Travel is a kind of metamorphosis. It's a leaving off of the old, however briefly, in favor of the new: new experiences, new places, new people. But with gas prices well over $3 a gallon (who knows? they may be over $4 by the time this article goes to print) and many of the major airlines grounding flights in the wake of safety concerns and FAA whistleblowers, it's possible that all but the most intrepid of adventure seekers are thinking of staying put this season, of putting off that transformation until next year.
If, however, the travel itch, like the natural process of renewal and rebirth itself, will not be stifled, there is always another option. I speak, of course, of the bus.
Traveling by bus is relatively cheap (a ticket from Denver to Tulsa costs about $80) and there's a large network of destinations including major and not-so-major cities. It's even kind of shaped like a cocoon. Don't think, however, that I suggest this option lightly. On the contrary, it's only with a true sense of gravitas that I can ask others to take such a spiritual journey. You see, I have a bus story. Only one. I hope never to have another.
It was New Year's Eve weekend, 2001. A friend of mine had convinced me to return with him to Denver to welcome in the new millennium with a wild round of New Year's celebrations. I could have driven myself but it's a pretty long drive and riding together would mean that neither of us would have to suffer that empty stretch of Kansas alone, where there's not even the FM radio to keep you company, just the local agriculture report and the fire and brimstone sermons crackling across the AM dial. Once in Denver there would be fireworks, champagne and parties.
When it was all said and done we decided I'd hop a bus home. We calculated that I'd make it back by Sunday evening with plenty of time to rest up for work on Monday. I was young, single, impulsive in my own quiet way, so I agreed. I'd bring a book for the journey home. It would be fine.
The weekend was everything it was supposed to be with a little unexpected fun added, but the trip home began inauspiciously. The light rail we were riding into downtown clipped a car at an intersection four blocks from the bus station and, finally convincing the driver to let us off, we had to hoof it double time to catch my bus which left at 7am, Sunday morning. Out of breath, head pounding from a little too much champagne from the night before, I waved goodbye to my friend and settled into seat 32 with my book and the naive notion that seat 31 would stay empty all the way home.
At the first stop in Colorado Springs seat 31 met its first occupant, a hefty, jean-jacketed fellow with a bottle of Coke that he kept screwing the cap off of and then back on in a vain attempt to squeeze in a sip between questions. He asked me what I did, where I was from, if I had a girlfriend and then told me he was an ex-con sent up for armed robbery who had just been paroled. Where was he headed? Why, he was headed my way. I'm not judgmental. It's just a little unnerving to hear something like that. I started reading again.
In Pueblo the ex-con got off and the strange woman who slept on my shoulder all the way to Raton got on. She must have been a Greyhound veteran because she woke up and, without a word, wiped the drool from her mouth and disappeared into the bus station.
In Raton there was the precocious eight-year-old girl and her fourteen-year-old sister on their way to see their grandmother in Amarillo. She asked me where I worked.
"I work for MCI WorldCom," I said. This was during my telecom days. She brightened up immediately.
"I've got MCI on my radio. It's on my Destiny's Child," she said. "They say, 'MCI cut off my phone' in one of the songs. Do you cut off black people's phones?" she asked me plainly. Her sister laughed.
With the company in seat 31 and the uncertainty and frequency of the layovers I had finished just over one chapter of my book in the 15 hours it had taken the bus to reach Amarillo. Fifteen hours. My hopes of getting home on Sunday had begun to fade.
Amarillo was a splash of lights in the empty darkness of the west Texas prairie. It was late and I was tired, but a bus isn't really a comfortable place to sleep no matter what Greyhound may say. We pulled into the Amarillo station around midnight and I felt the deep misgivings welling up within me. The place was dimly lit and stale with the closeness of marooned travelers. There were yawns and coughs and sneezes filling the air--along with who knows what else--and occasional moans emanating from some of the darkened corners. I could picture a sign over the main entrance reading "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." Somehow I got the message that if I was headed for Tulsa I should join the line forming at the back door.
Through it all there was this guy pacing around the station. He wasn't strolling; he was taking long, aggressive strides with a kind of urgency to get somewhere, but he wasn't going anywhere. He kept circling the interior of the station in a kind of hasty tour he was doomed to repeat over and over. It was Greek myth, only it was the Amarillo bus station. My bag, which I had placed before me at my feet, formed a kind of break in the line for Tulsa and provided a natural place for the doomed soul to make his crossing from one side of the station to the other. After he had stomped past me a time or two it seemed impolite to move the bag so I left it there and let him keep passing until the bus arrived.
The bus! I climbed aboard and heard the driver tell the porter "That's the last one. We've got no more room." I breathed a sigh of relief having escaped layover limbo, but I didn't dare look back fearing I might be consigned to that same fate if I tempted the travel gods any further. For all I know, those people are waiting there still.
On the road to Oklahoma City, merciful sleep overcame me and I woke up in downtown Tulsa. As I stepped off the bus the rising sun spilled over the horizon. It was cold. And though I left Denver sunny and dry, I found Tulsa covered with a thin film of snow. It was a windy seven blocks to where I had left my car in the courthouse parking lot and when I got there the clock on the dash read 7am. Twenty-hour hours on the bus from Denver. I hadn't read my book, my back ached, I was starving and I still had to go to work. I pulled out onto the streets of the city immeasurably glad that I was in my own car on my way home.
Travel is a metamorphosis. On my bus ride home there had been new experiences, new places and new people. I drove home with a greater respect for the Greyhound distance traveler: for the ex-con getting back on his feet in Pueblo, for the woman who I hoped was getting enough sleep in Raton, for the girls and the joy of their grandmother during their visit, and for that tortured strider who haunts Amarillo.
So if the urge to travel comes on, it may be quicker to take a plane or hop in the car with family and friends, but if, somewhere inside there's the potential for a change, a deep kernel within waiting to bloom, then opt for the bus. It's a transformative process like the one experienced every spring by the rest of nature. I only wonder if butterflies have that many layovers.
Share this article: