Tell someone about your bus trip, and stand back. The Question is on its way. Why would you do it? they will ask. Why would you ride on Greyhound instead of driving, or grabbing a train or plane?
A friend and I found out, a few winters back, that we each had a week to go somewhere, and where we really wanted to go was L.A. We were sick of security lines and cramped flights, and with gas prices reaching record levels, neither of us was up for a marathon drive.
“What about the bus?” we thought, poring over maps and schedules and making little puffs of mental exhaust. We weren’t sure if we could hack a 4-day ride from D.C. to the West Coast. But Greyhound’s 7-day Ameripasses let you get off and back on whenever you want — to try and break the ride up with a few nights in motels.
We would aim south for warm weather, and for exotic-sounding towns like Texarkana, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M. We would try to set foot in Mexico, and hope to get a quick glimpse of the Grand Canyon (which we had never seen).
And we wouldn’t come back until we had answered The Question once and for all.
Day One: Washington, D.C. to Knoxville, Tenn.
It’s a slow-moving morning downtown, but the D.C. cab driver assures us we’re going to be in time for our 9:30 a.m. bus. “You’re gonna make it,” he yells back. “You’re gonna make it.” We miss it. After a five-hour wait, we board the next Tennessee-bound Greyhound, a chrome-trimmed Americruiser with a backwards American flag stenciled in on the side. Our driver sports a royal blue necktie and silver tie-clip shaped like the familiar racing dog. On his belt jingles a ring of keys, ticket-punch, flashlight, walkie-talkie and…could it be? It is. Can of mace.
Legroom is airline-tight: I measure exactly four inches between my knees and the back of the seat in front of me. My intrepid friend, Judy, who is 73 years old and has never been west of Pennsylvania, is worried about our connection in Charlottesville and pipes up to the driver about it. He doesn’t seem to hear, as what comes next is a ‘No Smoking and No Drinking’ speech over a crackly mike. With this, gears grind, brakes let out a sigh and we’re on the road.
Near Roanoke, Va., hills bunch up around the bus, and soon we can make out the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once the sun sets, I remember what I’ve always liked about bus rides. It’s cozy zooming along in the dark, and since the interior lights are turned off, your eyes are focused out into the night and not on whatever’s happening on board. This sheltered darkness is almost porch-like — it’s good for reminiscing — and Judy tells me about a lettuce-and-grape-jelly sandwich she once ate.
I’m hungry until the bus pulls into a Hardee’s for a meal break, and when we get back on, the driver has something else to say. “I do not carry a key to the restroom,” he announces, “If you or your child can’t figure out how to unlock it, you’ll be in there until we get to the garage in Atlanta about 15 hours from now.”
I notice no one seems to be heading back there, so I squeeze myself in and check it out. The toilet is a stainless-steel well with a pool of disinfectant swishing around some yards down, and instead of a sink, I’m surprised to find only a countertop and dispenser full of “Fingerbowl”-brand moist towelettes. When I tell Judy, she just rolls her eyes. It’s going to be a long ride.
Day Two: Knoxville, Tenn. to Little Rock, Ark.
Knoxville is home to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and to the “War Dog Memorial” honoring canines who have fought for their country. But no time for these attractions: We’ve got a bus to catch. Dennis Brown is the new driver, an elderly man wearing a black fur-lined hunting cap with ear flaps that fold down. “What do you call three blondes stuck in a refrigerator?” he asks over the PA system as we pull out. Nobody has a clue. “Frosted flakes” turns out to be the punchline, and there’s an amplified chuckle as Brown signs off to concentrate on the road.
At a gas station rest-stop, Judy points out displays of GooGoo Clusters and Goody’s Headache Powders, sure signs that we’re in the South. We get a few minutes in Nashville to scurry around and look at sights like the Bell South building with its sky-high pair of pointy horns. Reboarding, I bring some peanuts and a can of beer and realize that despite warnings of “tightened security,” no one has bothered to take even a quick peek into our bags.
On the road to Memphis, the land flattens out and, since it’s evening, we are squinting into an electric sunset. Bus windows are huge and square — unlike the slits on Amtrak or the plastic portholes on a plane. I feel like I am in a moveable greenhouse. We passengers are like sleepy plants, potted in our chairs and stuck in cycles of dozing, waking, listening to headphones — always leaning in the direction of the light no matter where the front of the bus is pointing.
The bus station in smart-looking Jackson, Tenn., is a shrunken version of Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, but there’s no movie on the marquee and instead of signs for the Rockettes, you see only ads for Greyhound and a coat of peeling, powder-blue paint. I ask another passenger, Sunrae O’Neil, why she’s taking the bus and find out she’s going to be riding all the way to San Francisco. “I’ll be honest,” she says. “It’s the only way you can go 3,000 miles for 150 bucks.”
Day Three: Little Rock, Arkansas to El Paso, Texas
Little Rock boasts surprisingly tall downtown towers and strange looking semi-tropical trees that are spring green even though it’s February. There’s no soap in the bus station men’s room, and the fast food restaurant we go into is out of it too. Could it be that people use water only to wash up with in this town?
Back on the bus, Judy grabs me a handful of the moist towelettes, though I find that most of them are bone dry inside the foil wrapper. I’m getting worried about her. She keeps pointing out what she tells me are “rivers” but when I turn and look, I can see only fields and dust. I don’t know whether these are actual mirages, but it does seem, at times, as if we are crossing the country by camel. Our sense of distance is intimate. We get to know every mile, and measure our progress bounce by bounce.
Dallas in the dark looks like an out-of-control corporate park: Buildings have weird neon outlines, the streetlights are embedded in slabs, and flagpoles narrow sharply toward the top, like fresh pencils. Greyhound company headquarters are here, but the bus station itself is confusing and extremely small. As we wait in line trying to squeeze onto our 6 a.m. bus, the baggage guy cracks, “I’d wait ’til the 8:30 if I was you.” I’m wondering if I detect a smirk, since the bus door has just slammed shut.
More trouble: When I try to get a printout for buses between El Paso and Flagstaff, Ariz., the machine spits out pages of nonsense numbers, mathematical symbols and black squares. “That’s because Greyhound doesn’t go there,” explains the clerk, but when I protest that Flagstaff’s a big town, she gives me a look, and says to “spell the name of it, and slowly.” We try again, getting some info this time, and Judy and I are on our way.
The landscape west of Ft. Worth is like a Safari theme park where the animals refuse to come near. If you look carefully you can see specks along the horizon, and sometimes groups of specks that Judy says have to be herds. Abilene is a much more close-up surprise. It has the widest streets in Texas and its buildings are colorful square blocks of brick that look mysterious since there’s hardly a soul in town.
When we get near Midland, the bus driver tells us to look left, and fingers are pointing as we roar past a family of prairie dogs sitting up by the side of the road. Wildlife at last.
Day Four: El Paso, Texas to Flagstaff, Arizona
The lights of El Paso are spread out in front of the bus, and since it’s “The Star City,” we’re welcomed by a cheerful, electrically-powered starfish set up on a hill overlooking town. Judy and I are busy trying to figure out how we can get over the border to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, before our bus to Flagstaff the next afternoon.
Since our motel is on the city’s outskirts, there’s only one solution: Bob’s Cab. The plan is this. Bob will come to our motel in the morning and drive us to the downtown border bridge. We’ll walk across with the commuters, eat a fresh corn tamale in Juarez, and an hour later, cross back over. There, Bob will be waiting to drive us back to the motel, grab the bags, and floor it to the bus station.
Amazingly, this works pretty much as planned. It costs 25 cents (or three pesos) to enter Mexico, and suddenly we’re in a world of handpainted signs for “Cerveza,” music surging out of grocery stores and small cafes, and vendors yelling at us to take a look at hats and leather wallets and limes stuffed fat with shredded coconut.
It isn’t easy to just get a bite of all this and go back, and Judy keeps fingering woven tote bags and stretchy, beaded belts as if they will help her hang on here for just a few seconds longer. I buy a Mexican soda, and when the can of papaya fizz runs low, I know we have to go fast to the passport line on the Mexican side of the bridge and to our idling cab.
We make the bus just as the driver is ripping tickets, and are surprised to find that a fellow passenger, Eddie Arcaro, has saved us a place in line. “All that I own is in this,” he chuckles, hefting a string bag that you can see is layered with expertly folded white T-shirts and a Bible on top. Arcaro is on his way home from a year in the Colorado state penitentiary. But as we get into New Mexico during our ride, he’s one of the few who is impressed with the red and purple, Road Runner-style scenery. “Mesas,” he keeps telling Judy. “Wait until you see the mesas.”
Day Five: Flagstaff, Arizona to Los Angeles, California
After we get off in Flagstaff, Judy and I talk to cab drivers about getting a ride to the Grand Canyon, which, according to our map, is about 80 miles from here. One guy just shakes his head. The other tells us he’d be willing to go with us if we’ll pay him $250 up front.
Since it’s one of our biggest goals for the trip we’re on the verge of agreeing, when I spot a van with “Keyah Hozhoni Tours” painted on the side. The driver, a Navajo Indian named Vince, will take us there and back for fifty bucks apiece, and fill us in on local history and geography as we ride.
It’s a deal — and as it turns out, Vince is loaded with information on what we pass, including a police car that he says has a “cardboard decoy cop” inside. When we get close to the Canyon, I ask him what kind of animals we should watch out for. “Scorpions, rattlesnakes, and kingsnakes,” says Vince, letting us out near the Rim Trail at Bright Angel Lodge. “Almost forgot,” he adds. “You might also catch a coral snake or a tarantula.”
Judy and I keep one eye on our shoes as we walk to the edge, and suddenly there it is: a horizon-swallowing jagged copper bowl that is too wide to be photographable, too intricate for art. At this second, every knee-crunching minute of our trip feels worthwhile. You could ride a year’s worth of buses to get here, I think, and drive them all over the edge so you wouldn’t have to go back.
* * *
We’re getting near the end of our trip, changing buses in Phoenix at 5 a.m. for the final leg to LA. I doze on and off until around eight o’clock when we pull into a last-gas McDonald’s buffeted by blowing dust and desert sand. “Blythe, California,” announces the driver, and although it’s a rest stop and Judy gets off for coffee, I don’t want any and slump back to sleep.
Next thing I know, I’m woken up by a revving engine. The bus is heeling around a curve and roaring toward a highway ramp. Something feels wrong — I’ve got much too much room for one thing –and then it hits me. Judy’s not on board. “Hey, wait,” I yell to the driver. “We’re leaving someone behind!” (No response.) “Stop, will you? Can I run back and get my friend. Can I get off?”
By now I’m up past the yellow line in front, exaggerating the fact that Judy is an elderly passenger, and hearing only mumblings from the driver that include the phrase, “got to keep on schedule.” Some of the other passengers are angry, too, since everyone was caught off guard, and I collect some names and phone numbers for what they’re worth. Someone lends me their cell phone and I dial the number on my Ameripass, but all Greyhound suggests is that Judy keep her eye out for a bus due into Blythe later on that afternoon.
It’s been five long days. We’ve been to Tennessee, Texas, Mexico, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and dozens of beaten-up, midnight Greyhound bus stations scattered along the way. I have made it from D.C. to L.A., where it’s 89 degrees, bustling and hazy, and Judy from D.C. to a fast food restaurant in a town I do not know how to spell.
Hours later, I meet a dust-coated bus from Blythe and there is Judy, sunburned and exhausted from pacing around in parking lots and watching birds. “Greyhound has made it up to you,” is the first thing I say, handing over a certificate entitling her to a Free Entree and a Medium Pepsi at the bus terminal cafe.
There is a second when Judy’s fingers start to squash this foolish scrap of paper. But then the ghost of a grin. Judy is yanking me by the arm, pushing bus baggage out of the way.
“C’mon,” she barks. “Let’s have lunch.”
Author Bio: Peter Mandel is an author of books for kids including Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster). He lives in Providence, R.I.
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