The bus is my ticket to America

I have three children, adults all, and they live in Florida, California, and Washington State. I like to go see them, but my mode of travel worries them. It also bothers my friends. They speculate about me, and frown. I live in the Northeast, but I don't travel those great distances west and south by airplane. I take the bus. I have the time, and I like seeing the country.

Now I'm on my way to see Mark in Seattle. It's 6 a.m., before dawn. We're in Oregon, but I can't make out the countryside. I love these early hours. The bus is dark, and everybody else is asleep. I feel meditative.

I left home a month ago. I stopped to sightsee in Philadelphia for five days, then eight days in Washington, D.C. - wonderful. Two days in St. Louis, a week in Dallas. Then a long leg - nearly two whole days - to Los Angeles. Finally, five hours up the coast to beautiful San Luis Obispo, Calif., for 10 days with my daughter, Monique.

I don't get bored. Honestly, I don't. I look out the window. There's lots to see, even on prairies or deserts. I read. I write. I talk with my seatmate, if I have one, though I prefer an empty seat next to me. Or I talk with the driver, if I can.

I like the drivers. They're helpful, and excellent at what they do. We've had three women drivers on this trip. We have one right now. She's short, but she handles this big baby easily. I've been driving 50 years, but I've learned many of driving's finer points by observing bus drivers. No spurts of speed, no sharp braking, no lane-hopping, no tail-gating. Anticipate. Anticipate.

In the past four years, I've crossed the country four times. Last year I made a complete circuit of the United States - some 13,000 miles in 75 days. A small, pleasant adventure for me.

In past years, I drove myself around the country. Now I heed the bus people who say "Leave the driving to us."

"Why don't you fly?" people ask. I do. In the past 12 months, I've flown across the Atlantic six times.

"Why not ride trains?" I've ridden trains. Once I rode a train for 37 hours straight across India, from Madras to Delhi. A few years ago, I rode the rails into Los Angeles. For an hour before pulling into the station in L.A., all I saw were the backyards of houses, factories, and vast railroad yards. Not the prettiest real estate in the City of Angels.

I've never found a train that could take me into the small towns and maybe right up Main Street, to let me size up the place through windows in front of me, and to my left and right, the way I can on a bus. Because the bus is so high, I can even see over the SUVs.

In Sacramento yesterday, we drove right up the beautiful main drag. The impressive State Capitol was straight ahead. What a sight!

And I've never found a train that could take me high into the mountains, then down into a lovely valley, with splendid views all the way.

I have a double reason to travel by bus. I want to get to my destination, of course. But I also want to enjoy the trip. Remember the old saying? "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive," said Robert Louis Stevenson. Like him, I want to see everything. Cities and towns, farms, ranch lands, forests, and ocean shores.

I've taken the bus to many big cities: Baltimore and New Orleans; Phoenix and San Diego; Vancouver, British Columbia; Chicago; and many others. I've seen smaller cities like Tulsa, Okla., and Tallahassee, Fla. I've seen Annapolis, Md., El Paso, Texas, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. You've probably heard of them.

But how about Seal Beach, Calif., and Roseburg, Ore., Butte, Mont., Las Cruces, N.M., and Lubbock, Texas? Or Lake Charles, La., and Kalispell, Mont.? I've seen all of these, and many more. And I'm very glad I did.

I've seen the Ohio, Mississippi, and Colorado Rivers. I've crossed the Great Smokies, the Rockies, and the Sierras. I've ridden through the Great Plains and the Mojave Desert. I've seen the vast lettuce fields outside Yuma, Ariz., and the huge strawberry fields on the central coast of California. I've seen huge wind farms, with their countless great turbines - the power-generating technology of tomorrow.

I believe I've seen something else. Something more important: I've seen what the United States is today, and what it is becoming - a smorgasbord of races, nationalities, religions, and lifestyles whose diversity is richer than ever, and assuredly becoming even more so. Surely we're the most multi-everything nation the world has ever seen.

And yet - and this is interesting - we all seem to like hamburgers and French fries....

It's been good to see all this through my own eyes, rather than through television, newspapers, or the movies. I've been able to reflect upon it, to feel current with what's happening.

In a small way, I see this incredible mix right here on this bus, skewed as it is on the scale of income and social scale. After all, who rides the bus? Minorities: African-Americans, Latinos, native Americans. People without much money: college kids, young military personnel, single mothers with children, and a few seniors like me.

Sometimes on these trips my white skin makes me the minority. This was a shock at first. Now I'm comfortable with it.

The bus service isn't perfect. For food breaks, too often we stop at a greasy spoon. And it's always a shock to pull into a terminal at night and have the driver snap on all the lights and bark, "Service time! Everybody off. We have to fuel and clean this thing. You can get back on in 45 minutes." Try that at 3 a.m.

Bus travel has an image problem - it's not cool. Some of the terminals are terrible, and I had a piece of luggage stolen when I was in Washington, D.C. People on the lam, in movies and novels, often ride a bus. And how many felons who have finally been paroled are handed an airline or train ticket on their way out the prison gates? But I still have great respect for the bus companies I've used.

My experiences with fellow passengers have been good. I've had countless pleasant encounters. I've met wonderful people, people I enjoyed and wished to know better and longer. Another thing: I'm no longer fearful - automatically fearful - of others just because they look different. Or because they're strangers. Bus travel has been a grass-roots lesson in tolerance.

And in the US, at the dawn of this new millennium, isn't that a good thing?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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