I’ve been on the road in America. Covered 1440 miles of it by Greyhound bus in three days, a “milk run” that snaked through dozens of small towns, by acres of farmland, and through the crumbling parts of cities on routes that buses and trains always take. Not usually the upscale parts of town. Not the places with nearby airports and extensive shuttle services.
I’m on the road in America, landing first at a rural college with small enrollment and lots of land, a place where creativity is nurtured, differing opinions are expected, and everyone is asked to think “outside the box.” It where, when I mentioned writing for an “alternative news site” and my participation in peace and anti-war activities, I was gifted with a burst of applause.
I’ve been talking to Americans as I ride the bus across a fair-sized chunk of America It’s been an adventure. It always is.
My trip began in Clarksville, Tennessee but it was in Nashville that I met the Texan, an older gentleman, a widower with a real Texas twang and a nice smile, a man en route to a Christian gathering in Indiana, my first “seat mate.” We had both nabbed the prized front road seat with a full view of the open road and would share it from Nashville to Indianapolis.
The initial exchange of pleasantries quickly drifted into a brisk conversation in which listened to the main reason why, according to my seat mate, Texans who voted for GW in ’04 are burning mad — and the issue lighting their fire is not Iraq but immigration. Border security and tough immigration laws had this long tall Texan shifting gears toward to Dems — maybe. But he can’t stand Hilary and hated Kerry and is in limbo about just who would make a good president. For my part, I showed him a few clips from Clarksville Online and matched him point for point on War issues, immigration, health care, social security, education (public and higher ed) and more. Ten hours later he knew who he wanted to see as president: me.
“We don’t agree on everything, but you listen, and you can think. We need more of that in Washington.” Christine for President? Don’t think so, but thanks for the compliment. The planned breakfast and further debate we intended to share on our Indy layover turned into a fast Danish pastry on the run, since our bus was seriously late and the terminal seriously lacking in food sources beyond the stale danish and really good coffee.
I boarded the next bus for the next leg of the journey; I would be on the same bus from Indy to the big apple, with a zillion small town and big city stops along the way. I’d thought about riding around America and writing about it — and decided to start taking notes and start the stories now. I would write about this trip as it happens, and file them when I have internet access. ”
The Texan and I stood in separate jagged lines waiting for our next buses. I scanned the terminal, watching as predatory vendors without competition sold soft drinks and hot dogs and fried foods and high fat junk food to captive consumers for elevated prices. $3.00 for a cool hot dog in a stale bun. two dollars for a bottle of sugar-laden soda. I eyed my own stash of cereal, fruit, breads, rice bars and craisins with delight. I ended up sharing my Fig Newtons and extra napkins with several young children on the bus. Across the street from the dingy station was a huge four-letter word — S-A-L-E –scrawled on a big red sign at an upscale Macy’s Department Store, where many of the people in line at the station could not afford to shop.
I also met “the blue lady” in Columbus, Ohio. I dubbed her the blue lady not just because she was wearing a ragged blue suit, and because the very essence of her made me feel “blue.”
I watched her cut into lines, drop her tattered plastic shopping bags on people’s toes, mutter to herself, flutter her hands and dart about impatiently to a rhythm from within. She was traveling alone, clutching a single crumpled ticket scribbled all over with pencil. I watched her tick the ticket in a pocket before she reached into the covered trash barrel, removing returnable soda bottles and tipping them to see if any liquid was left. She tugged out a discarded styrofoam container — and the bones from chicken wings — and nibbled them before casting them aside. Around and around she moved, scurrying about the terminal, until finally she boarded the bus. Seated, tucked up against the window toward the back, she nested, safely, sinking into unconsciousness. She would awaken from time to time, hold an imaginary phone, and talk to people from a past reality. And she read a weathered paperback book aloud, but in a soft rapid muttering voice, scanning line after line with the tip of her finger. She bought (or was given) a dinner, which she delicately picked apart and separated into its component parts before casting the bulk of it aside. She did that through a half-dozen stops in several states, before disappearing into the night in Pittsburgh. I felt blue for her, a woman who was someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s sister or mother or aunt, wandering across America, lost in every way.
In the transition from vast farm valleys of Ohio to the hilly terrain of Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies, I felt myself relaxing, sinking into the peacefulness that comes from being in the country. Wanting to get back a bit of the isolation I crave fairly often. In the seat behind me, you young men from Harlem were awestruck by the sight of one house alone on a hillside.
“Man, how can they do that. There’s nobody there. Who do you talk to?”
“Man, I gotta have people around me.”
And later … “It’s really dark out there…”
AS sunset fell into nightblack, both commented on the absolute blackness beyond the bus, and behind the tough bravado was a hint of discomfort, even fear, over the absence of city bright. Then the headsets were put in place and the MP3 players turned on.
I smiled, because I crave the night black that had descended on the crevased valley, a night black born of a fiery fuschia sunset to the west that stretched its fingers high and wide, flaming colors marking the death of day. These boys from the never dark streets of Harlem (of any city) , without the backup or sound and light and peers, were afraid of the dark. I smiled, because, to me, the dark is the last thing to be afraid of. I looked outside again and envied the people living in the little farmhouse beyond the field, the little house tucked into the edge of wooded hillside.
We passed through Monroeville somewhere in Pennsylvania. A glimpse of small town America. It had a great big mall on top the hill, overlooking to community. But the first thing I saw was banner on the fence of a small car dealership; it read “Fireworks sponsored by …” Plain and simply. A a half mile up the road, in a battered strip mall fronted by cruisers with lights flashing, was a parking lot magically turned old-fashioned carnival for a day or two. A ferris wheel. A Tilt-A-Whirl. A wavy slide with steep steps and a line of youngsters waiting to climb slowly to the top before whipping down to the bottom. Two little children, perhaps four or five, were scurrying, tugging and pulling on the outstretched hands of mommy and daddy — yanking them deeper into the excitement.
As traveling carnivals go, it was a pretty big one. Lots of bright lights. Balloons. Calliope music. And I already knew that come dark, there would be the sparkle and booming of fireworks overhead. I smiled, remembering when I was was little, tugging on my mom’s hand to hurry her to the carnival. Some things have changed very little, it seems.
Along the road in America I watched as modern travelers spewed from buses and sprinted, not for bathrooms or food vendors but a wall with a counter and dozens of electrical outlets where cell phones and computers were “powered up” for the next leg of the journey. Off the bus, cell in hand, and a rush, not to the next gate out the first open socket. I couldn’t help wonder what was so wrong, so difficult, with being out of touch for a few hours, or even a few days. Are we so hardwired to our technology? Are cordless cellphones the new umbilicals? Seems we managed without this portable life support for millenia … and do I really need to hear those crazy ringers that herlad the minutia of your life? Fortunately, Greyhound drivers have a zero tolerance for ringing cellphones and “unnecessary cell phone conversation,” along with the raspy overflow from cranked up “listening devices” such as MP3 players and portable CD players. Thank you, Greyhound.
As I moved across the states, terminal by terminal, I also noticed something new — narrow ledges and strips of power outlets: a courtesy to people with cell phones and computers in need of recharging. Being one of the holdouts when it comes to cell technology, I am perpetually amazed at the escalating dependence on the umbilical cell. And the increasing frequency of rudeness related to cell phone use. Greyhound drivers, though, were taking no prisoners. Ringers off, voices low, and emergency use only, that is, if you want to stay on the bus. Score one for the rest of us! Sorry, but there is life beyond a cell phone. I spent this trip watching some of it as the miles rolled by.
I awoke from a sound sleep to see the New York skyline unfolding before me. My blood started humming, though I would not be staying in New York until later. I stepped from the bus in Port Authority to the sound of a string quartet playing softly from the terminal’s PA system. A string quartet playing as I stepped past a row of raggedy men sleeping on newspapers spread out over the cold tiles of the Authority floor. Dirty torn clothing, grizzly beards, hats and warm jackets in July. Bags tecked behind them against the walls. Around the corner, seated side by side in a row of plastic chairs. more men. Same disarray. Same lost look. Sleeping side by side, each one leaning onto the next like dominoes about to fall. It was 6 a.m. in New York and I knew where the homeless were. A woman, in far worse shape than the blue lay, stood against a wall, bags clustered at her feet, one hand pressed to her forehead, swaying. She’d start to fall, catch herself, tuck closer to the door, and it would happen again. She was falling asleep on her feet. And then it happen. She simple fell, sideways, landing with a bone crunching thump on the concrete floor. She clutched her elbow, cried, tried to shake of the pain, and retook he spot at the door, guarding the bits and pieces of her life assembled at her feet. Has it really come to this? I wondered. Are we letting this happen here, in America?
On the road in America, once you’ve hit New England on a Sunday morning, there are no crowds in line at the station. Plenty of seats. Plenty of time to gaze at the passing landscape. A glimpseof Long Island Sound. Yale. A restored bus/train terminal and miles of long, wide Connecticut River. A few college students shifting from Yale to UMass, or Smith to University of Vermont. A shift from Spanish to French as the second most prevalent language. A swing away from Southern drawl to Down East twang. A slower pace.
Gone was the brisk regimented boarding process. People sauntered. The driver walked the length of the bus, collecting tickets and chatting for a moment of two with his passengers, the regulars and the newbies and the commuters. And that’s the next thing: commuting. It’s encouraged, as evidenced by the extensive park & ride lots everywhere in New England. I was re-entering a land of sidewalks and biketrails and Amtrak rail passes and extensive seven-day-a-week bus service.
I’ll be juggling many classes over the next week, before I resume my travels. For now, my off-the-beaten-path college in upstate Vermont is home, and I’ll be writing as time allows, revealing more from my travels on the front lines and rural byways of America.
Photos: Goddard’s “clockhouse” tower (left), and a view of the famous “clockhouse” from the refurbished gardens on campus(right).