Sleepy eyes watch telephone wires dip and fall along Interstate 5 southbound. As the sun rises through the fog, the minivan passes evergreen trees, homes and farms.
It’s just another Wednesday, and four early-rising souls have set out on their way from a Park and Ride lot in Tigard toward the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.
They are CL@SE director Ron Mize, economics professor Todd Pugatch, photography instructor Lorenzo Triburgo and University Honors College associate dean Tara Williams. They are four out of more than a dozen Oregon State faculty and staff who live in the Portland metro area and commute to Corvallis through an informal carpool system formed about eight years ago. The common thread for many of these commuters is a partner working in Portland.
“My family did not adjust well to Corvallis, and my partner had a hard time finding a job,” Mize says. “Living in Portland is a decision that made the entire family happy.”
The carpoolers agree that living in Portland does not make them any less active in the campus community. They all participate, volunteer and do their best to stay visible within their departments when they are on campus.
The daily grind
The carpoolers sip coffee and green smoothies while they chat about the evening before and the day ahead. Mize, who is driving his own Kia Sedona, never switches the radio on.
The last time Mize, Pugatch, Triburgo and Williams made contact was over email the afternoon before, when they decided the four of them would leave from the Park and Ride at 6:30 a.m. and head back to Portland at 5:30 that evening.
The four don’t always ride together. Plans for each day are made through the carpool’s listserv system, and Mize explains the goal is simply to cut down the 13-or-so cars to as few as possible. The departure times adjust to fit the schedules for everyone in the vehicle, and they don’t mind getting to work early and staying late to accommodate each other.
“There’s so much to do,” Pugatch says, “You might as well be in your office.”
Carpoolers form deep friendships through the 77 miles they drive each way together. They have jokingly suggested starting a sitcom or podcast based around their carpool experiences.
Still, Williams says sometimes they share personal stories with each other that they don’t want to leave the van.
“When we do that, we say it’s ‘in deep carpool,’” Williams explains, grinning.
Williams says it’s beneficial for her as someone with a background in English literature, to have access to experts in other areas.
“I just read a book about economics that [Pugatch] recommended in carpool,” she says. “That adds to my experience. I don’t get to spend three hours with an economist in any other context.”
“Nor would you want to,” Pugatch adds.
Triburgo says time in the car makes him a better teacher.
“It’s great to get to know senior faculty here who I can ask for advice and bounce ideas off of,” he says. “I get mentorship from my department, but it’s really nice to talk candidly about classroom situations.”
The fog along I-5 finally clears as the minivan exits for the last 10 miles to Corvallis. Today, Mize will teach his last official class of the term. Williams will meet a visiting professor. Triburgo will attend a maker’s fair, and Pugatch says his will be just a normal day of teaching classes.
About an hour after leaving Tigard, Mize pulls his van into his usual spot in the parking garage on Washington Ave.
Because the Portland carpool system falls outside of Oregon State’s definition of a traditional carpool, Mize purchased his own university parking permit, as have many other carpool members should they need to drive their own vehicle to campus. They estimate that the carpool as a whole spends over $3,500 per year on permits, even though they generally only use one parking spot each day.
They agree that this isn’t ideal, and Williams is currently working at the office of Transportation and Parking Services to come up with a solution.
“We’ve had some good conversations,” Williams says. “But a resolution might still be quite a ways in the future.”
“Does anyone have any gum?” Triburgo asks once everyone’s piled back into Mize’s minivan.
Immediately he’s offered two different pieces of gum and a mint.
“If you were driving by yourself, you wouldn’t have all these options,” Pugatch reminds him wryly.
The group settles back into quiet conversation. Pugatch is thrilled to report that he had 100 percent attendance in his 8 a.m. class that morning. Everyone seems impressed until he admits, “Homework was due.”
Williams says her meeting went well, and reminds everyone that they’re not allowed to discuss food or what they’ll be having for dinner until at least Salem. After that, there are only about 35 miles left to the Park and Ride in Tigard — ensuring that no one gets too hungry before they reach their destination.
Once the group arrives back at the Park and Ride lot, they say their goodbyes, head for their cars and home. Mize and Williams have a quick final commute to Portland’s western suburbs, while Triburgo and Pugatch, who live in north Portland, sometimes battle traffic for up to 40 minutes more. Pugatch says it usually takes around 25 minutes to get home if city traffic cooperates.
And tomorrow, they’ll do it all again.
In addition to saving money and reducing gas emissions, Williams points out that carpooling is good for her well-being.
“The drive can be taxing,” she says. “But when we chat, it goes by much faster. Our carpool brings together people who might not otherwise have met at all, and that creates a real community.”