Thursday, August 23, 2007

Highway 17

I ride the Highway 17 bus on a regular basis, partially out of some shallow environmental consciousness but mostly because I live in a single-car family with three drivers. It's a fascinating experience. A one-way trip lasts about an hour -- from Scotts Valley to downtown San Jose -- and I get to hear (and sometimes participate in) all sorts of conversation. Commuters generally respect each other's needs for silence, and they make an effort to avoid tilting their seats into neighbors' spaces. But sometimes a number of folks will transform this mobile space into a mini salon, chatting about California politics, workplace intrigues, and, in the case of commuting faculty members, the joys and hassles of teaching. A recent conversation ranged from comparative bike riding practices in China and Santa Cruz to a discussion about the newly signed state budget. The bus driver, savvy and thoughtful, participated with aplomb while an eagle eye on the road.

Only sometimes can the ride get miserable. Sometimes a gaggle of folks chat so loudly that their neighbors have no chance to concentrate on their own thoughts or laptop projects. And mobile phone users frequently forget that their volume extends beyond themselves and their distant interlocutors. Then there's occasional traffic, rarely bad enough to add more than fifteen minutes to the ride but sometimes stretching the commute to absurd lengths. Every once in a while, I wish I were one of those motorcyclists weaving in and out of lanes, advancing steadily while everyone else idles on the mountain that connects the valley to the shore.

Mostly, though, I like riding the bus. It's an opportunity to write, listen to music, catch up on grading, and (coming home) to decompress. The evening return trip streams along office towers and sprawling blocks of transformers, junkyards, shopping centers, and apartment complexes. The roads converge onto a two-lane that winds about the "hill" (as we term it) until it peaks at a summit, upon which sits a delightful restaurant advertising the "world's best" ribs and lamb. The road begins to descend and clutches of trees break here and there to reveal Monterey Bay on the other end of a blue crescent. Then I spot the billboard that usually advertises Ocean Honda, its anthropomorphic whale smiling a greeting. When arranging to be picked up, I indicate my proximity with a cheery, "Just passing the whale now." At last we pull into the tiny but pleasant town where I live.

The Highway 17 bus costs plenty -- eight bucks for a round trip ticket. But that saves money that would otherwise go to wear and tear on the car, higher insurance costs, gasoline, downtown San Jose parking, and the stress of rush hour driving. The cost has doubled since I moved "over the hill," a bummer (in California parlance). But I still feel that the trip is worth the cost. I arrive at my destination in a relaxed mood, and after hearing a good conversation, I sometimes feel that I've learned something.

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