It’s just over 600 miles from Boston, Massachusetts to Columbus, Ohio, and it takes 2 hours and 15 minutes to get there in an airplane. But in the winter of 2003, I’d temporarily sworn off air travel, thanks to one too many wintertime delays out of, and bumpy descents into, Logan Airport. So I decided to try something new. I took the bus.
I’d taken Greyhounds a few times between Boston and New York, which hadn’t been unpleasant. And I figured that, having flown long-haul flights before, the prospect of being stuck in a passenger cabin for hours on end wasn’t terribly intimidating. Anyway, according to the Greyhound ads, the buses were clean and well-maintained, the people were young and attractive, and everyone on the bus seemed to be having a good time.
Full of pre-Christmas cheer, then, I boarded the bus in South Station, armed with plenty of books, blankets, and writing pads to get me to Columbus. Of course, I planned to spend a lot of the time just looking out the window: I’d been led to understand that rural New York and Pennsylvania had been captured with a fairly high degree of accuracy by Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light.
All lies. As useful as the interstate system is, it is not terribly picturesque. In winter, it becomes desolate: you see mile after mile of concrete barrier, or endless thickets of leafless trees. Either way, you get used to seeing a lot of grey-brown.
I’d had the foresight — quite a bit for an eighteen-year-old college kid, actually — to pack a few granola bars and a bottle of water for the trip. But they disappeared early on, a much-needed break from staring outside. And every two hours, right around the mandatory rest stops, I’d get that dull, hollow sort of hunger pang that comes from eating too much sugar and fat and not enough of anything nutritious. Yet my choices were as bleak as the landscape; most places only had vending machines, which made the occasional McDonald’s seem like a godsend. (You know you’re in trouble when you look forward to soggy fast food vegetables after a long day of eating candy and chips).
The food situation went quickly downhill. At the beginning of the trip, I didn’t really mind the B.O. and Chanel no. 5 that seemed to permeate the cabin. As we entered Pennsylvania Dutch Country, though, I fumed at any of my fellow passengers who gave the slightest whiff of something odd or off-putting, whether it was the elderly woman with the box of Indian food or the young Mennonite couple who shared a sandwich that reeked of onions and pickles.
Cranky, carsick, and constipated, I finally began to understand why I found the bus system so foreign. It’s the complete opposite of flying. On airplanes, most people are trained to bring a pillow of some kind; on buses, everyone has weird aches in their neck from trying to rest their head on a bundled coat or backpack. On airplanes, there are imposed seating arrangements, which at least redirect frustration not at everyone in the cabin, but at the airline’s booking system, if there are any seating problems; on buses, passengers scowl or feign sleep (I know I did) when the bus picks up new passengers, in the hope that they’ll get to keep their open seat. On airplanes, smokers know that they’re in for the long haul, and either have the fortitude to hide their cravings, or else have plenty of nicotine patches handy; on buses, you can see smokers’ legs start to twitch impatiently when it gets time for a rest stop/smoke break — in fact, I had one bus driver who was such a heavy smoker that every hour, like clockwork, we’d pull off the freeway for five minutes so he (and he alone) could smoke.
It was almost as if I’d thrust myself into a Hobbesian state of nature, contained within a forty-foot motor coach. But then, I’d brought all this misery on myself. Who would be naïve enough to take a bus halfway across the country?
After twenty-four hours within the Greyhound system, I stumbled out of the bus terminal in Columbus, exhausted — mentally, physically — almost to the point of delirium. I was happy to return to civilization, but already I was silently dreading the return trip.