These days, I work most of my shifts about 45 minutes from my “house on the hill.” At one of those jobs, the day shift starts at 6:30 a.m. Which means I’m rising from my bed at 4:30 a.m. in order to get on the road in time. I’ve started waking up at four, spontaneously, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I lay out my clothes the night before, so as not to awake my darling wife in her sleep. Sometimes I am able slip out without her knowledge. Others she wakes to kiss me goodbye. Then I go downstairs and put together some lunch, get the backpack and make my way out the door. I know that my wife and children are safe upstairs, as I lock the door behind me.
The door creeks a little, or did until my son Elijah oiled it. (One always wonders why a teenage boy oils a front door.) Occasionally I lock it as I realize I left my keys inside, and poor, tired Jan opens the door for me patiently. On the front porch, by the soft yellow of porch-light or the shock of flashlight, I step over dogs freshly awakened from sleep, who look at me with gentle annoyance. The sharp-eyed cats sleep in more secret places, so are seldom seen in the morning. Other dogs (we have five), sleep on the gravel drive in the summer and seem confused as to how to react when my Tundra rolls towards them, slowly, and I roll down the window. ‘Get up, you silly dog!’ Heads and tails down they amble away.
Up the long drive and down the road, I am suddenly all but alone on the two-lane roads that lead me to Tiny Memorial Hospital. Despite the early hour, I am “awake, alert and oriented.” The sky is dark, and in winter stars shine down when clouds don’t lay low against the earth. I scan the roadside for deer, their eyes reflecting the truck’s headlamps. Opossums sometimes shuffle across, along with squirrels and rabbits. (One day I saw a big, black bear on a hill by the road. He ran away as I stopped for a photo.)
I drive through forests, past sleeping houses and across a dark, still lake where sometimes, the light from a bass-boat shines across the emptiness where someone has fished all night … or started very early. Or a campfire on the shore still burns as their line rests untroubled in the water.
It is so early that I drive past gas stations and convenience stores still dark and locked, the ‘closed’ sign reminding me to keep on moving. The air, even in summer, is cooler and in winter, positively cold. Winter is my favorite, I think, with the heat of the truck turned out, and the chill wind blowing past.
I think as I drive. And I pray. And I listen to the news, a recorded sermon, a podcast. Many mornings I turn on an oldies station from the North Carolina mountains; in the loneliness of the drive the music of Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and others, make me feel I’ve gone back in time.
I cannot talk on the phone (hands-free or otherwise). I pass through places where cell signals are only a dream, and often even radio reception is poor. Remote areas, mountainous places, lonely and beautiful places defy cell signals and seem to say “look around! What else do you need!” Even at 5 a.m., I agree.
Eventually, I am near, and I find a fast-food joint for the obligatory chicken biscuit and tea, because, well, the South and all. And then I roll into the ER parking lot, lock things up and head to work.
Because this is no urban trauma center, the early morning is sometimes very slow and relaxed. A few patients may be waiting for turnover, but often none. I can sit and think, I can ask about the previous night. I can ease into work. My drive has already prepared me, but it’s nice to have a few minutes peace in the department before the chaos of the day begins. I text Jan. “Here safe, love you,” and she answers, “Love you back, have a great day.”
There are those who don’t have to drive long distances. For most of my career, it was about 15 minutes to work. And there are those who have long commutes through traffic, and through the waking body of a large city, people and cars just starting to fill its veins and arteries. Sometimes I am jealous. It can be lonely where I am.
But I think I’ll keep it for now. There is a solemnity, a serenity to my mountain and lake commute, with animals heading to bed and people not yet rising, with my own thoughts and prayers to myself.
Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at edwinleap.com and is the author of the Practice Test and Life in Emergistan.
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