Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Don't Take His Food

I realize that owing to more reasonable air fares and the march of time, many of you have probably never taken a really serious bus trip by yourself. You've probably taken city buses around town, tour buses on vacation, and made those group trips on chartered buses, the kind where you know almost everyone, but nothing quite compares to plopping your innocent self onto a commercial bus for a joyride of an appreciable distance.

Way back in 1977, I took such a trip, from Memphis to Los Angeles, ostensibly to look at graduate schools. I had earned my bachelor's degree at Northwestern University in Chicago and thought that I might like to pursue a PhD in either neurobiology or neuroscience. Two colleges on the West Coast, UCLA and UC San Diego, were at the top of my list. Actually, let's be honest...they really were the entire list by that time.

One afternoon in early October, I called my aunt and uncle in California and asked if I could stay with them while I visited the two schools. They said yes, and also asked if while I was there, I would mind helping them paint their house in preparation for moving my recently widowed Aunt Mary in with them. That sounded like an equitable arrangement, so I called around, finally deciding that taking the bus was a far more affordable alternative to any plane ticket I could find. And so it happened that on a Wednesday night in October, my mom and dad took me to the downtown Memphis Continental Trailways bus station, and I boarded a 7:00 PM bus bound for Los Angeles. My mom had even packed some food for me to take along on the trip, since it would last almost two days with no planned overnight stops.

When you take the bus, it's always a good idea to scan the human terrain, as it were, to determine who your traveling companions might be; after all, you're going to be in this deal for more than the few hours a typical flight takes. It seemed to me that we had a good cadre here: there were a couple of unaccompanied youth like me, a Quiet Young Man in a Service Uniform, and a group of Elderly Ladies Who Appeared to Already Know Each Other. I took the seat immediately behind the driver (you never know when you might have to make a quick exit in these cases), checked to make sure I had all my belongings, and tilted the seat back to a reclined and unlocked position. We pulled out of the bus station and headed west on I-40 toward our first stop: Little Rock, Arkansas.

I had made this trip twice before by car, so I knew what to expect from a landscape perspective. But because it was October and had therefore gotten dark early, one could see very little from the windows of the bus. We arrived in Little Rock a couple of hours later, and it was there that I realized how friendly people could be at bus stations. Complete strangers might walk up to you and want to be your friend, or so it seemed. Feeling that I had enough friends already, I grabbed a snack and headed back onto the bus. We had a new driver, who would take us to Oklahoma City.

We arrived in OK City in the "middle of the night." I recall waiting in the bus station as mysterious destinations were announced over the loudspeakers: places like Wichita, Cheyenne, Fort Worth and Amarillo. There were people everywhere, loaded down with suitcases and duffel bags, and it was only 4:00 AM. Somewhere along the line, I think I grabbed breakfast, but it was so early that I can't clearly remember. We hung out in the bus station for a little over an hour, then boarded the bus for our next stop, Amarillo.

It was important at any given time when at a bus station to keep an eye out for not only one's belongings, but also for others traveling on the same bus, because when your departure would be announced, you wanted to move as a unit to make sure no one was left behind. Given the limited number of people on the bus, you could always tell when someone "dropped off," and hopefully that was always intentional. After a while on the bus, it was like you got to know the people, at least in a casual way. I found that everyone on my bus was quite pleasant, and judging by their accents, they appeared to be from all over the country. Although I maintained my solo seat behind the driver, I did start to talk with a few of them on a regular basis.

We departed Oklahoma City as the sun rose, and we left the Interstate, opting for local highways where, according to the driver, we could pick up more passengers in the small towns along the route. I found this part of the trip fascinating. We passed through rolling hills full of swaying amber grass, every now and then encountering a small town which might have seen better days. Many of the towns looked straight out of the Old West, and were it not for the sidewalks, you could almost imagine horses hitched up while their owners quenched their thirsts at the local establishments. One memorable little town seemed to be built entirely of wooden structures with swinging doors that were only minimally attached to their frames.

At last we arrived in Amarillo, and since it was closing in on lunchtime, our driver recommended a local Mexican restaurant that was one of his favorites. This was common -- as we approached a city, the driver would call out this or that interesting place that we might check out while stopped. Drivers were changed every several hundred miles, so it was interesting to get the varying perspectives of each. In Amarillo, I didn't opt for the Mexican suggestion, but instead, grabbed something lighter and settled in with The Hobbit, which I'd just started to read. As I waited to board for our departure, I became rather engrossed with the first encounter with the character Gollum, and before I knew it, it was time to head out.

Early afternoon found us in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Above the ticket window I saw a small blackboard that listed the daily buses, one eastbound and one westbound each day. That was it. I took a seat in one of the church pews that the bus line had appropriated for seating and stared out the propped-open front door at the tumbleweeds rolling down the street. The scene reached perfection when "Luckenbach, Texas" began playing on the jukebox.

It wasn't much longer before we reached Albuquerque and the most modern bus station that we'd seen so far. Several of us dined together at the station cafe and then got back on the bus. As I took my seat, I noticed that the new driver was mounting some special CB radio equipment on the outside of the bus next to his rear view mirror, so I asked him what it was. He said, "Where we're goin', there ain't many people." Not to mention that it would soon be dark.

I've always enjoyed driving across New Mexico, and this was no exception. The colors of nature were on full display, and even as they faded to the more predominantly brown desert, the scene outside was still starkly beautiful. When we reached the border of New Mexico and Arizona, a uniformed agricultural inspector boarded the bus and told us that if we had any fresh fruit, we had to surrender it immediately. At that time, the state of Arizona, like its neighbor California, relied heavily on an agricultural economy and prohibited introducing fruit which might contain destructive non-native insects. I willingly handed the inspector a bag of oranges which my mom had packed for me for the trip, but the Elderly Ladies Who Appeared to Already Know Each Other would have none of this. In unison, they began scolding him by saying loudly, "Don't take his food! That's his food that his mother gave him...don't take it!" I stayed out of the fray and watched as the officer beat a hasty retreat, sliced my poor oranges and discarded them into a locked-top bin by the side of the road. I decided that I wanted these ladies on my side.

That drama having been completed, we ventured on into Arizona, which was remarkable, among other things, for having highly reflective signs pointing to national monuments you've heard of all your life but probably have not seen. (I've never visited the Painted Desert in the daytime, but I know precisely to get to it.) Somewhere along southbound I-17 on the way to Phoenix, the bus slowed down and came to a stop on the side of the road. Having traveled on many buses which have experienced mechanical failures and thereby landing me in places like Corsicana, Texas, I expected to be stopped for a while. There were no exits in sight, but there was a tiny motel on the top of a hill off the side of the road, and after we had stopped, the Quiet Young Man in a Service Uniform disembarked and walked up the hill to the motel. I hoped for his sake that he either had a rendezvous planned or that he at least knew someone up there.

Since the Trailways station in Phoenix was closed overnight, we pulled into the Greyhound station at about 3:00 AM and wandered around checking out the competition. There were numerous collectible lucite bus-shaped souvenirs to be had, but I did not feel that the purchase of one would have been appropriate, since by this time I had logged over 1,400 miles on Trailways. Aside from the lights in the souvenir display cases, the station was pretty dark, so we grabbed vending machine refreshments and headed back to the bus. The breakfast hour found us at Blythe, California, which is notable for generally being one of the hottest spots in the nation on weather reports.

Driver Number Eight had recommended a breakfast spot in Blythe, and we were not disappointed. The Courtesy Coffee Shop was like an untouched slice of 1955, and after a hearty breakfast at the counter, I walked back out to the parking lot, where the Elderly Ladies Who Appeared to Already Know Each Other had gathered. We laughed about the confiscation of the oranges, and one of them mentioned to me that her daughter lived in California, and that she made this trip several times a year from her home in Virginia Beach. I thought to myself that she was indeed a stronger person than I was.

It was now Friday morning, and the trip was nearing its conclusion. We made one last rest stop in the town of Indio, California. It dawned on me that I had been traveling with very little sleep and no bathing or shaving for almost two days, so when I finally looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I was horrified. How could someone who looked like this manage to have other people willingly talk to them? I cleaned up as best I could, then re-boarded the bus.

Some time around noon, Driver Number Nine wheeled us into the downtown Los Angeles bus station, where my uncle, a Methodist minister, was waiting to greet me. He, too, had been surprised at the overt friendliness of people at the station and mentioned how several complete strangers had walked up to him and wanted to be his friend. Alas, I thought, this commercial bus travel was something that more people should experience for themselves. In fact, I felt a bit sorry for fellow travelers who might have opted for an airline ticket, but surprisingly, on my way home several weeks later, I became one of them.

I could go on about how I visited the schools but later changed my direction in life, or how the house got painted while earth tremors were occurring, or how I almost got lost in downtown San Diego, but truly, the most memorable part of the trip was getting out there. My grandmother used to say that travel was the best education, and in many ways, I agree. These days, I've heard bus tickets can cost almost as much as plane tickets, but I'm glad I opted for the land based option way back when. It was educational, even though I lost a few oranges in the process. It was worth every one of them.