Highway 401 like friend with substance abuse problem
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.