Aaron Francis shares his experience of traversing the huge distances of the US … As the bus wound its way through the strangely quiet streets and turned into the Transbay terminal the driver announced, “this is San Francisco, folks. End of the line”. After 60 days, 29 states, nearly 9,000 miles, and more than 200 hours on the road, I could not have scripted it better.
Whether it is Jack Kerouac and his friends rushing back and forth across the continent in search of kicks and meaning, or Josh and his friends driving from Ithaca to Austin to retrieve a videotape, most people have an idea of what The Great American Road Trip looks like: a gang of buddies driving something shiny and sturdy at the shimmering horizon, towards epiphany and good times. At least, that was what I had in mind before I set out on a nine-week trip around the US.
But I can’t drive and apparently my friends had better things to do than chauffeur me around America for a few months so I had to consider the alternatives. A straw poll among friends and some internet research revealed that neither the US rail operator, Amtrak nor the iconic Greyhound bus has the best reputation. Amtrak is renowned for a casual approach to schedules and most of what I read or heard about the buses had to do with them being popular with ex-convicts and being the stage for a particularly horrific incident a few years ago. Unable to go on reputation, I resolved to go with the one that best suited my plans and budget. Amtrak offers a pass for 18 trips over a period of 45 days for $749 while Greyhound offers a 60-day unlimited-travel ticket for $539. I chose the bus and reassured my girlfriend that that incident had taken place in Canada where people are notoriously inclined to violence.
I flew to New York where I stayed with a friend from school who now lives in Brooklyn. At the end of the week I picked up my Greyhound Discovery Pass and caught the bus to Boston. I had planned to head south-west from New York so Boston was a detour but my friend insisted that ‘Beantown’ was worth a visit and I decided that the four-hour journey would be a gentle introduction to Greyhounding.
From Boston I travelled overnight to my second stop, Washington DC. I travelled overnight as often as I could in order to minimise accommodation costs. The flaw in this plan was that while it saved me money it also saved me sleep. Aside from the cramped conditions there is the getting on and off the bus at all hours for transfers and layovers and on the longer journeys I was kept awake by an aching pain in my backside. One of the reasons people go travelling is to learn until then undiscovered things about themselves and I learnt that my right buttock is less durable than my left.
Next stop was Nashville, Music City. The drive through Virginia and Tennessee took a full day but the jovial mood on board made for a fun trip. The atmosphere on the Greyhound proved to be a delicate thing (and not just because of the faulty latches on the toilet); sometimes it was a party, sometimes it was edgy. A lot depended on the temperament of the driver and on this trip we were treated to the comedy stylings of Jimmy who told dirty jokes about his ex-girlfriend, Ethel. On a later, not-so-fun trip from Houston to Dallas, the driver spent the whole time picking fights with passengers he imagined were complaining about the air conditioning. He even pulled into a gas station in the middle of nowhere and tried to kick a young guy he thought was agitating off the bus.
Nashville to New Orleans was another overnight journey with a 2am transfer in Mobile, Alabama. The waiting around and the sleep deprivation meant the depot could also be a tense place. Arguments would flare up and the most troublesome passengers had to be ejected by security (as were the homeless who could usually make it to about midnight before being moved on). But more often it was a place of camaraderie and good manners. In Mobile, a truck driver who had missed his connection and was stranded for the night shared his McDonald’s with me after I used my guidebook to help find him a motel. I could have done without the McDonald’s – with preparation and forward planning it is possible to eat healthily on the bus but I mostly ate at the roadside fast food restaurants and after 60 days I felt like Morgan Spurlock – but the amity was heart warming and typical of the way passengers generally treated each other.
The ride from New Orleans to the Route 66 town of Albuquerque was one of the longest. I had planned to spend a few days in Austin but the only hostel in town was fully booked for the weekend so I decided to push on through Texas. As we left the ranches of the Panhandle behind and entered New Mexico on Interstate-40, an elderly man with a fist-flattened face and no teeth who was sat opposite me asked if I would like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I said “sure” and as we sat at the back of the bus buttering and spreading the best part of a loaf of bread he told me they were his favourites and all he had eaten for 4 years in ‘lock down’. I didn’t ask questions but he volunteered answers anyway. He had been a ‘hole-blower’ for the Las Vegas mob back in the 70s and 80s. This was not a safe-cracker (well, I thought it was a good guess) but rather the title given to the person who buried the bodies in the desert. The desert sand is apparently too hard to dig with a shovel so dynamite was used to make the graves instead. He had just been released that day and was heading home for the first time in 25 years, excited but scared.
From Albuquerque I had a relatively short journey to the town of Flagstaff, home of the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was first observed, and a popular stopping-off-point en route to the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff signified the end of the first stage of my trip, I had travelled south-west from New York and now I was heading north-east across the Midwest to Chicago.
It was leaving Flagstaff that I learned that seating on the Greyhound is allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. This means that paying for a seat, no matter how far in advance, does not necessarily mean you will actually get a seat. Instead, it is up to passengers to arrive early and stake a claim by putting their bags on the floor by the door. This policy was never explained to me and judging by the number of people I saw caught out, it confused others too. I remember feeling especially sorry for an Australian woman in Chicago who broke down in tears when she was told that there were no more seats and not another bus until the following day. She pleaded unavailingly that she had bought her ticket weeks beforehand and had been waiting in the depot cafe for six hours. My own mistake was to arrive at the depot just an hour before the bus was due to leave. I thought that as I was going from one smallish town to another – I was trying to get to Green River, Utah and from there to the outdoorsy town of Moab – there would be plenty of seats available. Only, I had neglected to check the route which was via Las Vegas and on a Friday night Vegas is a popular place. The bus was already full when I got to the depot and the schedule only ran once a day so rather than hang around for 24 hours I got a ticket for the midnight bus to Vegas instead.
I had already met an ex con and on the bus from Las Vegas to Denver I met a couple of soon-to-be convicts. As we pulled out of the station in Vegas, five or six US marshals stopped the bus and boarded. They asked everyone about their luggage; whether they were carrying any illegal substances or weapons and that sort of thing. My heart was pounding when it was my turn because I had a Leatherman in the side pocket of my bag but, cool as ice, I said I was clean and they moved on. I needn’t have worried, though as they were obviously after someone in particular. Phillip Rodriguez, as it turned out. I do not know for sure but from the way the police dog was clambering over his suitcase, I guess Phil was transporting something he should not have been.
Travelling by bus did not give me the freedom to explore that a car would have but it did allow me to just sit back – never too far, I was careful not to annoy the person behind me by fully reclining my seat, it is good manners for one, and on the Greyhound it is good sense – and watch the landscape and small towns go by. The Greyhound is still a good way to see Small-town America. It is true that in recent years the company has made efficiency savings by cancelling its more convoluted routes and today the buses mostly stick to the interstate highways, what John Steinbeck disparaged as the grey scar-like slashes that connect up the country, but in large parts of America there are no towns but small ones and in the Midwest I passed by and through many of them. The other limitation of riding on a schedule is that there are no shortcuts. Going from Denver to Chicago, for example, meant going through Kansas and there was no getting out of it no matter how much I and everyone else on board wished otherwise. One desperate passenger who for work purposes had to make the trip regularly even vowed to lobby the Federal Government to have the entire state tarmacked so that people could find the fastest route out.
At Chicago I turned around and headed west again across the Plains. This is a remote stretch of the country. Amtrak does not run here and Greyhound uses other providers to connect up its service. I rejoined the Greyhound in Billings, Montana and the journey from there to Seattle went through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. Every state has its own nickname – New York is the ‘Empire State’, ‘Florida is the ‘Sunshine State’ – and these appear as straplines on the car licence plates. Montana’s cars proclaim ‘Big Sky Country’. Just ‘Big Country’ would have done.
Weed to San Francisco is only 318 miles but it took 14 hours. It was my last leg and by this point I was done. What I had enjoyed about travelling by Greyhound was observing and talking to ‘real Americans’ (their description) but I had stopped listening now and I just wanted to get off. We arrived at the depot in Sacramento at 2am. The first bus to San Francisco would usually have left at 7am but it was 4th July and the buses were not running until after nine so I put my bag against the wall in the alcove under the public phones and lay down. Later that day I would sit on the beach below the Golden-gate Bridge and watch the fireworks but before that I was going to get some sleep. Aaron Francis