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Drive like Bob

As a community here in the Methow, many of us pride ourselves on being friendly to the environment. In large, I’d say we do live with a solid “land ethic” here. The surrounding landscape may not be the first thing that brought us here but it surely is why some of us stayed. That said one of the more environmentally unfriendly traits we share is that we all drive a lot. Often much further and more frequent than our urban counterparts and definitely more than we’d like.

Another nationwide habit we’re not immune to is that of trying to cram too much into the day be it work, pleasure, volunteer or the combination of thereof . Thus, efficiency becomes paramount and we’re forever trying to “make up” time as we go. One of the places we favor for this catching up seems to be behind the steering wheel. We’ve taken it even further by taking and making phone calls at the same time. This marriage has lulled us into a complacency that fairly makes us forget the fact that driving is the single most dangerous undertaking most of us perform each day. Not just hazardous for ourselves but perhaps more importantly, for others and their families.

Another thing that tends to numb us are statistics, as if these numbers are too much to put together or don’t pertain to us or worse, we find them boring. Yet I can’t help but repeat a few that haven’t improved much. An average of 621 citizens meet their death on Washington roads a year. 61% of these deaths occur on rural roads where only 30% of the driving happens. And of course, the highest death rate per 100,000 drivers is our teenagers. This isn’t folklore, nor does it include the number who sustain life- as- they –know- it ending injuries and the resulting psychological residue.

You can get from Mazama to Twisp 3.5 minutes faster by driving 70 mph as opposed to the legal 60 while burning more fuel. And 2.2 minutes faster from Mazama to Winthrop. The braking distance to a full stop is 30 feet less at 60mph than 70. We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think that 30 feet can make a difference.

One of the unintended consequences of where the roads run in this valley has to be the death toll of deer. Granted, some of us have mixed feelings about the well-being of the local deer herd; many of us sacrifice gardens, fruit trees and various other crops to them annually. However, I don’t believe anyone particularly wants to see animals suffer and aside from those that get out-right smashed on the road, most scramble off to die a raw, slow death elsewhere. Oh, and lest we forget the monetary damage to one’s vehicle (I can’t help but always read this token number with general disregard.) Since deer are relatively light, there are few actual human fatalities that result from these collisions. Except for some unfortunate motorcyclists, we get off easy when compared to those driving around in elk country. Or where I grew up in the Northeast where you simply did not drive certain roads at night for the moose.

The fact that our roads separate prime ungulate range from their main water source in our rivers so that the deer pay for it in blood is not lost on the turkey vulture population. But I doubt this is the main roadside attraction most wish for – scavengers tearing away at freshly mangled carcasses. To be sure, it is not the part of our landscape we’re most proud to share with visitors.

I’ve missed clipping several Methow deer over the years by 20 feet or less. Fortunately, the only two I’ve hit have centered my bumper and they died instantly. Otherwise, I don’t want to add up the number hit by less fortunate travelers that I’ve dispatched with everything from a gun (at best) to a spade to the biggest rock on hand. Certainly, I’m not alone. And though I know my personal driving luck won’t hold forever, I’m willing to drive 60mph or less trying to extend it the best I can. Deer, grouse, chipmunks and birds are one thing. But what about our pets? What about our families?

Back in the day, I used to enjoy walking my dogs on the dirt road I still live on. After too many close calls, I switched roads for walking. A few more years have passed and I’m looking for another, but that is to be expected. Since having children, however, my tolerance for race- car drivers has weakened considerably and I’ve never had a great deal of it to begin with. I hold negligent driving in even poorer regard than night long outside lights! And so when someone in a car I didn’t recognize actually passed me right before a treacherous corner here on the Rendezvous as I returned from school with my daughters aboard the other day, I said some “naughty” words. Truth to tell, I almost stepped on it, by-passed our driveway altogether and ran the bad Bi--- down. But that would be road rage, wouldn’t it? The very thing I’m trying to guard against. Instead, I just turned down toward the granary - a bit hot - and apologized to the kids while pleading for them not to repeat anything they’d just heard.

Meanwhile, I go on wondering when and why did we grow so damned impatient, anyway? I include myself at the top of the list. How did we let a distracting impatience cultivate in us this assumed stupidity? I mean, is it not taken for granted that we’re going to pass someone driving way to fast or talking on their phone or both, each trip to town -like it’s cool or something? Yet those dull statistics at the beginning of this ditty don’t lie, and the needless death toll keeps stacking up and I can’t think of two more related things.

Even if our frustrations result from being over-tasked day in and out trying to make ends meat, raise a family and chip in a moment or two for ourselves, justifying this idiocy is a hard sell when weighed against the dark reality of consequence. Think of all the things we do in this valley to improve our health for crying out loud. We eat well, read, volunteer, exercise, exercise, exercise…. and continue to drive around like maniacs! Instead, perhaps we should experience this time in our cars as relaxing, odd as that sounds. After all, we’ve spent a bunch of money on our ride –our worst investment of all. Add up that sticker price, then the fuel and maintenance (which is far more costly the more we rare and tear around) to keep rolling, and we’d better enjoy it. We live in this valley of unparalleled countryside, rather than dreading the time in our car zipping from one place to another perhaps this should be our time off to take stock in the good we have and not constantly be tempting it?

I have much respect for those who diligently carpool, regardless of inconvenience. And even greater for those community members such as Eric B. or Susan C. who I often see afoot. Those during the dry months who bike to work are equally commendable. And I also have neighbors who regularly drive our road slower than anyone.

Neighbor Bob drives our road like he’s experiencing it for the last time. By so doing, he sees what the rest of miss like the scampering coyote and the hunting harrier; the fresh fawn pair, the buck with tangled antlers, the resident bobcat and certainly the gathering of afternoon shadows as they work into the coulees of Lewis Butte. His wife Janet is even more observant. When she’s behind the wheel she picks up on the scurrying ermine, the doodling vole; Janet watches salamanders crawl across the road. Some up here are more annoyed by their driving habits than others. I speak of them with genuine envy. Truth to tell, they’re getting to town about 58 seconds slower than the rest of us.

So I challenge us all the next time we head out, to drive more like Bob, even if we can’t quite get it down like Janet. In the end, driving at more reasonable speeds may just be the very best way of preserving not only the valley we love, but all of its inhabitants as well.

Disclaimer: Please, if you happen upon me while we’re slowly towing a 6 ton implement somewhere – PASS! So long as it’s safe, of course. Believe it or not, I do pull over when I can, but don’t wait.

February 17th, 2009