|The Best and Worst Thing
Long Distance Bus Rides: The Good, The Bad and the Disgustingly Stinky
By Adam Gropman
Sep 10, 2007
BEST/WORST LONG DISTANCE BUS RIDE
Years ago, when I was a kid, it seemed like buses were a fairly normal, respectable mode of long distance transportation. I especially used to take the two hour plus ride across the state of Massachusetts, when we moved from the eastern-most Boston area to the western-most Berkshire hills. There were also the occasional bus trips between Boston to New York, one of the American routes that remains vibrant due to the difficulty of bringing a car into New York City, and is especially now attractive due to the tiny, independent little Chinese-run bus companies that operate between the those two cities' Chinatowns. How can you not love a twenty dollar round trip ticket for a bus that lets off customers semi-illegally on a busy, jammed lower Manhattan street?
Generally, however, cheap, easily accessible air travel seems to have replaced what used to be few-hundred mile trips on the Greyhound or the Trailways. You could say that Southwest and Jet Blue are the new long distance buses, and that airplane travel has become far less elite. But there's still something so earthy, so real, so desperately...utilitarian about a long distance bus trip. Most of the time, buying a long distance bus ticket is a way of saying: “I got to get my ass from here to there, pronto, and I don't have options!”
There is still something classic about a long bus ride. It can feel comforting, soothing, rooted to a place in a way that air travel is not. You're cruising by landscapes on a freeway, but you still get to take in the details of the trees, buildings, backyards and curious empty lots along the way. A really nice bus is sort of like an airplane on the ground. There are less amenities, but also far less rules, no annoying security checkpoints or screening, and no flight attendants explaining the intricacies of seat belts, safety exits and oxygen masks in case of emergency. Some buses these days even have small video screens hanging down on which they show movies. But as much as the cozy confines of a long distance bus can be pleasant, such a trip under bad circumstances can be pure, excruciating hell.
At the end of my freshman year of college, I decided to go meet my best friend Pete, who was at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The timing worked perfectly since his university ran around a week later than my small college in Portland, Oregon. I connected up with a couple of women from the college off of a ride board, and the three of set out in a rental car with the challenge of setting some kind of cross-country speed record.
We dropped off the first girl at her home in Utah, a suburb just a bit north of Salt Lake City, and then continued on to Madison, where the other girl was from. Neither of us wanted to pay for a third day of the rental car, and as rental car companies are fairly strict, forty eight hours became our mantra, our obsession and our prime directive. We averaged around ninety miles an hour on the often boring, utilitarian Route 80 through Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and then into Wisconsin.
We made the 2,000 miles in exactly two days, almost to the minute, after which I was rewarded with a several-day vacation in Madison with Pete. When it came time for both of us to get back to Boston, a third of the country's width to the east, there was really only one viable option. The Greyhound bus.
A thousand mile bus trip that stops in every large and medium sized Midwestern city could be just OK if one were to do it alone, but having one's best friend along can make it a veritable fun fest. As we passed the fairly exotic landscapes of the industrial and residential Midwest -- AKA the rust belt -- we caught up on months of esoteric conversational topics, frivolous debates and juvenile inside jokes. The bus was surprisingly empty for much of the trip and felt like our own, very slow, very low-flying version of a chartered private jet.
Right around Gary, Indiana, a small group of black women boarded the bus. They wore colorful dresses and big hats and gave off the air of proper, churchgoing ladies, leading lights of their community who cared for their kids and households and shared local gossip. Pete and I had smoked some pot and ended up sitting right behind them. We fell into one of the most persistent and vicious giggling fits I've ever experienced and their sideways looks and loudly whispered comments about our bizarre, crazy behavior only exacerbated it. We were trapped in a terrifying and painful giggling spiral.
For someone who had never before been any of the Midwest, this trip was an excellent opportunity to fleetingly see some of the most middling, unspectacular, meat n' potatoes places America has to offer. This bus stopped in Chicago; Gary and South Bend in Indiana; Toledo, Cleveland and Akron in Ohio; and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania before finishing in New York City, where we then jumped onto another bus for the final few hours to Boston.
From the nearly Martian industrial skylines of Gary to the pastoral countryside along the way to the gritty, rock-solid cities we'd stop in for a food break, it was all fascinating to me because it was all somehow authentic and all totally new. All in all, the bus was clean and the driver pleasant and professional, but most of all, the terrain was interesting and the social company excellent. And this added up to a pretty great long distance bus ride.
Several years ago I flew to Salt Lake City to do some stand up comedy shows in the Western Utah / Northeastern Nevada area. At the end of this small run I had to get to Las Vegas where there was a social get-together hosted by another online magazine that I'd written for extensively. The only hitch was how to get from SLC to Las Vegas, some 432 miles to the Southeast, cheaply. There was only one thing to do...take the Greyhound.
Salt Lake City was an ironic place to depart from on this trip of torture because it is, if nothing else, a clean place. The Latter Day Saints -- God bless 'em -- are a generally fresh-scrubbed people and they set up their capitol city in a new, sparkling desert valley where, to this day, they practice truly clean living. Perhaps it was the fresh blast of neatness, order and hygiene that I received by wandering around the LDS' huge Temple Square complex that got me through the ride.
Immediately upon boarding the bus two things became apparent. One, the bus was absolutely jam packed to the rafters, every single seat taken. Two, the passengers were not of the quality level one experiences on discount airlines currently or even that one used to experience years ago on the same long distance buses.
This bus had a handful of what must have been homeless people. But I don't just mean individuals who happen not to have a regular residence in which to sleep at night or put their things. I mean people who smell so powerfully bad that unless one has a really bad cold or has had their nose blown off in the war, the odor is sickening to the point of intolerable.
I happened to get a seat very close to two or three of the odiferously offensive individuals and I had truly never smelled anything so horrifically bad in my entire life. This was on par with rotting garbage or a high-powered stinkbomb or an actual pile of excrement. The smell coming off of these bus neighbors was sharp, acrid and rancid, with strong undertones of filth and decomposition and very noticeable fluorishes of must and grease. At the very minimum, they had steadily pissed themselves for days, probably weeks, and their clothing was marinated in a compound of old, soured urine, enhanced by human sweat and random organic dirt particles. At most, they had crapped their pants.
One of these sorry souls was actually seated next to me, across a very narrow aisle. It was an occasion in which I silently wondered what horrible karmic act I had committed to receive such plain shitty luck. As this red eye bus cruised through the dark Utah night, I tried to sleep, yearning for an escape into unconsciousness that would, in a sense, take me far away from the disgusting and oppressive hellhole in which I was trapped.
But sleep was impossible. The smell was so strong and invasive that it jammed its way up into my nostrils like a knife and actually kept me from passing out. I was tired, as it was very late, and I started to get really angry. I was mad at these seemingly sub-human ghouls who had abandoned any sense of personal cleanliness, but even more I was pissed off at the bus company. What the hell was Greyhound doing? Why wouldn't they protect me and other passengers from this smell terrorism?
On an airplane, even today, you simply will not find people who have repeatedly soiled their clothes and smell like a combination of rotting meat and dirty diaper. I don't know how or why it works out that way, but there are certain standards when it comes to air travel. If you look..and sniff around on a plane, you'll find that everyone has showered and thrown on some fresh clothes that day. Not so anymore on a bus. I believe that Greyhound would let on a zombie, a golem and the actual Swamp Monster if they all held tickets, paid in full.
Making matters even worse for me was the fact that our bus driver insisted on stopping repeatedly at seemingly bizarre, arbitrary places off of the freeway -- some of which were actual bus stops -- and then taking half hour breaks. This was beyond insane. It was as if he was part of a sick conspiracy to kill me through a combination of sleep deprivation and dangerous stench. It was inconceivable to me that he'd park the bus in some lot outside a convenience store and then disappear into the pitch dark night for around thirty minutes. This was regularly around a nine hour ride. It wasn't THAT far. We weren't driving to the Panama Canal or to Alaska. Why the hell did this guy -- a professional long distance driver -- need to take more rest breaks than an entrant in the Tour De France?
When we finally pulled into Las Vegas in the early morning light, I was beyond overjoyed. I felt something perhaps similar to what prisoners feel when they finally walk out the doors of the penitentiary. The hotel where I was meeting my friends and also staying, the Plaza, happened to be next door to the Vegas Greyhound station- a nice surprise after a very dark night of the soul. I guzzled a drink, found my room way up high on the 20th floor, and went to sleep for several hours.
After that experience, I am beyond weary of ever taking a long distance bus ride again. I would need some assurance from Greyhound executives that they are enforcing some sort of ban on nauseatingly smelling passengers riding their buses. But perhaps that ride was the perfect metaphor for Las Vegas. I gambled on a relatively inexpensive ride -- and I lost big time.
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