I am a “super-commuter.”
A super-commuter travels 50 miles or more to work daily. My commute is approximately 75 miles, one way, from our place in the woods of Smith County in East Texas to Nacogdoches, Texas. It takes me a perfect 90 minutes to get from my front door to my office.
I get up at 4:15AM and I’m on the road by about 5:30. I get to work between 7 and 7:15AM. I drive through 4 counties, 3 towns, and down every make of road the state has to offer, from blacktop to interstate. When all is said and done, I spend three hours a day in a car. I get to watch the sunrise and sunset every day, and believe me, both are over-rated.
If you do a little research you will find that “super-commuters” are becoming more common as many of us have to drive further to get jobs that pay well. Most commute from one city to another or from a suburban or rural area to an urban core. There aren’t that many that commute between rural areas like me.
The closest town to where I live is Gladewater, Texas (population 6,228) and I commute to Nacogdoches (population 32,996). While Nacogdoches is a good sized town, it’s not exactly a bustling metropolitan area (but it is the closest thing to an urban area within the surrounding counties).
Getting Started: Candy’s Morning Crew
The first leg of my commute is from my house to the Pronto, my favorite convenience store in Overton (about 20 miles from where I live). I’ve been coming to the Pronto since we lived there and even though we don’t live there anymore, it’s worth the extra time to stop in every morning “where everyone knows your name.”
The manager, Ms. Candy Lardy, runs a clean shop and makes the best coffee (it’s real coffee, not fru-fru “hipster coffee”). She has a morning crowd that shows up a few minutes before she opens and waits in the parking lot for the lights to go on.
She has learned to expect each of us at specific times and if we are late, or don’t show up at all, she worries. If we are absent or tardy we have to explain ourselves, and she’s not beyond asking after us to our family and friends to find out what’s going on. It’s gotten so bad that we let her know if we won’t be in, and we expect her to do the same. When she goes on vacation or takes a few days off, it’s upsetting so we need to know in advance. We rely on Candy to get us started in the morning, and without her we feel lost. We look forward to coffee and conversation and most of us won’t stop by if we know she’s out ‘cause it just ain’t worth it.
Second Leg: Sometimes Donuts
From Overton I go to Henderson (population 11,273). If I haven’t stopped by the Pronto I may drop by the Henderson Depot, a large convenience store on the outskirts of town frequented by truck drivers, contractors, and oil field workers in the early morning hours. Needless to say the testosterone is a wee bit high at the Depot and I can’t say that I feel entirely comfortable there. Everyone is nice enough but I find the truck traffic a little on the scary side with all their comings and goings.
Once a month I’ll stop by the Snowflake Bakery in Henderson to pick up something for our staff meetings. The pastries from the Snowflake are very popular with my staff. Their baked cinnamon rolls and filled donuts (both of which are bigger than your head) are to die for and if I don’t get enough of each squabbling occurs in the office. My staff consists of students (undergraduates and graduates) and they not only enjoy the free food, but the more sugar it has in it, the better.
Third Leg: It’s Gotta Have a Beat
Once I leave Henderson and start the third leg of my journey, I turn on the music. Depending on how I feel I may have Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens, or Robert Earl Keene Jr. playing. On days that I’m feeling particularly frisky, or really need a jolt, I may listen to the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Lady Gaga, Ozzy Osborne, or the Talking Heads.
Whatever I listen to (1) I have to be able to sing (or yell) along with it and (2) it’s got to have a hard beat. I can’t have music that’s going to be quiet one minute and loud the next. If it’s jumping around I may find myself going 75 mph one minute and 55 the next. It’s really got to have a beat so I can keep up the speed.
Also, by this time the sun is starting to come up so I can see what’s going on around me, besides just the tail-lights of semis.
That’s when things start to get interesting.
Oh, the things you’ll see
The road between Henderson and the next town (Mt. Enterprise) is a nice stretch of highway. Sure it’s a little rough and the right lane is rutted due to heavy truck traffic, but the landscape is pretty and if you pay attention you can see all kinds of things.
Maybe once or twice or month I see deer grazing along the side of the road. Depending on the time of year it may be a couple of does, a doe with a fawn, or even a buck. They are so accustomed to traffic they don’t run off and you can get a good look at them. Other mornings you may see dawn’s armadillo waddling off the road into the woods, or a coyote jogging across the highway. Unlike the rest of us, they never seem to be much in a hurry.
Once I even saw Sasquatch. OK, it wasn’t really Sasquatch, but it should have been, and would have been less disturbing had it been. Here’s the story:
So I am driving down the highway and I notice traffic in front of me is slowing down. The cars and trucks are hitting their brakes and in the process jumping around a bit in their lanes. When I finally get to where everyone has slowed down, I look to my right and my, oh my, there on the side of the road stands Sasquatch with his overalls around his ankles, letting the whole world see just how happy he is with himself, and he’s really, really happy.
For about two seconds I’m shocked but then I start laughing out loud and my car, like everyone else’s, is now hopping around in the lane as I struggle to keep control of my vehicle while doubled over laughing with tears in my eyes.
I don’t think that was the reaction that Sasquatch was hoping to get. Trucks are honking at him and waving and the rest of us are just trying not to pee our pants. Well, Sasquatch, being the timid and easily frightened type, turns tail and runs back into the woods, tripping over his overalls in the process, landing face down in wet grass and God knows what else.
OK, that was too much for the car in front of me. They pull over, and as I pass them I can see them laughing and they have their phone out, trying to snap a picture in the weak light of the early morning.
I didn’t need to take a picture. That scene will forever be burned in my memory.
From Henderson the last town I pass through before I get to Nac is Mt. Enterprise (population 447).
Mt. Enterprise gets a lot of truck traffic at its 4-way stop. Several times I have seen truck fires (that’s never good) and there used to be a large, older convenience store on the highway, but it burned down not too long ago. However, shortly thereafter a big new, fancy truck stop opened up across the road.
When that store burned I was sad for days, although I had never stopped there. It just really upsets me when a small town loses a business, especially to fire. I really hope they rebuild, reopen and give the one across the highway a run for their money. If they manage to rebuild, I promise that whether I need it or not, I’ll stop in every day for coffee just so I can say I did.
Between Mt. Enterprise and Nacogdoches, before you cross the county line from Rusk to Nacogdoches County, the highway is divided by large grassy medians. You have to keep your eye on these places because you never know what’s going to come out of the tall grass.
As a result of one encounter I consider this stretch of highway “sacred” because of what I happened to see there.
One morning I was in the left lane and there was a semi in the right, just a little behind of me. There was enough light to see everything, although it wasn’t full dawn yet. I looked to my left and saw the tall grass in the median shift in such a way that I knew something was in there so I slowed a bit. The truck driver saw it too and also slowed down.
I think we both thought a deer or coyote was in there, and we slowed down waiting for it to leap into the highway. Imagine our surprise when a cougar leapt out of the grass into the highway. I hit my brakes and the truck driver hit his, both of us coming to complete stop. We watched that cougar lope across the highway and go into the woods on the other side. We both waited a few seconds and then went on our way.
You hear tales about cougar in East Texas, but most people have never seen one and if you claim to have seen one most won’t believe you anyway. However, that morning not only did I see one, I got a good look, and it was one of the most amazing expressions of wildness I think I have ever seen. I doubt if I will ever see that cat again, but now every morning I slow down a little at that spot and look for him.
You might get the idea that my commute is just one adventure after another, but I can assure you that is not the case. In addition to watching for Sasquatch and cougars, when I am on the road, I am alert and watching for idiots.
One is some yahoo who drives a Dodge Ram who likes to tailgate me on two lane country roads with his brights on. Nice. Now I drive at or slightly above the speed limit, and if someone behind me is really in a hurry I will do what I can to let them pass.
Problem is (1) little country roads typically have no shoulder and (2) tailgating someone doesn’t make them want to move over, it makes them wish for a rear-mounted flame thrower. It really makes them mad if the tailgater has had multiple opportunities to pass but chooses to ride your bumper. What this tells me is that you are a bully, and you’ve got no huevos after all.
How do I deal with this guy? I angle my outside mirrors so his lights are reflected back at him, and I’m not beyond tapping my brakes just to see if he’s paying attention. Between those two strategies he backs off a bit. You would think he would learn, but he doesn’t. I don’t think he’s the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Another thing you have to consider as a super-commuter is bladder control. OK, I’m not as young as I used to be, and I think over the years my bladder has shrunk to the size of a peanut.
Problem? I drink a lot of coffee. I have 2-3 cups before I leave the house and a 16 ounce coffee on the road. By the time I get to Mt. Enterprise I’m wishing I wore Depends (it would just make my life so much easier).
Between Mt. Enterprise and Nacogdoches there’s a truck stop I can stop at, if I really need to, but I prefer to buck it up and plow through to work. That means by the time I get there I’m doing a little dance from the parking garage to my building but so far I’ve made it. However, just in case, I have scoped out all the big trees. One of the great things about arriving at my job so early is that there is hardly anyone on campus and if I had to I could probably sneak behind a tree or hide in the azaleas, but all things considered I would really rather not.
The Road Home
In Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck you can hear the enthusiasm in his voice when he is getting ready for his cross-country trip and in the record of his travels as he heads west. On the way home however, if this were your only guide to U.S. geography you would think the country just stops after Louisiana.
He wants to get home, fast, and damn the scenery and local color. That’s the way I feel driving home. I just want to get there. I don’t notice much, except irritation with traffic and I typically don’t put on any music. I’m dog tired and just want to get home before full on dark.
Depending on when I leave work, I will get home somewhere between 6:30 and 7:30PM. If it’s a teaching night I won’t get home until 8:15PM or so. That makes for a long day. I go to bed at 9PM, and usually fall asleep reading. And when the alarm goes off at 4:15AM, I’m ready to do it all over again.
Oh, the life of a super-commuter. It ain’t for the weak at heart.
Kelley Snowden is a professor at Stephen F. Austin University and is affiliated with the Center for Regional Heritage Research.