Sunday, March 13, 2011

In praise of back-roads

I like most things about my job (good co-workers, appreciative boss) except one: my daily commute takes me from south of downtown Fort Worth into Denton County. I-35W is an awful road, regardless of the direction. Best case: I can make the run to or from my office in about 25 minutes. Worst case: it has taken me over 2 hours.

The official name of that system of roads known as the "Interstate" is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Its construction was authorized by an act of Congress in 1956 and its passage reflected the post-war, cold war mindset of the time. These "superhighways" were seen as a means for moving heavy military equipment from one side of the country to the other quickly in time of emergency. These days that emergency better be prepared to wait, because those roads are often parking lots.

After six year of slogging along at 10 mph, I finally decided to start exploring some alternative routes -- the back-roads.

Funny thing about most interstates: if you study them, they usually replace an older numbered route that's still there, either a state highway or other thoroughfare. As likely as not the old route is under-utilized, at least compared to drive-time traffic on the freeway.

Having alternatives keeps the monotony factor low. I often find myself in a time machine, exploring byways of once-thriving businesses that depended on traffic for their livelihoods, now sucked dry by the interstate. You know the places: old cottage style motels, cinderblock bars, fading truckstops and assorted non-franchise eateries. A reminder of our economic past, when most businesses were local and locally owned.

A good back-road route isn't necessarily faster, it's just saner. While it will likely include a few stop signs or traffic lights along the way, you aren't trapped on a controlled access road with no avenue of escape from the writhing snake of red taillights stretching before you. A good one will also occasionally cut back close enough to the freeway from time to time so you get some visual feedback (stopped cars as far as the eye can see) that validate the decision to bail.

Like the fisherman who is reluctant to reveal his favorite fishing spot, I'm not going to lay out my path. In fact, I've got several paths, which allows me to bail from the freeway at the place where it makes the most sense. I have a couple of traffic apps (free) on my iPhone, which give me a heads up on when and where I need to seek a different way home.

Even when traffic is moving, there are days when I just don't feel like putting up with the semis, pickups and SUVs all crowding around me at 70 mph. As Gandhi once said, "There is more to life than simply increasing its speed."

Tired of your daily commute? Try the scenic route.

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