Fifty years ago this month I arrived in New York on a student charter flight and traveled to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus. This is my account of the trip, first published in The Dabbler in June 2012.
The kiss was the longest, most passionate I had ever seen outside a movie. The passengers craned their heads above the seats for a better view while the driver tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. The young couple stood in the bus doorway, he on the dusty ground, she leaning into him from the bottom step. We were somewhere in America, the land spreading flat and empty and endless all around. The scene might have had all the emotional drama of a classic movie lovers parting, but we all knew these lovers had met a mere 24 hours before.
This is one of the most vivid memories of my cross-country journey, New York City to San Francisco, in the fall of 1970. I wish I could tell you that I travelled in a painted, psychedelic VW van with the likes of the Merry Pranksters for companions, but the banal truth is that my “On the Road” experience was in a Greyhound bus, my fellow passengers a Canterbury Tales-like assortment of ordinary Americans. It was an ever changing assortment, as passengers got on and off at various stopping places along the 2,908 mile route. I was the only one who stayed on the bus for the entire three days and three nights journey.
My adventure began in New York City where I encountered the two faces of America in the person of one taxi driver: the smiling friendly face disarming you while the anything-for-a-buck face is casually fleecing you. I decided to take a cab from my hotel to the bus station although it was only three blocks away because, frankly, I was afraid to walk the city streets by myself at five o’clock in the morning. But it was immediately obvious that we weren’t driving a straight few blocks. We turned here and there block after block until I lost all sense of direction. Determined not to be an easy mark I challenged the driver. “Hey, I looked on a map and the bus station is only three blocks away. Where are we going?” I felt rising panic as I thought of all the horror stories of young women disappearing in the big, bad city. But the driver turned with a breezy, open smile and reassured me: “One-way streets, missy, don’t you worry I’ll get you there on time.” I was unconvinced by this explanation, but when we finally pulled up at the bus station and I handed over a worryingly huge chunk of my cash, he was suddenly all fatherly concern. “When you get out run, don’t walk, run straight for those doors,” he said pointing, “a lot of shady characters hang about here, you need to be careful. Run.” He sat in his cab and watched me until I was safely inside, no doubt pocketing his grossly inflated fare with a self-satisfied smirk.
At the ticket window it was like communicating with some-one speaking a foreign language. The Greyhound bus official answered all my anxious questions by shouting something completely incomprehensible at me. Ever since I’ve thought of him as the stereotypical New Yorker, loud, rude, and angry. Not fair I know, but first impressions stick. I was hardly a country bumpkin unused to a big city; I grew up in London! But New York seemed on a bigger, badder scale altogether. Somehow I made it to the right bus and sank into my seat with relief. Soon we were rolling through the still darkened streets, dawn visible in quick flashes of light at the ends of the long canyons between the towering skyscrapers. I could not have imagined then that decades in the future, when my daughter lived for a time in Brooklyn, I would enjoy visits to the city and actually understand what New Yorkers said. Now I was glad to leave this scary place behind.
For those who have never travelled on a Greyhound bus I must explain that when you do, you do not pass through the best parts of town. Greyhound bus stations for the most part are located in the poorest downtown neighborhoods or the shabbiest outskirts of town. I saw a lot of desolate weed choked streets, trash littered vacant lots, boarded up buildings, and sad-eyed people. I know I must have seen a lot of magnificent scenery, or did we pass through those stretches in the long, dark, semi-sleepless nights? For what I remember most clearly are those blighted cities, those hardscrabble little towns, the endless miles of flat, featureless prairie. Our route took us through Pennsylvania and Ohio and on to Chicago; across Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming; through Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada; finally dipping down into California through Sacramento and on to our destination, San Francisco, city of dreams. We ate unappetizing meals in shabby bus stations, mostly cheap hot dogs and sandwiches. I went for the longest time in my life without the sustenance of a proper cup of tea. The grey lukewarm water that passed for tea hardly counted. Some of the passengers slept day or night, but others passed the long hours engaging their fellows in conversation above the monotonous drone of the bus engine. I was amazed by the variety of American regional accents, some much easier to understand than others, none as abrasive as that of New York. My own English accent made me the focus of considerable interest. It was quite a novel and, I must admit, enjoyable experience for this former sheltered convent schoolgirl and recent university graduate to be treated as some kind of exotic character! I met young drifters going who knows where, solid middle-aged farmers on business trips, elderly women traveling to visit family, and a few brooding, sinister types who could have stepped out of an American gangster movie.
I did not own a camera so I have no visual record of my trip, but a few scenes stand out in my memory as clear as picture postcards:
In Chicago a tantalizing glimpse of Lake Michigan. Just as I thought the famous city views would open up before me the bus veered away into a much less scenic urban district. I returned to my book.
On the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska I walked outside the bus station onto an empty, dusty road in early evening. A strong wind blew, something I had never felt before, a hot wind. Then across the road tumbled a huge clump of dried vegetation, rolling and bouncing into the fields beyond. Only later, when I saw the movie The Last Picture Show, did I learn I had seen tumbleweed.
In a small town a little girl with tangled hair and dirty bare feet followed her mother across the railroad tracks towards a dilapidated house with rotted front steps. I couldn’t help thinking that I was seeing the phrase “wrong side of the tracks” brought to life.
In Laramie, Wyoming, men in cowboy hats and boots with spurs strode along raised wooden sidewalks. I felt as though I had wandered onto a western movie set. I had no idea such places still existed, seeming untouched by the modern world. I had lunch in a diner where all the women had hair done up in huge beehives.
It is true. In the west the sky is bigger. I was surprised to find this is more than a tall tale.
I don’t remember if I saw the Great Salt Lake, but I do remember the Great Salt Desert, stretching white and gleaming as far as the eye could see, mile after mile. I had a new vision of the word “bleak,” previously reserved in my mind for Dartmoor.
After those vast lonely spaces how comforting it was to arrive in the orchard country around Sacramento, California. At last a human scale, domesticated landscape, verdant and welcoming, full of promise for the golden city to come.
It was somewhere past Chicago that I recall the pretty young woman and her small daughter boarding the bus. She sat across the aisle from the seat in front of me, which was occupied by a handsome guy wearing a cowboy hat. He had sullenly kept to himself so far, but before long he and the woman were chatting away like old friends. When we stopped for a meal at the latest dingy bus station they went off to eat together, the little girl trailing behind almost forgotten. The friendship warmed up quickly. By nightfall, as the passengers settled down to get what sleep they could, the woman tucked her daughter into a blanket and moved across the aisle to sit with the cowboy. Before long the couple were doing a lot more than talk. Through the gap in the seats I could see their heads together busily engaged in what back in England we would have called snogging. By now passengers were taking note of the situation and a few disapproving glances were exchanged as they passed by on the way to the toilet at the back of the bus. Mercifully the little girl slept on as things got wilder in the adjacent seat. The noise of the bus engine couldn’t drown out the gasps and groans and sounds of fumbling with zippers and buttons. The seat back began to slam back rhythmically against my knees. You could feel the whole busload awake and alert with amazement.
By dawn the pair slumbered peacefully, draped all over each other. Disapproval had now turned to outright hostility on the part of some passengers. Tut-tuts and shocked whispers were heard up and down the aisle and people cast sympathetic glances at the abandoned little girl now whining for her mother’s attention. The affair raged on throughout the day, until by late afternoon the young woman reached her destination. Now the lovers stood on the bus steps in that long, lingering farewell kiss. When they finally drew apart under the bus driver’s malevolent stare, the cowboy swung her and the child down onto the dusty ground. They exchanged scraps of paper with contact details and stepped into a quick final hug. Then the cowboy hopped back on board and the bus door hissed shut. I wondered where on earth she could be going. We were in the middle of nowhere at the crossroads of the highway and a rough farm track that stretched away into nothingness. Was she going to walk? Was someone coming to pick her up? Would she ever see the cowboy again? I don’t know the answers, but I know I’ll never forget that scene. That farewell kiss and the young mother and her child standing at the lonely crossroads as the bus pulled away. An iconic American scene: romance and emptiness.