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Audrey French


Photo of reading at celebrationCommuting, Literally

I have had little traffic to deal with in my adult life. The traffic update comes on during my morning news fix and I use that opportunity to refill my coffee. Commuting dilemmas and never ending updates on TV and on the radio are just background static, until now. The past few weeks have found me a part of this commuting rat race. I am driving 75 miles one way to the University of Minnesota campus. It is summer and the change has been invigorating and challenging. Since I am driving in for the Minnesota Writing Project, it was no big surprise when I realized how I use my literature skills to help me on my journey.

-what time of day it is
-what day of the week it is
-what construction projects are underway

When I have decided on which road,

-the traffic around me. The truck with the bumper stickers Lifetime Legion, POW MIA, and  Go Army  lined up across the tailgate—that truck is going to be old and slow, conservative and trailing.

10 and 2 while I coast around.

-each intersection. Big lumbering trucks in the right lane, merging traffic slipping in, a tattered RV to boot—stay in the left lane. The line is longer, but the speed is worth it.

With the constant reminder that I might be bending a few rules,

-check my mirrors. Sides and rearview—no need for any red ink on my record. I adjust for any vehicles flying up behind me. I may have to quickly scoot over to the right lane and let some other adrenaline go by. 10 and 2 mirror, mirror, mirror and I am back in adjusting for the best line of sight.

After about four days I am getting pretty good at reading traffic.

The repetition helps solidify my abilities and I am becoming one with the commuters. Heading down in the morning I check my rearview mirror near Zimmerman for my favorite truck. A huge Chevy with two white stripes going up and over.... a Mini Cooper on steroids. Every day the truck eases into my sight. I try to shift into the right lane when I catch a glimpse of his grill where OBJECTS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. If I don’t shift over to the other lane, it will just go around. I will feel bad for a split second, because less than six miles later the truck is turning off.

He is my Ernest Hemingway. Big, loud, wanting his attention noticed. He owns the road and expects others to get out of his way, and it is his way. When a car interrupts his mojo, he curses and yells—blaming women drivers for all his woes. He hammers the gas petal as smoke billows out the exhaust while he weaves around traffic. 

A little more subtle, but just as manly, in the lane next to him is Jack London, a rugged SUV, worn, used, full of adventure and caked with mud from the weekend’s travels on the northern trails. Big knobby tires grip the road as it plows forward. He exits towards the wildlife refuge, of course.

Out of the plowed fields merging onto the highway, a regal Buick the color of earth, is Maya Angelou. She enters the highway gracefully, but she is noticed. An older, immaculate car that glistens of a past, but she is built American strong, strong enough for the future that sets the standards by learning from its past history.

The traffic increases with more and more cars and drivers as I reach Elk River, and it is here my path winds alongside Twain. He is the Mississippi River and this is just my first encounter with him. He continually winds to and fro alongside the highway and other authors. He acknowledges the highway, but he has his own style and way of interrupting the drive and making everyone notice him with bridges and traffic and all that is Twain.

10 and 2 are my constant reminder of safety, that and the rearview mirrors, but I am able to use sound as well. The rumble as we take off from a stop sign reminds me of the dangerous side of writing because Shel Silverstein is on a Harley next to me. Pipes are rumbling the flashy paint job of skulls and cross bones. No helmet rule breaker. Life is dangerous and exhilarating for Silverstein. We all wish we could take the chances he takes. He and life meet on the road gruffly and bold and poetic.

The next sound is the barbaric yawp of Walt Whitman. The 18 wheeler is releasing pressure from his buildup of braking. He hates stopping; well, really he hates the time it takes to get moving again. He is heading to the job site, to the city he built and continues to rebuild. He will work hard and he will play hard. He will never hold back his barbaric yawp, and so few on the road are thankful for all he has done. 

We all roll along Highway 10 into the city. I turn up University Ave in Fridley and take the back way to campus. Highway 47 divides the neighborhood with four lanes of traffic. Turning on her blinker to exit into the majestic garden areas is Emily Dickinson. A huge white Cadillac who may or may not use her blinkers next time. She slips onto a side street in the early morning hoping no one will notice her. She wants to get back to the comfort of her secluded neighborhood before anyone judges her driving.

She is not the only Cadillac hoping to slip in and out of traffic. A quick chill goes down my spine as I observe a black presence lurking over the horizon. A black hearse looms into my view as I glance quickly into oncoming traffic at Edgar Allan Poe. It is odd to see him out so early on a weekday morning. It is odd to see him alone; usually he is surrounded by followers grieving of loss and lamenting over love.

Once I am over the railroad tracks, I am officially on University Avenue. It is here where the city and country work together. It is here where great minds meet, build, and share knowledge, but it is no surprise I am waiting behind a pickup truck at a stop light wondering which way he will he go, north toward Canada, or straight toward the University. Tim O’Brien heads straight ahead. He is a working truck with a been there, done that attitude. As much as he would like to escape towards Canada, he will report for duty at his university job.

We all have to wait for the Smart car to merge into traffic with his recycle, reuse, save the planet bumper stickers plastered all over the rear of the car offering earthly advice about nature and the implications of our wastefulness. Emerson would have been proud of this little Thoreau. He sets an example for all of us, but since he does not have a family to transport, and he has money to buy a new Smart car, we just patiently wait for him to meld his ideas into the bumper to bumper traffic that is often resistant to his methods.

In this traffic we have time to read all the bumper stickers. In fact, the car ahead of me is held together with bumper stickers. It is an old Volkswagen. The stickers have been meticulously lined up across the back—Coexist, Make Love not War, Free Tibetbut it is the colorful, elegant World Peace sticker centered across the back window that sums it all up. The rest of the car is rusty, tired, and grey, but it delivers the message simply. Elie Wiesel knows his way around campus. He knows all the back alleys and hidden routes, and he emerges with a simple message of knowledge and peace to everyone.

I am on campus, literally.