A small subset of work warriors around the country, dubbed "extreme commuters," spends a minimum of 90 minutes traveling to work, one way. According to Pew, the number of extreme commuters has "increased sharply between 2010 and 2015, a shift that traffic experts, real estate analysts, and others attribute to skyrocketing housing costs and a reluctance to move."
Part of what makes these commutes so intense is the careful scheduling involved. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported on Sheila James, a 62-year-old health adviser in Stockton, CA, who starts her days at 2:15 a.m. and takes two trains and a bus into San Francisco — 80 miles away — every work day. Another aspect of the extreme commute are the various modes of transportation taken, including interstate buses, long-distance bike rides, ferries, and subways.
Ahead, Christine P., a 26-year-old mental health counselor in eastern Canada, tells Refinery29 what it's like to navigate her own extreme commute. She works in Nain Nunatsiavut, a small Inuit town in Newfoundland and Labrador, and walks to work in subarctic temperatures, or takes a Ski-Doo. Worker turnover is high in her region, but Christine says her commitment to her job makes the occasional difficulty of getting around worthwhile. Here's her story.
"Nain is a Labrador Inuit community inside of Nunatsiavut, on the North Coast of Labrador. During the winter, the community is truly alive. There's the polar bear hunt, seal hunting, ice fishing, and other cultural celebrations that people in the community can enjoy because they can leave their homes and travel by Ski-Doo. If the roads were plowed, it would be a lot more difficult — or impossible — for some people to get off their property.
"I graduated with a BA in 2013 and finished my bachelor's in social work last June. I moved to Nain Nunatsiavut in July 2016, and the current job I have is my first one out of school. I took it because it's in my home province and is exactly what I want to do — counseling. Also, I love being outdoors — hunting, fishing, hiking, camping — so moving to the North Coast of Labrador seemed like a great idea.
"I am employed by a provincial health authority, but I work in a Nunatsiavut government building. I always told myself that as a privileged white woman, I would never work in an Indigenous or First Nations community unless I was wanted and welcomed to work in collaboration with the local government. Working from an anti-colonialist and anti-oppression perspective as a white woman is all about open communication, collaboration, and the constant seeking of knowledge from lived experiences.
"I can walk to work in the summer and fall in under 10 minutes. Other members of the community tease me about it, but I'm a really fast walker; I can't help it! In spring and winter, walking can take 35 minutes or more due to the sheer depth of the snow. The roads are not plowed in the winter (the community's choice), so the only way to get around is on snow shoes, walking, or by Ski-Doo.
"Riding a Ski-Doo shaves five minutes off of my commute. I use one that my employer provided, and I share it with my coworker (who had his own last fall and winter) on occasion. While my job pays for all my gas and Ski-Doo maintenance, I still prefer to walk to work. Although it sounds silly, I love the experience. The Northern Lights really do ease the pain of being cold, and waking up to negative-35-degree temperatures.
"[When I first got the Ski-Doo,] I had a three-minute lesson with one of the visiting maintenance people, who also works for the health authority. Ski-Doos are very sensitive machines, and you have to have a gentle touch, which I do not. Let's just say that people don't often ask me for a ride. I have gotten stuck in soft snow twice. Both times, a community member I didn't know stopped their own Ski-Doo, jumped off, and helped me pull mine out of snow. No introductions swapped; just my thank yous, and their saving my ass and continuing on.
"Other difficulties usually arise when a spark plug has died on the Ski-Doo. (RIP.) I go through so many of those due to how freezing it is. If I'm able get the Ski-Doo working, it will need to run for at least 10 minutes before I drive, or it'll break down. Sometimes I'll wake up early, go out and start the Ski-Doo, continue to get ready for the day, come out 10 minutes later, and it will still be dead, so 99% of the time, I walk.
"When it comes to getting groceries, I have to take the Ski-Doo due to the distance from my house to the grocery store. Often, I'll start to walk and someone on their Ski-Doo will stop and pick me up. I have never experienced such kindness and acceptance as I have here. This summer, every time I attempted to leave the grocery store with a box of food, someone pulled over and offered to drive me home.
"It's almost otherworldly, walking through blizzards and being bundled-up from head to toe. The local schools will sometimes close for snow days, as the majority of students walk to school. Sometimes, it will just be me, walking to work at 8 a.m., getting a leg stuck here and there when the snow isn't solid, and laughing at myself when I fall. A Ski-Doo or two might drive by, but usually the only sound on those days is the wind.
"Once I get into my office, I spend the first five minutes of my day taking off all my snow gear, but I usually keep my snow pants on. They're comfy (and I've been known to wear moose-print PJs underneath from time to time). I wear extreme weather mittens, boots, snow pants, a balaclava, a toque, merino wool leggings, a merino wool sweater, goggles, and a parka — and, yes, I am very, very sweaty when I get to work.
"As a person in the community with extreme privilege, my cost of living is the polar opposite of a typical community member's. My housing is paid for, I have the Ski-Doo to use at my leisure, and a unionized position, so it's hard to ever complain. I only have to feed and take care of myself, while the cost of living for the majority of community members is debilitating. Access to traditional hunting and finishing is very limited since families need a boat, an ATV, and a Ski-Doo to get to hunting and fishing grounds.
"Without that access, people have to buy food from grocery stores. But during late fall, winter, and early spring, the food is flown in and prices jump to rates that are unattainable for most people. Some community members purchase their food in bulk in preparation for winter and have it shipped up on the ferry while it's running until the end of October. This is a major expense, though, and most community members don't have the hundreds — or thousands — of dollars required to buy everything upfront.
"Homelessness, scarce housing, and overcrowding are major issues since rents are high. Buying a home costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and involves years-long waits. This community is fly-in, fly-out, so the only way to leave is on a plane. For example, to get to the nearest community with a dentist, a hair salon, or a hospital involves a $500 flight one way. To get to St. John's, the biggest city in the province, would cost nearly $2,000 round trip.
"There is no doctor in the community, no dentist, no physiotherapist, no movie theater, massage therapist, and so on. Leaving the community can sometimes be a necessity for one's physical and mental health. If you want something here, you probably have to purchase it online. (I buy a lot of my vegan, speciality foods online as they are not available in the community.) At the same time, shipping costs are sky high.
"Of course, everything costs more in the community, not just food, due to the cost of shipping things by ferry or by plane. So, gas, basic kitchen supplies, and the limited clothing available are also more expensive. The home phone I bought when I first moved here was close to $100 dollars; in St. John's, the same cordless phone at Walmart would cost $20.
"There is no cell service. I may be the only one of my friends who has a home phone, and that costs over $90 a month. There is now high-speed internet, and I had satellite internet until a month ago, which is also extremely expensive and not very fast. There is only one service provider offering internet and home phone service, which means there is no competition, so the price is what it is. A lot of my service users don't have phones due to the cost, and I communicate with them by letter."
"I love my job, the service users, the community members, the land, and the culture, but the isolation, weather, and difficulty of the job can make it tough to fill and maintain a position like mine. The Labrador Inuit have experienced — and continue to experience — one of the highest suicide rates in the country. But intergenerational trauma, residential schools, relocation, colonization, the loss of language and culture, and various systematic issues have not stopped people from wanting to heal. The strength, resilience, brilliance, capacity, and emotional intelligence of the service users keep me pushing myself to be better, and I can't improve if I'm not here. Trauma is at the root of all the mental health issues I see, and I want to help clients heal from that. Right now, this is the place to do that work. Being aware of how tiny my role is in the service users' lives, and understanding that mental health is not an individualized issue, but a systematic one, keeps me grounded in the fact that I can only do my best every day.
"When I get to work, I have a full day of sitting with clients, so walking to work in the morning, walking home for lunch and back, and then walking home at the end of the day actually keeps me aware of my mind-body connection — something very important in my counseling practice. If I didn't walk, I wouldn't get any exercise, and my sleep, energy, and mood would be negativity impacted. I love my commute — most days. When I'm sick or really tired, it can be challenging, but the physical and mental health benefits are worth it. Keeping my body moving has kept me going in an often isolated, and mentally and emotionally taxing position, through very short days and very long nights."
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
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