I drive 40 miles every day, minimum. Out of our farm town, past the DQ and the body shop, into the rolling hills of the Iowa countryside. You might think Iowa is flat, like Nebraska or Illinois, but Eastern Iowa is part of the vast Mississippi River valley and our cornfields undulate like waves swelling before they crash on shore.
Brian commutes north for about the same number of miles, so we’ve split the difference by buying a house halfway between where we both spend most of our time. We adore our little home, but hate the miles. Sometimes I have dreams that we’ve moved back to our college town and can hop on a bus, listen to music, and daydream for 15 minutes. No gassing up at Costco every weekend. No $100/month parking fee. No wear and tear on our aging Camry, the white steed we rode from our wedding and college days, now gray and rattling and rusty. No liberal guilt about greenhouse gasses.
But here’s what I do get from my commute.
Time with my girls. Every day we ride in the car, with nothing else for company but the radio. We practice choir songs, and because she’s in a phase of insatiable curiosity about everything under the sun, Robin grills me about evolution, anatomy, and the meaning of song lyrics. In conversation, we’ve strategized solutions to a number of pressing preschool issues: what to do when your friend is rude to you, how to teach the littler kids not to bite you, how to not be afraid of chickens (and now peacocks), what kindergarten will be like, how to be brave when your big sister is at school.
Perspective. The college town we commute to is pretty fantastic. It’s everything a college town ought to be: charming, walkable, full of cultural events and awesome bands, great food, a beautiful meandering river, excellent schools, and vibrant community for people of all stripes. While Eastern Iowa is a pretty mixed bag, politically, our college town is a bright blue beacon in the midst of a purply realm, and because it’s just so dang awesome, people tend to go there and stay there and not explore very much. Remember that episode of Sex and the City where Miranda ends up on a date with “Manhattan Guy,” a person who hasn’t been off the island for 10 years? It can be kind of like that in college town. College town has so much to offer that people don’t see a reason to drive 10 or 15 minutes away. When I mention that I live in farm town, people sometimes give me a look like, aww, that must be sad for you. What makes me sad, though, is that they’re missing out on the treasures that exist all around college town, under 30 miles away. Treasures like Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern, a bar next to a bridge that doesn’t exist anymore (well, it’s being rebuilt) in a town that doesn’t exist anymore, where you can get fried green beans and staple an autographed dollar bill to the ceiling. Or the First Street Community Center in Mt. Vernon, an old school turned gym, business center, and take-one-leave-one open library and play area. How about the awesome fishing and hiking at any of the nearby lakes, or the south branch of the Cedar River, home to Palisades State Park and an observatory? Or Indian Valley Nature Center. Or New Bo? Or Beef Days? The list goes on and on. If I didn’t drive through the country every day, I wouldn’t have a sense that there’s so much out there, that every small own in rural Iowa has a gem (or a dozen) to offer, and usually with free parking. You definitely can’t say that about college town! And if you drive around and get to know the countryside, you avoid that tunnel vision that makes you sound like a jackass when you try to write authoritatively about it.
Quiet time. Just a little. Sometimes I turn off the iPod and crank the volume on NPR to a distant murmur, and drive around the block a few times before I pick up the girls, and just think. I might get a sweet potato cupcake from the bakery and eat it all by myself, sipping hot decaf with cream and letting the engine idle, just for a little while, before I walk up the slick steps and greet the girls who’ve already spotted the car and are waiting in the coat room.