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The International Writers Magazine
: Greyhound Day

Flyover States and Those in Between
M. Joseph Hunt

“Buy the ticket, Take the Ride.” - Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

The beginning always starts the same. The rush of questions as invasive as the first time I woke up in a place far from home, on a highway I didn’t know. Have I been here before? This looks familiar. Is this a dream, or the beginning of a nightmare? How did I get here?

The answer: I have been here. And it’s all very familiar because through the window of a Greyhound bus the sights always look the same, feels the same, and smells the same. Through those oversize windows, the Port Authority in New York looks like Cleveland, Oakland resembles San Antonio, and you swear that you’ve been to Phoenix, until you find out that its location is the spitting image of the Greyhound station on 7th street in downtown Los Angeles. You have been here. It’s the exact place that you found yourself when you realized there might be a place that’s fits somewhere between Purgatory and Hell.
 
When you walk into the depot where these chariots of darkness depart and return, the immediate sensation is telling you that you made a very bad decision. Or, if nothing else, you’ve been bitten by the sharp jaws of emotion that you are in for an experience you wish you could already forget. A nightmare that would make an insomniac out anyone. You walk in with the same fears you had the first day of high school, running your eyes through the room full of strangers that your parents warned you about.
The smell is of stale life.
 
There are a million reasons why people walk into this room. And even more to explain why others do not. You have to trust there is a worthy destination on the other end. As you sit there waiting, you’re left thinking is this worth it? For any of us. Can a marriage, a dying parent, or a child’s father in prison be worth this? Does the end have any chance of justifying the means?
 
The usual suspects begin to take shape around you as you’re left sitting there questioning every decision you have ever made that put you in the position you find yourself now. Why am I at the Greyhound Station in Austin, Texas? If only, I wish I would have, I wonder if…
 
The list goes on as you glance discreetly at everyone else, wondering why each of them aren’t making a run for the exits. Its unlike the feeling of walking into a dentist office knowing that you made the right decision, that you’ll come away better than when you walked in. There is no security blanket thoughts going through your head here. The weight of the these people’s emotional baggage is overpowering, and yours is gaining by the minute.
 
The voice in your head is louder than the ones belonging to the people around you. And easier to translate. The buses are coming in one by one, and while you wish they would call yours, you really just want it all to end. You feel yourself getting sick. Maybe not physically-- but its still early. Give it time.
 
Its time to line up. Lane 5--Serving San Antonio/ Junction/ Ft. Stockton/ and other places leading to the farthest depths of your existence is boarding. You don’t rush to find your place in the row. While it would be a shame to miss your bus, it’s the idea of waiting there with the masses that keeps your eyes glued to the door and your ears alert to any and all announcements. 
 
Its been called the armpit of America. You want to find the worst area of any city in the United States? Find its Greyhound station. What came first: the Bus station or the drugs, crime, the filth and the derelicts?
 
Even if your entire immediate family were with you in that line, you would be alone. Your mother and father are not talking for a variety of reasons. Your sister and brother? Their both lost in the moment, in their own world; a place where mom and dad are too distracted to reach. You are just as much alone as the recently paroled gentleman in front of you, and the newly widowed woman behind you. Its just you, alone, with the fluttering butterflies in your stomach.
 
I would say that having ridden the bus many times one gets a pretty good idea of the cast of characters you can expect to encounter in a trip of nearly any distance. There will be children. Fortunately, never more than five or so, usually all under 10 years of age. Children seem to ride free. They must. One child may cry part way in muffled tones. Another may be heard speaking each time you wake up from abbreviated naps, asking his mother what “that” is.
 
In my experience, there always been a black woman in her early twenties, seemingly dressed for a slumber party. She’ll be carrying a pillow and more pink blankets than she knows what to do with. At each rest stop she will buy more stuff than anyone. More sodas, more cheeseburgers, more phone cards, more teddy bears. My mind tries not to picture the life she is leaving behind. I imagine her life is harder than most since she is able to sleep through entire states.

There will, without fail, always be an overeager white man in his forties or fifties willing to talk to just about anyone, and will, regardless of who is listening. One person listening is often too many. If you talk to him, you have a friend for the entire way. It could either be a blessing or it may just have you staying over for a night in some town you’ve never heard of, depending on your mood and what off-color comments your willing to put up with.

Somewhere along the way, the bus will pick up a young guy, probably white, in his mid- twenties that will have the look of someone who should be put in rehab for a week, but instead he has chose to spend length of the bus ride attempting to come down from a week of shooting heroin and crystal meth. He will have youthful tattoos from every town and woman he ever met. He offers a hard shell at first, but after getting rid of “the sweats” and the chills is happy to talk to anyone offering a cigarette or a similar story to match his. I offer him nothing more than an acknowledging nod as we pass each other on the way on and off the bus. I hear his story the entire way, regardless.
 
There will be a (pick a race) single mother in sweat pants and cheap sneakers. She will spend virtually the entire time disciplining her children. Her only salvation is the cold rest stops every two and a half hours when she gets to escape into a cigarette that seems to take her to the brink of an orgasm. It’s truly a sight best not seen. Those breaks are never long enough for her. While her children, with a row all to themselves, sleep quietly at the back of the bus in the company of strangers -- likely not knowing that they should be dreaming of better days.
 
At some point along the way, a small crew of Mexican men may board, which have chosen plastic bags and old stereo boxes as their luggage de jour. One may sneak a beer on the bus, a risky move considering his friend snores and is drawing a disproportionate amount of attention to their seats already. In States such as Arizona and Texas, its not uncommon for these men and the Mexican women, alike, to be questioned by the Immigration and Border Patrol officers that board the buses at various points along the way. Somehow this bothers me, but being a white male in my twenties, a lot bothers me. It should.

People ride the bus for a variety of reasons. Desperation seems to be the common theme. A time issue. Somehow, for some, the three day-eight hour-ten minute cross country trip seems to make more sense than a six hour direct flight. Hell, you could throw in a four hour layover in Chicago and you still have a clear winner in most people’s minds. Most say they will never do it again. I said it twice, yet there I was. Pic :The Greyhound Station wait


Romanticism. A reason many use. A reason I once used. As a veteran of two cross-country journeys and a several shorter trips, I know there is about as much romanticism in this method of travel as their might be in having your first sexual experience with a prostitute on a damp mattress-- as she reaches for every last ten dollar bill in your virgin pockets. But somehow seeing the country by way of the open road seemed romantic for someone that had never seen Nebraska and, maybe, never would. The state wasn’t going anywhere, but who ever goes to Nebraska? I saw Lincoln, Nebraska at 3 AM in September of 1999. Kiss those ten dollar bills goodbye, I thought quietly.
 
An evening departure sets the tone for a long, and quiet first leg. People get settled and try to get some sleep while the moon is on their side. The driver makes some initial announcements, but stops just short of telling a lullaby in hopes that people will relax and “leave the driving to him”.
 
Seating on the bus is the absolute be all and end all of a successful trip on Greyhound. You must find a seat that agrees with you. The front is best for this passenger. No one drinks, snorts cocaine, or loud talks when they are just a few feet from the driver. The front is like the sleeper car. The front allows the passenger to watch for landmarks ahead, read road signs they may remember next time, and to see the swaying of an eighteen wheeler’s rig in the wind along the barren Texas Interstate.
 
The front of the bus often makes for interesting listening in moments when the driver has gotten frustrated at a passenger calling out from the back. What you miss in the front is that wonderful moment when a passenger in the back says to his/her audience that they “should’ve just taken a plane”, and they “ain’t never doing this again”. The driver seems to know these lines are coming even if he can’t hear them. He doesn’t always hear them, but his straight ahead stare tells you that he has heard it all before.
 
You’ll find two cultures of bus riders. The ones that seem to be embarrassed to be taking the bus for such a long distances, and the others that seem to know nothing else.
 
There are a million and one stories to tell and be heard each ride. Some riders are more eager to tell theirs. I, like many, hope my turn never comes. “Right To Pass”, I’ll say. But no one ever asks. Like a weekly support group, you can offer whatever you want, and people seem to know the line. And everyone knows if the line has been crossed. There’s a sort if unspoken code. We are in this thing together, 'don’t fuck with me'.
 
It doesn’t seem possible that someone could tell their whole story, even over several days, but some seem to try. You hear snippets of quiet dialogue about wives and boyfriends in far off cities that have been left behind. Of weekend binges that went too far, and how they woke up alone and “stuck”. Many stories and little jokes get lost in translation between two strangers and seat mates. But that’s what makes it safe.
 
Once I pretended that the Spanish speaking man behind me was a great American history scholar and that he was telling his seat mate all of the amazing stories of how the west was won, about the Chinese and the building of the railroads, his trip up from Mexico as a youth, and why he cried all day on September 11th. How these people all made their way to the Greyhound Station is beyond me, but their stories have surely been told and retold for generations.
 
These rides can be many things for many people. A getaway. Leaving behind a life which provided little but a steady job and a world questions about the rest of the country, or their own potential. Sometimes its another chance. A place to start anew. A new home, a new lover, a place where their prayers may be said from the pews of a different church. We all take this ride together. The funny thing is that they look at me with the same questions. Where is he going? What’s he running from? He looks like that guy we saw on America’s Most Wanted.
 
So why do it? Why take the long way?
 
Because that’s where the story’s are. That’s where the faces have wrinkles, and the eyes have tears, years of doubt, sadness, struggle and stars of hope -- all at the same time. The roads are dark and the town’s can be dull, but these places have a soul all their own. A soul that can’t be captured during a fifteen minute rest stop, or the rare story on NPR. The souls of these towns, and my fellow passengers, are a mystery. A mystery that can’t be solved by listening to the man in the seat behind you, or imagining the life of the quiet dreamer across the aisle as she holds on tightly to her new bear and the hopeful ticket to a better life. ‘Cause that’s what we all want, isn’t it? The hope for better days ahead? My friends on the bus simply take a different route. And from the front of the bus, I enjoy the view.

© M. Joseph Hunt Feb 2006
michaeljhunt13@yahoo.com

More Hacktreks travel stories here

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San Francisco, CA

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