From the June 2, 2007, Washington Post:
Driven to Extremes
For their commutes of up to four hours a day, the Hierses of West Virginia and Marc Turner of Charlottesville enjoy cheaper housing and better pay. But at what price?
By Michael Leahy
Sunday, June 3, 2007; W18
AT 7:25, ABOUT 15 MINUTES INTO HIS TWO-HOUR-PLUS WEEKNIGHT COMMUTE, Marc Turner reached for his ringing cellphone. On the other end of the line, the younger of his two daughters, 7-year-old Catherine, had a question.
“I’ll be home soon, Cate,” he answered. “What?” His daughter wanted a more precise pledge. “Yes, I’m coming home, Cate, but traffic is horrible. I think it’s probably going to be longer than two hours. Yes, you can tell Mom that: longer. Two hours, I hope, but I don’t know exactly. Are you helping make dinner, Cate? Are you going to help set the table, then, or do something else? Good. Yes, longer than two hours, Cate. Help everybody while you’re waiting. Yes, longer, probably.” By the third time he answered the question, he wondered whether Cate was doing his wife’s bidding. “Yes, you can tell Mom. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
Turner, a 43-year-old paralegal, had just left for home from his job in bustling Tysons Corner, about 100 miles northeast from his Charlottesville residence, where he lives with his wife, Julie, and their three children. At 7:28, after crawling on the Beltway for a while, his gray 1999 Saab sedan pulled onto Interstate 66 West. Turner groaned. Traffic crept along at 5 mph. “Doesn’t look good,” he said. “Could be really long tonight. The fortunate thing is I’m not really tired yet.” Tuesday generally presented a much less draining commute for Turner than, say, a Thursday night, when he was usually worn down by the first three days of the workweek — three round-trip commutes that consumed four to five hours daily.
By Thursday nights, running on fumes, he routinely avoided the evening commute entirely and stayed at a discount hotel near Tysons Corner to rest and recover. He usually had a drink on the concierge’s floor, sometimes watched a film in his room, got an early night’s sleep and readied himself for a normally busy Friday morning. Two years ago, when he took the job in Tysons Corner, he had secured his wife’s blessing for Thursday night stay-overs, assuring her that he would have more to give to her and the children on weekends if he came home on Fridays refreshed. The rest of his workweek, Turner pointed out, offered almost no respite. Even on uneventful commuting nights, he seldom walked through the front door of his house until long after the kids had eaten and fallen asleep. As often as not, Julie was getting ready for bed herself, having only enough time to say hi and ask her husband hurried questions about household matters, such as what he had spent that day so that she could balance their checkbook. And then she was asleep, and he alone again.
That isolation had come to define his existence. Turner’s solitariness mirrored the lives of countless other commuters who have spent large portions of their working lives alone in cars — alone with their dreams and anxieties, alone with worries about whether they will make it to their jobs or to the next appointment on time, alone pondering the complaints of alienated family members pointing out that they are not around often enough, alone with their own festering resentments over why the people closest to them can’t better understand their mounting fatigue and stress. Doctors report a booming business in treating the neck and back pain of tense commuters. Studies have indicated a correlation between long, congested commutes and such stress-related maladies as high blood pressure. Other research has concluded that long commutes result in increased social isolation and greater dissatisfaction with jobs and life in general. Gridlock is the least of the problems.
As he headed toward home that evening, Turner estimated that more than 20 percent of his waking hours were spent commuting. Often during his rides, he saw many of the same vehicles — a Honda sedan with a personalized license plate here, a white business van there, an elegant black Bentley whose impassive driver sat ramrod straight. He regarded the strangers behind the steering wheels as comrades of sorts, all of them often caught in a hellish crawl.
The Tysons Corner drive paled in awfulness to the often three-hour-plus commutes Turner had endured years earlier, while working in downtown Washington. In those days, his wife had regularly asked him not when but if he would be coming home; the job and commute had forced him into hotels two or three nights a week. Turner left the Washington job and took a moderately lower-paying position in Charlottesville to be closer to his family. But the work there, a brief detour from law firm work, quickly made him miserable. Soon, he was searching again for a new job closer to the city. In 2005, he accepted his paralegal position in Tysons, where his salary dwarfed what was available at any paralegal job he had then heard about in the Charlottesville area. He told Julie that his schedule could be worse, reminding her of his many nights in Washington hotels.
But by last year, this point was no longer consolation for Julie, who thought that Turner’s Tysons Corner commute had become symptomatic of a vast separation that she felt in their marriage. She was lonely, she told him. A 41-year-old associate professor at the University of Virginia Medical School, she had an intense schedule herself and very little energy and patience left over for a husband who had virtually no time for her on weeknights; she was generally managing their children’s needs alone. The problems in their marriage, she told him, were “multi-factorial,” which meant, among other things, that his work life was out of balance with his personal life. His commute had become, as she put it, “a chief separation issue.”
During the fall and winter, she broached the possibility of divorce. He thought about it, too. But, ultimately, he wanted to save his marriage and keep his family together. So he had hatched a plan to do just that.
“Traffic is particularly bad tonight,” Turner said on I-66, as he rode the brakes at 5 mph in the middle lane, alongside the City of Fairfax and the junction with Highway 50. “It usually starts opening up a little past here, but not tonight, for some reason.”
A black SUV cut him off, swerving from left to right, its driver waving over his shoulder as if in apology or thanks. “You don’t change lanes like that,” Turner groused at the SUV driver. “What are you doing?”
Traffic stopped altogether. He took a deep breath and leaned back a bit on his heated leather seat, which felt good on a cool night like this one. The car also had satellite radio, a present a long while back from his family, who thought his commute could be more tolerable if he could listen commercial-free to any of 100-plus stations. But he usually kept the radio low nowadays. Aside from the classical music station, it was little more than Muzak for him. Even the appeal of Thursday night stay-overs had faded. “You get to feeling lonely,” he said. “It’s nice to feel a little pampered, but it gets to be no fun alone. You want somebody to share it with.”
At 7:40 p.m., Turner was finally beyond Fairfax, moving at 10 mph on I-66. “Going to be a bad one, I’m afraid,” he said. He looked to his side at a movie theater and rows of condos. “People sometimes ask us why we don’t live somewhere in Northern Virginia or at least closer to it,” he said. “First, my wife has a terrific position at U-Va., and the reality is she wants to be close to the university. And Charlottesville is an awesome place; it has a small-town feel even though it’s a university town. No, we’re not leaving Charlottesville.” He watched as a pickup truck cut in and then slammed on his brakes, forcing Turner to hit his own brakes. He was a mutterer, not a screamer: “What are you doing?” He sighed and snorted.
He moved at 5 mph through Manassas at 7:53 p.m.
“Mother of God, why aren’t these people going faster?”
At 8:10, he passed the next town down, Gainesville, doing 10 mph.
“We could get out and run,” he said.
Usually, he would get off I-66 and onto Highway 15 near Haymarket. But there was about a two-mile backup trying to get from 66 onto 15. He shook his head. “I’m going to go past this and find another route,” he said. “I have no idea what’s going on tonight. There’s no accident. Just volume. Just bad luck.”
He kept going west on 66 for another 15 minutes, getting onto Highway 245 South. In a couple more minutes, he was on Highway 17, a thoroughfare on which he could do 60 mph around the town of Warrenton. He crossed from Highway 17 onto Highway 29 South at 8:37, doing 65 mph now, flirting with 68, 69, pushing it, passing through Culpeper at 8:58.
At 9:09 — one minute short of two hours into his commute — he was 38 miles from Charlottesville — “with clear road, thank God,” he said.
He unknotted his gold tie and pushed his tan tweed jacket a bit off his shoulders. He slowed to 60 through Madison County (“A lot of speed traps around here”), before picking it up in Green County, about 20 miles from home, at 9:27 p.m. He turned up the radio a notch to listen to Herbie Hancock.
“I think Cate’s probably talked to Julie,” he said, his tone hopeful. “I think Julie knows I’m going to be late.”
Mentioning Cate had Turner thinking about her and his other children, Will, 13, and Claire, 11. “My hours and [the commute] have been tough on them in different ways,” he said. “There are the injustice calls that come sometimes: Like, so-and-so is not doing her homework or setting the table. And I’m 75 or 100 miles away in the car, and there is nothing I can do about it. That’s hard. It’s even harder on Julie to have to handle that on her own.”
He turned Hancock louder and then settled back, quiet for most of the next half-hour. He raced along a black concrete ribbon, staring now and then into a pair of passing headlights, finally pulling into his Charlottesville driveway at 9:52 p.m., a drive of two hours, 42 minutes.
Inside, Julie was waiting for him. Julie Turner has known her husband for 27 years, since she was in seventh grade and he in 10th grade in Columbia City, Ind., where they started dating when she was a high school sophomore. They have been married for 16 years, and, in addition to their sleeping children, they have a black Labrador retriever, Saxon, who was bounding around Marc as he plopped onto their living room couch and wearily leaned his head back.
“It took a while longer tonight,” he said sideways to his wife, shrugging. “I said I hadn’t been getting home until nine o’clock.”
“You’ve almost never been home before 10,” she said, taking a seat alongside him. “You usually haven’t gotten home until 11. I’ve had grown-up parties, and you wouldn’t walk in until we were cleaning up at 10.”
“But I wanted to be there. It was just –”
“Past 10,” she sliced in. She explained her frustrations: “I know we have unusual lives. And we thought, mistakenly, that this, the way we were living, the commute, everything, would work. It hasn’t . . . The commute was not the original cancer, but the commute became a big part of it . . . It’s been part of a hole in our relationship.”
Marc leaned back and chuckled. “How are we still married?”
Julie looked him over. She managed a smile. “I’ve been asking myself the same thing over the last year.”
WHY DO THEY DO IT?
No sure cure exists for commuters’ burdens, other than to give up their lengthy drives — and few of the afflicted feel able to do that, either because they can’t afford comparable housing closer to their jobs or because they want to live far from urban sprawl. The result is that average commute times, and the numbers of long-distance commuters, keep growing in America. According to Census statistics, about 10 percent of commuting Americans are traveling 60 minutes or more, averaging 82 minutes a trip. Marc Turner is part of an ever-expanding group dubbed by the Census Bureau as “extreme commuters,” American workers whose average one-way commute to their jobs is 90 minutes or more, statistics say, and whose ranks roughly doubled between 1990 and 2000 to more than 3 million, or a little more than 3 percent of all commuters. And Turner had an additional burden on weekday mornings: He was driving toward the Washington metro area, which itself has the second-longest commuting times in the country, behind only New York.
Most extreme commuters live south or west of the Metro area, where many have realized their dreams of more space and affordable housing. That’s also where to find the Washington area’s most horrendous gridlock, which sometimes stretches clear to West Virginia, an increasingly popular commuter starting point. In no other state have commute times soared as significantly, according to the Census statistics. The average one-way commute that began in West Virginia steadily climbed from 21 to 26 minutes between 1990 and 2000, about a 25 percent increase, which sounds more modest than it is, given the number of locals who still have brief rides.
“From the day people move out beyond the [Washington metro] suburbs to a place like West Virginia, their commute is going to increase a few minutes every year, because that area is one of the highest growth areas in the country,” said Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant and author of Commuting in America III, published by the Transportation Research Board of the Academy of Sciences.
There is a measure of social inevitability to the long treks. “A lot of people like to move away from crowded areas,” Pisarski said. “They associate the move with success . . . And cellphones are slightly ameliorating factors; people can at least get some business done and stay in touch with their family . . . They see themselves as net winners, especially financially.”
But a 2005 Canadian study contends that real estate savings for long-distance commuters are lost over the long term because of added gas and car repair expenses. Besides, the monetary costs of commuting may be the least of it. A 2004 New England Journal of Medicine study found that nearly one out of every 12 heart attacks is linked to being stuck in traffic, and that you nearly triple your risk of having an attack when you get in a car. Other studies have revealed that commuters have greater rates of worker absenteeism and more incidents of abusive behavior in the workplace, damaging companies’ productivity. “Fewer social connections mean that [commuters] also experience a lowering of stress buffers, and that can lead to more illnesses and [other personal] problems,” says Harvard University researcher Thomas Sander.
But no study has yet been able to measure precisely the toll that grinding commutes have taken on intimate relationships, particularly marriages and families. After all, it is difficult for any study to get into the heads of subjects whose woes are so privately felt, in a metal cocoon. As Marc Turner notes, “I guess people would wonder, how do we all cope with this alone?”
DARREN HIERS AWOKE IN THE DARK, AS ALWAYS. It was 5:30 a.m., and he hit the snooze button on his alarm clock, not at all ready to get up. From the other side of the bed, his wife, Vicki, nudged him, just to be sure he wouldn’t fall back asleep; he had his 60-mile commute to Sterling ahead, and a delay might make him late. Sleepy and cold, he snuggled all of his 5-foot-11, 290-pound frame against Vicki in search of body heat. She mumbled drowsily at him to move away; he was too hot, and, besides, she wanted a little more sleep before rushing to make her own long drive to a job. She is not a morning person, and he knew better than to press her at this hour. He quietly rose, showered, dressed, had his standard three ounces of an exotic Tahitian fruit juice called noni, and hurried out the door. The sky was black. It was drizzling, with the temperature in the low 40s. He yawned, kind of wishing that he hadn’t stayed up so late watching “Sopranos” reruns. He got into his small gray 1996 Ford Probe, turned on his headlights, reached for his stick shift and backed out of his driveway at 6:21 a.m.
“I’m still half-asleep,” he said.
It was Monday, which is Hiers’s least favorite day of the week. A Monday is always upon him too quickly after a weekend spent recovering from the grind of the previous workweek and the drive that he has been making for four years now. Today, he thought he might be looking at a 1 1/2-hour commute to his job at an auto parts distributorship. Sometimes, when weather got bad, particularly in winter, he had to allow three hours.
He glanced over his shoulder at the object of his greatest pride, a 2,200-square-foot, three-bedroom house with a big back yard, which the 35-year-old bought about 7 1/2 years ago. It sits on an ample one-third of an acre in Bunker Hill, W.Va., about nine miles west of the gambling haven of Charles Town, just another community in the state’s eastern panhandle, where development has boomed as refugees from the Washington suburbs flock here to buy affordable homes.
In 1999, just months after marrying, the Hierses arrived at this new housing development called Timberwood Village and bought their home for $125,000. Vicki had recently moved from Damascus, where both Hierses had grown up but where a comparable home would have cost more than $300,000, they said. They could live in West Virginia while keeping their higher-paying jobs in the Washington area. Timberwood Village and Bunker Hill looked like the summit of their dreams. “I’m so thankful for everything we got here,” Hiers said, his voice early morning husky. He coughed and cleared his throat. “The drives can get tiring . . . But you got trade-offs in life, right? The commute is part of the trade-off.”
But some trade-offs are hard to bear. Hiers sometimes despairs over the toll that the commute has taken on his love life with his wife, especially since they want to have a child over the next two years. “It’s hard to think about doing it in the house,” Hiers said. “Because, I guess, that’s where we’re always getting ready for things, you know, the place where we sleep and get ready for work and have to do things. It’s hard there now. It’s the house. Get chores done there, get ready, bed . We’re tired a lot. After you rush home there, and you get things done, it’s hard to say, ‘Let’s make a kid.’ It needs to be a change of scenery most of the time, and that way Vicki would feel more romantic and receptive.”
He turned on his windshield wipers, and the Probe rolled through Timberwood Village. Hiers wasn’t alone. Neighbors backed out of their driveways to begin their own commutes. He knew a guy down the street who left for the Washington area at 4:30 a.m. Just the thought of the man rising at such an unfathomable hour cheered him. “I don’t have it so bad compared to some people,” he said.
At the exit of Timberwood Village, he made a left through fog onto West Virginia’s Highway 51, a skinny, undulating, two-lane thoroughfare on which traffic was thin. The rain began falling a little harder. He sliced through the dark doing 50, cruising past the Bunker Hill Used Cars and Trucks lot and a convenience store and then out into idyllic open country, thumping over a little bridge above Opequon Creek, past miles of cornfields, cow pastures and soybean patches bordered by quaint stone walls. “Not many other places anywhere where it’s so peaceful,” Hiers muttered, opening the window to smell the air.
At moments like this, he loved what he had. Even the names around these parts charmed him. Now he was passing Shadow-hawk Lane and No Name Lane.
He made a right on Leetown Road — one of his shortcuts — and was again out in the country, motoring past an apple orchard, where a herd of deer gathered in dark mist. He glanced at a man climbing aboard a tractor.
He looked at the time: 6:42 a.m. He relaxed a bit. “The important thing is to get off to a good start on the drive,” he said. “The drive wears on you, especially if you think you might be late . . . I woke up late last week, and my boss is a nice person and tolerant, but that was still tense for me. And there’s nothing you can do, of course, if there is an accident or extra traffic, nothing at all. So you try to get in a little earlier, just so you aren’t late.”
Daylight started to break as he crossed into Virginia. Traffic thickened as he got onto Highway 7 East. A pickup truck jutted in ahead of him, just a few inches from his left bumper. His hands lightly touched the bottom of the steering wheel, his shoulders relaxed; he was a portrait of ease. A Lexus weaved back and forth from the other lane, as if trying to decide whether to cut Hiers off, too. “Come on, move in,” Hiers said to the Lexus.
The rain had stopped; the Probe crossed over the Shenandoah River, and Hiers pointed on a diagonal toward the horizon and the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Look at that. What a beautiful sunrise starting to come up,” he said. “There’s something about seeing the sun on the other side of the mountains; you don’t get that closer in.”
He braced for a crawl ahead. But in the next couple of minutes, something miraculous happened: Traffic stayed thin. At 7, he was still doing 60, headed into Loudoun County. “We’ll be coming up to [the junction] with Highway 9 pretty soon around Clarks Gap, and it’s definitely going to slow in there,” he said. In fact, it often stops. Making matters worse during much of the year, the glare from a slowly rising sun is blinding. “It just takes an instant — you have an accident,” Hiers said. “Then there’s a horrible backup.”
But today his luck held. A delighted Hiers turned off Highway 7 onto Highway 15 to Leesburg. He grabbed his cellphone and called his wife to let her know his good fortune: “How you doing? I’m great. It’s easy today. I stopped for a beer. Having such a good time. I’m just gonna blow off the morning for a while and go to the Gentlemen’s Club.” She responded, and he laughed. He made a turn onto Evergreen Mill Road in Leesburg. “Okay, love you. Bye.”
He took a quick look at himself in his rearview mirror, running his hand through his brown hair and along his thin brown mustache and goatee. He turned on the radio. A traffic reporter noted the relatively light traffic on most of the Washington area’s interstates and highways. It was 7:29. He made a two-minute stop at a drive-through to get a coffee. Then, like an Indy race car driver coming out of the pits, Hiers was speeding down the road again. By 7:40, he had turned onto Highway 607 North, better known as Ryan Road. The sun was out. “This is gonna be a beautiful day,” he said. “This is ridiculous. Look at how fast we’re going.”
He pulled into his company’s parking lot at 7:52 a.m., a mere hour and 29 minutes, subtracting the time lost for his coffee run. “I must have had a rabbit’s foot with me this morning,” he marveled.
He could stand having a bit more luck, he added. Car repairs take a bite sometimes. Hiers does much of the repair and maintenance work on both the Probe and Vicki’s 1999 Honda Accord — everything from tuneups to replacing worn axles — saving about $1,000 a year, he figures. But he can’t save on everything; the couple still spends an average of $400 to $500 a month on gas and maintenance for the two cars, and Hiers doesn’t have the time or the right tools, he says, to do the most costly repairs. He hopes that Vicki, whose Accord has 202,000 miles on it, will be driving her car well beyond 300,000 miles. They bought it used a few years ago, and Vicki puts about 35,000 miles on it a year. “You think about maintenance and repairs too much, and that can depress you a little,” he said.
But for now his mood was sunny.
Ten hours later, off work and on his way home a little after 6 o’clock, he came to an inexplicable halt. He sighed and craned his neck outside the window. “What’s going on?” he muttered. He employs various strategies to stay calm. Sometimes he grabs his cellphone to pay bills, having memorized his account numbers and outstanding balances with a slew of companies. Often he calls old friends, amazed just how much time a man can burn that way.
Other times he occupies himself for long road stretches by listening to the music he has stored in his cellphone — a big catalogue of tunes that include Journey’s “Open Arms” and “Send Her My Love,” Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at 40” and Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory.” He has nearly all his other favorite performers on the cellphone — Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Toby Keith, Johnny Cash, Coldplay, U2 and a Christian rock group called Casting Crowns. But he is temporarily burnt out on the songs. There is only so much Journey and Toby Keith a guy can take. He’s also had enough of sports talk radio. Sometimes nothing can entertain him, which is usually when he starts thinking. He thinks about his life and what he wants down the line, which certainly doesn’t include a commute from West Virginia.
He has a hope for escape: noni.
Noni is the Tahitian fruit juice he drinks each morning and evening (“Unique taste, kind of a little like grape and blueberry”). Not many Americans know about noni juice, he said, but he hopes that will soon change, because he is selling noni out of his home as a side job — “kind of a distributor’s deal.” The drink, which costs about 40 bucks a liter, is being promoted as a health supplement loaded with antioxidants. “If I have my way, someday I’m going to be working out of my home with noni,” Hiers said. “Right now, I’m just getting $70 checks here and there. I’m hoping the business will grow. If I could make 80 to 90 thousand dollars a year at it — which is about what Vicki and I make together right now — then Vicki could quit, and I could quit or work part time in our home. That’d be the end of being on the road, maybe. It would be good, especially when we have kids.”
Sometimes, looking for guidance, he quietly prays. Heirs is a devout man who has benefited, he said, from the peace and inspiration that come from praying and medi-tating in his car. But now the traffic jam had broken. He roared down Highway 7 doing 68 mph. His mood rose with his speed. “This weather is so beautiful that I think a lot of people are going to come down tomorrow with anal glaucoma,” he said.
“It means, ‘Maybe I can’t see my butt coming into work tomorrow.'” He laughed. The Probe was the only car for 100 yards on Highway 7. “We’re making incredible time,” Hiers said. “This is like a record.”
By 7:10 p.m., Hiers was on Summit Point Road, inhaling the fertilizer and all the country smells, almost home. “Fantastic,” he said, parking in front of his house, one hour and 25 minutes after leaving work. He looked up to see his wife standing on their front steps. Their sheltie mix, Autumn, was barking inside. Darren grinned. Vicki shrugged, stifling a yawn, then smiled. Her own commute from Gaithersburg, where she works as an administrative assistant at an insurance company, hadn’t been so easy, lasting close to an hour and 45 minutes. But she was looking forward to spending some time with her husband over a leisurely meal. “‘Making some dinner for us,” she said.
He nodded. “Great.”
There was just something he needed to do first.
RIDING THROUGH THE DARKENED COUNTRYSIDE EARLY THE FOLLOWING DAY, Darren Hiers was quiet for a while along Leetown Road — past the cornfields, past the soybean fields, past the herd of deer in that apple orchard. He said it casually enough then: “Vicki got mad at me for working on my bike and not eating with her.”
Vicki had made a hamburger casserole. Dinner was ready by 8 p.m., but Darren had wanted some downtime to relax before eating. He usually felt that way after work. Out in the garage, he enjoyed the solitude and the sight of his bike getting shinier. He took an hour to polish the chrome and then climbed on the bike and took it out on a short ride around the neighborhood.
By 8:30 p.m., Vicki had begun eating alone, getting angrier. She finished a portion of her casserole, cleaned her dishes, fed the dog and left Darren his dinner.
Darren felt bad about it now: “She was really bent. I’m sitting here just wishing it hadn’t happened. I don’t like to see her upset.”
A man has a lot of time to think about a wife’s anger during a long commute, he observed. “You have all the way in to work to let it get into your head. And then if you’ve also been caught in a traffic jam, you’re maybe fit to be tied by the time you get to work in the morning or you get home at night. You get the most depressing, down thoughts.”
If a person is too distracted by his problems during a commute, then a car is just about the worst place in the world for him to be, Hiers added. “You start dwelling on the negative — something Vicki said, or bills you gotta pay, or worrying about money, or sometimes something that happened at work. The dwelling kind of thoughts bring me down. And sometimes I’ve taken it out on Vicki after being in the car for an hour and a half, or an hour and 45. Or sometimes Vicki says something, and I snap and get angry.”
Looking for help in how to cope with the stresses that sometimes build during his rides, he has turned to a pastor at the Methodist church that he and Vicki attend. “The pastor said that when you get to dwelling on negative thoughts that that’s the devil’s way of working his way into you, that the devil will do anything to create a wedge between you and God,” Hiers explained.
He stared into the oncoming lights of a wide farm vehicle, a manure transporter, which had crept a bit into his lane. Gently, he maneuvered the Probe onto the shoulder of the two-lane highway. “I really like the pastor because she gives you practical advice. She says, ‘You have to retrain your thoughts in those situations.’ She says that you have to tell the devil to get out of your thoughts. She says it helps to tell the devil to get out of the car, even if you have to pull over to the side of the road, stop and say: ‘Devil, get out of my car. God, help me get the devil out of the car.’ I haven’t pulled over yet. But I’ve said aloud in the car: ‘God, help me get my thoughts straight. Help me get through this. Help me to not make the wrong decisions.’ And you learn to try to think about positive things, like, say, going on a camping trip with Vicki in the mountains, which we both love. It all helps in a lot of different situations. If I’m angry over a road being blocked or an accident, I can think of those thoughts coming from the devil. And then I’ll pray.”
If there is any advantage to a long commute, he thinks, it’s that he can pray for long stretches without interruption. “You need time to do it right and get the most out of it. I guess it’s kind of like meditation.” Peace and even the occasional epiphany come to him in the car. He is free there, like nowhere else in his life. When tears have filled his eyes a couple of times, no one else saw them. “I’ll ask for guidance about things; I’ll ask for strength and calm to get through things; I’ll ask for forgiveness for things,” he said, maneuvering off the country roads on to Highway 7 East. “But you can’t ask for forgiveness all the time. You have to learn from it.”
A white van with a ladder on its top swung in front of him, and Hiers hit the brakes hard. “The commute’s getting longer every year. Vicki and I were thinking it’s like five minutes longer every year. It’s 20 to 30 minutes longer nowadays than when we got here, years ago.”
But even with a brief slowdown to 15 mph through Clarks Gap, the ride was relatively quick along Highway 7 for a second straight day. Soon he was off Highway 7, moving at a steady 50 mph on Highway 15, and, in another half-hour, pulling into his company’s parking lot at 7:51, a drive of only an hour and 27 minutes. “Easy week so far,” he said, delighted.
It was just as easy driving home for him that night. He heard frogs along one stretch of road. “I’m feeling pretty good right now, pretty energetic,” he said. “I had my noni juice this morning. Picked up my energy, I think. Gosh, I hope this noni business works out. It’d be so great to be around here all the time.”
Vicki was tidying up the side of the yard as Darren pulled up to the house. “She looks happy; that’s good,” he said.
He loved walking into his house, seeing all they had built and acquired. Above the fireplace rested one of his prize possessions, a classic-style rifle handmade by his father. “It’s something like Daniel Boone would have had,” he said. “I’m a hunter, but I also like thinking about the way people in history have made their lives out in the country and frontier. That’s a great thing about America — going out into new places.”
Vicki fought a yawn. Her evening commute had lasted about an hour and a half. The couple quickly got ready to eat dinner together at a local Italian place.
At the restaurant, Darren draped an arm around his wife. Vicki, 35, has short brown hair and blue eyes that sometimes fall into a squint when she is tired, like now. She stifled another yawn and said that she felt a bit stiff, mostly around her shoulders and neck, a consequence of the commute. On nights when the stiffness is at its worst, Darren will rub a pain-relieving cream called Icy Hot into Vicki’s shoulders.
She smiled at her husband, no longer upset over what had happened the night before. “We eat too many dinners alone as it is because it gets late, and each of us wants to get some things done,” she said. “That’s just our life when we’re working. We get home late, and then do a few things, and it’s even later. It feels like the whole night is almost gone by the time you make dinner, eat, clean up and get ready for what you need the next day. Another hour, and it feels like it’s already time for bed. So I really need time with him.”
Darren lifted a finger. “It becomes an issue for her. For me, I have a lot of people around me; I have people around me all day, and I like a little time to myself, especially after the ride home.”
Vicki poked him. “Sometimes I start driving home, and my mood is so good, and then I get close, and I realize it’s getting late. And I think of the reality of laundry or cooking, and it can get messed up.” She and Darren do household chores together, cleaning and vacuuming, but there is little time left over on those evenings to do much else. And by Sunday evening, they must begin preparing for their early Monday start. “If we had more time, we could spend quality time together,” Vicki added. “We could take walks. People who work close by in Charles Town get home early, eat dinner together, take walks, play with their children. I want that at some point for us. If selling noni takes off for Darren, then it’s bye-bye for me at my [job].”
A couple of weekends before, they had toured some nearby wineries in Virginia and drunk a little. Late in the day, Vicki had told him she was in the mood for romance: “If you want to make a baby, this is the night. I’m feeling great.” But by the time they got home, Vicki was tired, and both had begun thinking of the week ahead.
“You need to get a few hours away,” Darren said. “The Eastern Shore [in Maryland] is good . . . Get as far away as you can, and not have any thoughts about work or commuting or anything.”
They looked at each other. “It’s a trade-off,” Darren said. “We couldn’t have all we have here if we lived somewhere else.”
“We couldn’t get this size of a home if we lived closer in,” Vicki said.
“But some people have what we have and don’t really have to go anywhere too often,” Darren said. “We have some friends from around here who don’t leave West Virginia much at all. She’s a schoolteacher, and he telecommutes, works right out of their home most of the time.”
“That’s the dream,” Vicki murmured. “Working at home. Doing noni.”
WHEN VICKI HIERS CLIMBS INTO HER ACCORD AND SETS OUT ON THE ROAD, she holds her hands on the steering wheel at positions taught in old driver’s training courses — at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock — her shoulders hunched, tensed. A couple of years ago, about 20 minutes into her commute on a stretch of lightly traveled road, her accelerator stuck on a slight decline on Highway 340 North, and she couldn’t brake. The Accord raced along at about 80 mph in the right-hand lane. She was terrified, but she happened to be on her cellphone with Darren.
“It won’t slow down,” she remembered telling him, trying her best to stay calm.
“Put the car in neutral,” he said quickly. “Now turn it off.”
The car eventually coasted to a stop on the road’s shoulder.
She seldom improvises during her 58-mile commute to Gaithersburg or back home, never taking shortcuts on country roads, feeling safer on standard thoroughfares and highways. In the mornings, she cruises on Highway 51 through Charles Town and then merges onto Highway 340 North, which crosses the Potomac River into Maryland, where she’ll take Interstate 270 to Gaithersburg.
Not long into her drive in either direction, Vicki’s shoulders hunched a little more, her eyes squinting into an often fierce glare. Now and then, she swung her neck slightly, trying to loosen it. Like Darren, she sometimes prays and meditates during her drives. “I’ll talk to myself about something that has happened that I don’t like, so I can get it out before it blows up at home,” she said. “You can think and talk about anything when you’re all alone. It’s not always bad, if you learn how to use the time.” Occasionally, she listens to her books on tape, everything from Nicholas Sparks romance novels to books with religious themes authored by well-known ministers.
But by her Thursday evening drive home, she struggled to stay awake, her eyes blinking hard, her shoulders more hunched than ever. “When it gets bad like this on the road, I look for ways to explain it,” she said. “You can’t get angry about it; that only makes things worse. I tell myself that maybe all the cars are there for a reason, that maybe there is an accident up the road and that this is my guardian angel’s way of protecting me and other people. You try a lot of things.”
Traffic kept limping along. “I’m wiped out,” she said.
She pulled into her driveway after an hour-and-59-minute ride.
Over the next hour, she shared a pizza with Darren. He persuaded her to watch a little television with him in the basement room they’ve proudly redone together, its walls painted a crisp blue with white trim to complement fresh carpeting. They’ve decorated the den in a nautical motif, with little lighthouses, ships in bottles, a colorful plastic parrot.
Autumn scampered downstairs to join them. Darren grabbed the TV remote and flicked on The Learning Channel to watch one of his favorite Thursday night shows, “American Chopper,” a reality series that follows a family and their motorcycle shop. The star of the show is the patriarch of the family, Paul Teutul Sr., whom Darren appreciates as much for his short temper as his love of choppers. On the screen, Teutul was saying to a family member about another relative: “If he lies to me, I’m gonna split his head.”
Lying on the couch, Darren howled. He was feeling good. He had drunk some noni and thought he was experiencing a burst of energy. “What they’re doing in this episode,” he explained, “is building a tribute bike to the space program, to NASA. The wheels are going to have a kind of spinning space shuttle look.”
“That’s wild,” Vicki said. Now and then, Vicki’s eyes blinked hard, closed, reopened.
Darren gestured at the TV screen. “Vicki told me she’d divorce me if I got one of those dirt bikes that Paul has,” he said, chuckling.
Vicki lifted her head from the recliner and smiled sleepily. “I did not.” Her head fell back.
When “American Chopper” ended, Darren muttered, “That was a good show.”
Vicki’s eyelids were beating hard.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Darren announced. In his mind, the night was still young.
EARLY ON FRIDAY MORNING, DARREN FILLED UP THE PROBE’S GAS TANK FOR $32 and then shot down the road. “Last night, I was feeling pretty romantic after we watched TV, but Vicki wasn’t,” he said. “I’d had my noni juice; guess I had extra energy. Vicki was too tired; she was just so beat. We’re really wanting children, but she’s worn out by all this.”
It was raining. Traffic moved slowly, especially around Clarks Gap. The ride to Sterling took an hour and 45 minutes. He found himself wearing down and, by afternoon, in the middle of work, had almost fallen asleep a couple of times, his slumping head jerking him awake.
The trip home was worse. Snow fell, and, not far from Sterling, the police had erected detour signs for some roads. Darren found himself on Highway 50 West, a road he seldom has to take. In a bottleneck, the Probe stalled. Darren muttered under his breath: “What’s going on?” The car started back up, but his frustration was building. It took an hour and 33 minutes just to reach the West Virginia line.
He arrived home two hours after leaving Sterling. Vicki’s evening commute had been even worse: two hours and 30 minutes. As snow continued falling, Darren cooked some bratwurst on their backyard grill, and Vicki made tater tots and green beans. They sat at their kitchen table to eat. “Bridget Jones’s Diary” was playing on a television.
“Big Friday night,” Darren joked.
“I’m so tired,” said Vicki. “I got some adrenaline during the ride home, but now I’m even worse.” Darren patted her arm. Vicki managed to smile. Then she yawned.
“I’m feeling it, too,” he said, shrugging. “This is what we do. Eat. Clean up. Vegetate in front of a TV for a while. Brush our teeth. Climb into bed.” Darren laughed. “If we lived off the land somewhere and had nights like we do when we’re camping, we’d probably have a lot of children by now.”
Vicki let herself imagine this, closing her eyes.
MARC TURNER’S SAAB HURTLED ALONG HIGHWAY 29 AT 65, 70 MPH. Bob Marley was singing “Jamming” on satellite radio. The sun was out. Turner felt good about the ride and his day ahead. Nearing Gainesville at 9:17 a.m., he appeared to be a few minutes ahead of schedule, only to encounter an unexpected problem. “Oh, look at that,” he groaned. The line from Highway 29 to get on to I-66 was three miles long, he estimated.
At 10:03, he was still three miles from his office, sitting in a jam at Lee Highway and Passport Road. He bailed out again, making a left on to Prosperity Avenue. At 10:12, he was pulling into his office parking lot, a commute of two hours and 37 minutes. But on this day, time had lost its ability to harass or unnerve him.
It would be his final morning commute to Tysons Corner. For the last couple of months, as tensions peaked with his wife, he had been searching for a way to extricate himself from this drive. Over the years, he had casually spoken to a respected Charlottesville law firm about employment chances, though discussions never turned serious. But two weeks earlier, he had inquired again. Within 24 hours, he eagerly accepted a salary offer that was a little less than what he was making in Tysons Corner, even when factoring in gas and car maintenance savings. Neither of the Turners cared about the salary difference. In celebration, a giddy Julie bought them a bottle of champagne. But, simultaneously, she saw a new set of challenges. “We have to learn how to be married again,” she said. “We’ll suddenly have all this time. There’ll be expectations, like: Are you going to pick up the kids, or am I? But it has to be better than what we’ve had.”
Meanwhile, Marc had told his longtime bosses that he would be leaving a job that he loved in favor of working close to home. This was his last day there. In the parking lot, he shrugged. The commute had beaten him, he said. It had jeopardized his marriage and everything else he most cared about. Now, he would drive a new road.
Michael Leahy is a staff writer for the Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.
MY OTHER WEB SITES:
SIGN THE GUESTBOOK / SEND A MESSAGE TO GEORGE BUSH:
IRAQ WAR STATISTICS:
SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL OR RSS:
Like my blog? Want to get automatic updates? Grab the RSS feed or enter your email address at the top right of my blog. It’s free and you can cancel at any time. Enjoy!