Tell someone about your bus trip, and stand back. The Question is on its way. "Why would you do it?" they will ask. Why would you ride on Greyhound instead of driving -- or grabbing a train or plane?
A friend and I found out a few winters ago that we each had a week to go somewhere and where we really wanted to go was L.A. We were sick of security lines and cramped flights, and with gas prices reaching record levels, neither of us was up for a marathon drive.
What about the bus? we thought, poring over maps and schedules and making little puffs of mental exhaust. My friend had just read that buses are the safest type of travel -- something I had to look up to believe. But sure enough: Per 100 million passenger miles, there are fewer fatalities by bus (0.00018) than on commercial airliners (0.022) or intercity trains (0.207).
Like the people we told about our trip, we weren't sure if we could hack a four-day ride from D.C. to the West Coast. Still, the plan was to pick up seven-day Ameripasses that let you get off and back on whenever you want and give the thing a try for the sake of adventure.
We would aim south for warm weather, and for exotic-sounding towns like Texarkana, Texas and Las Cruces, N.M. We would try to set foot in Mexico and hope to get a quick glimpse of the Grand Canyon (which we had never seen).
And we wouldn't come back until we had answered The Question once and for all.
It's a slow-moving morning downtown, but the D.C. cab driver assures us we're going to be in time for our 9:30 a.m. bus. "You're gonna make it," he yells back. "You're gonna make it." We miss it.
After a five-hour wait, my friend, Judy, and I board the next Tennessee-bound Greyhound, a chrome-trimmed "Americruiser" with a backwards American flag stenciled in on the side. Our driver sports a royal blue necktie and silver tie-clip shaped like the familiar racing dog. On his belt jingles a ring of keys, ticket-punch, flashlight, walkie-talkie, and ... could it be? It is. A can of mace.
Legroom is airline-tight: I measure exactly four inches between my knees and the back of the seat in front of me. My friend, Judy, who is 73 years old and has never been west of Pennsylvania, is worried about our connection in Charlottesville and pipes up to the driver about it. He doesn't seem to hear, as what comes next is a No Smoking and No Drinking speech over a crackly mike. With this, gears grind, brakes let out a sigh and we're on the road.
Near Roanoke, Va., hills bunch up around the bus, and soon we can make out the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once the sun sets, I remember what I've always liked about bus rides. It's cozy zooming along in the dark and, since the interior lights are turned off, your eyes are focused out into the night and not on whatever's happening on board. This sheltered darkness is almost porch-like -- it's good for reminiscing -- and Judy tells me about a lettuce-and-grape-jelly sandwich she once ate.
I'm hungry until the bus pulls into a Hardee's for a meal break, and when we get back on, the driver has something else to say. "I do not carry a key to the restroom," he announces. "If you or your child can't figure out how to unlock it, you'll be in there until we get to the garage in Atlanta about 15 hours from now."
I notice no one seems to be heading back there, so I squeeze myself in and check it out. The toilet is a stainless-steel well with a pool of disinfectant swishing around some yards down, and instead of a sink, I'm surprised to find only a countertop and dispenser full of Fingerbowl-brand moist towelettes. When I tell Judy, she just rolls her eyes. It's going to be a long ride.
Knoxville is home to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and to the "War Dog Memorial" honoring canines who have fought for their country. But no time for these attractions: We've got a bus to catch. Dennis Brown is the new driver, an elderly man wearing a black fur-lined hunting cap with ear flaps that fold down.
"What do you call three blondes stuck in a refrigerator?," he asks over the PA system as we pull out. Nobody has a clue. "Frosted flakes" turns out to be the punchline, and there's an amplified chuckle as Brown signs off to concentrate on the road.
At a gas station rest-stop, Judy points out displays of GooGoo Clusters and Goody's Headache Powders, sure signs that we're in the South. We get a few minutes in Nashville to scurry around and look at sights like the Bell South building with its sky-high pair of pointy horns. Reboarding, I bring some peanuts and a can of beer and realize that despite warnings of "tightened security," no one has bothered to take even a quick peek into our bags.
On the road to Memphis, the land flattens out and, since it's evening, we are squinting into an electric sunset. Bus windows are huge and square -- unlike the slits on Amtrak or the plastic portholes on a plane. I feel like I am in a moveable greenhouse. We passengers are like sleepy plants, potted in our chairs and stuck in cycles of dozing, waking, listening to headphones -- always leaning in the direction of the light no matter where the front of the bus is pointing.
The bus station in smart-looking Jackson, Tenn., is a shrunken version of Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall, but there's no movie on the marquee and instead of signs for the Rockettes you see only ads for Greyhound and a coat of peeling, powder-blue paint. I ask another passenger, Sunrae O'Neil, why she's taking the bus, and find out she's going to be riding all the way to San Francisco. "I'll be honest," she says. "It's the only way you can go 3,000 miles for 150 bucks."
To be continued...
Peter Mandel is a travel writer, and an author of picture books for kids including one about a construction worker who uses his belly on the job: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook). and his newest, about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).