America: Gone To The School Of Greyhound
By Lorne Blumer
I was sitting in what I imagined to be the solitude of my apartment, poring over guidebooks to the Grand Canyon when the voice came – uninvited, as always.
“Take the bus,” it said.
“Do you mind?” I answered. “I’m trying to read.”
For years, I had dreamt of hiking the Canyon; and now that I’d finally decided to go, the last thing I needed was my inner voice telling me to take the Greyhound there, all the way from Toronto.
Unfortunately, my inner voice has never cared what I want. And I’ve learned better than to fight it.
“Roundtrip to Flagstaff, Arizona,” I grudgingly told the ticket agent at the
Toronto Bus Terminal.
At the platform, I turned my profile to the driver, so he could see my backpack. “Should I stow it underneath?” I asked.
“Yeah. But you’re gonna have to take it off first. There’s not enough room for
both of you below.”
Taking my ticket, he tore the wrong part.
“Bad driver,” he chided himself, slapping his wrist.
Certainly not the scripted speech of overworked, overpainted flight attendants. Things were looking promising. But the landscape out of Toronto was a monotony of superhighways, industrial parks and cloned housing developments. Dinner at the Detroit bus station was a vending machine sub, heated in a soiled microwave. Chicago came with a warning from the driver to listen to twenty years of experience, stay in well-lit areas and keep a watchful eye out for pickpockets.
The overnight leg from Chicago to St. Louis was seemingly endless, sleep made impossible by the jolt of lane-changes thwacking my head against the chilly window that doubled as my pillow, and air so dry it had me coughing like a chronic emphysmatic. Afraid to supplement my hacking with the offense of pulling off my shoes, I left my feet to endure the sweaty stew they’d begun concocting hundreds of miles earlier.
At dawn, we pulled into St. Louis. Twenty hours down, thirty-six more to go. But who was counting?
The St. Louis station’s sticky floor clung to my shoes. Droplets from a thick fog of air freshener, extra-sweet, condensed on my nose. I tried not to think about what had necessitated it.
“Hey, Inny,” I called out.
“I don’t answer to you,” my inner voice replied.
“I want a divorce,” I said.
“You can walk any time you like.”
My next bus would be a long-hauler, running all the way to Los Angeles.
I joined the line.
A fellow passenger-to-be, withered and intoxicated, but somehow holding on to a demure beauty that I imagined had made her a high school prom queen, periodically strayed from her place to hit strangers up for money, often successfully.
Two other women commanded my attention – one with wild blonde hair and a swimsuit model’s figure, with a bare midriff and skin tight jeans; the other serene-looking in plaid green shirt and pigtails. And each with a four year-old daughter in tow – the blonde’s tugging impatiently at her mother’s arm, the other's quietly entertaining herself with a doll.
Nearby, an exhausted Latino woman sat on a bench, stroking her daughter’s brow as she lay on her mother’s lap, soaked in sweat and wheezing with each breath.
Once I got on the bus my only responsibility was looking out the window, which grew more rewarding the further south and west we rode.
I thought I knew what to expect from northern Oklahoma, having, after all, read The Grapes of Wrath in high school. But as we rolled through Route 66, refreshingly intimate in scale compared to the megahighways, there was a distinctive absence of dust. The low horizon was filled with soft green hills rolling gently to all corners of the earth, occasionally adorned by simple stone houses. I was tempted to jump out, liberate my feet from their cauldron, and meander.
In southern Missouri the seat beside me had become occupied by a stiff-backed, retired farmer lugging a bulky suitcase. I was slow to warm to him. He, too, loved the Oklahoma landscape, but in talking about it or the southwest, where he’d often been, the only adjective he could offer was “beautiful.” “Beautiful, just beautiful,” he’d say of Arizona. “It’s something else, so beautiful,” for New Mexico. Always shaking his head and smiling at how “beautiful” things were.
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