When Christine Gardner proposed a story about going car-free for a month, we hesitated — until we found out she lives in Normal, Ill. How could we resist? Halfway through her experiment, and a world away from the life she temporarily left behind, the journalist and suburban mom reports on how things are going so far. Watch for a full report in Grist later this summer, and visit Christine’s blog in the meantime to keep an eye on her travels and travails.

 

She finally talked to me.

The Orange H bus driver, the friendly one with the nice voice, finally spoke directly to me.

“I’d like to have your hours,” she said.

I was returning home from an interview about the new performing arts center, a four-mile round trip that was taking three hours. In a lapse of judgment, I’d sat toward the front of the bus, and told the driver I occasionally wrote for the local paper.

That was enough for her to hear. Among other things, she told me about the pond by Kmart that was a breeding ground for mosquitoes and West Nile virus. I needed to write a story about that, she said.

An obese woman who smelled like old underwear sat next to me, even closer to our white-haired driver. She piped up to say that her doctor had found blood clots.

With a baby, a toddler, a stroller, and a bus pass, I’ve given up driving this month to see if it can be done. People have told me I’m crazy — and lugging an economy-sized box of diapers down my quiet suburban street has brought that point home well enough.

Now, more than halfway through the month, I realize I’m not only crazy, I’m all alone.
People who don’t drive in Normal, Ill., typically have reasons. They don’t own a car. Or they like to get loaded on Wild Turkey before running red lights on Main Street. Or they’re 103 years old or they talk to themselves.

All I wanted when I moved to Normal five months ago was to be an average suburban housewife. I wanted to drink coffee with other moms while my daughters played with other kids. I wanted to make healthy, gourmet dinners. I wanted to be part of this community.

But I quickly learned I had to drive across town to be neighborly. Seriously? Is this suburbia? Is Wal-Mart the glue holding our housewife lives together?

I think there’s probably another way to live. Just because I don’t reside in New York City, or Chicago, or Washington, D.C. — places priced out of our middle-class finances — shouldn’t mean I’m married to the automobile.

So over budget and without much company, I’ve drifted through Normal, discovering new places (after getting on the wrong bus), paying too much for shampoo, watching the price of gas skyrocket, buying exclusively local produce and trying to figure out how to entertain a 2-year-old in 95-degree heat on a Sunday when the buses don’t run.

I might be doing my part to save the planet, but at the moment I feel like I’m ruining my life.