America by bus
I took the bus from New England to South Carolina last week, to attend The Historical Society’s conference. I knew I didn’t want to fly, for several reasons. The cost, of course – but even more, the disastrous environmental effects and the obnoxiousness of the whole TSA-centered security regime. The only way to really object to this, I thought, was to boycott flying.
So the choice was between driving and taking a bus or train. The train seemed like an interesting option, until I discovered it arrived in Columbia SC at about 1:30 AM. This seems fairly typical of Amtrak schedules – they really don’t seem to put any thought into the extreme inconvenience of getting somewhere strange in the middle of the night. And the cost is quite a bit higher than busses. I imagine it’s nice to be able to get up and walk around (especially to the food car!), but how much is that worth?
I decided not to drive because the trip was going to take about 16 hours each way. I just did a long drive (24 hours each way, split over 4 days), and I was surprised how tired I was afterwards (am I getting old?). And the cost of gas and tolls made it about the same as the bus. So I ended up taking the greenest option, for some of the right reasons and some practical reasons. Nice that they aligned like that!
I jotted down some impressions during the early stages of the trip. After a while, I realized trying to type was making me dizzy. I spent the rest of the trip and most of the return trip reading and sleeping. The first (and last) legs of the trips were in newer busses run by affiliates of Greyhound (Peter Pan and Southeastern Stage); the middle, high-traffic legs of the trip were on Greyhounds.
All the buses had AC outlets and Wifi. The Greyhound legs (between New York City, Richmond VA, and Fayetteville NC) were night runs. The busses were completely full, but I slept through most of those parts. The middle of the night changes in Richmond were a little strange. The weirdest place on the trip, however, was the New York Port Authority.
It’s strange, when you’re going from one place on the periphery to another (with apologies to Columbia), to go through the center. Especially since the bus got off the expressway at about 140th Street and drove the city streets of New York to the Port Authority, which is at 42nd Street on the west side, by the Lincoln Tunnel. We got there at rush hour, too – making the driver’s three million accident-free miles (advertised on the side of his bus) seem even more remarkable. Entering the Port Authority itself was like being swallowed up into an underground world which only seemed stranger because the only vehicles were hundreds of big busses. But it was super-efficient: it was impossible not to figure out where you needed to be.
The amenities of bus travel are not the same as those of air travel. You bring your own food, because often the sandwich shops in terminals are closed at the hours you’re there, and sometimes the vending machines are out of change and won’t take your bills. Some of the bathrooms are the sort where you don’t wash your hands after because it probably wouldn’t result in a lower germ count. And if you have any lingering class or race issues, you’ll probably come face to face with them on the bus. But look at it this way: getting out of your comfort zone and seeing the real world is an opportunity to grow.
Everybody I came across on my trip was either friendly or kept to themselves. I heard lots of languages, including Russian (a bunch of young tourists on their way to Myrtle Beach). I had a couple of conversations with people on the busses and in lines at the terminals. One of my neighbors was a New Yorker from a 28-square mile Caribbean island, another was a lady on her way to Texas to collect her grandkids. And I slept next to complete strangers without thinking much of it. My only problem was, some of my seat-mates were just too big for their seats. Americans need to lose some weight!
So I got to my destination at mid-day, after about 24 hours of travel. 8 hours longer than driving myself, but I wasn’t exhausted from driving. The first guy I met at the conference had come by plane from Montana, but he’d been stranded overnight in Minneapolis due to storms. His trip had been twice as long as mine, and probably three times as expensive. Another friend found a deal on a flight from Boston for $99. But I’d do it again. Only, next time I’d bring a sweatshirt for the air conditioning, something soft to use as a pillow, and a few extra snacks.