Oh, for the leisurely life of being a passenger

Contributing WriterJune 24, 2013 

I’ve lost my chauffeur. It’s not that he’s missing. I know where he is. Every night in bed beside me, to be sure. But I have a new job, and my husband, who drove us back and forth, hasn’t left his.

I was spoiled. For about five months over this past winter our work sites were perhaps 2 miles apart. And because my husband prefers the driver’s seat, I was a passenger for most of the way.

The vehicle we shared is a 5-year-old compact with a noisy and not particularly elegant ride, but in the passenger seat I felt like a princess in a horseless chariot.

The silver lining of our shared ride originated in the cloud of a morning transportation crisis. Something was wrong with my husband’s car. No surprise there. We’re a drive-them-into-the-ground family. And while we don’t avoid routine maintenance — oil changes, tune-ups, timing belts — we tend to cope with rather than fix minor malfunctions.

There is strategy involved, too. I’ve always endured long commutes. Because I fear breakdowns, I regularly avoid driving cars that have racked up more than 100,000 miles. Consequently, I’ve always been the one to invest in the newest and most reliable vehicle in our rotation.

Typically, my husband takes my hand-me-down and drives it until it’s no longer worth fixing. This entails frequent visits to our neighborhood mechanic as well as periodic donations to the collection of junkers he parts out.

Right now, my husband is driving a 14-year-old formerly luxury wagon. Despite a smooth, relatively quiet ride, it has shortcomings common to other foreign-built vehicles creeping toward the 200,000-mile mark. Such as costly, specialized parts and the trial-and-error system of problem-solving employed by our friendly mechanic, who lacks computer diagnostics for this model.

On that morning, my husband’s car acted so badly he decided he’d better not drive it. Although scheduled to work, he was about to cancel when I suggested the alternative: going together in my car. And so was born our routine. It was an arrangement so practical, so suited to the exigencies of the continuing recession — at least as it affected our careers — and so environmentally friendly, it seemed foolish to commute any other way.

But what I most miss about it was the indulgence. The treat, the luxury of looker-on existence, losing myself as a voyeur to the panorama of life forms passing by. For ours was not the typical rural-to-urban commute. We drove through the countryside, avoiding the traffic snarls and rolling parking lots that bedevil most suburban Puget Sounders. Instead, were surrounded by government-managed forests and prairies.

In the late fall and winter, we left before dawn. My husband monitored the road for black ice, and he watched for errant deer that might stray into our path as the sun rose.

Bottom line: I was glad to give up the wheel, felt free to turn my head to the side window and stare, or nod out as needed if sleep deprived. I thought of it as the oldster’s carnival ride: license to look without limit. I watched tree trunks zip by as if in a flip book.

In winter, I noted how the leafless branches of the native oaks and maples were nevertheless dressed. Like gnarly ballerinas in a static dance, they elegantly wore the gauzy drapes of blue-green lichen colonies. I loved the ghostly look.

In spring, I watched for Indian plums to break through with the earliest buds and blossoms. In bright sun, the first green leaves seemed to glow fluorescent and the tree trunks cast contrastingly dark shadows. When it drizzled, the drops on the car windows didn’t just obscure the landscape, they created a new way of seeing. More like an impressionist painting, I thought.

I will miss this dreamlike state, this weekday spectator status. I’m driving to work alone now. Would it be the same if I took a bus? Probably not.

Susan Gordon, one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page, lives on about five acres north of Eatonville with her husband and son. She’s a former News Tribune staff writer. Reach her at SJGordon Communications@gmail.com.

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