Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Apr 24 2013 11:16 AM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Along for the ride, and so much more

BY VALERIE SCHULTZ Contributing columnist

The virtues of carpooling are many, but until my involuntary transfer from Tehachapi to Wasco last fall, I had not done much of it.

I am a typical American in that I like to have my own car and thus control my own transportation destiny. But a long daily commute faced me. My husband kindly rearranged his schedule so that we could drive together to Bakersfield, where he works, and then I caught a vanpool into Wasco.

Carpooling saves gas, saves money, saves wear and maintenance on one's vehicle, and saves the air quality of wherever one lives and drives. In addition, in highly congested areas, carpool lanes give co-riders a fast track to work, along with a feeling of moral superiority. Some employers, like the state of California, even partially reimburse or otherwise reward their workers for carpooling. In 2012, only 10 percent of Americans carpooled, and three-fourths of those people rode with just one other person. Even so, that small percentage of carpoolers adds up to savings of 85 million gallons of gas and $1.1 billion each year.

A vanpool is a bit trickier than a carpool, because there are more people, and therefore more personalities, to accommodate. My vanpool had 10 participants when I joined and a strict schedule for departure. Several were designated drivers of the van, which required stellar spatial skill to slide into a parking space. The van had terrible shocks, among other little quirks, which were attended to by a man whose face I never saw. He collected our checks and left receipts, got gas and performed needed maintenance. Once we had a loaner while the air conditioning in our van was being fixed.

Vanpool riders can talk or read or muse or listen to music or sleep, all of which can occur at the same time. You get to know the stories of your co-riders, their jobs and backgrounds, spouses and children, hobbies and joys and heartaches. You greet each other in the halls like old friends, even if you don't work together. You become a little weekday traveling family.

The vanpool ride was educational. It even added to my meager Spanish vocabulario. Every morning we passed a hand-lettered sign at a farm that read, se venden chivos . My fuzzy Spanish told me that something was for sale, but what? I made a mental note every morning to look up the word chivo in my Spanish-English dictionary when I got home, and every night I totally forgot to do so, until I saw the sign again the next morning. After several weeks of this frustration, I texted my husband one morning from the van and asked him to go online and send me the meaning of chivo .

He texted back quickly: "Young goat. Why?"

"They're for sale," I typed, by way of explanation.

"Don't buy one," was the message that came back.

From the almond groves that populate Wasco, I learned that almond blossoms have no detectable scent, unlike the orange blossoms in the groves along Highway 58, which fill the car with their fragrance. The almond blossoms are beautiful, however, delicate and ephemeral, and fall to the ground like dainty piles of snow around the bases of the trees. I'd heard that Wasco was famous for its roses, but I saw an awful lot of almond trees. At one point, a bunch of crates showed up in the almond groves, and I learned that they contained imported beehives. Since the local bees were apparently not doing an adequate job, these bees had been invited to come perform their pollinating magic. Between the blossoms and the bees, I may never eat an almond casually again.

I have recently transferred back to Tehachapi, and so my vanpool mornings and evenings are over. I am again among the 78 percent of Americans who drive to work solo.

But what I learned most of all in my months of commuting is how kind and decent people are, starting with the way my vanpool mates welcomed me into their family on wheels. On my last day, we made a special stop at Starbucks, where my fellow travelers treated me. When we got to work, a box of doughnuts and a balloon chandelier festooned my desk. At lunchtime, a sandwich buffet and several dozen cupcakes appeared, along with a goodbye card and gift. I told my wonderful co-workers that I was overwhelmed by their sweetness and generosity, especially because I had reported to Wasco under duress, and with a correspondingly bad attitude.

What I didn't say, because I thought I might cry, was that they had taught me the truth in the adage to "bloom where you're planted." They had warmly accepted a transplanted co-worker, even with her grumpy disposition. Because of them, I've learned that one can, in spite of oneself, put down roots and flourish even under adverse circumstances. I can't say I miss the commute or the job, but I surely do miss the people, both my co-workers and my vanpool family.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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