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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Highways, traffic, civilization: not on my watch

Before I go on and on about how wonderful my commute is, there are a few things that made it all possible: I-35 South, the (old Paseo Bridge), I-635 South, I-435 South, College Boulevard and the rest of the county that makes the good agrarian state of Kansas look bad (that would be Johnson County, the Gold Coast of Kansas City).
I like to think of Johnson County as Little Los Angeles, minus Hollywood, the ocean, the Byrds, Neil Young, fish tacos, palm trees (real ones, that is), Laurel Canyon and whatever makes that city tolerable.
In my previous lifetimes (I should say "jobs"), my commutes exposed me to the worst things civilization has wrought: cars, pavement, traffic lights, 9-to-5 jobs, accidents and the general degredation of nature in the name of development and monuments to mankind (i.e. big-box stores, apartments, office buildings, sprawling shades-of-beige housing additions and bigger-and-better highways that are never quite big enough for all the cars that use them).
When I commuted to south Kansas City, the direct routes were I-35 south to the Plaza and then south on Ward Parkway or I-435 to Wornall Road (it's pronounced either war-NELL or WARN-le, depending on your preference and upbringing) and the long, twisting route through Swope Park, which in its time must've been a beautiful urban sanctuary.
When I left early enough or was man enough to take my chances with encountering gridlock or an accident on I-35, my actual favorite route was getting off and taking The Paseo. Of course, where I live (Kansas City North near Pleasant Valley) and work (the good-ol' Mushroom Capital of the World), the simple word "Paseo" translates to "lock the car doors/pack a piece".
As a history lover and someone who's drawn to old architecture and boulevards with wide grassy areas between the lanes of traffic -- they call that "green space" now (feel free to vomit) -- the Paseo was never threatening, always interesting. There's a black church there that used to be a synagogue, back in the day when Jews and other white families lived there. They're gone, but the Hebrew writing on the side of the church remains.
I can only imagine how kids used to play on those broad grassy areas. There's enough width for a pick-up baseball game, not to mention 11-a-side soccer or football.
The Paseo's monuments and trellises are beautiful, enough so that I took my daughter's senior pictures with those urban works of art in the background.
When I went to work for the Kansas City Star, I was transferred to the Johnson County Bureau to be editor of the Olathe Neighborhood News. Never mind that the office was a good 10 miles from Olathe, which I would never have stepped foot in were it not for my own insufferable curiosity.
I enjoyed the work there, but it was the commute that was the killer. It was only 30 or so miles -- almost 10 fewer than I travel now -- but the choices were highway, highway or highway. I-35 through downtown was easily the riskiest as far as traffic was concerned; one car breaks down or there's an accident and (boom) you get to know more about your neighbors in other cars than you might care to.
God forgive me, but I'm not a big fan of watching people talking on their cell phones.
My nature is to escape traffic and delays, so I often used I-635, which cuts through Parkville and Kansas City, Kansas, before it hooks into I-35 in northern Johnson County. KCK is on a par with The Paseo when it comes to Caucasian/Suburban Stereotypical Fear, but I suppose I'd rather risk my life (not that I did) than get stuck in a traffic logjam where whitey feels safe!
So I took 635, which is relatively light on traffic and heavy on boarded-up retail establishments and gritty industrial areas. They don't bother me.
My favorite route, though, was that blessedly underused section of I-435 south that connects Johnson County with the airport. Johnson Countians have long grumbled about the location of the airport, but putting it up in the sticks created a road that cuts through pristine, hilly country from western Parkville south across the Missouri River (and, of course, lush river bottom) all the way to The Legends shopping center.
There's so much corn, you'd think you were in Orrick.
From The Legends south, things get dicey as the road gradually enters the suburban rash of apartment complexes, housing additions and strip malls, but the traffic's pretty light until it gets close to the nexus of I-35, I-435 and Kansas 10, the heart of the Joco monster.
It was during these two commutes that I developed my "leave the pocket," "get out of Dodge" approach to busy roads. My motto: I see traffic, I exit.
Everyone needs a creed to live by. That's mine.
If I have to drive 15 miles out of my way to avoid coming in contact with the eyesore of urban civilization, I do it. Nobody in my family understands the impulse, but that's OK. I do.
It explains, I think, how I feel about driving to work in Ray County. The only traffic I see is when I leave KC North or cross into Liberty on the way home.
Given where I've been in previous commuting lifetimes, I can handle a few big-box stores, chain restaurants, mini-vans, Cadillac SUVs with GPSs and traffic cameras (Hi, Mom!).
When I get home to Beige Estates, I lock the door and hole up. There's no reason to go out. I've got everything I need at home.

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