Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Leave the Driving to Us"

I was having dinner with a good friend the other night and we started talking about our shared interest in the idea of "the great American vacation." I've mentioned this vacation before on the blog . . . a trip that involves piling the family and possessions into the car for a weeks-long orgy of traveling the country's back roads in search of classic "Americana" and the best of roadside kitsch. Several friends and I have also discussed a mutated version of the trip in which it becomes a dads-only road trip of epic proportions, equal parts driving, sightseeing, and binging on beer and diner food. Our wives tend to cast a dubious eye on this endeavour, probably with some justification, because the trip would a) leave them with the kids, b) expose us to far more alcohol, trans-fats, and free time than our 40-something bodies can handle, and c) leave them with the kids! So the chances of this trip actually happening are pretty minimal. (However, we're definitely having a dads-only camping trip in Summer 2008.)

But back to the other night . . . Our talk turned to long-distance bus travel, which is something of a lame-duck form of transportation in this country. Prior to World War II, one could take a bus to just about every town in the United States. Between the larger bus lines, like Greyhound, regional, and local carriers, one could go nearly anywhere. But after World War II, with the development of the interstate highway system and the auto empowerment of a majority of Americans, bus travel declined at a steady rate, mirroring the decline in train travel. Still, my parents talk of taking long bus trips in the 1940s and 1950s, noting the ease of having someone else drive while enjoying the opportunity to "see" more of the country. By the 1980s, however, many bus companies had folded or were bought out by larger carriers. Today, there's Greyhound and a few regional lines, like Peter Pan buses in the northeast. Compared to that pre-war golden age of bus travel, comparatively few communities can boast intercity bus service now.

I started wondering: Who uses buses for long distance travel? A majority of Americans either drive or grab a seat on one of the low-fare airlines. Indeed, within current popular culture imagery, bus stations and bus trips are usually relegated to the seamier underbelly of travel, a mode of transportation left to ex-cons, the poor, and minorities. Is this demographic profile a reality, or just a product of pop culture stereotyping? (I remember from my years living in Tennessee that the Greyhound terminal in Knoxville appeared to confirm this depressing conclusion that bus travel had become the resource of the disadvantaged and marginalized.)

Having been to the famous Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan many times, I've witnessed the continued popularity of regional bus travel, with long lines waiting at gates for destinations throughout New England. One can still catch Greyhound buses for distant points across the nation. The people waiting for these buses always seem to represent a cross-section of the populace, with considerable ethnic and racial diversity defining the crowds. Why do they take the bus? Have they been priced out of the marketplace for air travel?

So here's my idea: a book on current bus travel in the U.S., with a working title like "Leave the Driving to Us: America By Bus in the 21st Century." It would look at bus travel in a historical and sociological context, but the heart of the book would be chapters based on taking several long-distance bus trips, including some cross country trips, like New York City to LA. The more esoteric information of the introductory chapter would be followed by chapters of anecdotal stuff and photographs. Is this a workable idea? Would anyone read it? At the urging of friends, I've been tossing around several book ideas in the last year, but hadn't settled on anything definitive. Given the recent popularity of books on rail excursions and highway travel on roads like Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, one would think that a book on bus travel would prove equally interesting. Any feedback? I'd also love to hear about your bus travel experiences.


Brian Butko said...

The dads-only trip sounds good to me!! The bus book sounds good too, and I'm sure you could fill it with interesting info, but not sure how good such a trip would be today - how long would you have at stops to explore, and how many would there even be?

The bus trips captured in WPA photos were along 2-lane federal highways with stops in ever town, whereas today you'd be on the Interstate and only stop in big-city downtowns.

Brian Butko

Isabel said...

I think that are a lot of people out there that still truly enjoy exploring the US roads. I know my family does. And if you LOOK there is still a lot to see and explore. The book sounds like a great idea!
When I was a teenager, I always traveled by bus (and then a train along the steep banks of the rivers Douro and Tua)to spend the summer with my grandparents in the mountains in the north of Portugal. I loved it!
Ahhhh....and the dads-only camping here I had to smile because my girlfriends and I started the "Chicks" camping trip tradition this year. No kids, no husbands, just us, the road, huge amounts of food and equal parts of great wine, the conforting smell of camp fire, boards games, s'mores, a cozy log cabin because it was to cold for tents, and great great conversation. We liked it so much, we are already planning next year's trip.

jblack designs said...

The bus book idea sounds great.

Buses are, as you say, a sort of no-(wo)man's land of class wars and the forgotten.

I've ridden the bus the last few years between here (Waco) and Dallas and Austin when I ride one way with a friend and want to come back before or after they do. It's definitely a cramped, surreal experience.

A year or so ago, I got on the bus in Dallas at 8 p.m., turned on my light, and started reading. When the bus was in full swing down the Interstate, I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the then-darkened bus: Conversations, many in Spanish, babies crying, a bit of rap from the back rows, the buzz of snoring. When I looked around, I realized that--aside from my one illuminated seat--the entire bus was swaddled in darkness. Mind you it was only about 9 p.m., and most of the riders were awake.

I realized then a huge class difference between bus and plane riders: Reading. On a plane, most people bring a magazine or a book, lap top or business material. But not on the bus. Just darkness and whispered (sometimes)chatter among friends.

Once when I rode the bus from Austin, the driver (female) barked out her rules for the ride before we drove off, announcing that if we didn't plan to follow her rules, we could get off right then. There were grumbles, but, amazingly, no one broke the rules that I could tell--aside from the driver, who chatted on her cell phone (Rule #1: No cell phone calls).

It was pretty funny.

My experience (in Central Texas) is that most of the riders are Hispanics and African-American or white college-aged students, more males than females, more younger than older. The main white riders other than student-age kids have multiple tatoos, scraggly beards, and paper bags for luggage.

And pretty much everyone smokes.

I have yet to see someone who looks like me (white, middle-aged, middle-class, female) on the bus, and the other riders seem to look at me oddly as well.

In grad school, a friend took the bus from Dallas to NYC for a conference because it was so much cheaper than flying. She said she'd steal the money rather than do that again. As an undergrad, another friend (male) took the bus from Dallas to CA each Christmas and always had funny stories to tell.

I think you'd have a blast.

BooCat said...

I don't know about the bus anymore. It isn't what it used to be, I think.
The road is another matter.
During the last fifteen years of his life, my dad and I took long driving vacations all across this country. The rules were simple. We never took an Interstate highway if a "blue highway" was available. We never stayed at any chain hotel/motel if we could find some mom-and-pop establishment. We ate out of picnic baskets at roadside parks or at small local restaurants. We did not eat at fast food or national chains. We drove as few miles in a day as we wished with no set agenda. If either of us saw something we wished to explore, we stopped to explore. We both came to love these meanderings through the U.S. We also crossed over into Canada and Mexico at various times.
Go for it, BrianC, keep great notes, journals and photographs. It would make a great book.