The Washington Post Magazine

How the Pandemic Brought New Meaning to My Commute

The route was the same, but everything else was different.
The author near Bluemont Junction Park in Arlington on her commute to work.

The pandemic changed my commute. It changed everything, of course. First, my commute vanished entirely when I stopped working at a clinic in Arlington, Va., as a massage therapist and instead focused on freelance writing from my home office.

No more biking to work. No more clients telling me their stories or massage music floating in my head after hours. No more of my sussing out not just where it was hurting, but why. As was true for so many people in the first few months of the pandemic, I didn’t realize how much I needed what I’d had until it was gone — and my commute and my job were at the top of my list.

Commutes aren’t generally pined for, but I missed the transformation that happened from door to door. I missed the time it gave me to mentally prepare for my day ahead, to be out in nature, in traffic, seeing my neighbors and crossing paths with the occasional deer. I loved the way the ride back forced me to leave work behind, to shift my body and brain toward home again.

I still made an effort to be outside on my bike: When noon would roll around on another gorgeous spring day, I’d get an itch to hop on my Cannondale, which I nicknamed Bud because of the floral details on its frame. Those bike rides became a way to escape the house — as well as the din of my husband’s Zoom calls — and to safely exercise without being in the gym. But the commute, like concert tickets and hugs from my mom, would have to wait for a vaccine.

Now I’m back to work and back on the trail, and nothing is the same. Well, the route is the same. I still start out weaving through neighborhoods in Baileys Crossroads, passing apartments and ice cream trucks in Culmore and single-family homes on the outskirts of Lake Barcroft, before diving off the streets onto the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, entering at Bluemont Junction Park. From there, I still cross the tiny bridge over Four Mile Run and take in the ballfields and old, massive trees as I head toward Ballston, where the trail dumps me out at an intersection with a McDonald’s, the smell of french fries and hot asphalt an abrupt ending to the bucolic portion of the ride. I merge into traffic on a busy street with a bike lane I share with buses and scooters for the last half-mile to work.

But the new wonder of my commute is that there are so many more people on the trail these days. At the broadest level, the pandemic, by limiting our options for indoor activity, has simply driven us to spend more time outside. And so I’ll see an occasional book reader, sitting on what used to be the chronically empty trail-side bench; walking groups of friends, perhaps formed in the darkest days of the pandemic; couples holding hands and taking photos in front of a sunset; nannies who had disappeared early in the pandemic but are now back with their small charges; and even a few practicing their TikTok dances.

All traffic is one big dance, asking you to pay attention and care about other people. The dancers all have their parts to pull off.
Amanda Long

There have been more specific changes as well. Adults, freed from offices and their old, rigid hours, are jogging at noon, instead of going nowhere on an elliptical or Peloton in the tiny office gym. And, of course, there are dogs — many more than 18 months ago, thanks to the pandemic-driven spike in pet ownership. The covid puppies are taking in the sensory smorgasbord, testing out their leash lengths and the arm strength of new owners. This reminds me to give them wide berth as I say hello in that goofy voice people use to converse with pets.

The community of the commute was in rare form one gorgeous Sunday — my busiest day of the week as a massage therapist — in the early summer, right after a heat wave had finally broken. It felt like the whole world was outside. As I passed through the park on my way to work, I was greeted by runners ending a race to raise awareness and money for another country. I couldn’t get close enough to discern the flag, but there was no missing the joy and determination on the runners’ faces as they urged one another on, tiny flags tucked into the armband meant to hold their phones. A few hundred feet later, bubbles from a nearby birthday party wafted across the path. It was as if I were in a commercial extolling the benefits of biking to work and enjoying your local parks.

Since that day, I’ve been reminded on every ride how much biking to work makes me part of my community, even as I keep rolling through this pageant of connections. I love watching people play cricket and ultimate Frisbee in the same field, as kids learn to ride their bikes nearby. I love the crack of the bat at a Little League game as I turn toward home. I love the way the neon lights of the Culmore sign punctuate the pink-sky sunset when I’m stuck at a light, waiting — patiently, these days — to cross Route 7.

As summer wore on, news of the delta variant and its toll were everywhere. Scenes on the trail looked the same, yet they felt different; we all seemed to be clinging to our last bits of freedom before heading back inside for a long fall and winter.

But no matter what happens next in the pandemic, the changed commute has changed me. It’s forced me to slow down and make room for my fellow travelers. I don’t want to be the jerk barreling down the trail, shouting “On your left!” while a grandmother has a tender moment with her family. I leave my house earlier, knowing that although I can make it to work in 18 minutes, I should give it 30. That way, I’m not getting riled up because someone got in my way — as if the trail were meant for me alone.

Here’s the truth about the trail: We have to get along on it. We have to make room for one another, give one another space and consideration. On my commute I don’t know if the people around me are Republicans or Democrats, are vaccinated or not, love Nickelback or think Harry and Meghan get too much press; I am still going to yield when you’re coming my way. What a difference this impulse makes for the rest of my day, because otherwise everywhere I turn — on my screens, in the newspaper, running through my anxious mind like a hamster — is discord.

There is plenty to scream about (and I do!), but on the commute I have to shift my attention to the present. No thinking about fires and floods, people yelling at each other for wearing masks or not wearing masks, or the daily reality of how this country’s divisions are dangerous and deadly. When you’re negotiating a bike lane with a Metro bus, you save your reflections for later.

All traffic is one big dance, asking you to (please) pay attention, make adjustments and care about other people. And the dancers all have their parts to pull off. This routine goes for runners trying to keep their heart rates up and anyone standing in the middle of the path staring at their phones: We must all look out for each other. It’s just a narrow slice of pavement, but it feels like a huge metaphor for how we’re going to someday repair this country: together.

Tonight as I was biking home, I heard a splat behind me and realized my glasses case had fallen out of my backpack. I’d failed to fully zip it up. After a few bumps, my new glasses popped right out. Before I could turn the bike around, a man — out for his evening stroll with his partner wearing a Michigan T-shirt and a big grin — had grabbed my glasses out of harm’s way and was dusting them off. “Looks like they survived the crash — no scratches,” he said, carefully handing them back to me.

Thanks, fellow trail friend, for helping me see things clearly.

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Amanda Long is a massage therapist and writer who lives in the Baileys Crossroads area of Fairfax County, Va.

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