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Longtime Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty and her review of Olive Garden going viral is the Herald's 2012 story of the year. Grand Forks Herald photo by John Stennes.

MARILYN HAGERTY: Long-distance commuters enjoy wide open places

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He knows the road to Grafton like he knows the back of his hand. Paul Kolstoe, a clinical psychologist, has driven from Grand Forks to Grafton to work for most of 30 years.

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Pete Bouley can tell you it is 76 miles and it takes him an hour and 10 minutes to get to Fargo. He drove it on his job for 10 years. And Sean Johnson enjoys seeing turkeys, bald owls and deer on his daily drives for the past year to his job at Digi-Key in Thief River Falls.

Those who commute to work in this area don't seem to consider it a daily grind. Instead, they look on it as a time for relaxation. They say it's not like bucking the traffic in Minneapolis or other big cities.

Kolstoe likes the flat, wide open spaces between Grand Forks and Grafton. He prefers to drive to Ardoch from Manvel and use Highway 81.

For some of the years as a commuter, Kolstoe traveled with co-workers. One year, he was working in Yankton, S.D., so he commuted weekly in order to spend weekends with his family in Grand Forks. Now he says when the daily drive to Grafton gets boring, he turns to satellite radio. And when by himself, he also listens to books on tape.

Only once in his years of commuting was there a problem with the weather. And Kolstoe spent the night sleeping in his office in Grafton.

He well remembers Oct. 8. He's not sure whether it was 2000 or 2001. But he made a bad decision to buck some sleet and it took him eight hours to get home.

These days, he drives a small Nissan Centra with front wheel drive. He never found the need for four-wheel drive.

There were times when Pete Bouley got 76 miles down Interstate 29 to Fargo in all kinds of weather and then wondered how. He says it was just so automatic. In the 10 years he drove there daily in his work for Border States Electric he had the drive figured out.

It was one hour and 10 minutes from his door to his office in Fargo. Now his work calls him down the highway only occasionally.

There have been only a handful of times he was delayed. Only once did he slide off the road. In winter, he carried candles, a water bottle and watches his speed. He never uses cruise control on icy roads.

"I used to have a big coffee thermos," he says. "Now I take bottled water."

For him, commuting has been a time of rest and relaxation. He would leave the cares of work behind.

It takes Sean Johnson under an hour to get to his job at DigiKey in Thief River Falls. And he gets about 30 miles per gallon in his Subaru Forester.

The first time on the road to his job last March, he ran into blizzard conditions. But that didn't deter him because he says he has always liked driving. And he says, "It was such a good feeling to be working for the company as a software engineer."

Still, he remembers, "It was white knuckle all the way -- the worst weather ever. I kept the pedal to the metal. Put the car in gear and kept going."

The commute has gone well since the opening day. Johnson monitors the radio and keeps an eye on the road.

At home he has his wife Tiffany and three young children. On the road, he listens to the radio. And thinks.

He takes the route known as Sherack Road from East Grand Forks to St. Hilaire, Minn., and then takes a left (north) on Highway 32 eight miles into Thief River Falls.

Reach Marilyn Hagerty at mhagerty@gra.midco.net or by telephone at (701) 772-1055.

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