Exurban-Dwellers Feel Fuel Price Pain

It's two hours before dawn when Robert Thompson turns his keys in the ignition of his F-150. The bright red truck, still cloaked by the dark, roars to a start, and Thompson rumbles down a narrow mountain road. He'll drive an hour and 10 minutes from his home near Cumberland, Md., until he gets to work in Morgantown, W. Va. This is Robert Thompson's daily commute.

"Just going around town to the grocery store and stuff, we are at about $800 a month in gas," Thompson said. "It's big. It's real big. It's hurting."

Thompson is one of millions of Americans with big dreams -- and big cars -- who have pushed the boundaries of urban sprawl, relying on low gas prices.

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More than half of the U.S. population lives in the suburbs. But not Thompson. He left the city and the suburbs far behind.

He's what's called an "ex-urban." A country guy with a city job.

"We moved here for a better life for my child," Thompson said. But with out-of-control gas prices, "it's hard to save a dollar now. ... I never planned on spending a whole paycheck on gas."

Thompson can't forget the costs of his remote life: Every time his wife drives to see her sister, that's $8. Prescription medicine costs less at Wal-Mart -- but the 50-mile round trip cancels out the savings. If he drives 55 miles per hour instead of 70, it saves him $5. The Thompsons just canceled a vacation to North Carolina because of a $500 price tag for the gas. All in all, Thompson and his wife pay about $800 a month -- half their mortgage -- to fill up.

"I only have one kid, and I make pretty good money," Thompson said. "I don't know what these other people are doing who have two kids and who were just making it before. If they were just making it before, they are not making it now. It's just impossible."

Down the road a few miles, gas prices aren't just painful -- they're catastrophic. Tina and Mark Gardner and their three kids moved to Cumberland in 2005 and bought their dream home: a modest house with a nice yard and plenty of space for the kids.

Now their home is slowly being consumed by weeds. The only sign of life is an orphaned garden gnome on the front porch, which looks like a tiny homeless man. Inside the rooms are bare, and the air in the house hangs heavy.

"We moved out here because it was accessible to D.C.," Tina Gardner said. "To us, it wasn't that far of a commute."

Mark Gardner would wake up every morning at 3 a.m. and drive 146 miles to his job as a union sheet metal worker in Capitol Heights, Md. It was worth it because the Gardners figured their home would have cost twice as much closer to the city.

After a few months, gas prices skyrocketed and the price of the commute was about $400 a week, hundreds more than their monthly mortgage.

Mark Gardner started staying with friends closer to his job during the week. They saved money, but not enough to save their house, which went into foreclosure this spring. Gardner tried to find a job closer to home, but he couldn't find one with equal benefits and pay.

"This is the hardest part," Gardner said at 3 a.m. "I'm leaving my house, and I know I'm not going to be back for a week. I feel like I'm missing my kids growing up a week at a time."

The kids miss him, too, and they miss their house. Their son Ryan is so convinced they'll have to move again, he hasn't even bothered to unpack.

"This was our American dream," said Tina Gardner. "Now it's our American nightmare."

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