On the benefits of inefficiency: an ode to Greyhound

I spent the past two days travelling on the Greyhound, from Walla Walla, Washington to Tucson, Arizona. When I told my friends that I was planning to travel to Arizona by bus, a lot of them gave me a sideways glance before saying, “Have fun…” It’s true that after 46 hours hanging out on busses and in Greyhound stations, I was exhausted and pretty hungry. And yeah, riding the bus sucks a lot sometimes. But I want to spend a minute defending our nation’s slow, inefficient bus system.

Two main things put me on a bus. The first is that I was trying to minimize expenditures on this trip. I’m spending three and a half weeks in Tucson and Agua Prieta, Mexico doing research for my senior thesis and volunteering with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group. While a roundtrip plane ticket to Tucson from Seattle would have cost me something like $400 (and probably more, given how last-minute I planned this), my bus ticket was about $240 roundtrip (Walla Walla to Tucson and Tucson to Portland, where I’m visiting a few friends).

The second is that over the last two years, I’ve become somewhat terrified of flying for totally irrational reasons. I know statistically you’re way, way more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. You’re probably more likely to be injured or killed by a fellow Greyhound passenger than die in a plane crash. You can tell my brain these things all day and it will still make me stop being an atheist briefly during take-off and hyperventilate every time there’s bad turbulence.

Greyhound gets a bad rep. A lot of people say it’s slow, but so are trains, and I never hear people whining about Amtrak as much. Really, I think a lot of it boils down to the type of people who ride the bus. Because it’s cheap, you’re way more likely to get ex-cons, people with mental illnesses, drug addicts and all kinds of other interesting characters on the bus. It’s precisely because of this that I find it enjoyable, though. Planes are largely full of businesspeople who keep to themselves and read magazines, sprinkled with the occasional family going on vacation. Busses, on the other hand, have a way more diverse slice of life in the U.S. There are families traveling together, people making pilgrimages home after months or years away, people who just got out of prison, vets travelling to VA hospitals, veteran travelers who have crossed the country 30 times by bus, teenagers with skateboards and an encyclopediactic knowledge of bongs, and single men going home to Mexico. (That wasn’t some literary pretentiousness; those are all actual people I’ve met on the bus.)

I always love hearing people’s stories. It’s what draws me to journalism too. I love being the quiet girl with headphones half in writing down the best snippets of conversation I overhear and drawing roadmaps in my head, outlining the childhoods these people had and what their futures might hold. I love hearing people say things I would never in a million years overhear at Whitman, things like, “Somebody call 9 goddamn 11. I need a fucking cigarette.” Or, “I tried breaking someone out of jail in my car, so guess who don’t have a license no more…” (Sadly, she didn’t elaborate.)

I love hearing people’s life stories, like the woman who sat next to me for an hour going into Salt Lake City. She was an ex-Marine with a 16-year old daughter at Harvard. (“She has to ask me and her brother before she can go to a frat party. Guess how many frat parties she’s been to?” “Zero?” “Two. You have to learn to trust ‘em or they’ll rebel.”)

She’s also a world-ranked Overlord in some Facebook-related dragon game and was travelling to meet up with fellow players in Australia. She mostly talked at me for the whole time she was on the bus, and she had one of the most interesting lives I’d ever heard. She told me about running her house with discipline, like in the Marines, and how she’d had to give up some of her authority when she went to visit her (now married) son, who’s also at Harvard.

“He said, ‘Mama, this is my house, I’m married, I’m going to do what I want.’ You can’t argue with that logic. What am I going to do, send him to his room? I can’t send him to his to his room, I don’t need any more grandbabies!”

Stories like that just make you want to interview people all day.

Beyond just the people, I like the physical nature of the bus. I like that you interact with landscapes instead of just flying over them. I like driving past cement plants and Wal-Mart distribution centers and wheat fields and thinking about those spaces and what they mean. I love geeking out by combining my political ecology course with my in-the-field knowledge from Semester in the West and trying to work out how we might solve some of the problems facing the world in the spaces where they actually are. I like moving from Walla Walla wheatfields to Wallowa forest, Utah mountains, Nevada’s basin and range hills covered with shrubs to the cactus-dotted deserts of Southern Arizona. I like seeing the transitions, the highway signs, the way you can tell you’ve crossed a state line because the quality of the pavement changes.

Plus, on the bus, you’re still you. You can leave your electronic devices on and text your friends every time you see a funny road sign. You can stop at gas stations and buy food. You can stretch out across two seats and sleep in a position that’s somewhat comfortable. (I actually had quite perceptive dreams all night on the bus. On planes, on the rare occasion I fall asleep for long enough to dream, I only ever dream about plane crashes.) You can bring whatever you want with you, including liquids. The TSA’s security theater has left the Greyhound relatively unscathed, possibly because no one would be stupid enough to try to orchestrate a major terrorist plot on a bus. Perhaps in shared acknowledgement of how much Greyhound kind of sucks, people talk to strangers more readily. There’s a sense of we’re all in this together that I often find lacking on planes.

So yes, busses are slow and sometime uncomfortable. Yes, you might have it sit next to people who smell weird or won’t stop talking, and yes, it takes you two days to get somewhere you could fly to in six hours. There are definitely times in life when it makes sense to take a plane, assuming you have the ability to afford it. But I’m 21 and in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and as long as that’s the case, I’d rather stick it out on the Greyhound.

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