My best friend was dying. There is no gentle way to say it, and I want to be clear about why my trip was so urgent. As a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant), I work with dying people all the time. I know what it looks like and how it sounds. His soft voice over the phone said simply “I’ve got stage 4 lung cancer, Troutman.”
“Ahh, Holbrook, I’m so sorry. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
My car sat at the garage awaiting a fan assembly. I’d spent $1500 in the past few months on oil leak repairs, new tires, new radiator, and this last made me groan. No matter how much was right with your car, if there’s no fan to cool the engine, you can’t drive. I could do nothing but wait. Snow and ice storms in my part of the mountains had made travel hazardous.
Frustrated, feeling trapped, I considered renting a car. The expense quickly brought me back to reality. The bus, I thought, and went online in search of schedules and ticket prices. I could buy a round trip ticket for less than the cost of gas if I drove myself. The idea of spending several hours on the bus actually appealed to me. I could read. Think. Compose something for my friend.
My bus left Friday night at 9:15 pm. The other options were nine and 9:30 am, neither of which was possible for Richard, my landlord. I quickly realized that while the bus might be less costly it was definitely not convenient, and public transportation meant you had to rely on someone else to take you there and pick you up.
My landlord agreed to take me to the bus station and pick me up when I got back. I appreciated his generosity-the bus was 20 miles away in Asheville. I gave him $20 for gas and his time, acknowledging one of the reasons more people don’t take the bus. You’re dependent on other people’s schedules, not just the bus schedule. Still, even with the extra $20 I gave him, it was less than driving and less than renting. I printed my tickets at home, one tiny bit of convenience, and packed a small carry-on bag so I wouldn’t have to haul around a suitcase or pay a baggage fee.
Richard dropped me at the station early-several hours early- to avoid being caught in bad weather after dark. In the mountains, winding roads with severe curves can be treacherous once the sun, and the temperature, goes down.
I walked into the station at 5 pm. There were many businesses on Tunnel Road and I thought I’d have a leisurely dinner, walk around a bit, and settle in with a book once it got cold and dark. I checked in with the station manager, tucked my canvas bag into a locker (4 quarters), and walked the 2 blocks to an inviting Mexican restaurant where I enjoyed a quiet meal.
When I got back to the station, a young black girl was stuffing her own bag in a nearby locker. I sat down and pulled my book out.
“You know they close up at 4:30?” she asked me after she closed her locker.
“What?” I asked, looking up form my book, thinking I had misunderstood.
“They close at 4:30 and open back up at 8,” she said, nodding at the man behind the counter, who was beginning to jingle keys.
“We can’t stay in here?” I said, feeling stupid. She shook her head. The manager, a balding, round fellow with kind eyes shook his head before he said, “She’s right, we don’t have any buses between 4 and 8, so they don’t pay us to oepn when there aren’t any buses coming or going.”
Maybe if more people rode the bus, I thought and sighed. I walked out and spent the next 3 hours walking and visiting shops I would never had visited any other time.
First, I stopped in at Anna’s Linens and marveled at what people will pay for a dish to put their soap. I looked at towels, bathroom accessories, curtains, and placemats. I felt no urge at all to buy anything, but there was a couple at the cash register insisting that the husband get a veteran’s discount an a sale item. It put me in mind of all the ‘dealing with the public’ jobs I’d had and wanted to pat the patient salesgirl on the head. The wife was incensed that they couldn’t get a discount on top of the sale price (a 30% mark-down) and the sales girl explained, repeatedly, that sale items did not qualify for any other discounts. I left before the manager showed up to give the woman the extra 10% just to get them out of the store.
My next stop was the Dollar General where I walked down aisles badly in need of attention, but not likely to get it, since I only spotted 2 employees in the store, both working cash registers. Clothes and toys lay on the floor, Christmas ornaments spilled from packaging and boxes of snacks had been torn open. Who had a party back here? I thought, and once again felt sorry for the employees who would have to clean this mess up after closing. For $7 an hour.
I found a pair of gloves for $1 and a velour lounge set on sale for $10 ( My gloves and a sweater were in my bag in the station locker.) I put them in my basket along with a travel size toothpaste and toothbrush combo for $1.
My next stop was the grocery store. Ingles had a cafe and I thought I could get away with reading and sipping something hot without buying anything else. This Ingles boasted a Starbucks right next to the little cafe-a few tables next to windows near the produce section-where I bought a regular coffee and a slice of pumpkin bread.
I sat down next to a window, sipped my overpriced coffee, and read my paperback. My feet warmed up, my hands warmed up and the coffee eventually made me want to visit the bathroom. Ingles also has a very nice bathroom. I didn’t feel bad about hanging out in Ingles because I shop there every week.
After my refreshing stop at Ingles, I realized I still had over an hour to go. I walked, carefully, carefully, through the parking lot mined with ice patches and brick hard snow clumps, to the street where I waited for the light so I could cross. I assumed cars wouldn’t see me so I took care to cross at the intersection, watching my feet so I didn’t slip, while still keeping an eye on cars. I breathed a lot easier when I made it to the other side of the street without incident.
From there, I walked to the Cracker Barrel. I mingled with many people desperate for a table, obviously hungry people, and I was glad I’d already had dinner. I walked through the store and marveled at the things people will buy. There was a set of wind chimes made of wire and glittery metal butterflies in unlikely colors. The usual table tucked away with Christmas items on sale. Candy in all colors. Pictures of pink-bottomed children to hang in the bathroom. More pictures, some lighted, of Bible verses.
I didn’t buy anything. I stopped at the Dairy Queen next door and got a soda to get the taste of coffee out of my mouth. Jeopardy was on and I eventually got into a conversation with a couple of women, about my age, about some of the questions. We were thrilled when we got one right that the smartly dressed contestants missed.
I got back to the station just after they opened back up, glad to have place to read my book without feeling guilty.
A Mexican family came in shortly after I started my book. A mother and father (I assumed) were sending off a teenage daughter. Two brothers carried in the luggage, one large black suitcase, and one large leopard print bag. The counter man weighed everything and told them the leopard suitcase was way over, the black bag way underweight and if they switched items from one to the other, they could save $100. I thought that was very kind, he didn’t have to do that. The few people in the station spent the next 30 minutes being entertained by the unexpected amount of underwear that came out of the leopard print bag and was tucked into the black bag. The brothers and father retired to the sitting area and let the women handle all that. A younger sister was charged with the care of the three children with them. All three were under 8 years old, so she had her hands full, especially since she was still learning to walk on the stiletto boots she was wearing. My Lord, I thought, she can’t be more than 13, what on earth is she doing…I stopped myself, suddenly remembering the first pair of heels I’d been allowed to wear-to church-and smiled at the young woman. So they were too tall for her age, I thought. So? She’s taking care of her little brothers and sisters, let her have too-tall heels.
The bus pulled in at exactly the scheduled time. The seats were in twos, with the aisle between. Each of got our set and during the ride I noticed a lot of people taking advantage of the quiet and the extra seat to grab a nap.
I watched the countryside roll by, the streetlights shining on flat snow, like cake icing.
We had one stop in Spartanburg. Three people got off, including a blind man with his guide dog. No one got on.
When I recognized the skyline of my old hometown, I called my friend to pick me up. Downtown Charlotte after midnight is still active. My friend was concerned that a “weirdo” might spirit me away. I looked around, of course, I’m not naive, but I saw people like me, people traveling from one place to another. We were mostly tired.
The bus terminal in Charlotte was much larger than Asheville, but it was pretty much the same. Heavy wire benches, vending machine, a loud roof mounted TV, bank of telephones near the restroom. The Charlotte facility also offered a coffeeshop/gift shop that was still open. My friend got there before I succumbed to the urge to buy a $2 soda.
My return trip started Monday morning. Cold, but nothing like Asheville, the snow on the hillsides was beginning to melt. My bus went first to Winston-Salem, where I had to change to get on a bus for Ashville. The countryside rolled by in shades of gray. Gray sky, gray pavement, gray trees, gray snow by the road. I closed my eyes and listened to the low thunder of tires.
There was no loud cell-phone conversation, no children shouting or crying. There were more people, but once again, mostly people like me, traveling. Alone.
In Winston, I had about an hour so I walked up the street past several restaurants that were obviously closed until I reached a submarine shop. I had a full size sub and tea. It felt nice, being on my own, watching people, knowing my schedule was the bus schedule. I didn’t feel any of the stress I usually did traveling, needing to leave, wanting to get on the road before rush hour, get home before dark. I was a rider, not a driver. It was wonderfully relaxing.
The bus made a couple of stops in small towns. We didn’t get off, just picked up another rider.
Richard was waiting for me when we pulled into Asheville. We talked about my cats, which I had missed, and the weather predictions. I was glad to be home, and even though I’d been on the road longer than I would have I been driving, I wasn‘t nearly as tired. We laughed about my journey through the shops of Tunnel Road and I said I knew where to buy my next set of shower curtains. Mainly, I was glad to be back, the way I always feel when I get home from a trip and not nearly as tired.
The extra time had given me a chance to think about the reason I was making the trip. I thought through some of the things I wanted to tell my friend, and thought about what I could do for him in the little time we both had left. Riding the bus gave me a quiet, soothing place to reflect. I”m glad I chose to travel that way, and I’ll definitely do it again.
What I learned from this trip is that:
One: the bus is very safe, reliable means of transportation. You can get mugged anywhere, the bus station is no more likely than anywhere. I didn’t see any weirdos (not unusually weird, anyway). I didn’t see any teenage runaways, though I looked and wondered where they had all gone. Maybe we just don’t have as many during the winter-at least not coming to Asheville.
Two: The bus is cheaper. I spent $64 on a round trip ticket (a little less because I paid for it online) gave Richard $20 so my total travel cost was $84. My van costs $35-40 to fill up in Asheville, a little less somewhere else. It takes a full tank to get to Charlotte, I have to fill it up when I get there, and I have to fill it up when I get home-that last isn’t something you can’t count. I have to fill it up to go anywhere the next day. So I spend a minimum of $100 when I drive to Charlotte. We aren’t even taking into consideration oil and wear and tear. The savings are worth the inconvenience.
Three: The time. Yeah, it takes me longer, but I’m more relaxed, less tired. I’m willing to give up the time, which I can use reading, writing, or simply observing. And relaxing.
Four: Safety. The people riding the bus are just people. They are going somewhere they need to go. Yes, most of them are doing it because they don’t have a car but I hope gradually more and more people will be doing it because it’s smart.
The Greyhound website guides you through most questions:
There are also some interesting online discussions about bus travel and experiences.
Next time, try something different. Take the bus.