A commuter’s daily ribbon of highway
July 14, 2007
The alarm rudely wakes Heidi Smith at 5:30 a.m.
She rolls out of bed, showers, eats breakfast, reads the paper and walks out of her Silver Creek home at 7:30, ready to take on whatever I-80 will throw at her.
After work, she battles the quagmire of Salt Lake City traffic, rumbles up through Parleys Canyon and usually gets home around 6 p.m.
"The winter’s the worst," Smith said. "I leave when it’s dark and get home when it’s dark."
Once she’s home, Smith cleans the house then prepares dinner and lunch for the next day.
"And then it’s time to go to bed," she said.
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The cycle continues with another 5:30 a.m. alarm.
She’s not the only one with this exhausting, hamster-wheel schedule. A growing number of Summit and Wasatch County residents are making the commute to Salt Lake, but insist on living on the east side of the mountain.
About 1,000 people commuted from Summit County to Salt Lake in 1980, a University of Utah study found. By the year 2000, that number reached approximately 4,500.
Each has a different story to tell. Smith feels like she’s friends with them all, even though she’s only met most of them bumper-to-bumper instead of face-to-face.
"I recognize cars and bumper stickers and personalized license plates," Smith said.
If she hasn’t seen a particular car for awhile, she sometimes gets sad as if a friend moved away.
"I realize I haven’t seen that personalized license plate for a while, and I wonder if they got a new job or moved," Smith said.
Smith, at times, carpools with some of them, and they have developed plans and routes depending on the various situations. They even call each other to warn of bad traffic.
"We have strategies of which lane to switch to before we get there and how to avoid traffic jams," Smith said.
Smith said she drives about 65 miles a day to and from her Murray work location.
"I complain bitterly," she said.
For the last 17 years, she’s been commuting to Salt Lake off-and-on. Only in the last year-and-a-half has it been every day, however.
"If I had to do it every day for that long, I’d be a blithering idiot," Smith said.
Smith lived on the coast of California and adapted to snowy conditions once she got here. She is forced to drive a gas-guzzling SUV for safety.
"Driving in winter condition is something I had to learn," Smith said. "I never risk my life to show up to work."
As the drive takes anywhere from one to two hours out of the day, a commuter’s social life can suffer.
"The major drawback cuts into the leisure time," said Hilary Reiter, who started working in Salt Lake about a year ago.
Her commute was merely three miles when she worked in Park City. Now the added driving cuts into her summer nightlife.
"When you want to get to the concerts, you’re running and you make it just before it’s over. A lot of friends start their activities before I get home," Reiter said.
"The other drawback is everyone has a dog and the dog is alone for 10 hours a day. I used to take it for a walk everyday.
"I can’t have any late nights during the week," Reiter continued. "The thought of getting home at 12 or 1 a.m. and facing the drive is pretty daunting."
Another downside is the inherent risk of traveling a steep winding canyon.
"It is kind of a dangerous commute," Reiter said. "There are a lot of tractor trailers out there. It’s not like driving a straight highway."
For Peter Knauer, his commute is shorter than one he had when he lived in California’s Bay Area. There it took him about an hour to travel 16 miles.
"It’s not bad," Knauer said about the Salt Lake commute. "It just puts a lot of miles on my car. I got a jetted turbo diesel and it can handle the amount of miles."
He has a family with two kids who are used to his longer commutes. So this to them, is normal, even an upgrade.
Although he’s used to it, "there is an element of wear and tear," Knauer said. "You do a commute and it wears on you. You’re not in the town that you live in and you can’t go see your kids at lunch hour."
Knauer divides his commute into three parts: Parleys, Salt Lake and the Park City drive. Each of them present different obstacles or traffic challenges. But, interestingly enough, Parleys is his most enjoyable part of the commute.
"When I’m in Parleys, and it’s not one of those get-away weekends, it’s actually an enjoyable commute," he said. There’s no traffic there. On a freeway there are wide open spaces."
The weather and traffic usually increases, resulting in more accidents and clogged lanes as he gets closer to Salt Lake, he said. But the scenery, especially at the turn of a season is what he enjoys.
"When you’ve been slogging through the wintertime, you get sick of it," Knauer said. "When spring comes, you look at things new. I look forward to the next part of the season."
The large trucks on I-80, however, do irritate him.
"Trucks move into the middle lane, oftentimes they do it without signaling," he said.
Sometimes he gets trapped between fast and slow traffic, and he says the varying speeds can be dangerous.
"One thing I will not do is pull into the third lane and cause someone else to slow down," Knauer said.
Quality car time
Some commuters take advantage of the travel time by learning.
"I have language tapes, I’m learning Mandarin," Smith said.
Other times she catches up with events on talk news radio or returns phone calls, she says she’s one of the few who can talk and still drive.
"I try to make the best use of my time," Smith said. "But sometimes I turn it all off and ponder."
Reiter also sees her commute as time to reflect.
"You have the extra time to catch up on your thoughts," Reiter said. "It’s sort of alone time you have that you don’t otherwise get. Gather your thoughts or daydream, it’s total mindless down time which is a relaxing time of the day."
For Knauer it’s a time to leave work behind before he sees his family.
"When I get to work, I need cup of coffee," he said. "But when I get home, I’m pretty excited. I’m already unwound."
The commuters agree that they do it to have a chance at a better job and still live in a mountain resort town.
"Being able to have the lifestyle in Park City and have the career I have in Salt Lake is a unique opportunity that is hard to find in any other place in the country," Knauer said. "That’s why I’m here, that’s why I do it."
Growing number of commuters
*In 1980, about 1,000 workers commuted from Summit County to Salt Lake. In 2000, 4,500 made the same trip.
*Summit and Wasatch county workers averaged about 25 miles each way traveling to work.
*According to a 2000 University of Utah study.