Star Magazine

Kathy Lu: I’m learning to love drive time

Driving down the highway.
Driving down the highway.

Time is relative.

I always think of that phrase when I’m at work, heating my lunch in the microwave.

For some reason, the 3 minutes it takes to warm up leftovers always feel like 10. I try to distract myself from the wait by reading on my phone or washing out my coffee cup or talking to people, but it still feels interminably long.

On the flip side, the 3 minutes I have before I leave for work in the morning, before running to a meeting or before a story is due fly by faster than an eye blink.

Since moving to the Midwest, I’ve found another experience where time is relative: driving.

Among the many things I have learned from my colleagues is that a 45-minute drive is nothing; even 3 hours isn’t a big deal.

Having just come from years in the rolling mountains of southwest Virginia and the congestion of East Coast cities in general, I couldn’t comprehend the idea.

A 45-minute, even 3-hour, drive in any direction from Roanoke, Va., where I lived, meant navigating roads that curved around mountains or climbed and descended them. On Interstate 81, the highway that runs through the area, the drive was made more nerve-racking by the tractor-trailers that would slow to a crawl on the ascent or barrel upon you on the descent.

The scenery was beautiful and the driving fun, but you had to work every minute.

Then there was the weather. The elevation changes could mean dangerous conditions at the top of a hill that did not exist at the bottom. I remember a night drive through a snowstorm over a mountain pass in West Virginia and a foggy one coming home from Charlotte, N.C.

So when I heard how easily people talked about driving long distances here, I didn’t understand. Driving is driving, right?

Then, about two months ago, my family took our first mini road trip to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge to see the migrating snow geese. The drive would take 90 minutes, everyone said. And it did, but it felt like 45.

I was unprepared for how easy driving in the flat wide open feels. (I am not counting the drive we made to move to Kansas City because after two days in two packed cars, nothing could feel easy.)

The fact that you could see miles ahead of and behind you on Interstate 29 really relieved any tension about the unexpected. The flat roads were also easier on the car, allowing us to make good use of cruise control.

Being able to travel at 70 mph — the entire way, not average — made a huge difference in how my mind spent the driving time.

We got to Squaw Creek feeling like we just stepped out of our door at home.

That never would have been the case in Virginia.

When you Google “How much time do Americans spend driving,” almost all the results are about how much time Americans spend stuck in traffic. Perhaps that’s an indication we mind spending the time more if we are spending it in traffic.

A 2013 study by Texas A&M University Transportation Institute found that in Washington, D.C., drivers spend 67 hours a year caught in traffic. Now that is definitely a case where 30 minutes feels like 90. I have been caught in that Northern Virginia Beltway traffic before. It took 45 minutes to go 11 miles.

While I know that there is no way to wring more time out of a day — I will probably never make those 3 minutes at the microwave feel any shorter — it is nice to feel like I have gained something when it comes to driving.

To reach Kathy Lu, call 816-234-4394 or send email to