The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
[imgcontainer] [img:driving_costs_chart.jpg] This chart from the Natural Resources Defense Council breaks down the costs of commuting for people living in various sized communities. “Rural and town” commuters make up 28% of the population but account for 40% of the commuter miles driven. VMT is vehical miles traveled. [/imgcontainer]
After thousands of miles and hundreds of hours on the road, I thought I had “super commuting” down to an art. Then I had to start dragging my husband along for the ride.
Or, more accurately, he had to start dragging me.
Each work day I’m accustomed to driving 75 miles to work, one-way – well over the 50-mile-mark that designates a super commuter. My commute comes to 150 miles a day, 750 miles a week, 3,000 miles a month, and 36,000 miles a year.
In East Texas where I live the average drive to work is 26 minutes, or about 15-20 miles, according to the Census. I don’t know where that happy place is, but I would like to live there.
So why do I do drive so far? Because I have to.
Jobs in my field are few and far between in the best of times, but these days finding any job at all is a problem, particularly in rural areas. Would I work closer to home if I could? Of course I would. I don’t drive 75 miles a day because I like the scenery.
It’s a mind-numbing grind only occasionally brightened by brief periods of unintended adventure – like when there’s a spider In the car, a plane lands on the highway, or some pervert in a convenience store parking lot decides to show me more of himself than I ever wanted to see.
But to tell the rest of the story, I guess I’m going to have back up. And that’s not an easy thing for a super commuter like me to do.
Commuting is stressful. So to blow off steam, I like to ride my horses on weekends.
One Sunday last fall I was working my green horse in the round pen. Everything was fine, right up to the point that it wasn’t. Long story short, I had an “unscheduled dismount” and hit the ground, HARD. My arm hurt like hell, and I knew I had broken it, I just didn’t know where or how badly. So away to the emergency room my husband and I went.
We headed for the closest hospital, about 25 miles away. En route the only thing on my mind was if the hospital was on my insurance plan. In previous trips to the ER, I’ve seen the bills start at $3,000. While I babbled about insurance, my terrified husband drove white knuckled all the way. Once there, a doctor got to us quickly, and an X-ray revealed a “proximal humerus” break – I had snapped the ball off the big bone in my upper arm. No wonder it hurt so badly, even with pain medication.
To see an orthopedic surgeon, we had to travel another 20 miles to a second hospital – one where I had previously waited 19 hours in the ER with a family member. This time around, thankfully, things moved much more quickly. With the surgeon, we opted for a “non-surgical” treatment because everything looked good and solid. I was sent home in a sling with two prescriptions for pain killers and an appointment to see the surgeon in another week to make sure everything was still in place. He told me that with this kind of break there is a six- to nine-month recovery, assuming all goes well, and I would have to get monthly X-rays to make sure everything remained in place.
That’s all fine and good, but did I mention I can’t drive? If I can’t drive, I can’t get to work, if I can’t work, I lose my benefits, without my benefits I can’t pay the doctor’s bills. This is when the idea of being a “super commuter” really comes home. When you can’t make that commute, and your world starts to fall apart.
I told my boss what happened. Over the next week or so we discussed options and arrived at a compromise. If my husband would cart me to work three days a week, I could work at home the other two days a week. Scott, my husband, agreed. Although it played hell with his work schedule, he knew I needed to get back on the job ASAP. This arrangement took a few days to clear all the approvals at the university. But as soon as it was signed, I went to work the next day, with Scott behind the wheel.
I wasn’t feeling better. My right arm was swollen and in a sling, and I am right handed. When no one was looking, I crept off to cry in the bathroom, the pain was so bad.
That was in October.
[imgcontainer] [img:driving_costs_table.jpg] [source]Source: Natural Resources Defense Council[/source]The chart shows that rural commuters account for more emissions, too. So what’s the answer? Move everyone to the city? How about creating more jobs in rural America? [/imgcontainer]
By early January I was out of the sling, the bone was largely healed, but I didn’t have the strength or stamina in my arm to drive yet. So Scott still did the driving. Besides taking me to work and back, twice a week he takes me to physical therapy, an absolutely essential part of my recovery.
Now, in late January, I’m finally back behind the wheel, driving myself to work three days a week and working from home the other two.
Bills are coming in and budgets are getting strained, but thank goodness I have a good job, with good benefits and a wonderful husband who was willing to spend six hours a day in a car, three days a week and work his regular schedule on the farm. He became exhausted and cranky. All I could do was say, “Thank you, and I love you.” For a couple months, he became a super-commuter, and he didn’t much care for it. I don’t blame him.
Our bosses have been very understanding. I know they want this to be done and over with, I do too. I love being at work. I love my job. I’m lucky to have it, and lucky to work at a place that is willing to work with me.
Most commuters, especially in rural areas, aren’t so lucky. They get hurt, can’t drive, they lose their jobs. When the money stops coming in, they can’t pay their medical bills. And that could mean no physical therapy. Without treatment, a person could end up crippled for life. In the worst case scenario, this might mean having to go on disability and other forms of assistance.
We don’t commute because we like to. We do it because we have to. Jobs are scarce, not just here, but all over. But it shouldn’t be this way. We need more jobs, closer to home, that won’t require excessive commutes. We shouldn’t have to give up a way of life for a paycheck. We need more local investment in good jobs with good benefits, not just minimum wage jobs, or worse. There’s a tremendous amount of talent hidden away in the rural areas that could be tapped.
You should be coming to us. We shouldn’t have to go to you, and we certainly shouldn’t have our lives depend on making that ride every day come hell, pain or horses.