My Three-Day Foray into the American Car Culture

TrafficConn

Once or twice a year, I travel from my home in Bangor, Maine to Danbury, Connecticut. I teach in the low-residency MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University, which convenes in January and August.

Getting there, for one who does not own a car, requires some thinking. Last year we combined the trip with a visit to Lisa’s family in New Jersey. We took her car and shared the driving. This year she was unable to accompany me, and I had to decide whether to rent a car or take a longer route by bus.

There is no good way to get from Bangor to Danbury by bus. I guess that’s the price you pay for living in the hinterlands. The Concord Coach leaves Bangor at 7 every morning, and gets you into Boston’s South Station by 11:30. The only bus that runs anything like a direct route to Danbury leaves Boston at 11:15. The next best option is to take the bus to New York City and grab a bus to Danbury from there. Total trip time: Twelve and a half hours. It’s a seven-hour drive.

And Danbury doesn’t much lend itself to walking. It’s quintessential suburbia. Everything is two miles from everything else. The campus is on the top of a steep hill with nothing around it. You need a car just to go out to dinner.

Still, I dreaded spending fourteen hours alone behind the wheel. It seemed like a colossal waste of time. In the end, I chose door number three: I bused to Boston and rented a car from there. The bus ride enabled me to work on the way down and relax on the way home. But for 48 hours, I plunged into the American car culture.

I took possession of a white Nissan Sentra with a Pennsylvania plate, and promptly got lost getting out of Boston. In Connecticut, Interstate 84 points southwest, directly into the setting winter sun. Hartford brought rush hour stop-and-go traffic that reminded me of the years I spent in San Diego, cursing silently at other drivers as I drove my kids to school.

It’s one of the reasons I moved back to Maine. “This is no way to live,” I muttered to myself on many of those mornings. Whenever I drive, I have to remind myself that this is an everyday experience for most Americans. No wonder we’re all so frazzled and angry at one another.

And on the return trip, stuck in another Hartford traffic jam, I heard myself vent some of that anger aloud inside the sealed space of the car. I’d left Danbury early, planning a leisurely breakfast at the Traveler Restaurant and Bookstore on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, where you get three free books with your meal. My self-imposed schedule had already been set back when I’d found the car covered with a thick layer of frost at first light, and the scraper provided by the rental car company as inefficient as a line of cars stalled in traffic. For the thousandth time, I thanked my lucky stars that these small but cumulative annoyances are no longer a daily part of my life.

By the time I got back to Boston, I was eager to shed the car and feel the freedom of my feet. But first, I had to get gas, and I managed to get lost again. Boston is a whole lot easier and more pleasant to navigate on foot and by public transportation than it is by car. There, a car is an encumbrance – as it is in many lives.

On the bus back to Bangor, I read a terrific short novel: Bronx Bound, by my friend and colleague John Roche. “Hank: Don’t read and drive,” he wrote in his inscription. It’s good advice, and it illustrates a point.

I had split the trip nearly down the middle between public transportation and the car culture – eight hours by bus, eight hours by car. On the bus I worked with my computer and read John’s book. I relaxed. But it took several hours for my neck to stop feeling stiff from the stress of dealing with common American car traffic.

Every time I’m stuck in a traffic jam, I think: If even a third of these people, or a quarter, or a tenth, were on a bus or a train, relaxing and reading a book, we’d all be happier. America would be happier.

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