Riding the Roads on Greyhound Is an Education in People

Meeting America, on the Dog

We all have interesting summer-vacation stories. This year, mine involved the colorful characters I met taking Greyhound two-thirds of the way across the country, from New York to Denver, and back. Emergency eye surgery meant I couldn’t fly to attend important obligations for work, so it was either the train or the bus. Amtrak seemed a logical choice until I learned that the train would lack Wi-Fi for 75 percent of the trip. In theory, I could have bought a wireless card, but I knew Greyhound Wi-Fi was consistently better than Amtrak’s.

Having just finished my 40-hour return trip on the bus, I can say I look forward to being able to fly again. Riding the bus for long distances is not anyone’s idea of The Great American Road Trip. But my journey involved none of the horror stories you hear about stranded passengers, twitchy or scary seatmates, or food poisoning. The buses were on time, I usually had an empty seat next to me, and the power outlets kept my devices always charged. I caught up on videos and books I had been vowing to get to for years. I’m glad the bus option was available, and that a week before travel a round-trip discount ticket was only $210.

In between sleeping and consuming media, I found that the memorable part of the trip was chatting up passengers with whom one would likely never have a conversation. On short bus trips, few people say anything to each other, but a nine-hour journey or a layover in a bus station will often lead to a memorable conversation.

Buses attract a variety of people for whom there is no alternative transportation, usually because of lack of money or fear of flying. I met a college-student athlete named Lisa on her way back to the University of Iowa. Her coach had given her books on leadership, and she was just starting to realize that her sport was about team building as much as physical prowess. 

Luis, a Vietnam vet, was taking a 22-hour journey from Denver to Rapid City, S.D., because he had to visit a particular Veterans Administration hospital. He admitted that the remote hospital was still open probably because of political considerations, but he was glad it was open, because he felt he had few medical choices. Republican plans to voucherize VA treatment and allow patients to seek care anywhere with federal dollars make sense, but people like Luis are so suspicious of the government that they believe any change in the status quo will make things worse.

Slim was an independent truck driver from Missouri who had been in the Army, where, he boasted, he learned every way possible to circumvent military rules without getting kicked out. A couple of his stories sounded as if they could have come from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

But the highlight of the trip was my conversation with a self-described “independent hobo” who called himself Pentacle. (He gave me his real name but didn’t seem eager for it to be spread around.) We sat next to each other in the waiting room of New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Pentacle showed me some of his sketches (many were quite good) and was a reservoir of wisdom on living rough and ready in America in the 21st century. Dressed in camouflage clothing and covered in tattoos, he provided a window into what it’s like to live off the grid. 

The key to Pentacle is his desire to really be independent. He claimed that he and his friends had their roots in the hobo movement of the 1930s, of people who rode the rails during the Great Depression. “Those folks had self-respect, and they worked odd jobs to feed themselves,” Pentacle told me. “Today, so many people I meet . . . either just panhandle or get a handout. It’s insulting to the notion of taking care of yourself if you at all can.”

The one common denominator most people seemed to have was a complete disgust for the political system and the two major parties.

But how can people take care of themselves if they won’t become enmeshed in public or private bureaucracy? I asked. Apparently, it can still be done. He showed me a list of restaurants all over the country that will hire him as a cook without any paperwork at all. “I know how to cook and someone can always use that skill. Everyone can have something they can do.”

I asked Pentacle if he usually traveled by Greyhound. He said no, explaining that he preferred to ride the rails like his 1930s predecessors. He prefers catching a ride on grain cars, especially ones that originate in Canada. “Those models have a cockpit with an awning at the end of the car so you can bring a mat and lie down in it and be sheltered from rain or snow,” he told me. Over half the time, he’s not hustled by guards or railroad personnel. “If you look friendly, don’t appear to be addicted to something or act like a criminal, they’ll look past you — you’re just catching a ride.”

Pentacle’s bus to North Carolina was being called, so our conversation had to end as we went our separate ways. My talks with him and others during my Great American Bus Trip taught me some lessons. Some people riding the bus lead marginal or even desperate lives. Some will even admit they’ve made poor life decisions that got them into their current plight. But a lot of other people are just saving money, avoiding exorbitant last-minute air-travel fares to attend a funeral or visit a sick relative. The one common denominator most people seemed to have was a complete disgust for the political system and the two major parties. I talked with only one person who planned to vote this November.

I’m sure that many Greyhound buses have highly obnoxious passengers or people with pungent odors not encountered outside a jungle. But I didn’t meet them on this trip. What I did meet was a lot of people whose stories I would never otherwise have heard and who gave me an understanding of just how easy it is not to think about those who don’t fit into our normal middle-class surroundings. 

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