Lessons of a Long-Distance Commuter

By staff January 1, 2003

Several years ago, when our company acquired Southwest Florida's Gulfshore Life magazine, I didn't realize I'd soon be whizzing up and down I-75 between our Naples and Sarasota offices. With modern technology to keep us connected, who needed to waste time on the road? And in fact, hundreds of e-mails do fly back and forth between our offices every day, containing invoices, ideas, sales reports, stories at various stages in the editing process and even completed page layouts. But I soon learned you can't build trust or develop a sense of place over the Internet. Nothing replaces showing up. Once I started working in Naples one or two days a week, everything, from office politics to figuring out the work flow, got easier.

Most people commiserate when they hear about that commute, but so far, I've actually enjoyed it. There's something freeing about being suspended between two worlds for a few hours every now and then, with pretty scenery flashing by and your own private thoughts for company. The experience has even offered a few life lessons, which I'm happy to share in this business annual.

1. Life in the fast lane requires the proper fuel.

I used to be a fast-food snob, but eating breakfast and sometimes dinner on the road saves time-and provides diversion, too. Plus, these days, even drive-thrus offer healthy options. I recommend: scrambled eggs and a bagel from MacDonalds or a chicken whopper-hold the mayo and toss the bread-from Burger King.

2. Commuters can dress for success with less. Or to put it in business-speak, expansion brings economies of scale, including to your wardrobe. This may horrify the fashion-conscious, but it was a glorious morning for me when I realized that no one in Naples had seen me yesterday and I could stop rummaging through my chaotic closet, pull out that nice black knit suit again and dash right out the door.

3. The road may seem to go on forever, but it all could end in a millisecond. Fretting about an upcoming meeting, I was following a big semi in the left-hand lane when a giant piece of tread flew off one of its tires and right into my path. I can still hear the shuddering boom of the impact. My car had $1,300 worth of damage, but the real destruction was to my foolish confidence in an eternal future. Life can be fleeting and fragile, I saw in that moment; be grateful for every minute you get.

4. Business can increase your riches, but art enriches your life.

With four hours in the car some days, I figured I'd start listening to books on tape or CDs, but public radio keeps me mesmerized the entire time. Going south, you can start out with Tampa's WUSF or WMNF, then switch over to Fort Myers' WGCU. I've not only learned more about music, current events and a world of esoteric subjects; thanks to excellent local programs and commentators, I've also picked up story ideas and some new writers. I can even thank NPR for my new favorite recipe: Beer Butt Chicken. (Insert an open can of beer into "the south end of a chicken headed north," as the commentator so eloquently described it; cook on a covered grill for an hour or so; then dive into the most tender, delicious chicken you'll ever taste.)

5. Never pass up a chance for a pit stop.

I'd just polished off another bottle of water and Sarasota was still an hour away. But when the rain started sputtering I decided to pass by the exit and its bathrooms. Two hours later, creeping towards North Port in the mother of all traffic jams, I was enduring agony that only another middle-aged woman could understand.

6. Smart entrepreneurs know when to exit.

But they need to figure it out on their own, since those new exit signs on I-75 don't offer any help. I know-there's a whole science behind them, with the new numbers based on how far you are from the end of the Interstate so you can calculate the distance from one exit to the next. But I'm more interested in finding the right exit than doing the math; and in my opinion, three numbers are one too many. I could remember Exit 17, but Exit 111 will forever elude my mind.

7. Don't let gadflies divert you from your journey.

Truckers honk. It's just what they do. But I didn't know that; and when it happened three times in one afternoon, I decided there must be something wrong with my car. I pulled off in Punta Gorda, got out to check my tires and promptly tripped over a crack in the parking lot, fracturing my toe and my dignity.

8. It really is the trip and not the destination.

When you're speeding up and down I-75, you can't really stop and smell the flowers, but you are forced to look at the big picture. And what a big and beautiful picture it is! On the busiest highway in Southwest Florida, nature unrolls a never-ending spectacle. Early-morning fog casts a milky, mysterious veil over pastures and pinelands; flocks of egrets flash white across the horizon; cows and hawks, motionless in the midday heat, stand sentinel by the road; towering thunderheads mass over the Myakka River; and Charlotte Harbor shimmers rosily in the setting sun. Twice I've even seen deer emerge from the woods and teeter, big-eyed and tentative, right on the edge of the asphalt. Every day I'm reminded of what's at stake in the region's struggle to balance prosperity and growth with our precious natural resources; and every day, for a minute or two, at least, my own little affairs and aspirations fade to their proper perspective.

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