Thursday, December 18, 2008

Going the speed limit

Over the last month, my husband, Richard and I have driven several thousand miles just around the state of Colorado as I've done book events for Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, my collaboration with Steamboat Springs photographer Jim Steinberg. The book is getting loads of great press, from TV news shows to features in the Denver Post and other newspapers, as well as Denver's own 5280 Magazine. (That's thanks to Jim's stamina and persistence: he's been on the road for weeks, doing a media appearance and/or book promotion event every day!)

The chance to travel the state from Craig in the far northwest corner to Durango in the desert southwest, and from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs has offered some lovely sights and experiences. But as we've driven hither, thither, and yon, I've thought about my vow to live generously, leaving plenty of space and resources for the other species with whom we share this miraculous green and blue planet.

Richard and I live pretty lightly in the passive solar house we dreamed up and he helped build. In winter, the sun supplies much of our heat, helped by a super-efficient wood stove and a small gas fireplace for cloudy days. Our lights are compact fluorescents, our toilets water-saving, our yard is largely a restored native bunchgrass and wildflower meadow that uses little water and no pesticides or fertilizers. We work at home, thus avoiding a commute, and we do most of our errands on foot; we grow a large chunk of our food in our kitchen garden and buy as much of the rest locally and in bulk as we can; we live on a reclaimed industrial lot right in town rather than cluttering up the remaining wild habitat with our house, car, fences, pets, and yard light.

But we're driving across the state every few days to do some book promotion event or other. How does that fit into living generously?

Not as well as I'd like. For one thing, there's the use of gasoline, a non-renewable resource that distilled from ancient plants, long buried and turned to oil. I'm not sure that using the remains of these distant ancestors to power our car engines is either very respectful or wise, but it's what we do. Still, I'd like to be as frugal with this fuel as possible. Because we live where winter means traveling on snow-packed highways over high-elevation mountain passes, we drive a Subaru Forester, a small, all-wheel-drive SUV that has been getting about 24 mpg. That's good for an SUV, but nothing to brag about.

Then there's the roadkill. You can't drive anywhere and without seeing the carcasses of other species, large or small, on the roadside. It seems to me the more we drive, the less generous we're being for the wildlife that share the space our roads cross.

I was thinking about both of those issues--using oil and roadkill--as we headed home from a book-promotion event a few weeks ago. As I spoke my concerns out loud to Richard, I had an idea:

"Let's resolve to never drive faster than the speed limit," I said.

Richard, who is a careful driver but not immune to the joys of zipping down the open road, considered it.

"Okay," he said. Then he bumped the cruise control down a few notches.

Somewhere along the way on the next trip, he said out of the blue,

"It's more relaxing this way."

"What's more relaxing?"

"Driving. I'm not always watching the shoulder of the road for the highway patrol."

"Good," I said.

The next time we filled the Forester's tank with gas, I calculated the mileage. And then figured it again, because I was sure I had made a mistake. Nope. By dropping our speed to the posted speed limits, we were getting nearly five more miles per gallon of gas. (Most of the roads we take are rural two-lane highways, which means going 65 miles per hour... or so, instead of 75.) That's a lovely surprise, as is the fact that over the several-hundred-mile-long trips we've been making, we really aren't losing much time--twenty minutes or half an hour at most.

Speed does make a difference with sharing the road too, as we realized when the deer jumped out in front of us the other evening and both we and the deer escaped without so much as a whisker harmed. It's a relief to slow down and not worry so much about avoiding collisions with other drivers and the other species who live here, and thus saving their lives--and ours.

The bonus in driving the speed limit is one I already knew and had forgotten in my rush to get "there" quickly: slowing down means you see more. I wouldn't have noticed the almost full moon hanging chalky and white in a winter afternoon sky if we'd been whizzing along so fast, and I certainly wouldn't have bothered to stop and shoot this photo. Half an hour later and twenty-five miles up the road, that same moon hung silver in a lavender sky over rose-blush pink peaks, and we stopped again. That shot graces the cover of my upcoming memoir. Slowing down gave me a gift of beauty I treasure.

Slowing down makes driving less exhausting all around--in terms of mental and emotional energy, use of fuels distilled from the bodies of those ancient plants, and in sharing the road and the landscape with other vehicles and other species. And it gives us the gift of increased awareness of the places we travel through. That's a wonderful return for the simple act of living more generously.


turtlewoman said...

Good morning Susan and happy holidays to you and Richard.

We also have a silver Subaru Forester and have discovered the same thing: decreased speed = increased mpg.

What mountain range are we looking at in the picture in this post?

Lindy in AZ

Susan J Tweit said...

Hi, Lindy,

The mountain range in the lower photo is the Sangre de Cristos, from the San Luis Valley between Crestone and Moffat. We love our Forester, though it's dirt brown, not silver. (Dirt brown matches the dirt it picks up on the back rounds better!)

Tonight we will light more than a hundred luminarias, tiny candles sitting on a bed of sand, each in their own paper bag, for our annual "Light the Darkness" celebration with friends and family. That's a tradition we brought north from our years in Southern New Mexico. I bet you see loads of luminarias there in Arizona (we do ours on Solstice instead of Christmas Eve though).

Happy Solstice to you and yours! usan

eduardo said...

In an interview with Terry Tempest Williams, she mentions (I think it's) Eliot Porter's saying he never drove faster than 35 mph, because otherwise he didn't see anything.
Of course, this "need for speed" infests much more than our driving, and it's more than roadkill that's strewn in our resulting wakes. (In an essay about a decade after the interview, TTW asked, "Who told us to wear running shoes at work?")
I'm recalling the first part of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.
And so we go....

Susan J Tweit said...

Yes, that's something the photographer Eliot Porter said more than once. Then there's Barry Lopez' beautiful book, Apologia, an extended meditation on the roadkill he encountered on one trip from Oregon to the East Coast. Before I knew of that book, I wrote an essay called "Picking Up Roadkill," on a similar theme. How we live our lives says so much about who we are--we can be less heedless and more generous if we choose to be.

turtlewoman said...

Good morning to both Susan and Eduardo -

Dirt brown Suby would work well here in the desert also :-D

Luminarias - thousands here in AZ. We live in a small house that was already built in the middle of a rural area in the desert. Javelinas and coyotes eat and/or destroy everything we try to put out so we do not have luminarias. I do love them. What a wonderful tradition you are following and best on the Solstice.

Roadkill - we try to always remember to carry a small shovel and gloves. We have rescued many a desert tortoise and tarantula from certain death on the highways and have buried numerous other creatures who have not been so fortunate. My most recent was a beautiful gray fox. I moved him off the road and buried him in a shallow grave near the shoulder. I had read of this practice many years ago in one of Barry Lopez's books - don't remember which one now - and we have tried to do this ever since.

Susan - thanks for the answer as to which mountain range. Doug thought it might be the 14ers (he thought he recognized the Angel) - I'll tell him.

Lindy - 29 degrees here this morning

Susan J Tweit said...

Barry's talked about moving road-killed wildlife out of harm's way in several of his books, Lindy. You might look for Apologia, his meditation on the carnage he saw on one cross-country trip. It's a beautiful tribute. Bless you for being so observant and respectful of the lives who intersect ours on the roads.

I'm interested that you bury the dead ones you find. I leave the bodies out so that they can feed other creatures--ravens, vultures, coyotes, wolves, and even bears all feed on carcasses, along with lots of smaller critters. Burying them deprives all of those lives of the food they depend on. It's just part of the cycle of life.

Stay warm! Susan