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Traffic hell kills dream of 'real West'

Guest author

I learned to drive on the streets of Alphabet City in lower Manhattan. Moving West, I worried that I might lose the reflexes I honed dodging Crack dealers and suicidal taxicabs. No such luck. I commute on Colorado Highway 82 the Roaring Fork Valley proving ground for road ragers and budding stock-car drivers, cutting their teeth on the commute to Aspen.

This place is not unique: the West’s rural valleys are increasingly commuter thoroughfares, where bedroom communities feed service economy hubs dozens of miles away. Former urbanites bring their road warrior mentality, and one-time rural drivers are baptized in the killing fields. In Montana the bumper stickers read: “Pray for me: I drive Highway 93.”

Many towns are dealing with crisis traffic, doing what they can to make life tolerable. Here, state troopers line the edges of the newly completed high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. They’re waiting to pounce on violators: single-drivers pilfering the free-flowing lane. If you get caught, there are no warnings; it’s a $65 fine for first-time offenders.

The HOV lane adds new sport to a commute that’s as close to combat as most of us will experience. There are intersections out of the Dukes of Hazard, merges that thread between backhoes and Jersey barriers, lines and ruts that lead off into the brush. Often a driver will drift off perhaps in a reverie of a better place and lightly bump the car in front, which bumps the next car, creating a pulse in the traffic. I have seen people do nothing in response: Maybe the wave of minor collisions is comforting evidence there is life out there after all.

When the carpool lane first went in, there were letters in the paper from people so ingrained in the single-driver mentality that they spoke logical gobbledygook: “Obviously the HOV lane isn’t working. I sat in traffic for an hour while people zipped past me. My tax dollars paid for the new lane and now I don’t get to use it?” And this with a definition of “HOV” two passengers that would make hard-core Easterners snort. Still, the incentive is starting to work. Those who once scorned and feared hitchhikers now offer them coffee. Increasingly, commuters will do anything to be HOV positive, including the ultimate sacrifice, the worst way to start your day: riding with somebody else.

It’s not hard to understand the single-occupancy mentality. My friend Joe, an accountant, works in a basement in Aspen, commuting 30 miles from Carbondale. He rarely carpools, and won’t ride the bus. His two-hours of sitting in traffic on the margins of the day are the only solitude he gets. With a $1,000 stereo and a collection of compact discs to rival the local radio station, a plug of tobacco and a quart of jet-fuel coffee, Joe promotes a kind of urban chemical meditation. He says: “I won’t ride that ****** bus. It’s full of freaks. And some guy’s always drinking grain alcohol next to me. I don’t need that.” Ask Joe for a ride and he winces.

My boss, on the other hand, carpools. While his wife drives, he gives advice on how to deal with the bottlenecks that occur at sections of the highway that haven’t been two-laned: “Don’t merge from the HOV lane until the last possible second. Cruise on the shoulder if you have to. Do the Miami merge don’t use the brakes.” When his wife tells him to calm down it’s not worth the pain he explains that he enjoys raging like this. It’s how he likes to start the day.

One day, all of Highway 82 will be four-laned. Then, a commuter told me, the traffic will be gone. His evidence: when the two-lane opens to four on the commute home, the traffic eases up. But the completed four lane is 10 years out, and analysts predict we’ll need six by then. How can they be so sure? They’ve run the models they’re called Salt Lake, Seattle, L.A.

Sometimes I float down the river in my kayak during rush-hour. Bobbing on blue spring runoff, I am as relaxed as a monk. The rhythm of making eddy-turns can vanquish an after-work headache. Up the steep rocky bank, commuters fester in gridlock. The contrast is so great I think it should produce light along the interface. (Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo., He dodges traffic near Carbondale, Colo.)

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