DAKOTA DUNES — Depending on prices, Chris Goeb spends about $400 a month on gas.
Three to four days a week, he drives 140 miles roundtrip from his home in Sheldon, Iowa, to Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, home of Lunchtime Solutions Inc., the school lunch company he's worked at the last 13 years.
Goeb started off as a resource manager at Lunchtime Solutions and was most recently elevated to executive vice president.
All the while, he commuted from Sheldon, an O’Brien County city of 5,200 that’s closer to the Minnesota border than Sioux City's border with South Dakota.
“It’s a mathematical trade-off between where you live and how much you like that aspect of it and what you’re willing to do to commute,” he said. “I also have flexibility to leave — if I have complete control of my day, I can leave at four-ish or so.”
Although Goeb has to leave the house by 6 a.m. each day, he’s OK with that because of how much he enjoys his job and his community. He even serves on the Sheldon Community Schools Education Foundation.
Over the years, Goeb has developed a routine for both legs of the hour-plus drive.
He listens to news radio on the drive to the Dunes and rocks out to Outlaw Country on XM Sirius Radio on his way home, but only if he’s not taking a call or using the time to gather his thoughts.
While there has a been a lot of national focus on workers making extreme commutes due to lack of affordable housing — particularly in the Bay Area where the average median home price is $1.25 million — many Siouxlanders like Goeb commute for a variety of reasons.
For the last 10 years, Taylor Warntjes has commuted from various parts of Sioux County to Sioux City, where he teaches at Bishop Heelan Catholic High School.
His current drive requires him to get up at 5:45 a.m. and to leave the house by 6:30 a.m.
This is his fifth year driving to Sioux City from rural Hull. Before that, he spent four years commuting from Orange City and a year driving in from Maurice, which at 45 minutes one-way is 20 minutes shorter than his current commute.
“I commute because I like my job and I like where I live,” said Warntjes, who lives on an acreage outside of Hull that he and his wife, Heather, purchased from his grandparents.
Becoming a distant commuter wasn’t always the plan for Warntjes. He and his wife graduated from Northwestern College in Orange City in spring 2008.
Both new graduates hoped to land teaching jobs in the MOC-Floyd Valley School District, which has schools in Alton, Hospers and Orange City.
“We got married in June and my wife was offered a job at MOC-FV a few days before our wedding,” Warntjes said. “She took the job and we figured that I would sub or work for my dad until I found a full-time teaching job”.
About a month after his wife received an offer from MOC-Floyd Valley, Warntjes was asked to interview for an opening at Heelan. He interviewed and accepted the job not thinking it would be a long-term assignment.
“I figured that I could handle commuting for a year or two before I found a job closer to where we were living,” Warntjes said.
That year or two has stretched into a decade.
Over that time, Warntjes said he’s seen openings closer to home — despite having a population of about 2,200, Hull alone is home to three of Sioux County’s nine high schools — but he’s happy with how things turned out.
“We had the opportunity to buy my grandparents acreage and move to Hull about five years ago,” he said. “I grew up on a farm and we decided we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to move, even though it made both of our commutes longer.
“I am very happy living on an acreage and I enjoy my job. I have never had a day that I dreaded going to work. I have dreaded the drive during some nasty winter weather, but I always look forward to coming to work.”
Besides winter, the biggest challenges Warntjes faces with his commute are fluctuating gas prices — he noted when gas was above $3 per gallon it strained his finances — and not always being able to do his fair share of the parenting with his two children.
“My wife has to do most of the work with getting them ready in the morning and bringing them to and from daycare and now preschool for my son,” he said. “ If they get sick during the day, my wife almost always has to pick them up because of the time it takes me to get them. As they grow and get more involved in school activities the harder the commute will likely become.”
Nan Kiel, one of Warntjes’ co-workers at Heelan, also is familiar with the commuter lifestyle. For the last 16 years, she has driven in every morning from her home in Orange City to the Catholic school in Sioux City.
“I commute for a variety of reasons, the first would have to be that I started at Heelan when I still had children at home and they were attending MOC-Floyd Valley and I didn’t want to leave that school system,” she said. “Second, my husband grew up in Orange City and we wanted that atmosphere to raise a family, we had moved from Omaha, Nebraska, when my husband took a job transfer and we're happy."
Kiel’s final reason is she loves her job at Heelan. She noted the atmosphere at the school creates a learning environment that provides teachers creative leeway in the classroom and the results are reflected in the school’s test scores and student achievement.
“An example of this atmosphere of excellence that I refer to is that I have had the opportunity to introduce new classes to our curriculum at the advanced placement and honors level with total support of administration,” Kiel said. “The classes were not a top-down decision, but rather a teacher saying, ‘Our students could benefit from this,’ and administration saying, ‘Go for it.’ This atmosphere makes deciding to leave hard.”
Keil doesn’t consider her nearly hour-long drive back-and-forth to work to be that long.
She starts her day at about 5 a.m. and tries to hit the road by 6:30 a.m. She passes time in the car in the morning with a prayer and tuning into news radio. On the way home, she thinks about that evening’s supper plans while listening to disco or comedy stations on the radio.
“The drive is much more relaxed now as opposed to when my children were participating in school activities and I was in a rush to get home,” she said.
Perhaps the most extreme local commuter is Jon Schuetz of Sergeant Bluff.
At least twice a week, he drives 180 miles round trip to Omaha, where he works as a mentor for Quality Living Inc. (QLI), a nonprofit company that helps people who sustained major brain or spinal injuries recover.
In 2007, while he was living in Florida, Schuetz had a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down.
He moved back to the Midwest to recover and received treatment at QLI for six months until he was capable of living on his own again and was discharged to Sioux City.
His experience at QLI left a major impact on him, so, when the company offered him a job in 2010 as a mentor to other people who have sustained spinal injuries, he was thrilled about the opportunity.
“They wanted alumni to come back and just kind of be a support system,” Schuetz said. “To be a success story kind of saying that you had this traumatic injury, but life’s not over you still have to live your life and do the things you want to do.”
However, in the three years since he had received treatment there, Schuetz had a few life changes that would make uprooting to Omaha little more difficult.
He married his longtime girlfriend, Erin, and they had the first two of their now four children. Also, his family had moved from a small house in Sioux City to a custom-built home in Sergeant Bluff.
“We specifically designed this house to fit my needs, so that’s probably one of the biggest reasons,” Schuetz said as to why they didn’t relocate to Omaha/Council Bluffs. “Then my wife has been teaching in Sergeant Bluff for, I think, 13 years. She enjoys her job teaching the kids and teaching them to read. … We had talked about (moving), but it just made sense for me to commute my couple days and that seemed to work out just time.”
Schuetz doesn't mind the daily drive. He listens to news or sports radio on the drive down and listens to music on the way to keep himself amped up. His job is located on the north side of Omaha, so he takes Interstate 680 East directly to Interstate 29 North and to get home while avoiding the traffic jams that occur closer to downtown Omaha and the border with Council Bluffs.
"It's pretty flexible where I work. I can adjust the days that I go in and sometimes the time that I go in especially in the winter time," Schuetz said. "I always make it in; I'm the one that rarely calls in.
"...That's kind of the running joke at work, 'If Jon's coming, you better come.'"