“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Most people wouldn’t have suspected that Tolkien was referring to a day of running errands in the American suburbs. Yet there it is, plain as day in Cincinnati: a dire and portentous warning for the ages. In a land so vast and unpredictable, planning and preparation are keys to avoiding the hidden dangers of Suburbia.
Just the other day, for example, My Dear Wife and I set out to do some grocery shopping and wound up on a five-hour, fifty-mile expedition around the Portland-Vancouver area. Along the way, we visited two farmer’s markets, bought dog food for some homeless Portland pets, had a fantastic pizza lunch, and generally made a day of it. Granted, the day was pleasant and the company outstanding; but as running errands goes, it was not our best effort. Clearly, we have some work to do in reining in our radius.
Here’s the thing: Vancouver itself is roughly 14 miles across, girdled by freeways, and just north of Portland, a city of over half-a-million people. Between the sheer scale of the place and the tempting lure of the big city, staying on task is a challenge. We need to stay vigilant if only for economic reasons: our spending on fuel has tripled compared to Pullman, and gasoline isn’t going to get cheaper anytime soon. Whether due to a mechanical problem or a change in our driving habits, the minivan is only getting around 16 to 18 miles per gallon. Heck, for mileage that low I’d just as soon get an old Chevy Suburban and be done with it. It’s also harder to find out what’s in your own neighborhood when you’re constantly leaving it.
I’m sure there is some low-hanging fruit to be had here, like more strategic errand-planning and better use of alternative transportation, but there are limits to what we can accomplish there as well. A lot comes down to the nature of the place: suburban America was built by and for the automobile. It’s a car’s world; we just live in it.