High­way 401 like friend with sub­stance abuse prob­lem

The London Free Press - - COMMENT - LARRY CORNIES Larry Cornies is a Lon­don-based jour­nal­ist. cornies@gmail.com

It wasn’t un­til the end of a meet­ing last month, when Con­estoga Col­lege’s pres­i­dent handed me a gold pin, that I thought much about the fact that I’d been com­mut­ing be­tween Lon­don and Kitch­ener for a full decade.

It was the late sum­mer of 2008 when I de­cided to leave the fre­netic pace of a Toronto news­room be­hind, con­tent to spend the fi­nal chap­ter of my ca­reer teach­ing jour­nal­ism. I’d had years of ex­pe­ri­ence do­ing so, on a part-time ba­sis, at West­ern and Ry­er­son uni­ver­si­ties and had found it enor­mously re­ward­ing. It still is.

Through­out the time I worked in Toronto, Lon­don re­mained home. I lived in a tiny water­front condo dur­ing the work week, but, most of­ten, re­turned to the For­est City on the week­end. Both my wife and I pre­ferred the leafy, re­laxed and more fa­mil­iar en­vi­rons of Lon­don to the dense, con­crete-laden precincts of Hog­town, along with its fre­netic pace.

When the Kitch­ener-based job of­fer came along, we briefly con­sid­ered mov­ing to Water­loo Re­gion, but only briefly. Lon­don’s fa­mil­iar­ity, along with its “soft” ameni­ties — near­ness to fam­ily, parks, cul­tural and recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties, a renowned med­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, easy ac­cess to two Great Lakes, and more than 20 years’ worth of friends and ac­quain­tances — made the de­ci­sion to stay fairly easy.

And so, a decade ago, I be­came a High­way 401 com­muter. Three to five days a week, de­pend­ing on the se­mes­ter’s teach­ing sched­ule, I still ply the twinned rib­bon of con­crete and as­phalt be­tween Ex­its 186 and 275, in all sea­sons and in all types of weather.

The 401 is like an old friend with a sub­stance abuse prob­lem. Its drugs of choice are speed and fuel. They feed its rapid mood swings, surli­ness and ag­gres­sion. The high­way can be a fair-weather friend, but it can turn mean and nasty with the slight­est changes in baro­met­ric pres­sure and wind di­rec­tion.

And so, for 10 months of the year, I live with the high­way’s fickle, mul­ti­ple per­son­al­i­ties. And af­ter a decade, its geo­graphic con­tours are as fa­mil­iar as the dash­board of my car: the sev­enkilo­me­tre stretch through the Dorch­ester bog, the roller coaster-like un­du­la­tions at Put­nam Road, the ap­proach at Wood­stock that re­sem­bles the flyby of a way­ward air­plane, the scenic hill just east of Drumbo, the curved de­pres­sion near the Nith River that might have been formed by a swipe of Mother Na­ture’s in­dex fin­ger, the rapid change in el­e­va­tion at the Water­loo Re­gion line.

On good days, the 401 can be a well-be­haved and ef­fi­cient ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant, pri­or­i­tiz­ing, or­ga­niz­ing and cre­at­ing or­der from what would oth­er­wise be chaos. Or, to use a metaphor drawn from bi­ol­ogy, the steel cor­pus­cles of its blood­line move smoothly, unim­peded, un­in­ter­rupted, oxy­genat­ing com­mu­ni­ties along its path.

It can even be beau­ti­ful. Vi­brant pha­lanxes of red tail­lights and white head­lights along long stretches of high­way in the midst of a cool, clear night. Dark, densely packed cloud for­ma­tions on the hori­zon that al­low a driver to imag­ine he’s at the bot­tom of a deep Penn­syl­va­nia holler, moun­tains on ev­ery side. Patches of hoar frost that hover over dips and frozen streams on Jan­uary morn­ings.

But when it’s in the grip of its ad­dic­tions, the 401 can turn ill-tem­pered and can­tan­ker­ous in a heart­beat. Stream­ers off Lake Huron can turn por­ous as­phalt into a sheet of ice, like a layer of fon­dant on a choco­late cake, with a drop of a sin­gle de­gree of tem­per­a­ture and a hint of mois­ture in the air. The most benign con­struc­tion projects can jam up traf­fic for a dozen kilo­me­tres, like an in­testi­nal ob­struc­tion in an ag­ing, clogged di­ges­tive sys­tem.

One of the dif­fer­ences be­tween a decade ago and to­day: Back then, the flow of traf­fic moved at around 110 km/h. Now, it’s 120, with many ve­hi­cles mov­ing well in ex­cess of that. Ag­gres­sive driv­ing is com­mon.

Peo­ple die out there. That fact isn’t lost on me on any day that I must join the high-speed slalom among the trans­port trucks and other cars. And the best way to sur­vive it is to re­main hyper-vig­i­lant; to keep an eye on the road as far ahead — and as far be­hind — as you can see. To man­gle a phrase bor­rowed from Wayne Gret­zky, it’s to pay close at­ten­tion, not only to where your ve­hi­cle is, but also to where it’s go­ing to be.

In re­tire­ment, a year or two from now, I plan to stay in touch with my old, ill-tem­pered friend, but on a much less fre­quent ba­sis. I’ll no doubt visit from time to time en route to other des­ti­na­tions, but I won’t miss the near-daily joust­ing that can feel like a blood sport.

Mean­while, this week I sat in the wait­ing room of my auto deal­er­ship as a me­chanic in­stalled win­ter tires. I’m out­fit­ted for bat­tle, at least one more time.

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