I’m driving faster than I’d like, but not as fast as I will be traveling on route 84. The exit from the Taconic to route 84 merges at the bottom of a long hill. This is not traffic genius, because trucks have built up rolling speed and usually stick to the right hand lane in preparation for the steep uphill climb after the merge. In short, you need to time your merge and punch the gas to avoid the behemoths bearing down on you.
By the top of the next rise, everyone is doing at least 75mph at close quarters. My adrenaline is pumping and I’m looking for a bit of breathing room in the crowded field. I’m beginning to get an idea of how sockeye salmon feel on the upstream journey. All of a sudden, the whole experience becomes automatic, plugged in. I’m gliding in and out of clusters of commuters piloted by my autonomic nervous system. “See, I can still do this”, my left brain says. “But, do I want to?” my right brain replies.
The turn south on rt. 684 brings me in sight of the old Pepsi Cola headquarters with its I.M Pei glass pyramids floating on top of its bricks and mortar. Once upon a time, long after Pepsi departed, I had an office on the 4th floor overlooking the southbound traffic on 684. I would have been in my office by 7:30AM, so I say hello to imaginary me watching real-time me speed past. I never was turned on by a “need for speed”, but did respond to a “need to succeed”. Those were the days when my prime focus was work and I was an absentee family member. This drive brings back the guilt I feel for missing so much relationship time.
As usual, Golden’s Bridge slows the rolling hordes down to 10mph and I pass three cars in the median, the product of vehicular Darwinism. There’s no visible damage, so I assume a three car fender bender has taken place. One guy standing by his van is on the phone, no doubt explaining why he will be late to his job. I’m convinced that most accidents on rt. 684 (and maybe most highways?) do not occur at speed, but from inattention during stop-and go intervals. I exit at rt. 35 and breathe a sigh of relief – ‘what was I worried about, anyway?’ True, I’ve experienced worse on the LIE, Chicago, and Atlanta, not to mention California. Yet, none of those drives has the repeated history of travel as does this route. Sometimes I feel like I’ve played the odds too long and a reckoning is nigh. However, now, in the stolid company of landscaper trucks fanning out to Pound Ridge and New Canaan – usually with no sense of hurry – I can relax and coast the rest of the way. A curious fact, I never see any people in their manicured, spacious grounds and large homes – just landscapers. My fantasy circuit kicks in and I wonder if the residents are being held hostage by their groundskeepers – or maybe the groundskeepers now live in the mansions, the elder rich people having passed away unnoticed? Probably, that’s just survivor endorphins talking – it won’t last: I have to think about the return drive.
I just read Wal’s piece about the feelings evoked as he retraced his car tracks along his former commuting route. The timing of this couldn’t be more perfect as I just finished three days of work in Rye, NY and, during commuting hours, covered many of the roads Wal referenced.
I left early for my appointment, feeling good about the amount of extra time I allotted for any delays that I might encounter during the predicted one hour and thirty-two minute drive. This was not normally the case when I was working full time and entering the daily commuter race with hopes and prayers and a belief that I deserved clear sailing and to be at work on time! This time I was relaxed, and was prepared to stay so throughout my ride. However, as soon as I entered the Taconic Parkway I soon realized that going 5 miles above the speed limit in the right lane would put me well behind the flow and would make me an obstacle for others to either swerve to avoid or tailgate in hopes I would go faster. Eckhart Tolle once told a story about his stay in Manhattan. He awoke and decided to go for a leisurely stroll down some of the many famous avenues. Much to his surprise, almost everyone was walking at a fast or frenzied clip and walking slowly became a chore rather than a soothing way to spend the morning. So, rather than quit or bemoan the fact that his plan wasn’t working, he simply picked up the pace and joined the wave of people traveling at a New York City tempo. And so did I. Rather than fixate on what I couldn’t do, I matched speed with the flow and continued. And while it admittedly raised the intensity of my attention as well as my concern to sustain the pace safely it was less stressful and I eventually arrived without incident.
This experience was not unique in my traveling during commuter hours as a senior citizen. A couple of years ago I was caught up in a similar scenario and I was surprised by the zigzagging and frenetic maneuvers of the cars around me. I commented to my daughter on the phone one evening about how bad this was and while I couldn’t see her gentle smile, she paused and reminded me of how I used to navigate the daily commute when I was a younger pup. Gulp! She was right. I was just like the people I was now criticizing. I had forgotten how easy it was to get caught up in “the rush” never making the time to see how I might have looked to a retired senior or someone who had mastered their inner calm. And while this reminder didn’t make the act of driving during rush hour any easier, it allowed me to better accept it.
Driving Me Crazy
I didn’t get my driver’s license til late. Growing up in the suburbs of NYC no one had his license before graduation and the public high schools didn’t offer Driver’s Ed or anything like that. I didn’t get my license til I student taught when I was 21. Now as a senior citizen I can’t help but think about the day when I have to surrender that license and my mobility and independence comes to an abrupt end.
5 years ago I had a scare. Rushed to Albany by ambulance and 2 stents placed in clogged arteries. I was out of the hospital the next day, sent home, scared to death and my confidence in normal everyday living shot to hell. But time passed, my life normalized thanks to the care of my daughter, but the confidence needed to drive anywhere longer than a ten minute trip to the grocery store didn’t return so easily. It was a year before I could even get up the nerve to drive to Albany for a checkup. But it happened and I slowly regained my confidence. Then, for two years just before Covid struck, I began running back and forth to Vermont every weekend- a two and a half hour trip to my antique store. It was an easy trip because there was no traffic if I left at the right time. Part of it was thruway driving and the rest a heavily traveled Rt 4. In addition to the concerns of an old man losing his mobility, there are other issues that enter the picture. I would break my journey down into laps. The first lap was from Ulster County to exit 24 on the NY State Thruway. Like Wally I would experience a dread, well more of an anxiety, about the journey ahead. I would leave at just the right moment to avoid the traffic jam at the end of lap 2- the stretch of outlet stores in Glens Falls just off exit 20 of the Northway. The logic behind the definition of the laps was each lap ended right near a public restroom. Another age related blow to one’s confidence. The final lap was relatively easy across the state border on Rt 4 into Vermont. In the last lap the speed was controlled and slower, the intensity of driving was diminished and the road was curvy and hilly so I had to be attentive but even so I was more relaxed. The first two laps I set my cruise control to assure my heavy foot didn’t over step the legal limit. I always felt a sigh of relief when the second lap was complete and I was no longer on a 4 or 6 lane highway traveling well over 70. The thruway is 2 lanes in each direction, full of tractor trailers and speeding sedans, and once you’re on the Northway those four lanes expand to 6, with lower speed limits and fewer people following them. I could just feel the tenseness in my shoulders release as I passed The Log Jam restaurant at the beginning of Rt 149. It was soothing from there on in to Vermont. Rolling hills and pasture lands, garage sales and mom and pop restaurants. As soon as I got to Vermont and shut the car off I took a breath, closed my eyes and reaffirmed to myself that I was capable of doing this. The return trip had to be later in the day to avoid the traffic at the outlet stores, the only place where backups and traffic jams occur. Timing was everything. But the anxiety of the trip still loomed ahead of me. God forbid there was snow. That would be enough to drive me crazy! Covid ended all that. I didn’t have to buy gas for weeks, and my oil changes became few and far between. Life has definitely changed! That anxiety I felt every time I began the Vermont sojourn I no longer experience. It will probably return as life becomes more and more normal again.