The Long Road to Bentonville

Just as day and night are different, the morning and evening drives are distinct experiences.


By Jessica Riedmueller

It’s 5:45 in the morning and the alarm goes off for the first time. First thought: I need to get ready for work. Thirty minutes later the alarm goes off again. Still trying to decipher that last bit of dream, I automatically get up and start my day: breakfast, teeth, clothing and keys … where are the keys? A short time later, I’m in a car and on the road to Bentonville with the rest of the bleary-eyed throng. This is a routine I repeat every Monday through Friday barring vacations, holidays and the dreadful sick days. Like many, I willingly spend time and money driving between Fayetteville and Bentonville. And I couldn’t be happier about it.
That’s not to say that I am happy when I’m actually on the road. As much as I try to be one of those drivers who is always considerate and never gripes, many times I find myself talking to the traffic, as if my tongue-lashings are going to make the cars in front of me move faster or better.
One of the most frustrating things about the interstate we all call “five-forty” is the utter unpredictability of it. Some days you breeze through with no problem. Other days you barely make it a half-mile before you have to start crawling and inching. Some days it may rain, but traffic will move along fine. Other days it may rain and traffic will add another 20 minutes to your commute.
But, a few things are guaranteed. If there is any hint of a car off of the road, you will not go over 45 mph until you pass it. Many times, you will not make it over 35. If you stay in the right lane, you will eventually get behind someone going 60 mph or less. If you move to the left lane, you will eventually be tailgated even if you are going 80 mph. If you leave any amount of space between you and the car in front of you, someone will force in. And, the biggie, you will eventually have to deal with a wreck.
Oh, the wreck. First of all, as bad as we may think 540 traffic is, we are lucky that most wrecks are nonfatal and many do not cause serious injury. That said, it is still a traumatizing and humiliating experience. There you are, somewhere on the side of the road or maybe in the median, trying to figure out what happened and what exactly you are going to do next. Everyone passing is staring directly at you. Eventually the emergency crews show up, maybe a tow truck, and hopefully someone you know. The cars are still passing by and people are still staring. It’s not something you forget easily.
Just as day and night are different, the morning and evening drives are distinct experiences.
The morning is a strange time to be on 540. People are in a hurry to get where they are going. And somehow, that one car in front of you that is actually leaving a safe amount of space between it and the next car, is just about more than you can take. The way you use the accelerator feels like the ebb and flow of an ocean, surging forward, falling back. The clock constantly moves forward while you are stuck in one place. You are trying to judge whether you will be on time or whether you should call in late; it’s quite a fine line. At least twice a week, brake-stomping will be necessary. And there may be a car or two that actually has to swerve off the road to avoid a wreck. Mornings are an angry and stressful time to be on the road to Bentonville.
The evening is typically a more predictable drive. You will usually have to slow down at the Pleasant Grove exit, the Springdale exits and the Fayetteville exits. Brakes are still necessary, but for the most part, a screeching halt is not a part of the experience. The feeling of the road is more of relief with only an edge of urgency. People are still in a hurry, but some of the viciousness is alleviated by thoughts of home.
The best way to deal with the drive is to stay calm and understand that this is the price you have chosen to pay to live in Fayetteville. But, that’s easier said than done. So what can you do to make the drive better?  Carpool for one.
Carpooling saves money, reduces your carbon footprint and helps preserve the world’s dwindling supply of oil. And even more than being better for the planet, it may turn out to be better for you. Carpooling introduces you to people whom you might never have met otherwise. Who knows? You may end up with a new friend. Carpooling may also help keep you calm and give you some reprieve from the road. It is a bit harder and more embarrassing to lose your temper in front of someone than it is when you are alone in the car.
Another trick: Think of the drive as down time. One of the inevitable truths of 540 is that you will be stuck in traffic at some point, and likely more than once, every week. And guess what? You can’t do anything about it. So, rather than complaining and making yourself angry, take this time to meditate or at the very least, organize your to-do list. Take a few deep and cleansing breaths, put on some music and focus on something pleasant. If you’re carpooling, it’s a time to talk with the other people about something nonwork related. Try to see this as just a life experience rather than a hardship.
So why do I continue to make this daily drive, to seemingly punish myself twice daily? I could easily move to Bentonville. I could sleep later, save money on gas. Or maybe, I could find a job in Fayetteville. Then, I wouldn’t really have a need for 540 except for getting around town or maybe the odd trip to Pinnacle Promenade. Instead I insist on commuting.
The easy answer is that I like living in Fayetteville, and with the economy the way it is, it’s best to stick with the job I have.
The not-so-easy answer is exactly why I like living in Fayetteville. There is a draw to Fayetteville that I haven’t felt for any other city in Arkansas. Perhaps it’s the energy of the downtown area: Dickson Street, Wilson Park, the square. Perhaps it is the quirkiness of the city, its crazy roads and the way its modern parts juxtapose with its older part. Or maybe it is the laid-back feeling, the trees or the hills. Whatever it is, I can’t seem to separate myself from this town. Fayetteville is my retreat away from the job. This is why I continue to drive the 25 miles to and from work everyday.
So there it is, my love note to Fayetteville, and my “let’s just be friends” note to 540. And yet I wonder how I would feel if I wasn’t commuting via 540. I’d have extra time in my day, but I doubt I would use that time to actually get something done. Northwest Arkansas has undergone many changes in just the five years that I have lived here and much of that growth and change is visible from the road … the 540. I think of all of the people and relationships I would have missed out on. And mostly, I wonder if I would appreciate coming home as much if I didn’t have to try quite so hard to get there. Exactly how much would I have missed if I didn’t have to make that drive everyday? More than I’ve considered, I’m sure.

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