Commuter, converted

How bus, bike, walk became a formula for enjoyment when the car went into the shop.

Liberation from my car was infuriating at first. I railed against life without it. I'd brought my car into the shop on Monday morning and by Wednesday it seemed that they planned on keeping it indefinitely. But after a week of bumming rides, I was surprised to find myself exhilarated and happier.

The small talk in carpools had turned into real, meaty discussions with my co-workers. I'd walked around town more than any other week. And, ironically, this freedom from driving – and the resulting reliance on others – gave me a creeping sense of independence.

Perhaps it was this experience that made something click in my head a few weeks later when, back in my repaired car and addicted to driving again, I passed the $4.03 per gallon ticker at the gas station. I wanted to feel that independence-through-dependence all over again. And so it was that I navigated a complicated network of public transportation websites that evening, searching for one semiconvenient bus route for me.

Like many Americans, my residence and work location are far-flung from each other and hardly fit into the routes of the bare-bones local bus schedules. The route required three modes of transportation and would add hours to my workday. I would have to drive to a nearby town, bike or walk to the bus stop, bike or walk from the stop to my work, and then reverse the routine in the evening. Being an avid traveler, I decided to give it a try.

The first day, I zipped down the hill on my bike from the bus stop to my office, the early morning light sparkling on the pavement. The next, I walked from my car to the bus stop and started to feel slightly revolutionary as the traffic rushed by. That evening, I did a little jig to the music in my headphones. I imagined a montage of images from my summer of alternative transportation: whizzing downhill in morning fog, jumping over manholes as traffic streamed by, chatting with new friends on the bus, slinging my bike on and off the car rack.

I think the montage was set to "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. It was going to be good.

At work, everyone rushed to my side. "You took the what?" they gasped. "The bus? Honey, you could have just called me and asked for a ride!" If they weren't utterly horrified, then they were simply confused. "But why would you want to do that?" they asked with blank stares. "You have a car!" A list of reasons rushed into my head: the boring 50 minutes of driving alone, the exercise and adventure that my current workdays lacked.

"I just wanted to try it and see what it was like," I responded simply. But I knew that I was hooked for the summer.

My only previous experience with bus riding was limited to the school bus that I rode in rural New Hampshire. With a slightly awkward learning curve, I mastered the "waiting for the bus" stance, staring off into space as if I just didn't care. I practiced the hardened commuter look that says "don't talk to me, I'm not interested." But when I let my guard down, I met fellow bus riders that ran the gamut: bearded 20-somethings, older men in suits and bike helmets, senior citizens who rode the bus as a form of entertainment.

On Friday evenings, however, something strange happened – the bus was suddenly the epitome of everyone's dread of public transportation. That was the time of week when oddball passengers with long beards stared just to the side of my head for the entire trip and someone sang loudly off-key to hip-hop in their headphones, oblivious. These were the times that I questioned my "adventure" and dug my own ear buds deep into my ears, staring out the window at the long strips of farmland rushing by.

It crossed my mind to stop this craziness when fall arrived. I had other activities that I wanted to fill those extra hours, and gas prices had fallen a bit. Ah, but I would have missed the first morning that the crickets were silent, and the evening that the racket of geese passed by, leaving the valley in their noisy fashion. I took note of the first time I donned gloves and windbreaker pants for the bike ride, and the change in the passenger and traffic patterns as the area's colleges came back into session. The light began shrinking from the evening commute, and the air rushing from my lungs became white and misty in the crisp mornings.

Ultimately, that was my expanded answer to my co-workers' incredulous questions. My summer of alternative transportation threw me off my routine, made me interact with new people, forced me to study the shapes of the clouds in the early evening light at the bus stop. The sunlight weakened as the weeks wore on and darkness began to creep in earlier. The difference between this year and last was that I was out in the wind and sun, noticing the changes firsthand.

Low gas prices now discourage carpooling or bus riding, but I want to try this shift in my cycle again this year. I won't do it for the money saving. I won't even do it for the earth saving. I will do it for fun, for the details and texture of new experiences, for the sense of independence at successfully overcoming my addiction.

(A version of this essay ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette of May 12.)

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