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.