Only those with little money and infinite patience would consider crossing the continent by bus, but it can be an unforgettable experience, one that’s inaccessible to the short distance traveler. A barrier is breached when you go beyond that one-day travel gap. Your time sense shifts, the days become cyclical, and the only constant is movement.
Like a rocket or a submarine, the bus carries its own self-contained atmosphere. The air is a stale funk of old socks and slept-in clothes tinged with greasy fast food from crumpled paper bags. Scattered conversation crests above the engine drone and the hum of great wheels on asphalt. The bus heaves and sways on its chassis like a creaking ship riding ocean swells. The people creak too — they’re old and worn, or young and poor. The faces change as the miles roll by, and each new seatmate is a story: some dull and circular, some slightly crazed, and some as sad as the threadbare seats and the scratched plastic armrests that surround you.
To travel by Greyhound is to catch a glimpse of the warp and woof of a lost America: an America of small town main streets, of diners and general stores, of apple pie and peeling wooden houses. It’s the America of Jack Kerouac’s road, that endless searching black ribbon that rolls through hills and mountains and deserts and prairie to Pacific heights, ending suddenly in the terrifying plunge of sea girt cliffs.
It’s also the new America of inner city slums and tedious interstates. Endless stretches of four-lane monotony connecting cankerous urban sores, old downtowns boarded up and forgotten by the suburb-dwelling middle class. The bus station usually sits at the centre of those districts left behind by urban renewal and expansion, left behind with the population that the Hound primarily serves.
I once took the Hound from the Canadian border at Ogdensburg, NY to Tucson, AZ — a three day (and night) ride, all for an incredible sixty bucks. I saw some scarcely believable things on that trip, including an episode with a man in Texas who was in complete harmony with nature. I watched through the bus window as he sauntered over to one particular tree. I’m not sure why he chose that tree or what was going through his mind, but I watched as he looked it over and carefully chose a small green twig. He broke the twig off and brought it back to where he’d been leaning against the wall, where he held it up close to his eyes and plucked several pieces from it. Satisfied with his preparations, he began to clean his right ear with the twig. He examined it closely, scraped it on the corner of the building, and then carefully went about cleaning his left ear. When he was finished, he threw the twig away. You don’t observe scenes like that by staying at home!
I’m not sure if I really enjoyed those three cramped days on the bus, but I did find them compelling enough to continue a month later from Tucson to Los Angeles and on up the coast to Vancouver — another two day journey. From there I crossed the Rocky Mountains to Banff, Alberta on the Canadian Hound (one full day), and drove back — halfway across Canada — with family to Quebec (five days). It was over two months of hard, slogging road. Three long distance legs I could have easily flown in just a few hours. But I never would have seen so much land.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? The true reward of bus travel is the land as it rolls by in one unbelievable huge panorama outside your window. You get a sense of the vastness of it all and of the countless lives being lived in it, of the individual people each striving to realize their hopes and dreams, every one with a story and a past and memories. Some of those people will sit next to you and tell you their stories. You’ll connect, and that will outshine the sleeplessness and the sore ass and the bad food. They’ll spin their story out slowly, woven with detail, carefully and well, because the journey is a long one and you have nothing but time.
coach murdock, you seem to have a talent for finding good times (worthwhile times?) in places where others might only find inconvenience.
speaks volumes of your character.
Another great article. My favorite thing about this piece is that you also supplied a background track if only in my head. Thank you. Thank you very much.
I do have a Hound story, even though the trip was a short one. I was in college at the time (early 80s) and went to visit a friend. I lived in Charlotte, NC and she lived in the great coastal plain of the state, or “down east” as we call it here. I didn’t have a car at the time so I travelled by bus. We made several stops on the way, to let off passengers and pick others up, and on one stop we picked up an Elvis impersonator! He was still in his garb, and guess who he decided to sit beside? Moi! I’ll have to admit, though, that he was quite the character and sure didn’t mind telling me all about himself and his wonderful lifestyle. He told me about the women, the stardom, the drugs… he was the embodiment of the Big E himself! What I remember most, though, was the dandruff that was stuck to his DA haircut. He had enough spray on that ‘do to keep it place for months. Unfortunately, lint, dirt and dandruff stuck to it like glue! You just don’t meet folks like that any other way than by bus travel!
That’s hilarious you should mention that – I also saw an Elvis impersonator on the bus! Well, in the Greyhound station in Vancouver. But I didn’t get the in depth experience you had, I just admired from a distance. Jeez, is that any way for the King to travel?
my longest bus trip was 8 hours travelling from Geraldton to Perth WA,, had arrived in the small town of Geraldton while a surfing competition was on, the taxi dropped us off at a caravan park, the driver as I was hopping out asked if I liked spiders, I said “NO” he grinned and said “Welcome to Geraldton” , all around the park were bushes, and all covered with spiders, small and big spiders, the only caravan available had spiders, on the roof, around the windows on the outside, cobwebs stuck to bits of aluminium window frames, on the mesh of the small opening in the roof of the caravan.
Got onto the bus at night, the winds were so strong the driver told passengers not to get up and walk to the toilet, to stay in seats, a couple of hours into the trip he shouted out down to us, and other passengers sitting at the very back of the bus, were we smoking, we had to shout out back to him,” No” , there was a lot of smoke coming from somewhere, he stopped the bus and had to get out to check where it was coming from, after a while he was satisfied everything was okay and we continued on. A couple of seats in front of us, there was an Aboriginal man wearing a long coat, throughout the trip he would reach into a pocket, pull out a flask and drink from it, he started shouting at passengers, then started telling a young woman off for not speaking English properly. It was a long ride through the night, the wind and the rain. The last memory I have of the man was of him getting off the bus in Perth, dragging his suitcase along the bus, down the steps, and off into the night, through puddles dragging his case along behind him.
That’s a great story Wendy, thanks very much for sharing it here. Beautifully described. There’s something surreal about those long bus journeys, through the dislocated dead of night. Sometimes I wonder if the people I saw were of the flesh, or if they were phantoms conjured up by my mind.