(note: this is a work of fiction based on a real bus ride I took back in the day)
Years ago I needed to get out west. Back when I was young I had a job waiting for me out in Washington State. After a few years working as a prep chef at a restaurant in Chicago I was itching to get out of the city. So I sent a letter to the boss of a mining camp out there extolling my virtues as a cook and he bought what I was selling. Probably as desperate for help as I was for a reason to leave. Anyway, I needed to get out there in a big hurry. Only problem was money. I didn’t have much. Enough to buy the cheapest ticket on the cheapest form of travel: a Greyhound bus ticket.
Being young and unfamiliar with bus travel outside of city buses I had no idea about how this whole cross-country bus thing worked. Just figured you bought a ticket for someplace and they took your there. I was ready for anything in my twenties. No fear and just as much sense.
At home I gathered my gear not knowing exactly what to take. This was only a summer job but I was hoping it might turn into more. Who knows. You never know what you’re going to like and who’s going to like you. I packed my blue duffel with a variety of different clothes for a whole host of imagined circumstances. Light stuff to sweat out the heat in, heavy stuff to ward off the cold. Beat up clothes to do the dirty work in and clean threads for times I needed to be presentable. And several pairs of shoes.
The bus was loading in downtown Chicago and I bought my ticket for Wenatchee, Washington. It cost me $126 dollars which I still think is a pretty good deal. Sometimes the best deals are the ones that surprise you. Sometimes you unintentionally buy a package deal that includes a whole bunch of stuff tossed in with it. Looking back I have to wonder if I didn’t make a huge mistake with that ticket.
The bus driver was a young woman and I remember that really broke down my stereotype of a bus driver. I guess I expected Ralph Kramden. She proceeded to bust up the proceedings with her jokes and enthusiasm. “What are you bringing all this stuff for? Think we’re going to the moon?” she teased a couple with four huge suitcases. “Aren’t you just about the prize winner at the Darling Contest!” she cooed over a small child. And she was right about that little girl. Eyes for days. Everybody got infected with that driver’s mood and we took one step towards feeling like a thrown together family. I chucked my blue duffel in the cargo hold and got on.
They tell you not to sit too far towards the back of a Greyhound bus because of the smells and the engine noise and vibrations and what-not. And the riff-raff is back there too. But that’s where I was drawn to as I made my way down the aisle. I found a window seat by one that wasn’t too dirty or scratched up, and without a post right down the middle where I would be staring at the road for the next few days. The bus filled up about two-thirds full but nobody sat next to me. So I kind of got myself real comfortable and settled in.
It was Wednesday morning and we were due in Wenatchee on Friday night. I never had taken a bus ride like this and had no idea what to expect. I figured as long as they let us out every few hours to stretch our legs and grab a sandwich things would turn out. Can’t be too bad, right? I was anxious and eager to start my new job but I just need to be patient. I knew I was in for a long bus ride.
We headed out of the city due west towards Des Moines. We stopped first in Rockford and a young guy got on and he took up the seat next to me. He was reading a book with some strange symbols on the cover. I asked him about it and he told me it was a book on white magic. Well I never heard of that before but being brought as a good Christian boy I sensed something demonic. I knew about nature spirits and even felt like they were real at times. Other than that, the witches and warlocks were either just Halloween costumes or people who did really wicked stuff around bonfires in the woods.
I knew about Voodoo too and asked him if it was sort of like that. He said, “Well, maybe but Voodoo isn’t just about sticking pins in dolls and putting curses on people. And White Magic isn’t either.” I really got interested in this guy. He didn’t look like a warlock. He was maybe 25 years old, slight build, kind of bookish and seemed very gentle. This whole idea that there might be good witches and bad witches was right out of Wizard of Oz but hey, entertainment right? He went on, “White magic is the power to do only good. It’s the ability to change ourselves and the people we come into contact with so that we stop acting automatically in ways that are harmful and change into people who actually help humankind.”
That seemed pretty ambitious for magic. Wasn’t that just what Houdini and those guys in Vegas do for fun? But the kid was so sincere and so invested in this concept that I felt like he was doing what was working for him. “How do you know the difference between White Magic and Black Magic?” I asked him. “That’s easy” he said, “Black magic is what you want, white magic is what the universe wants.”
We pulled off in Davenport and that was his stop. We had introduced ourselves earlier and his name was Roger. Roger was a trip. And he sure got mine off to a fine start.
The bus ride was starting to take on a nice rhythm. We’d cruise down the highway with the deep thrum of the diesel engine below us to the next big city and stop to swap passengers. In Iowa City a middle-aged woman got on and asked if the seat next to me was taken. “It’s yours”, I said and she said thanks. She had a Hawkeye logo on her travel bag and I asked if she was taking classes at the university. She told me yes, she was a writer and Iowa has a terrific writing program called The Writer’s Workshop.
She was headed back home to Des Moines for break and was excited about being in the writing program. So I got to hear all about the place where Flannery O’Conner changed her mind about being a journalist and went into fiction writing. Where Robert Bly studied, where Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth taught.
She told me she has an idea for a movie, a comedy. She had just completed a workshop on comedy writing but it was sort of strange. “We spent the whole day discussing irony and surprise. We got in deep with Shakespeare’s comedies and how they were resolved at the end with forgiving and forgetting and throwing a big party. The workshop went on and on and I started thinking, ‘I really hope we laugh at some point.’” Well, we both laughed at this. “We spent all day talking about comedy and nobody ever laughed!” she said. “At least that was ironic.” I said.
We cruised on to Des Moines. The bus station there was just off the expressway. In no time we were out of there on our way again, leaving behind the budding writer to find her audience, one that really laughs.
We made our way towards Nebraska. The seat beside me was empty but a group of people had boarded and they started up a party that lasted to Omaha. The main character was a red-cheeked fella just chock full of one-liners and barbs who kept the conversation rolling.
I was immediately drawn to his personality. I always loved a good story teller and struggled myself putting a goodly amount of pertinent detail into mine. My stories always just had a quick set-up followed by the kicker. I was a “get-in and get-out” story teller. Not much one for attention.
This guy seemed to have no end to it. He could tell a five minute story with multiple laugh lines or jump in on somebody else’s to the same effect. His friends were enjoying it all. One of them offered me a cookie from a package he passed around. That was great. The cookie was delicious and the gesture was kind. But I began to notice that although this funny guy was sitting right opposite me across the aisle, he never made eye contact.
Not a big deal. Not like that’s never happened. But this went on way past Omaha. It kept up for an hour or more as we headed north to Sioux City. He occasionally looked my way but just past me. I began to feel self-conscious. Maybe I’m a “big-city snob” or maybe he has some other reason. Maybe he had no reason at all and just kept on doing what he had started.
I always thought interactions with strangers take one of two paths. Either one person or the other breaks through and reaches across the divide of silence or the silence takes on an immensity that neither can control. I kept trying to think of something I could say but the pace and flow of their banter never seemed to allow it. Or maybe I was getting swamped by my own silence. He never did look at me. Just sort of in my direction.
In Sioux Falls a East Indian gentleman took the seat next to me. He had brought food for dinner with him, some kind of fritter and a flat bread. He offered me some and I declined even though it smelled delicious. “What’s that called” I asked. “Pakora” he answered, “This one is Paneer pakora, kind of soft cheese dipped in batter and deep fried.” Well I broke down and took him up on his offer. Pretty soon he had a whole spread of food coming out of that basket. “I am Pakistani. We love to eat!” He put samosas and chutneys and those little bonda balls in front of me as fast as I could move them to my mouth.
After we both had our fill I thanked him with all my might and asked him where he got the food. “I made it at my restaurant in Sioux City. You will need to come eat with us there some time!” I wondered how I could ever make that happen but said I’d love to. He exited in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and I reached out a hand to thank him. I told him he was a great guy and said my good-byes. He took my hand, looked me straight in the eye and pressed my hand to his forehead.
I thought about that a lot as we traveled through South Dakota. I kept thinking about how exotic it all was, the food, the person, the good bye. But that is just who he is. Nothing about any of that was exotic to him.
We were headed directly west again after our jog north, towards Rapid City. It grew dark and I drifted off. During the night I picked up on the fact that we were getting off the highway more often. The hypnotic hum of the engines would stop and I’d wake up for a few minutes at a bus station. Then the quietness would suck me back into sleep until the engine fired up again and off we’d go.
By early morning I was more aware of the fact that our progress had slowed. We were just past Rapid City and into Wyoming. We’d only made 300 miles or so in ten hours during the night. We got off in Gillette, Wyoming and took the old state highway straight into town. The bus slowed and I’d feel the pull to one side as it changed course onto the exit ramp. We were headed through the city and at each stop light I’d try to take in some detail; an old abandoned gas station, a street sign bending in the wind, a mother pushing a stroller. Then into the station, this time for just a quick stop to check in since no one got on or off. And back down the state highway through a few more stop lights to rejoin the interstate which looped around Gillette.
We drove for about an hour to Buffalo where we repeated the procedure; engine downshifting, sideways pull, through a few stop lights, each time the same; pause, look for details, accelerate, pause, look for details, accelerate. I was still finding some interesting things to look at to help pass the time. I was trying to forget how eager I was just to get there. At the bus station no one got on and no one got off. This was becoming real familiar.
This time we were back on the highway for just a half hour or so before Sheridan. I listened to the engine straining as the driver downshifted (our cheery female driver was replaced somewhere during the night by a more stolid male figure in front). I leaned into the sidewall of the bus by my seat and prepared for the routine. I tried to focus on details at the stop lights as usual but it was harder to do. I kept thinking about Wenatchee and how nice it will be when I just got there.
At the Sheridan bus station a skinny kid from down south got on and we talked about our plans. We were both headed to Wenatchee but he was going out to pick apples. “My grand-daddy did it during the depression. He was an Okie. Looks like now I am too!.” he laughed. He was reading a magazine, some kind of video gamer’s mag. “Hey, know anywhere I can buy a bee magazine?” he asked me as if I might actually know. “I couldn’t find one in Sheridan. Not anywhere!” I couldn’t help him. He kept bees back in Oklahoma and he thought maybe he might get year-round work in the orchards doing that. Bee Magazines. I tried to imagine.
His said his name was Sammy and he passed the time humming a tune. I didn’t recognize it but part of it went, “Life… is what you make of it, so some people say” He asked me if he was bothering me but I said I don’t mind.
I kind of drifted off for a while, staring out the window and thinking about that lyric. Thinking about exits and the people you meet in between them. Thinking about destinations and why they seem like everything.
Now this stop and go pattern was getting worse. The bus was pulling off all the time and we weren’t making much head way. All through Montana it was like that. I noticed that now instead of passing a few exits between stops we were pulling off at every damn exit. I would see that green exit sign and just sit there praying we wouldn’t get off. “Just this one time…please!!” Nope. Every damn exit. That high engine thrum from hitting low gear was the sound of tedium. The lean to one side was annoying me no end because I just wanted sit straight and go straight, the little details at the stop lights all looked the same; just some beat up old gas station.
I began to make bets with myself about how long we’d be stopped at each bus station. I’d always lose because no matter how quiet the town, no matter how few people got on or off, the driver would climb down and we’d stay just a little too long. Must be another pretty girl behind the counter, I’d think. Finally, I got off myself just to break up the brutal routine. “So” I asked the driver, “do we get off at every exit?” “Pretty much” he said, “this is the milk run.” So that’s what this is and I’m the sour bottle.
Yep, by this time I was pretty much out of patience. And I hate people like that. If I’m in traffic that’s slowed to a crawl in some construction zone or what-not and some guy who can’t sit tight starts running the line by zipping by on the shoulder, I’ve been known to hang my butt halfway out there just to block them. I’ll just do it and I’ll be damned if I care about being nice to those jerks.
But now tables are turned and I want so bad to just to get behind the wheel and zip past all of these tiny little towns with nobody in them, nobody who wants to ride on this bus anyway. And who can blame them! This bus is headed down some pike called nowhere in a big hurry. This bus never met an exit it don’t like. This bus got lost somewhere between on the way and getting there.
Hoo my. Nice to get that off my chest. I think I just bought the wrong kind of ticket.