Commuting

For close to eight years, I have lived in between two cities, commuting almost weekly between Toronto and Windsor. I have not intended this blog to be a confessional, so I won’t get into why I have done this, except to say that the choice to take up residence in Toronto while working in Windsor, and after living several years in Windsor after getting my university position here, was for family and economic reasons. This means I have spent a good deal of time in the last eight years in motion, in between where I work and where I live. I typically spend three or four days a week in Windsor during the academic year, and sometimes a few days or a week here and and there throughout the summer, though summer is also when I can focus more fully on research and am not required to teach and there are fewer committee meetings. Normally I take the train because Canada’s VIA Rail train system in the Windsor-Toronto-Montreal-Quebec corridor is pretty frequent and reliable (Canadians may say otherwise but then many of them will never have experienced the joys of Amtrak in the US) and I can get a lot of work done in the four hours between Windsor and Toronto. Last week I drove it, as I sometimes do, and thought about all the “in-between places” and landscapes along the highway that I normally shoot past without much attention, as I did this morning on the 6:45 am train from Toronto. On the train, I put in my headphones, pull out my laptop or a book or a stack of papers and exams, and try to squeeze a couple of productive hours from a commute in which I don’t have to pay attention to the road and the steering wheel. I have become accustomed to the early departure going to Windsor, the somewhat cramped quarters with all the University of Western Ontario students who get off at London, halfway to Windsor, and the increasingly (it seems) intense rocking and swaying of the train itself. The tracks are not the best, used heavily by both passenger and freight service, and stagnant budgets for Canada’s rail service under the Harper Conservatives mean that the infrastructure is in need of maintenance and upgrades. I won’t hold my breath for the promised high-speed rail line connecting the corridor anytime soon.

As uncomfortable as the train may often be, it is still preferable to driving the 401 highway, especially in the winter. Wind whipping across the flat farmland between London and Windsor makes for dangerous driving when there’s snow on the ground, and I have had to turn back more than once because I couldn’t see or the road itself was too icy and slippery to safely continue. There is a beauty to southern Ontario’s seemingly empty but heavily managed agricultural landscapes, but it’s hard for me to say that I know the region well. Focused largely on my destination, Windsor at the week’s start and Toronto at its end, I rarely leave the highway when driving, and on the train the stops are well-rehearsed in my head – Toronto, Oakville, Aldershot, Brantford, Ingersoll, Woodstock, London, Glencoe, Chatham, Windsor. There is no getting out and looking around the decaying downtowns and parking lots in the vicinity of the stops, as the train waits perhaps 60 seconds to unload and load passengers – though this is up to five minutes in London – before it’s off again. Once the train was delayed several hours coming from London as some poor soul had, just outside the city, thrown themself in front of the train. A bus was dispatched to pick us up in Windsor and take us to London, where we boarded the train to Toronto. Meanwhile, a four-hour drive last fall became seven, thrown off when an accident involving a tractor trailer forced the closure of several kilometers of the 401, and all traffic took a lengthy crawl on county roads through the town of Dutton. Another time, in an attempt to be a good departmental citizen and attend an important but late-in-the-semester departmental council meeting, I actually took a last-minute Porter Airlines flight from Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop Airport to Windsor the week before Christmas, well after classes had ended and the scheduled final exams and papers for the courses I taught that term were in. Flying was iffy because the weather was quite bad, and the tiny plane had to be thoroughly de-iced before take-off. In the end, the delays meant I arrived in Windsor for about the last 20 minutes of the scheduled meeting; later that evening I took the train back to Toronto. Such are the vagaries of the commuting life, and I could dissect the differences between the various ON Route rest stops along the 401, knowing which Tim Horton’s usually has the longest line, or whether it’s worth stopping in Tilbury South for a bite to eat at the Burger King or whether it’s better to wait for the KFC at the Dutton stop. In fact though, that’s a false choice – neither is worth stopping for, and it’s best to continue on to the New York Fries at the Woodstock rest stop. Driving hours through southern Ontario with fried foods and bad coffee produces a kind of lethargy, with a mesmerizing quality becoming apparent somewhere near Chatham, the flat land and the gently arcing highway lulling me to a kind of hazy, middle distance focus. It’s usually around that time (heading in the direction of Windsor at least) that I have to turn off the podcasts I enjoy and switch to music, loud and urgent, to shake me from dullness.

But as I said above, there is also a kind of beauty to the area. Last week as I drove down on a Sunday evening and the sun had set, maybe 50 to 60 km from Windsor still, a quick flash of red lights across the surrounding fields, all in unison and repeated every few seconds, made for a strangely affecting sight. These were the red warning lights atop the many dozens of wind turbines that have come to dot the area in the last several years. The synchronous flashing of the red lights in the inky black rural sky demonstrated the extent to which windmills now populate farmers’ fields in southern Ontario, but the synchronized nature of the flashing made me think of the synchronous lightning bugs, the small bioluminescent beetles that some people call fireflies, found in the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee and which many people flock every summer to see. As part of their mating display, this species found in a few meadows in the Smokies will synchronize their flashing for the brief two or three week window in which they look for a mate. No one is flocking to Comber to see the wind turbines synchronously flash, though their rapid spread does make it seem like they’re breeding like insects across the landscape.

The commuting life I have adopted has meant, above all, a carefully constructed (if not always well-maintained) spatial separation between work and home, between different orbits of friends and acquaintances, and between personal commitments to two different places. That geographic disjuncture is deeply temporalized as well, my time splintered into chunks of work and non-work, crammed into 12-hour workdays to fill the time, or stretching languidly across a whole weekend and taking advantage of some (though not really much) of what a big city has to offer. But the temptations of the cool, hipster city never much caught my eye, and I cherished instead the chance to work, to read and write and think, at a home far from the interruptions of the office, where social interaction is demanded in ways that prevent one from sitting in front of the computer in pajamas until 2 pm and reheating the same pot of coffee six times until that section of the paper is fully done. In any case the daily, weekly, yearly rhythms of work and home and travel in between are about to abruptly shift. And I welcome it.