Aspen Times Weekly cover story: When love goes to work
November 30, 2011
ASPEN – At 4:15 a.m. on work days, when the blackness of the night still hangs outside our windows, Susan Anderson awakes at her home in El Jebel to bask in her hot tub, a Spark energy drink at her side. Her husband, Greg Paul, rises shortly after to also sit in the hot tub, cup of coffee in hand before starting his daily commute. Susan leaves the house promptly at 5 a.m. and Greg promptly at 6 a.m. If either of them are more than three minutes late, they will be suspended for an entire day’s work.
The steering wheel is cold in the mornings, and gloves are a necessity. The company provides black shell jackets, which, when paired with a fleece, helps prevent the wind that drifts up under the doorway from finding its way to the bones. Susan works five-day weeks in the winter; her longest day on Wednesday totals 11 hours with no overtime. Greg works four-day weeks in the winter, and sometimes finds himself counting up to 13 hours in the seat.
Breaks are taken intermittently between runs. Susan and Greg find it best to pack a lunch to snack on throughout the day, and if they are in the area, they might stop by the break room in the maintenance barn at the ABC to socialize with coworkers.
Time points are everything when Susan and Greg are in the seat. Treacherous road conditions, swarming cars and distracting passengers aside, delays are their worst enemy. Steering just five minutes off the mark can obstruct the system for hours, leaving passengers waiting anxiously at the stops.
“A storm had me sliding backwards on Brush Creek Road one winter,” Susan remembered. “I was able to direct the back wheel off to the side on some gravel so I was lucky.”
Together, Susan and Greg have broken down once or twice a year. In these cases, backups are on duty and can arrive within 15 minutes. About half a dozen times each winter, bad storms will trigger a shutdown of the entire system for a half hour at a time, Greg recalled.
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“The worst days are the warm wet snow days,” Greg said. “The tires get caught up in the slush and just slide around.”
In these conditions, Susan recommends a five-second position between her and the car ahead.
Susan and Greg’s advice for those interested in their career: know the fares, don’t miss a stop, expect neck and back aches and don’t ever, ever be late.
Both of them will tell you it happened the other way around; that bus driving found them, a kind of coincidence transformed into a lifelong blessing. Greg grew up loving the water, and in 1976 spent his first summer in the Valley as a raft guide for visitors. But, as the summer slowly came to an end and opportunity for work on the rivers dwindled, Greg had no choice but to look for another job for the winter season.
When the county advertised an opening for bus drivers in August of ’76, Greg found his niche. It was during those days when the road and bridge department of Pitkin County controlled the bus system; fare was no more than 50 cents to Glenwood, coffee and bagels were served in the mornings, lemonade in mid-afternoons and meals for purchase and pickup were available via an on board menu.
Driving a bus for the county allowed Greg the free time he was looking for. He spent the winters skiing, the summers hiking and riding his bike. And while the complementary food and refreshments on the buses went away a year and a half later, and the demand for providing alternative transportation for visitors triggered significant changes in the bus system, Greg chose to stick with it.
It wasn’t until 18 years later, after witnessing the marriage of the county and the city to form a multi-community bus system by the name of Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, RFTA for short, that Greg met Susan.
“She was really stressed…trying to get her shifts covered so she could spend Thanksgiving with her family.” Greg recalled from their first encounter.
“The concern [his] was shocking,” Susan said of Greg. “He didn’t even know me and he was willing to help me out.”
Susan was hired as a driver for RFTA in 1994. Born and raised in Denver, Susan worked part-time as a driver in Craig before realizing that Aspen was where she wanted to be. She spent the summers of her early 20s with her sister Barb in Carbondale, and decided that if she wanted to call it home, a full-time job was mandatory.
“RFTA made it simple,” Susan said of the early years. “There were only about 60 drivers back then, and we were all family. We worked together and we all skied together.”
Driving brought Susan love. In 1998, she married Greg, the stranger who helped her change her schedule and they settled down under the common interests of the job and the outdoors.
But in the beginning, RFTA for Susan was simply a form of income, a means of keeping her in the area so she could practice what she really loved.
“I’m an entertainer,” Susan said to me as we rode the 7:45 a.m. bus from Aspen to Glenwood Springs on a recent Monday.
For the past 12 years, Susan, along with her sister Barb Cyr, have been performing three nights a week during the ski seasons at the “Burlingame Cabin Family Dinner and Snow Cat Ride” on Snowmass Mountain. It is here where Susan and Barb break out bongo drums, maracas, tambourines, guitars and egg shakers as they sing and tell stories to children.
Aside from the Burlingame gig, Susan performs with her sister around town under the acoustic duo, “Harmony.”
“Singing is what I really love,” she said. “We live in a place that values the talented people who live here, so I am continually finding new and exciting avenues to express myself.”
At work, Susan acts as a kind of ambassador as she writes up speeches for the visitors in town, explaining pick up times and pointing out area attractions.
“Dream Schemes” is the name of her latest CD, and she is currently working on several writing projects including a children’s story.
Sometimes Susan and Greg brainstorm ideas for improving RFTA’s service in the Valley, but most times, they prefer to just live.
“Since we have been driving for a while we have the seniority of picking what days we want off,” Susan said.
On the weekends, the couple enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and camping in their fifth-wheel they purchased in California last year.
And when Susan is busy with her singing, Greg turns to his thrill-seeking inner self: Heliskiing in Canada; organizing on-mountain challenges with large groups; and performing “taste and service tests” between restaurants in town are just some of the things that make Greg spark with energy.
When I asked Susan Anderson and Greg Paul on separate occasions what the greatest part about driving for RFTA is, the first point both of them made was, “I have the most beautiful office window in the Valley.”
While some days are stressful and exhausting, most days are extremely fulfilling for the couple.
“We see the seasons work their way through our communities and paint the great landscape,” Greg said. “Driving for RFTA allows us to really see our pulse on the Valley, in our interactions with the people who come and go.”
Greg Paul and Susan Anderson are in no rush.
While Greg has already reached the point of retirement, he plans to wait for Susan so that they can enjoy the second half of their lives together.
No, driving for RFTA was not a planned career for the couple; Susan has her singing and Greg his outdoors. But in the end, their choices in jobs allowed them to not only find one another, but enjoy their true passions.