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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 02:39 pm

Tripping on the road

Getting ready to say goodbye to a routine

In a few weeks, I’ll be one of you — and I’m worried. Since the fall of 2003, when I took this job, I’ve been commuting between St. Louis and Springfield. It was supposed to be a temporary thing, this living in two places — weekdays in the Land of Lincoln, weekends in the Show-Me State — but for a variety of reasons, family reasons, it stretched out much longer than I expected. I’ve become well acquainted with Interstate 55, especially between I-270 and the Sixth Street exit. People who’ve made the trek — and many Springfieldians go to St. Louis regularly — complain about how dull the trip is, how there’s very little to see except cornfields, a pig farm or two, billboards, a couple of rest stops. It’s not that way for me. Sure, I’ve gotten so used to the trip, I know exactly where I am; it’s so familiar, I tell friends, that I catch up on sleep along the way. Driving north, at the point where my trip odometer hits 35, I’m passing St. Paul Lutheran Church; 10 miles later, there’s that classic-car place near Staunton; another five and it’s the Mount Olive exit and Mother Jones’ grave. Over time, I’ve noted the changes along the way — a giant man has joined the pink elephant at the antique mall near the Livington/New Douglas exit; Litchfield has a new Hampton Inn; they repaired the fire damage at Punky’s Palace, and a fire truck is parked nearby. A “For Sale” sign has been posted on the truck. The changes that stick with me most have very little to do with people. Those who think that that stretch of road is boring should drive when a summer thunderstorm builds in the west. The clouds swell like a mountain range — instead of snowcaps, they are limned in sunlight. Think the road is boring? Stop by one of picture-postcard-pretty pocket lakes next to the interstate. See the fall colors reflected on the water’s surface. Think the road is boring? See the stark beauty of the graveyard near Hamel on a bright winter day: The long tombstone shadows make you think, just for second, that the dead have assembled to watch the traffic pass. Some days I count the hawks perched on trees and fences and wonder whether they’re waiting to pick off roadkill or just absorb the heat from the road. One bloody Memorial Day a couple of years ago, I counted nearly a dozen deer carcasses. When I travel, there’s hardly any traffic — trucks, always, but everything moves at a healthy clip. I’ve made the trip slowly; I’ve driven it like a maniac. I’ve been tagged only once by a trooper — not bad for more than 30,000 miles of highway travel. It’s not unusual for people to travel long distances to work. Hundred-mile commutes are nothing new, especially in major metro areas — some people do it every day — and it’s certainly true for the capital city, where many state-government employees, politicians, and lobbyists are part-time residents at best. Heck, even the governor lives elsewhere. Of course, technology makes it possible for some people to do what they do from anywhere. That’s not true for, say, police officers or trash collectors or waitresses or nurses — people with real jobs. But people who work with information are just a network connection away. I’ve edited stories, made assignments, and conducted interviews from remote places through most of my career. Theoretically, it’s possible to edit a newspaper from afar; it’s difficult to do it well — just as it’s hard for a journalist to parachute into a new community and really understand what’s going on right away. It’s not impossible, but how do you really know a place if you haven’t shopped in the grocery stores, voted in a local election, checked out a book at the local library, or ever had to find a doctor in the middle of the night? So the house in St. Louis is sold and I’ll be, within a few weeks, an official resident of the state of my birth. My wife and kids, too. And that’s cool. Still, I’m worried. What will it be like not to begin and end my weeks with a road trip? What will it be like not having those three hours a week completely to myself? What will I miss?
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