Far out in Maryland's rural splendor, Ronald Cranford rises an hour before dawn. Quickly he grabs a cup of coffee and tosses plumbing gear into his pickup, sometimes not even pausing to shave as he rushes to beat the traffic on his 40-mile commute into Washington.
Long-distance commuters like Cranford will be among the hardest hit this year as rising gasoline prices slash into their paychecks and force them to reassess the often attractive rural or small-town lifestyles that they have chosen.
Despite the reassessments and the $1.26-a-gallon average price of gasoline in Washington today, many long distance commuters are clinging to life-styles and dreams that in future years may be only relics of a past way of life.
As Cranford sees it now, he doesn't have much choice.
"I don't see how I can change," he said. "I've been a plumber all my life. I couldn't afford to move into town, and you couldn't get an equivalent kind of life for your family (in town)."
So, like the hundreds of other construction workers whose pickups can be seen at building and Metro construction sites around the city, Cranford continues to drive despite gasoline prices that are moving rapidly toward $1.50 a gallon.
The $40 or $50 a week that it costs to keep his heavy-duty diesel pickup running is about twice what it cost a year ago and cuts heavily into Cranford's $450-a-week paycheck. (Diesel and gasoline prices rise together.)
But if the price goes on up to $2 by the end of the year -- and there has been talk of this in the oil industry -- well, Cranford just shakes his head at the thought of that.
"The American people gotta stick together and raise hell," he said simply.
Like Cranford, who drives alone because he can't find the right truck-pooling partner, Alexander attorney William B. Cummings clocks 104 miles a day alone or with his school-age daughter making the round trip to his rural Virginia home west of Leesburg.
Cummings, formerly the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, said he can't use a car pool because he has to zigzag in and out of McLean on his trips to drop off and pick up his daughter at her school.
The commute costs Cummings about $5 a day in gasoline for his Honda Accord, a car that gets comparatively good mileage. On his $35,000 income as a lawyer Cummings said he can afford the commuting, even if he doesn't like the high cost.
"If it goes to $2 a gallon, it's probably not enough to bring my family in (to live in the city), or for me to go out (and practice law in the country)," Cummings said.
But he does find himself spending more nights in Alexandria when he doesn't have to drive his daughter, and his office is equipped with a sleeping bag and shower stall for this purpose.
Cummings and his wife are determined to continue in their "dream house" in the country, with its stables and horses for the children, at least until the children have gone to college.
At the same time that he seeks to maintain this lifestyle, Cummings said he is concerned that gasoline prices have not gone up fast enough to shock people in making the necessary "drastic attitudinal adjustments" required if America is to survive the energy crunch.
"It just frightens you when you see people talk about getting more oil, not about cutting their driving in half," Cummings said. "If there's only a 20-year supply of oil, period, then we've got to charge $5, $10, $15 a gallon -- quickly -- just to jolt everybody . . .
"My wife told me a shocking story. We developed a ride for our daughter in a van from Leesburg to Reston (from where she could continue to her McLean school by other means), but the van was cancelled because people wanted to drive their own cars . . . People have gone back to taking their own cars."
James Yerovsek, a cartographic technician at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, was the person who had organized that van to make the 40-mile-per-day round trip commute between Leesburg and Reston.
"It was $38 and change for 14 people for a full month," said Yerovsek. "People felt it was too much. They felt they could commute cheaper (in their cars). . . . I said, 'That's a crock.' They're independent. They want their independence."
Although 40 miles a day round trip hardly constitutes a long-distance commute in America today, Yerovsek remained determined to car-pool even after the van deal fell through. He bought a station wagon and is signing on passengers.
"I myself as a middle-income American did not want to go out and buy another vehicle, which I'm compelled to do now," he said. "Myself I work full time and my wife works part time (in Leesburg). If I take the other car -- a Ford wagon -- then she's got to walk to work or take a cab."
Frank Black, a contracting officer at the Geological Survey, is one of those who toyed with the idea of taking Yerovsek's van and then decided not to.
"I just went through a divorce and I'm paying child support," Black said. "It's to the point where I'm going to have to go into a car pool. I don't like doing that because I like my independence and doing what I want to do."
That includes getting home in time to take care of his son after school. But the independence has a price: about $41 a month in gasoline for Black's Pontiac Ventura, a car with a V-8 engine that gets 17 or 18 miles a gallon.
"You price these doggone little cars and they're asking $7,000 or $8,000 for them, which is ridiculous. We're caught in the middle. . . . The rich can afford it and the poor are subsidized, and so the middle guy is getting the worst end of it."
Even those who have what seem to be ideal car-pooling arrangements are feeling the pinch of higher gasoline prices.
Byron Schumaker, director of photography at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in downtown Washington, drives his VW diesel Rabbit 78 miles door-to-door from his home on the far side of Warrenton, Va.
Schumaker picks up four riders, each of whom pays $2.50 a day plus $5.50 a month for parking. The basic daily fee just went up 50 cents to cover increased fuel costs -- a necessary increase even though the car gets an extraordinary 50 miles a gallon on the highway.
"We all own our places and we like living out there," Schumaker said. "Unfortunately, it's reaching the point where people at the lower (pay) grades are going to have to pay more than it's worth coming to work for."
Schumaker lived on Capitol Hill and walked to work for 13 years before moving to rural Virginia three years ago. Last winter he chopped enough wood to eliminate what would have been a $1,200 heating oil bill -- twice what it was a year ago. He couldn't have done that in the city.
"People say, 'How can you stand three hours a day on the road?' . . . But out there I can breathe fresh air 12 hours a day. When I leave work, I'm going someplace . . . We have a huge garden, where we didn't have so much as a rosebush in the city . . ."