In 2019 I covered 6,000 miles on buses. Here is a selection of my journeys.
We make it to Richmond with 15 minutes to spare, and I make the connection. The new bus fulfils the website promises: spacious, leather upholstery, WiFi that works, and even little holders for our coffee. Our driver Is a tall white man with white hair and a clipped moustache who might have been a figure of minor authority in a Disney movie. The bus is half-full and we can spread out. This is better.
We head towards Roanoke, passing through lush landscapes and cider apple farms, and are soon circled by hills. I play with Morris (my mobile phone) and come across a news story from the previous day. What appeared to have been gun shots in Washington Union Station sent people scattering for cover. Later the deputy mayor for public safety tweeted that the sounds were probably fireworks: there was no shooting and no casualties. I’m glad I didn’t spot the story while I was in the station earlier today.
Shortly before 7 o’clock we arrive at Lynchburg, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The approach is charming, over a bridge with a view of the town ahead and on one side. We go through side streets, past clapboard houses with verandas.
At the bus station a new passenger is waiting. I see him through the window and start taking notes. He is a big man with a long greying beard, wearing a forage cap and army fatigue trousers and carrying a bulging army issue rucksack with a bedding roll on top. He boards the bus and sits just across the aisle from me. I wonder whether I should speak to him but he goes straight to his mobile phone with no eye contact.
When I was going through this area in 1969 I talked to all kinds of people. One I described as a ‘ponced-up young (rich) male’ from Florida who was rather ‘tuned in and insipid’; the other was a girl of about 16 from Lake Michigan ‘who said how boring everything was, how the world was in a mess and how we could do little to change it’. But this time so far I have spoken to nobody.
The bus station at Denver seems calmer this morning and soon we are out of the city on a long straight road, presumably quite empty because it is a public holiday. I am on my way to Omaha, with roughly 12 hours of travel ahead of me. I hope I will enjoy the city more than I did last time: ‘very dull city with nothing going on’, I wrote.
Seated just across the aisle is a young man with dyed blond hair and a trilby perched on top of it, sitting with his girlfriend. I’d noticed him earlier darting around the waiting room when we were waiting to board. A couple of hours into the trip he lies down in the aisle and starts doing stretching exercises. He then lies across his girlfriend’s knees while she massages his back.
As this is going on, our bus grinds to a halt. It edges forward agonisingly slowly while we can see ahead of us a long file of traffic. A rumour goes around the bus that there has been an accident – 56 miles ahead. I overhear the young man in the trilby tell his girlfriend that he has been sick. I try to ignore both pieces of news.
The information about a 56-mile tailback turns out to be fake: a couple of miles later we pass a section of road littered with crushed apples, and an overturned burnt-out trailer lying on the verge. It is the second roadside fire I have seen on my trip. We pull into our next stop about an hour behind schedule.
When the break is over our driver, a man with a crisp shirt and crisper demeanour, realises that one of our passengers is missing – the man sitting behind me. He waits five minutes, honks his horn, drives over to the restaurant over the road, honks his horn again. No sign of the missing person. We leave. His bag of rubbish swings as a memorial alongside his seat but I can’t see any other sign of left-behind luggage. Has he disappeared deliberately?
As we drive on, the young man in the trilby keeps going to the back of the bus to stretch or to be sick in the washroom. I doze, only to be woken by some strange sounds. The young man is now at the front of the bus, lying on the floor by the driver – and he is moaning. The man in the front passenger seat is an off-duty driver and he calls an ambulance.
It’s a straightforward run to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a town of about 75,000, known for goods as diverse as windmills, taxicabs, mandolins (later guitars), paper, peppermint oil and celery.
It also has a historic train station, now also a bus station, which is listed on the Great American Stations website.
I go inside and step back a century. Unlike the utilitarian, slightly dingy bus stations I have been frequenting, this one has wooden panelling, ornate metalwork over and around the counters, Art Nouveau signage and Art Deco benches. It is not a well-kept hangover from the past, however, but the result of a prize-winning $13 million restoration project completed in 2006.
My pleasure is short-lived. The lavatories are as neglected as the front office is well tended. Then, as we are sitting back in the bus just before leaving, a policeman in baseball cap and shorts walks up and down the aisle looking closely at each of us. There is no explanation and no action taken. I find it disconcerting.
There is little to see out of the bus windows today, which is fine because I’m trying to get my journal up to date before my reunion with Barbara. Writing on a small keyboard on a moving bus is hard, and particularly so today. It may be that my excitement has rubbed off on Geoffrey (my Go tablet), but whatever the reason my cursor keeps jumping back a paragraph or two when I’m not looking, and the text inexplicably decides to re-form itself with a series of hanging indents.
Suddenly a header appears on all my pages: I have been writing about last night’s chicken dinner and the word selected is ‘breast’. I delete it quickly, grateful that there is no-one in the next seat snatching covert glances at my writings. Or a policeman in shorts making a spot check.
Then I notice that all the margins and page breaks have disappeared. I look for the WTF key.
Another long journey – this time 12 hours with two connections. The first bus leaves at 6.15 am: all three alarms go off at once and my taxi arrives on the dot. As the bus leaves Oneonta in the early morning mist I am the only passenger. I sit in the front seat next to Peter the driver, originally from Poland. As we bump along he tells me that the road is a lot better than it was last year. I wait for the sun to rise but it is obscured by the mountain mist. By the time we get a clear view it is already well risen. As we go Peter looks after my interests.
‘Get your phone ready! Round the next corner. Some wooden chickens …
‘Watch for the crossroads coming up! You’ll see the statue of an eagle that was taken from Grand Central Station in New York City.’
We cross over a little stream, pass by a little church. Travel can be great in an empty coach on a small road when the sun is starting to unwrap the views and the trees are tinged with early autumn colours. When people ask me (as they will) to describe the best bits of my trip, this will be a contender.