In May 1976 I took the Trailways and Greyhound bus from Albany to North Carolina, via Chicago, for my job that summer at Blue Ridge Assembly YMCA Conference Center in Black Mountain, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina.
(This was my first adult adventure, and I was not quite 18, fresh out of high school — actually skipped graduation to leave in time to start at Blue Ridge on June 1, 1976.)
At Blue Ridge, I served as general conference laborer, housekeeper, dishwasher, waiter, and lifeguard, befriending people from throughout the south (I was one of three staffers from west of the Mississippi). Conferencees came from all over the country. I took a religion class from University of North Carolina (college credit never claimed), saw Steven Stills and Neil Young perform together for the last time in Charlotte, and when not working had the run of the scenic Blue Ridge campus. In late August, I took the bus north Washington, D.C., to visit relatives before flying back to Oregon.
The summer at Blue Ridge was a formative experience and, though the friendships I gained there would lapse, the place stuck with me. Life’s twists would see to it that in 2016, after a 38-year gap, I would reconnect with friends I last saw in another life chapter in 1978.
I always wanted to go back to Blue Ridge, and also to experience again the travel aspect of that first adventure of my life. In 1980, 1983 and 1984, I would take the bus across country a total of four more times, and more than once swore I would never travel that way again. But Greyhounding is an inexpensive, grounding way to go, and this year I looked up and realized it was the 40th year since my Blue Ridge summer, and I decided to retrace my steps and return via the same method and, mostly, the same route.
— Kirby Neumann-Rea
"In the beginning of this record, I tried to explore the nature of journeys, how they are things in themselves, each one an individual and no two alike. I speculated with a kind of wonder on the strength of the individuality of journeys and stopped on the postulate that people don't take trips — trips take people. That discussion, however, did not go into the life span of journeys. This seems to be variable and unpredictable. Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased." — John Steinbeck, “Travels With Charley”
"What — were the wagon trains all booked?"
This was just one response I got when I told people I had returned from a cross-country Greyhound bus trip.
Who takes the bus anymore?
I did: April 30 to May 13, traveling to Black Mountain, North Carolina and back — almost all by bus. I visited a place from my distant past, and reconnected with friends I had not seen in 38 years but with whom I share a double and coincidental life connection: Hayward and Nancy Hargrove, both southerners, and I met in 1977 when Hayward was Dean of Students at Linfield College. We stayed in touch over the years, and in the 1990s he worked at Montreat College in Black Mountain, and then for five years as chaplain at Blue Ridge Assembly. The Hargroves have retired in Black Mountain. Reconnecting with them and with my Uncle Sid in Chicago was like sliding into place a couple missing staves in the barrel of life.
Before I left last month, I had a memorable exchange with someone I had just told about my plans to ride the bus across country. This person looked at me blankly and said, "On purpose?" Yes, I said, to which they replied after a pause, "Oh, are you afraid of flying?"
Not at all; as I explain in Backgrounder at right, I chose to do this. Call it a reprise or an experiment: what would it be like to do this again, 40 years later? The joy of riding the ‘Hound is that it teaches one how to accept the bad with the good.
For long hours I sat and wrote, read books, reviewed my 1976 and 1980 trans-U.S. Greyhound journals, talked with fellow passengers (though not often or for very long) and stared out the window at surprising and gorgeous scenery. Oh, and slept, as best I could — usually sitting upright (yes, the buses run all night) on the aisle seat. I’m an oddball in that I preferred it to the window seat. Overall I had enjoyed the experience despite its inconveniences and trials, and can vouch for the absolute beauty of many areas of these American United States. I had done the trip five other times, though not in 33 years, and one thing that had not changed was the remarkable diversity of travelers, from families to senior citizens, and the wide range of backgrounds of people getting from one place to another on the 'Hound.
(This account will deal mostly with the bus travel itself. I will write around my time from Kalamazoo to Maryland via Pittsburgh, though that car-travel portion of my journey was personally enjoyable as I got to do a road trip with my best friend from college, meet new friends, and see some of Washington, D.C., and the soulful sojourn in North Carolina. I also write around an equally enjoyable two days with relatives in Chicago, though the chance to talk my Uncle Sid and a number of cousins, whom I rarely see, was a critical part of my trip. (To quote Steinbeck, “So I leave Chicago out, because it is off the line, out of the drawing … In my travels, it was pleasant and good; in my writing, it would contribute only a disunity.”)
Greyhound is point A to point B transportation, or in my case, A to Z: Hood River to North Carolina and back, seven days on the bus out of 13 total.
The long-distance bus ride is a generally disorienting experience at night. After seven such continental crossings, I can describe as truly unique that sensation of waking up at 2 a.m. as the bus pulls into some strange town, the interior lights suddenly coming up and the driver hitting the PA with a squerrkk, “McFarland, Kansas, we’ll be here 15 minutes. Fif-teeeen minutes,” and you sit up and blearily look out the window at a glaring bank of gas station canopy neon tubes, thinking “McFarland, right,” and you get off the bus to stretch your legs and think, “We are in Kansas. We are STILL in Kansas …”
I left Hood River on the morning of April 30 and returned on May 13 at 5 a.m. You may have seen Greyhound pull into town: it swings off I-84 at exit 63, goes to State and over to First, and pulls up on Cascade next to Mt. Hood Railroad depot. Greyhound makes 10-minute stops in Hood River and then hits the freeway again. In short, my itinerary:
• April 30: Albany to Salt Lake, (long weather layover in Utah) n May 1: Salt Lake to Denver to Kansas City
• First use of bus restroom, late afternoon near Rawlins, Wyo.
• May 2: Change buses for St. Louis
• May 3: Arrive in Chicago at 1:30 a.m.
• May 3-4: Two days in Chicago
• May 5: Greyhound to Kalamazoo, Mich. (four hours)
• May 6: By car to Toledo and overnight near Pittsburgh
• May 7: Pittsburgh to Silver Spring, Md.
• May 7-8: Silver Spring, then a 1 a.m. board on Greyhound in Washington, D.C.
• May 9: D.C. to Asheville, N.C. via Richmond (change buses), arrive 4 p.m.
• May 9-11:
Black Mountain, N.C.
• May 11-13: Asheville to Hood River
• Total bus time: about 150 hours, or just over seven days.
“Not great use of your vacation days,” said my colleague Jody Thompson.
• Long-distance bus essentials: cell phone and charger; ear phones; books; road map; reading glasses; trail mix, apple juice and water; hand sanitizer; clip-on reading lamp; comfortable shoes (to remain on at all times); pillow; pen and notebook; and sense of humor.
I saw a great many clearly troubled souls who would sometimes openly narrate the crooks and crevasses of their personal lives, using the grinding Interstate miles to try to verbally extract some meaning in their existence, sharing tales of unemployment (“I’ve looked for jobs in five states”), family duress, addiction (“Methadone totally did not work for my Dad”) recovery, medical and emotional maladies (“I’m 41 and wish I hadn’t lived past 30 — never wanted to”), government inertia, and states of mind ranging from depressed or paranoiac to angry and hopeless.
At night eastbound in Missouri, a young man behind me spoke loudly on the phone over 20 minutes’ time, repeatedly telling his mother in Grand Rapids, “You tell Kenny I will f-ing kill him if he comes near the house — you tell him. His stuff has been at the house for a month and it’s f-ing mine now. I have no problem spending the rest of my life in jail. I will kill him.”
I sat in silence. Not a word, not a f-ing word …
My full carry-on contained more things than I needed but I was glad I brought along my years-ago journals. I ran across numerous entries that had meaning or irony today, including this from Wyoming in 1980, a landscape description but something more, that expressed a big part of what I was doing and hoped to see and feel:
“And everywhere, brown, in the wood of the windmills and rail fences, in the dark earth of the plains and hills and cliffs. In this land of purity (or did I write “plenty”?), even the doings of man look right. Even the telephone poles, which dance off across the land, even the gravel roads that stretch off towards some farmhouse, maybe abandoned. The fences, the barbwire, the bridges all look in place. Somehow perhaps because there is really so little of man out here. Essentially, only the highway, cars trucks and this bus.”
To go cross-country, you have to be prepared to ignore or endure a variety of unsavory or intrusive conversations (or monologues), and cramped quarters, fitful sleep, unwelcome odors, and plenty of cigarette smoke (around, not on, the bus) and mediocre food.
Greyhound drivers — who range from avuncular to borderline tyrannical — repeatedly tell riders to keep cell conversations quiet and to a minimum, but it is often ignored. The kid in Missouri was the worst case, but when my seatmate westbound in Tennessee started asking her mother for details of grandma’s surgery, I had to insist she turn it off, which she did not appreciate at first but then slept solid for about six hours (making me wonder briefly if she was okay).
The other big no-no is smoking on the bus: at each departure the drivers are crystal clear that federal law prohibits it anywhere on the bus and if you are caught you will be put off immediately. I doubted that, but then saw it happen, east of Denver. Young man smokes in the bathroom, driver stops and when he comes out tells him, “You know the rules, you’re off this bus,” at which the young man apologizes profusely. Driver says, “I’ll cut you a break and put you off at the next exit.” Five miles up the freeway at an exit with a gas station he exits and stops, engine idling. Young man asks, getting off, “Which way’s Denver?” and skateboards down the off-ramp toward the gas station.
“At least he has another means of transportation,” quips the driver.
Five hours later in Denver as the bus wends through downtown streets, we look up and see a young man just ahead … on a skateboard. Same kid. Change of bus and driver, and the kid gets back on board. When he got off a day later I finally ask him, “How’d you beat us back to Denver?” He says not a word but just extends his thumb.
Similar thing in Ogden, Utah: man forgets his luggage a mile out from the station, driver lets him out and he returns to the station on foot. We keep heading west to Boise and when we get there we learn the man was in the car just behind the bus; he’d have beaten us there, by hitching, but he and the driver of the car did not know how to find the Greyhound station, then saw the bus and followed it in.
Greyhound stations vary from a backlot next to a garden store (La Grande), a broken-down chain motel in Laramie, Wyo., a sign on a downtown street in Topeka, Kan., and a convenience store/tattoo parlor in Columbus, Mo. St. Louis looks like a movie set from a dated futuristic movie. In Baker City over the store counter is a 10-foot-wide glassed-in desert diorama with an incongruous four-foot stuffed tiger wearing a Santa hat. When I asked the clerk about that, he said, “Tiger still has the hat on? I didn’t know. That’s been there like since November!” When I passed through 12 days later, tiger still wore the hat.
“The stand alone Greyhound building is, I am seeing, a fading tradition,” I wrote in my journal. What has happened in most places is loss of an office or ticketing agent, and that includes Hood River, as of a few years back. At least here and in The Dalles the bus still stops downtown. You get on and the driver tells you to buy a ticket at the next ticketing stop (Portland or Stanfield for riders in the Gorge.) These things used to define Greyhound as its own, independent, vital enterprise. Now at most stops it feels perfunctory and peripheral, with dwindling connections to centers of towns, big or small. I missed the bus making the swing off the freeway, into the downtown, which connected Greyhound, and its riders, to that community, gave you at least a fleeting glimpse of a town’s core. Even at night, you might get a sense of place. Now, one’s knowledge of Rawlins, Wyo., or Evansville, Ind., is a travel plaza or fast food place next to the freeway. It also means that the bus station is a lot harder for some folks to get to.
Ogden was eventful, twice (a sentence I suspect you have never read before). On the east-bound trip, we had to layover for four hours due to high winds, and state police told all trucks and buses to stay put. That meant we all missed our connections in Denver, and that put me eight hours late into Chicago. The driver parked at Walmart (at the foot of the Wasatch, the most scenic Walmart in the West) and we waited. The driver bought donuts.
A few words on drivers and their patois: all would recite the smoking and cell phone or “personal device” rules, to different intensity, and with few exceptions these guys (and one woman) were at the very least … no-nonsense.
“Be back on the bus at 1:15 sharp: This is Greyhound, not bloodhound, it’s not up to us to find you.”
“Smoke at least 20 feet from the bus and if you don’t know how far 20 feet is, go 30.”
One driver, a guy about 70, gave the “personal devices” spiel, with “you may use your transistor radio or cassette player but keep the volume down …”
Another driver, about 65, in Wyoming told ribald jokes, along the same stretch of I-80 that I made note of a driver’s crude string of jokes on my trek 36 years ago. I asked him, “Were you driving this route in 1980?” He told me, “No, we just pass these along to each other.”
The smokers, I noted, often became bus-buddies and would strategize on when they might next get a smoke break, where to stand, where to buy smokes, could I borrow one at the next stop, and other tobacco-related topics.
We all have our dependencies: I strategized on keeping my phone charged: how long would we be at the next stop, was there an available outlet (some bus depots have “charging stations,” with banks of outlets, but not many) and would my next bus seat have a working on-board outlet. That was never a sure thing, so the charge-up issue became an ongoing priority.
Boise is a classic case in the wide variety of bus stations and the downtown depot as a dying breed. Outfitted with 1970s plastic bucket chairs and c. 1960s schedule board made of the old style black felt board and white removable letters. The young dude at the counter was as helpful as anyone I’d seen.
In Nashville a ticket agent refused at first to serve me because I questioned the need to move my bags two feet to the side. In Denver a security guard told me not to take photos of the bus, “because of copyright protection,” and in Kansas City, the best of the big city terminals, a Greyhound worker went around and individually verified riders’ destinations — a huge variance from the typical fend-for-yourself system of figuring out when and where to get in line for a transfer.
In Nashville the bus departure announcement system is an employee standing in the middle of this huge room and shouting the towns and times. In a city known for musical performances, they can’t figure out a sound system?
Images that stick with me:
In Utah in 1976 I had made note of a pair of idled snowmobiles. Within a few miles of the same place this year, I saw a snowmobile, looking broken and weathered, sitting in a snow-free open field.
In eastern Oregon I looked down a ravine and saw a woodlot with fresh-cut cords of fir, next to a 1970s pickup, a large deciduous tree growing up through the engine compartment.
In Braddock, a Pittsburgh neighborhood, the welcome sign has a picture of a pit bull.
Westbound in Kansas, one of the most dramatic sunsets I have ever seen: for miles a thin and intensifying orange strip lined the horizon between dark foreboding cloudbank and the land, silhouetting silos and trees while draped with a wispy curtain of rain showers, falling at beautifully uneven intervals from north to south. It lasted a half hour or more, and I cannot remember a time I was more entranced by a sunset.
The last 12-14 hours were the toughest and longest of the trip. It was night, and while I had finally learned the knack of sleeping more than 90 minutes at a time, I was mostly bored by looking out at the dark Idaho and eastern Oregon night, ready just to be back home. I saw to it that I got a seat with a working cellphone charger, so that I could alert my wife, Lorre, once I got back in cell range, and at about midnight, at the La Grande stop, I was able to confirm with the driver we would be in Hood River at 5 a.m. The familiar neon signs of State Street were a welcome beacon, and there was my wife waiting on Cascade. I said hello to a Hood River man, John, taking my place en route to Portland, thanked the driver, and went and hugged Lorre.