Sure, I can be easy going. I don't seek conflict. I find it easier to agree with someone on topics that are not near and dear to my heart, or even topics that are, than to argue with them in situations where there's nothing to gain by arguing. I consider myself, all in all, kind of a softie. And a nice guy too, I hope.
That said, when somebody tells me I can't do something I don't want to do, or when someone tells me I'm an idiot for trying a certain path rather than another, easier path, or when I set my mind on a cool plan that is less than practical, well, it'll take a hell of a lot of persuasion, browbeating, and good logic to dissuade me from sticking to my plan. Actually, it will take clever, quiet diplomacy; the browbeating is only going to make me all the more likely to keep to my foolishness.
Qs: Dan, why did you decide to take the bus across the United States instead of flying? Why did you do this without a phone? Why do you make things so difficult? Why do we grow old? What's it all for?
Other possible answers:
A2: I was struck with a two week fear of cell phone signals and flying.
A3: My time in Rwanda inspired me to do more with less - this is also the reason I ate nothing but rice, beans, and potatoes (occasionally garnished with rabbit) on the trip and why I slept four to a room every night, which boy let me tell you created some weird situations.
A4: I did not have a bicycle, nor a unicycle suitable to such a journey.
A5: I thought it would be a good way to get a quick catch-up course on the country, the most practical way to visit the people I wanted to visit scattered across this great land, and an interesting story full of peculiar anachronistic circumstances that might say something about where I am in the 21st century, if not anybody else on a broader scale.
(As always, take Answer 6)
Whatever the case may be, I took the second half of October and traveled across the U.S.A., following the following likely route: Burlington MA-Boston MA-New York City-Washington D.C.-Durham N.C.- Nashville-San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco. The longest stop was a four day conclusion in San Francisco. I was blessed enough to have people to visit in all those cities (well, I guess I wouldn't have stopped by Nashville if I didn't), seeing 16 people in all from various phases of my life, not including assorted spouses, partners, friends, roommates and hangers on who welcomed me just as well as the people I visited. I traveled on this route without a phone (but with a Skype-equipped laptop), on a bus (except for a morning cruise up the California coast from San Diego to Los Angeles), and with no urgent priorities in my life except to get to the next place and to let the people who care know that I was still crazy.
As I hope you can imagine, there were interesting things that happened to me, and interesting things I noticed about our country and various people contained therein on the trip. I would like to share these things. Without further ado and no specific order, some of the notable occurrences:
- Arriving in downtown Washington, DC on a Saturday night in the middle of October is a cold experience, a collection of wide, empty streets deserted for the weekend, a surprising jolt after the bustle of New York. An ill omen perhaps for a city I may someday soon work in.
- In Nashville, on Broadway downtown, on a warm Wednesday afternoon around 3, you can find almost every single bar, country-themed of course, hosting a musician hopeful of finding a career in music city, strumming out a tune on their acoustic guitar; some of the musicians had somebody else to accompany them, some of the musicians had nice voices: none of the musicians had an audience of more than three or four people, including the bartender. There was something about this that was both depressing and life-affirming.
- The Colorado River is dry at the border of Arizona and California. I believe I read about this before. I don't know that it's a good thing.
- Also in Arizona-related observations: in that fine state there exists a town called Gila Bend.
- One way to stand out as a weirdo in New York, no small feat, is to walk around the city with your towel wrapped around the handle of your suitcase. Even if this is a perfectly reasonable way to air out and dry your towel before putting it in your suitcase without it stinking up your suitcase, people will look at you strangely. Or at least, your NYC implanted cousin will.
- The bus system in Winston-Salem, NC carries ads for Rush Radio 94.5, featuring Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity.
- The Museum of Modern Art in New York City has free entrance on Fridays, sponsored by Target. The line stretched down 53rd, up 6th, and back up 54th. A bakery gave out free food, their girls dressed in a zebra-striped outfit with orphan Annie red hair. Also, Max Beckmann's Family Picture was the only painting name I wrote down in my notebook besides the classic, hallmark works (Picasso's Les Mademoiselles D'Avignon, Chagall's I and the Village, Van Gogh's Starry Night).
Here's a set of observations specifically tied to riding the bus. For those interested, I rode Fung Wah to NYC, Megabus to DC, then Greyhound the rest of the way (except, as mentioned above, the Amtrak train from SD to LA):
- The Fung Wah stopped after the exit leaving the Mass Pike. The driver pulled us over to the right side of the road. I read my book. He pulled us over to median. I continued reading my book. A din of confused voices rose around me as we sat on the median for two, three, four minutes. I looked up and noticed our driver running back to our bus from the other side of the highway, where there was another Fung Wah bus. He entered our bus, shook himself off and took off his jacket, and returned the bus to the road. The Fung Wah.
- I rode with this guy from Durham to Nashville. He was probably about 5'10'', and had a pretty solid frame with a little extra layering. He was probably about my age, wore his brown hair in a pony tail, and wore a wispy goatee to go with it. He wore just a wife beater most of the time, unless he went outside and it was on the colder side, in which case he added a sweatshirt. He offered me fish which he had brought for his three day journey from coast to coast. Boasted of the healthy nature of his fish, too, and how he used to bodybuild, but that these days he just lifted a few weights that were in his yard every day.
This guy was an interesting one, and very much displayed some of the common behaviors and attitudes of Greyhound customers. He kept his bag splayed out on the seat next to him in hopes of dissuading anybody from sitting next to him: they would have to ask him for the seat, and his imposing stature and affected scowl would prevent that. Except that somewhere between Asheville and Knoxville, the bus filled up, making it impossible for him to achieve his objective of no neighbor. When somebody did sit down with him at last, a young man, he was nothing less than courteous in conversation and in offering his treats to his new neighbor. In fact, for all his stature and intimidating looks, he was bursting to talk, looking around with his big brown eyes to find anybody he could open up to about his trip to Phoenix, or the fact that his half-brother died somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, or about what he thought about things. To wit: "TV brainwashes people, it brainwashes you, I don't watch any of it."
He also told me, upon seeing me reading, that, "I read books. I got a stack of 'em."
You don't get that on the plane, I tell you what.
- You also don't get cologne on sale in the men's bathroom on the plane. You do get this in the men's bathroom of a rest stop gas station somewhere in eastern Oklahoma.
- On my first Greyhound leg, from D.C. to Durham, I paid $3 to a vending machine to get a Nestle Crunch bar. That is, I paid $1.50 for a bar, received no bar as the ring in front of the selection was empty, which I did not recognize beforehand, and so I paid another $1.50. Needless to say, the candy bar was worth it.
- On that same trip, we had a last stop before Durham in Raleigh. I needed to use a phone, so I got off the bus. My ticket suggested we might change buses, so I went to the driver to make sure that I didn't have to get my suitcase or anything, leading to this beatific statement: "It's going to Durham." He said it with a laugh, with an incredulous smile, as if he told me that I would be getting a Christmas turkey after all. "You don't have to change buses, it's going to Dur-ham." I thought I saw his wizened head bathed in light.
- On the leg from Oklahoma City to Albuquerque, there at some point coalesced an earnest group of young men who had a serious discussion about just what the pot laws were in different states, and what implications those laws had for their lives.
- I also sat next to a guy from Flagstaff to Phoenix who told me quite a bit about his life as a pot farmer. He reported that, living in California and growing weed on six prescriptions, his life would not change either way with the coming referendum on marijuana laws in CA. He said that he had been a bricklayer in Arizona ("That place has ridiculous laws,") but that he lost his job after 7 years to illegal immigrants, and this was the best option left to him. "I don't like society too much," he said, "I try to keep to myself as much as I can." He was thoughtful and well-spoken.
- For one short stretch, I think from Knoxville to Nashville but I could be remembering wrong, I found myself without a seat and had to ask a guy if I could sit next to him.
"Shit, I was waiting for a pretty woman,"
Seeing as there were not really any other seats available, all I could think to say was, "Well, I can smile nice, if that helps." He ended up being nice enough to me, anyway.
- There was another afternoon stretch where I was sitting alone when a young mother joined me. Here four year old or so boy sat across the aisle from her. They were clearly a Hispanic family, so I stewed in my seat, thinking of how to ask her in Spanish whether or not she'd like to sit with her child. I finally stammer, "Quiere sedir...do you want to sit with your child?" She said yes, gladly.
Somehow, the burn I felt for my cultural patronization equaled out whatever good feelings I had for my deed for a while. It's strange to be back in a land where English is the language, I guess.
- One has to get used to waves of smells passing over one's breathing space. Most of these smells are unpleasant. Such is life in the bus.
- The Ft. Smith, Arkansas Greyhound station was probably the cutest I saw on the trip, adorned with paintings depicting the consequences of and reasons against drinking and driving.
- In the southwest (Texas and beyond), each state has a border office. It feels like you're entering a new country, to a degree. In response, I presume, to frequent drug trafficking and illegal immigration, these states set up inspection booths and have border guards on patrol. In California, two border guards actually got on our bus and checked passports; I said I was from the U.S. and they trusted me, meaning I didn't need to flash my passport. Little did they know...
- The one incident that led to trouble on my long trip happened on the first day, before we entered Tennessee. One man of pickled complexion and wearing bad cowboy-style attire (a yellow button-down shirt with red lines and cactus tree designs that screamed the southwest, and big ol' boots) had a bottle of wine and a little stereo. He allegedly improperly touched the teenage girl he sat next to. A few other, bigger passengers stepped in to encourage him to sit at the front of the bus, alone. We stayed a little bit longer than planned at our next stop in Waynesville, and he found himself confronted by a police officer at the front of the bus.
He stayed in Waynesville.
Some 30 hours later, I saw the same man in the bus station in Memphis, holding the same stereo, dressed in the same clothes. He had caught the same bus schedule a day later. While he didn't necessarily look any more sober, he looked glummer, in the least.
- Speaking of the Southwest, apparently Albuquerque is a major depot for drug trafficking. Our merry bus driver warned everybody that the bus would be searched during our layover there. "If anybody has anything they don't want found, better give 'em to me!" he said. All joking aside, several of my companions on the bus were quite unnerved. We passed through Albuquerque without incident, however.
- The scariest thing I heard came right before Nashville. Sitting behind me were two kids who were in either high school or college and appeared reasonably intelligent.
They were discussing Microsoft Office 2010, and specifically some of the new features on Word.
"Yeah, when I write my papers on Word, now," one said, "I can just copy-paste into the document, and then you go and you right-click on it, and you can paraphrase!"
"Oh, dude, that's sweet!" the other replied.
I shed a couple tears in my seat for my educator friends and my student days.
- In my whole time on the bus, logging something like 80 hours total including the final leg to San Francisco, I only peed on a moving bus twice. The first time was in New York, where my cousin rushed me to the bus after deciding that we didn't have time to stop somewhere. The other time was a cheapie in Gallup, New Mexico; the bus driver had earlier announced a stop, scheduled for about 2:20 am, but at the station itself we made an in and out two-minute quickie stop, hardly enough time to pee legally.
I figured we weren't going to get a chance, so I lodged myself in the bathroom, did what I had to do, and ambled back out to my seat...just in time to get up as we stopped at a KFC/McDonalds gas station site. Ahh, sigh.
- Between Memphis and Little Rock overnight, one woman in her 30s or 40s, black, full-bodied, and pretty, spoke to a younger girl straddling the ages of 18 and 22, skinny, less pretty, also black, about finding God and getting out of her troubles. There was something in her speech about the various plagues of lesbians and homeless youth. Eventually, when either one got off the bus or when one of them decided to go to sleep, the older woman pledged to continue the conversation on Facebook.
- The one bit of funny business I had to pull was getting on the bus in Nashville. I arrived just 15 minutes before the scheduled departure, and waited in line behind a minor who needed permission to buy a ticket, its own mess, pushing me dangerously close to being late for my bus.
At last, he finished his business and the attendant at the counter was ready for me. After printing my boarding ticket, she insisted I weigh my bag to make sure it met the 50 lb. limit. Despite my efforts to play with the weight, ultimately it was 6 pounds over. With no time to make it go run laps, I took out a few books and put them in my backpack until I made the weight. She printed my info and I was on my way to San Diego.
Except that I had enough time to go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, and conveniently switch back all the books I had just added to my backpack. No problems for the rest of the trip.
- I was late for one bus all trip: the last one, from LA to San Francisco. No one's perfect.
- I should mention that Megabus has wi-fi on their buses. This felt like a big deal at the time.
View Directions to 797 Cole Street, San Francisco, CA in a larger map
- On that Megabus from NYC to DC, I was lucky enough to sit next to a one Miss Shania. Shania was probably about 4 years old, a cheery little girl who taught me how to draw. Specifically, she shared with me her technique for the Pollock-esque masterpieces she churned out page after page: grab the pen (in light blue, pink, or green for boys), and go like this (bring the pen up and down the page in varying thicknesses and no discernible pattern, just an endless sprawl of lines) and you can do it. She was considerably prouder of having taught me to draw that than she was to have learned to draw a heart from me.
- And as a subset of interesting bus events, here are all the things I had to do to make phone calls without a cell phone:
1. Buy a pretzel from a street vendor across the street from the New York Public Library to get the change needed to call my cousin from a pay phone.
2. Call from Skype numerous times, most memorably using the wi-fi of the Megabus.
3. As DC's streets were void of pay phones as well as people, I ended up having to ask my cab driver for a phone to call my friend. This turned out well, as my cab driver wasn't sure how to get to my friend's house.
4. Using pay phones along the road at various times, with mixed success. Many of the pay phones in Greyhound stations are a little bit more expensive. Many more do not offer a long-distance coin option; you can only call locally or collect. You cannot call cell phones collect. I was mostly calling cell phones. This caused problems.
5. In one of those tricky situations, I ended up borrowing a fellow traveler's phone, after asking a few other fellow travelers for phones who didn't happen to have one.
6. It goes without saying that I borrowed my friends' phones very frequently on the trip.
7. In LA's Union Station, I had the microcosmic phone experience that summed up my macrocosmic trip. I needed change, so instead of asking someone for change, I bought something. Since I needed at least 40 cents to make it to a dollar, I bought gum, even though I don't chew gum. I thought it would be an ok sacrifice. I went to the pay phone, now with about $1.10 of change.
The pay phone required $2.00. I only found this out after I tried the first two of four payphones, which did not have a dialtone, and the third payphone, which did not accept coins, and then at last put my dollar in the fourth payphone. The return didn't work.
I went to a ticket counter, where I received a polite $2.00 in change. Change I could have received at step 1. Not my best traveling moment.
- But despite the bumps, and despite the moments where I spent more than I might have - a flight purchased in advance between almost any of my destinations, and certainly for the long distance ones would have been cheaper than the bus fare - the trip had a sense to it, and a reason. Beyond seeing the soft dew hovering above the grass on the side of the road in the Arkansas morning, and beyond realizing that Texas's skinniest part is 170 miles across, and beyond having the time to read and write or not have to fly on a plane or have the freedom to eat just peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, and the occasional candy bar for two days on a bus.
I can't imagine doing this same trip eastwards. It could be that I am an easterner, and any journey that way would feel like going home, which one does not want to do on a bus. It could be that going west gave me a chance to open a new world, to experience new places in a way that going east would not have.
The trip, the bus trip, hit its logic after Texas. There was our descent into the sunset, a sense of oneness descending back onto me. After Phoenix, crossing through the desert in the morning, ripping through a new barren scenery that was not so distant from Jordan or Israel, for example, but still new; and then entering California and seeing how the landscape slowly grew gray and then green as the road emptied out to the valley before San Diego and the sun falling in front of us; there made itself felt every justification for taking the long way, the hard way, the stupid way.
Here's to the Long Way.
Here's to the Hard Way.
Here's to the Stupid Way.