The Road More Traveled
When commuting becomes communing with nature.
Nearly every morning and late afternoon, I take 10 minutes out of my day to observe the familiar natural setting around me. I take stock of the wind rippling the leaves of nearby maple and hackberry trees, look for a resident red-tailed hawk, and cast a glancing eye around me for anything unfamiliar or out of the ordinary. I traverse the same route out and back each day, making patterns conspicuous, phenology accessible, and oddities frequent. This is all to say that I quite enjoy my drive to and from work.
It is easy to view nature as a beautiful, unmolested “over there” and to scorn concrete pathways as something wholly human and flawed. Add in the 2,000-pound metal box we use to maneuver through the modified landscape, and it’s no wonder so many people dread the time spent between home and work each day. While there may be truth there, I have found great pleasure in a different perspective. Hiding in plain sight, the forced repetition of a commute provides an invaluable opportunity to develop a deeper connection to your local landscape.
This starts the moment I set foot outside my front door. For half of the year, frost on the windshield is my first clue to weather. My driveway sits atop a slight hill in town, giving me a good idea of how the wind is behaving. In winter, my car’s indifference to starting lets me know what kind of cold I’m facing. When nudging my way through town, I keep one eye to the sky: My commute runs past a pair of eagles that shuttle between their nest and a well-stocked bass pond.
As I ascend Lanesboro Hill to climb out of our valley, a massive sandstone and limestone bluff face edges the road. As I climb higher, forest eventually covers the bluffs, punctuated by steep ravines carved by water. Reminders of the powerful battle between water and rock are never far away in the Driftless area, and roadcuts provide no shortage of geology to study as you pass by.
Atop the plateau now, farm fields emerge on my left (south), prairie to my right (north). The prescribed burn in different parcels of prairie here is a telltale sign of spring. Leaving the prairie in the rearview, I check the top of a telephone pole on the farm side for a local red-tailed hawk, who prefers one exact pole just above the old “Welcome to Lanesboro” sign.
About a quarter-mile after burned prairie and hawk pole, I turn right onto another county highway. A horse field on my left, grazed down to putting-green height, plays host to several mammoth bur oak trees and a gap in barbed-wire fence that deer and other mammals are fond of shooting through. For several years, this stretch of road was the only reliable place around me where I could see red-headed woodpeckers. A pair of the brilliantly colored birds, once common in this area but disappearing due to habitat loss, were particularly fond of an old telephone pole, the kind that became warped and weathered and looked more tree than utility. I haven’t seen them in more than a year, but I still dutifully check their pole every day just in case.
After Woodpecker Field, the road drops slightly into Roadkill Alley. Two gulleys crisscross here, forming an elongated X shape, with the road running directly between them. Possums, skunks, raccoons, deer, turkeys, fox squirrels, and barn cats are frequent visitors of these wooded shelters between fields, and they often pay the price for this unfortunate confluence of corridors. Their paths are worn through the roadside thickets.
The silver lining of Roadkill Alley, however, is the opportunity to study the pecking order around curbside carcasses. By my observation, bald eagles eat first, second, and third. Once they have their fill, turkey vultures (except in winter, when they migrate south) come next, taking turns picking apart the deceased. Crows seem to take a deferential third place, lurking around the periphery for their chance at the leftovers.
The final stretch of road is my favorite: two separate pairs of American kestrels flutter to and from telephone wires, 13-lined ground squirrels line the roadsides, and the churn across the farm fields keeps me in rhythm with the local farmers. The road, aptly named Goodview Drive, is a constant immersion in the vistas of the Driftless area.
In winter, I wonder: Are those northern shrikes still in the bushes where I saw them last week? In summer, my mind drifts to the family of eastern kingbirds near my workplace parking lot, hoping I can catch them snatching bugs off the wing over the pavement.
In spring, red-wing blackbirds dot the way home, breadcrumbs to my Honda’s Hansel and Gretel, subconsciously leading me home.
Before, during, and shortly after the fall rut, the deer in this area display a temporal consistency unparalleled in nature. If I get out of work on time, and therefore pass by their field around 4:35, they are just exiting the gully, done bedding down and ready to socialize and feed at dusk and evening. If I’m even slightly later, zooming along closer to 4:45, they creep nearer to the highway. If I make the mistake of staying until five, I don’t dare go over 25 around this bend, knowing the herd will be crossing the road.
Nature is not a place over there, merely a destination we visit on the weekend or save our vacation time to immerse ourselves in. When we restrict our view of the natural world to pristine places, we miss out on the potential to build relationships with our immediate surroundings. Roadsides, farm fields, woodlots, city streets, and the air above us all offer a chance to study natural rhythms, to practice the ancient art of phenology.
This is not a celebration of roads and fossil fuel–spewing cars. Roads fragment habitats for plants and animals. Millions of animals die on roadsides every year, a catastrophic loss, no matter how interesting it is to study the habits of those who consume them. However, many people depend on cars and nearly all of us use roads. Leveraging this fact to better understand and care about our locale frees our mind and spirit to turn a daily negative into a positive and deepen our sense of place.
Moreover, there’s a certain kinship built with the creatures around you once you come to understand that our daily journeys aren’t so different from theirs. What are our jobs anyway if not vehicles for food, water, shelter, and some sort of primordial satisfaction?
On a recent drive home, I looked up to check the old telephone pole for the red-headed woodpecker. Before my eyes were able to settle, I saw it in flight, stunning against the azure sky, heading straight for the warped old pole. It landed just as I passed by, before I had time to slow and get a better peek. In one moment, familiarity met the unexpected, and I knew I was home. Almost.