Our Bus Took the High Road

I have never been a friend of buses. In the city, where the rides are short, they are tolerable. But on long-distance trips, I have always felt forlorn. Perhaps it is the exhaust fumes, perhaps the lonely little towns these buses nose into in the chill of early morning or the half-light of dusk. I don't know. But it's enough to make me avoid riding a bus if I possibly can.

Up here in Maine, though, if one does not have a car and cannot afford to fly, there really is no other way out. My state is rural and poor, and Greyhound is a real lifeline, threading its way down the coast, winding inland along narrow, wooded roads to pick up the solitary rider standing under the bare light bulb outside the general store at 2 a.m. A few years ago, during the Greyhound strike, a real cry of misery went up from Maine's hinterlands.

And so I am sympathetic to people who must rely on buses, although I have been happy not to be one of them.

About five years ago, a flurry of red-and-white circulars appeared in the general stores, gas stations, and supermarkets. A new bus company had come to town, promising quick and comfortable express service from Bangor to Boston in only four hours. Why would anybody drive? read the headline.

The ad aroused my interest. I had never been able to drive to Boston in less than five hours. The bus fare was even more palatable: only $50 round trip, half-price for children. As Thanksgiving approached and I began to dread the act of driving to family in New Jersey, I decided to give this bus a try. Once in Boston, I could connect with Amtrak to Newark.

When I compared the bus and train schedules, however, I found that the bus arrived in Boston at the same time the train was scheduled to depart. Still, I felt it was worth a try: The train might be running late; and even if I missed it, there would be another train a couple of hours later.

I arrived at the bus station at 7 a.m. on the day before Thanksgiving. Quite a crowd had already gathered: fellow Mainers bundled against the frigid cold of late autumn, cradling steaming cups of hot chocolate.

The bus was idling in place. It was spanking new - red, white, and blue with observation-size windows. When the boarding call went out, the air of anticipation heightened. What struck me was the makeup of the passengers: students with backpacks, families, weathered workmen in baseball caps, elegant older couples in tweeds and heels. A very diverse group.

Once we were aboard, the driver came down the aisle, handing out little plastic bags of doughnuts and orange juice. "What's this?" I asked him, hesitating a moment before taking the bag.

"Your snack," he said matter-of-factly, as if surprised that I didn't understand.

As I sat sipping my juice, the driver came through again, this time with headphones. As I raised my hand to ask another unnecessary question, he preempted me: "For the movie," he said.

The movie? On a bus? Well, OK!

There wasn't a seat to be had as we pulled out precisely at the appointed time. I checked my watch, fretting anew over my train connection. In less than two hours we would make a 10-minute stop in Portland to let off passengers before heading to Boston. In the meantime, the movie came on: "Three Wishes," starring Patrick Swayze (edited for family viewing). I settled back in my seat and allowed myself to be conducted south on I-95, gazing occasionally through the window to watch the sere autumn woods of Maine roll by.

I quickly lost interest in the movie because my eye was constantly being snagged by the other riders. Some were reading, others snoozing, a gaggle of teens were chatting in back of the bus, two children across from me had their noses raised toward the video monitor. There was a sense of collective ease that caused me to reevaluate my antipathy toward buses. Was it the rising sun, the open highway, or the Baggie with the doughnut and orange juice?

I was distracted once again by the train schedule. I found myself wishing the bus along, as if by force of will I could impel it to its destination ahead of its already remarkable schedule.

The crackle of the loudspeaker startled me. "Ladies and gentlemen," the driver intoned, "in 15 minutes we're scheduled to make a 10-minute stop in Portland. Does anybody here intend to get off in Portland?"

We passengers looked at one another. A chorus of "Nos!" went up.

"How many are in favor of going straight to Boston?"

Everyone - even the children - raised his hand.

"Then why don't we just get there nonstop?" the driver said.

A CHEER went up. I couldn't believe it. What a democratic bus. As we roared past Portland, I found myself leaning forward in my seat, in the manner of a jockey urging his thoroughbred to the finish line. When we pulled into Boston, I gathered my luggage and made my way through the crowd of passengers. As I turned for the street, I caught a comment from one of my fellow riders as he took his bag from the driver: "This is the best bus in the world!"

Amen to that, I thought as I ran across the street and burst into South Station, catching my train just as the doors were closing.

As we slipped out of the station, I sat eyes-forward to my destination. But for the first time in my life, I found my heart welling with fondness for a wonderful bus driven, at least that day, by the desires of its passengers.

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