United States of America

The Cross-Country Blues

Words Tiffany Bakker

September 2016 from issue 47

Tags: confessions, road trip, usa

The Cross-Country Blues

Since 1929, Greyhound has been taking Americans from one end of the country to the other. But, as Tiffany Bakker discovers, they don’t call it the Dirty Dog for nothing.

I can trace my fascination with American Greyhound buses right back to a very particular moment. It was April 1985 and I was 12 years old, sitting in the front row of the Geelong Village Twin watching Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. For any Gen Y-ers reading this, Madonna was everything in 1985.

There’s a scene early in the film where the greatest-pop-star-who-ever-lived hops on a Greyhound from Atlantic City to New York (after stealing some very important Egyptian artefacts from her gangster lover who, of course, ends up dead). The bus pulls in to what seems a very glamorous Port Authority terminal at 42nd Street in Manhattan. Madonna disembarks looking better than any of us who have ever travelled on buses have ever looked. Back then, it all felt so cosmopolitan and cool. 
Like this was the way one should arrive into New York seeking fame and fortune.

Now, with many, many, many years of experience on a multitude of buses in varying countries, varying degrees of condition and fellow passengers in varying states of sanity, this is most definitely not the way one should arrive in the Big Apple seeking fame and fortune. For one, Port Authority is a urine-drenched, rat-infested cesspit.

But I digress. When I moved to New York from Australia in 2008, I had a grand plan to travel across this wild country on a bus. Like I was a character going through a monumental life-change in a Nora Ephron movie (famous writer/director, Gen Y-ers). It all seemed terribly romantic – and nomadic. I was wrong, and soon ditched any notion of travelling those vast expanses in a confined metal space. I discovered that people who ride buses are mainly crazy or drunk. Or both. I include myself in this group.

I remember travelling from Seattle to San Francisco. The trip, for me, was some sort of music homage: my personal ode to grunge and flower power. Or something. Ultimately, it ended up feeling like some sort of bad acid trip. A journey that should have taken 13 hours but, because of mechanical issues and other non-disclosed reasons, took 20, and comprised some 35 stops at petrol stations and diners not fit to serve anyone. The woman opposite me also cried the entire way, but refused all offers of help, save for one very bad petrol station coffee.

Then there was the time I travelled from Philadelphia to New York. A short jaunt, yes, but a trip made even briefer thanks to a maniacal bus driver who yelled and screamed at all other road users, while speeding like he had to get home for dinner. I’ve never been so happy to smell the piss at Port Authority.

My shambolic bus-riding experiences haven’t been confined to the US, though. I’ve had a few doozies in the UK and Europe as well. There are vague recollections of a journey from London to Munich for Oktoberfest with a bus full of stupendously drunk Aussies and Kiwis. Let’s just say that none of us covered ourselves in glory on that messy 24-hour ride, but we definitely covered ourselves in Fosters dregs, cheap, warm wine and, occasionally, vomit. I still feel bad for the bus driver.

I also remember a particularly harrowing five-hour (on a good day) bus ride from Manchester to London with a friend who was barely talking to me at the time. (Travelling through Europe in each other’s pockets for three months will do that.) Problem was, I had come down with a nasty bug, which left my head and, er, opposite end vying for space in a tiny bathroom with a toilet that wasn’t built to handle such a situation. I thought I could survive the five hours. I was wrong. My sulky mate sat at the front of the bus and didn’t check on me once. (Having said that, he could have been embarrassed to know me. I know I was.) To this day, I feel for all of the other passengers on that bus. I’m sure they all disembarked at Victoria Station in London with some sort of PTSD.

I haven’t felt compelled to board a bus for a long-haul trip in many a year. These days, the closest I get is stumping up six bucks to take a fancy express bus from the Bronx to Manhattan when I can’t face dealing with the unhinged people who always decide to sit next to me on the subway (that’s a whole other column). But to those same Gen Y-ers reading this, do it! Life is a highway y’all, and it’s character building. One word of advice, though… bring your own vomit bag. You’ll thank me for it later.

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