by Haley Cullingham
“I wondered what she did,” Alice Adams wrote of a fellow Greyhound passenger in the New Yorker in 1981, “what job took her from Oakland to Vallejo.” Adams had gotten on the wrong bus. She was on her way home to San Francisco from Sacramento, and instead of boarding the commuter coach, she got on the milk route instead; the woman sitting near her represented a parallel universe traveling the same line. Post-divorce, Adams was especially susceptible to this kind of imagining. Who was this woman? And what fine lines, drawn of coincidence and choice and culture, separated Adams from her?
The day after she accidentally took the slow bus home, Adams travelled to work next to a woman who boarded at the same station she did, disembarked at Adams’s destination, and went to work in a building right beside her office. She found this duality unsettling. On every bus we don’t board, a possible life drives away without us, and the romance is ruined if the possibility presented is as mundane as our own reality. Better instead, Adams decides, to wile away commuter hours contemplating individuals like the woman working in Vallejo, fellow travellers who were different: a handsome black man, a heavyset woman, someone in a sharp purple suit who says what other passengers are afraid to. At the end of the piece, Adams writes of her trips on the Greyhound, “I could meet anyone at all.”
The years following the financial crash were a good time to meet people on the Greyhound. Mother Jones reported that in 2008, intercity bus travel went up almost ten percent. In the years that bracketed the recession, I did a lot of disappearing on Greyhound buses. Lacking the wherewithal to determine what my life should look like, I worked a couple of jobs and saved up money and then spent it rumbling from coast to coast at semi-regular intervals, visiting friends, or helping them move. I was not riding for a purpose, particularly, but because motion gives shape to purposelessness.
The long-haul nature of the rides meant that there was a lot of time to kill from Michigan to Tennessee to Kentucky, Texas to New Mexico to LA. When you’re waiting, people tend to sidle up to you and tell you something about why they find themselves on the bus. Prior to 2008, almost everyone I spoke to was travelling to visit their children. An older man carrying a fold-up stroller pointed me to the best delis within safe walking distance in Buffalo; an eighteen-year-old who boarded the bus in Kentucky shared his fleece blanket with me, grinning as he told me that his best friend from back home in California was pregnant, and it was his, and he was going to help out, even though her boyfriend wasn’t happy about it; a woman walked over at a station in Kansas, frenetic and happy, and told me she was waiting for her son, who had just come home from Iraq. But after 2008, all anyone on the buses talked about was finding work.
I met a journalist in the Denver bus station just before Christmas in 2011. He had a neatly trimmed beard and one duffel bag. He had been riding around for about six months. His sister had gotten sick, and he spent his retirement money paying doctors to try to cure her cancer. By the time she died, his money had run out. He tried to find work near home, but there was none to be had, so he decided to get moving. “My neighbour’s wife is six feet tall, so I gave them my king-sized bed,” he said. “I gave my daughter my good kitchen knives, and I got on the bus.”
There was a young man in the Salt Lake City terminal with the blondest eyelashes, bleached by the city’s anemic rising sun. He had just finished a stint in the armed forces and was heading to a training centre to learn how to drive a truck. He turned a souvenir-of-service coin that read “Proudly giving the enemy a chance to die for their country” over and over in his pale white hand. “I hope I do okay at the trucking academy,” he said. “I heard if you make one mistake they send you home.” There was an older man grinning from the space between the seats, with a diamond earring in each ear, and salt-and-pepper stubble, also headed to a training centre for drivers. He had a scruffy teddy bear with him. “This was my good luck charm the last time I was on the road in a rig,” he said. “Thirty years ago, in Michigan.” A soft voice came from beneath a black hood beside him. “Did it work?” The older man gestured to the younger one sitting beside him. “This is the kid’s first time. I’m looking out for him.” Later, the younger man would fall asleep with his hooded head on his new friend’s broad shoulder.
The Greyhound’s place in popular imagination is an intersection of practicality and myth. Why are we on the bus? Inevitably, it’s because we don’t have another option. But there’s a poetry there, too, the rhythm of endless highway. Nathan Heller quotes Rudyard Kipling in the New Yorker: “The time is near when men will receive their impressions of a new country suddenly and in plan, not slowly and in perspective.” The time Kipling predicted in 1914 has long since arrived, but those sudden impressions don’t come cheap and are far from accessible. In his piece, Heller describes another predicted shift: the change from physical travel to virtual experience. He writes that this coming transition is “about ways of knowing.” Contrasted against VR, bus travel, even more than air travel, seems clunky, lumbering, endangered. But it’s at that intersection of practicality and myth, of no other option and “ways of knowing,” that we find the best reason to be on a Greyhound bus.
National upheaval has always been good for the bus business — when people are on the move for work, Greyhound and the many smaller lines it gobbled up in the mid-twentieth century have historically been the most affordable way to get to wherever they’re going. “The recession of the early 1980s worked to the advantage of Greyhound,” wrote Brenton M. Barr and Peter John Smith in their 1984 book Environment and the Economy: Essays on the Human Geography of Alberta. That same province, and the mountains and prairies surrounding it, would see a similar resurgence in bus travel when the North American economy crashed again. “Where communities are widely scattered but jobs are concentrated in select areas,” wrote Josh Wingrove of the Canadian Prairies that year, “Greyhound is a commuter utility.”
Greyhound has its roots serving commuters like Adams and the workers in the prairies — getting its start in 1914 as the “Snoose Line,” transporting miners to and from work in Northern Minnesota for fifteen cents a ride — and that legacy has persisted into the new century. What’s interesting is that when the country struggles, Greyhound succeeds: It is a perpetual and oft-maligned presence, a back-up plan that is not without its own poetry. Why are we on the bus? Almost always, because it’s cheaper. We take the bus when our money is so scarce it becomes worth more than our time and as a result, the nature of our time shifts. We take the bus when we don’t have a life to rush back to. We take the bus when we can’t afford to do anything but disappear.
Four years before Greyhound got its start moving men to the mines in 1914, the first wave of the Great Migration began. Six million African-Americans moved to industrialized northern cities over the next twenty years to leave the Jim Crow South behind, many of them on a bus; by 1920, ten years into the Great Migration, the black population of Detroit had grown six hundred and eleven percent.
After the Great Depression brought the first Great Migration to a halt, Greyhound still played a profound role in the lives of workers. Men travelled the country by bus as part of the Works Projects Administrations efforts to get America back on its feet. As they traversed the Mississippi Delta, they were often followed on board by blues musicians, including Robert Johnson, who knew they could count on the workers to spend good money in the bars at night. It was these trips that inspired the iconic line in Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” in which the musician asks the devil to leave his body on the edge of the highway so that his “old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”
Condemned spirits riding buses took on a new meaning during the Second World War as Greyhound became responsible for moving soldiers to the east and west coasts. The company didn’t miss the opportunity to market its role in the war effort, running advertisements that read, “The Army moves by Greyhound,” patriotic optimism harnessed to keep the war effort moving. The second, and much larger, Great Migration was also motivated by defense jobs and a desire for freedom from racial segregation. From 1941–1970, another five million African-Americans would leave the South, many of them skilled workers seeking employment in urban center Greyhound was again the ticket out for many.
The company’s place in civil rights is a complex one. Read a little, and you’ll find the bus line portrayed as a symbol of freedom: Civil rights protestors took the bus south in an historic journey protesting segregation. In 1961, one of two groups of original Freedom Riders made their way south from Washington on a Greyhound bus. The protests were plagued by violent racist attacks. In Alabama, someone threw a bomb onto the bus. The passengers were able to escape unharmed, and photographs of the burning vehicle made front-page news across the country. The Freedom Riders were ultimately successful, and Greyhound has a symbolic role in that story.
But read more, and the picture becomes less bright: The company, which ran buses with curtains separating passengers by race into segregated terminals along lines in the south, was a potent symbol of the racial divides on each side of the Mason Dixon line. Following the violence, no driver would get behind the wheel to carry the protestors to their final stop in New Orleans.
“On the one hand, Greyhound had a history of hiring blacks,” Gary Belsky writes in “100 Years of a Dirty Dog,” his excellent piece on the company for Mental Floss. “On the other hand, most of those jobs were menial. The good jobs — drivers, managers, mechanics — generally went to white men.” In 1963, as part of a campaign against discriminatory employers, the Philadelphia NAACP successfully reached an agreement with Greyhound ensuring that three black employees would be hired for jobs — telephone operation and baggage handling — that had previously been open only to white applicants. “Greyhound also pledged to hire additional black workers as jobs opened up in previously all-white occupations,” writes Matthew J. Countryman in Up South.
There’s a power in forward motion, even if, as Johnson sang, it’s taking your soul to hell. Greyhound was important in de-segregation movements much in the same way it has been important in so many moments of national change: by being the only available ride.
After years of butt-burn on days-long Greyhound rides, I can’t help but wonder why the company’s place in our cultural imagination remains secondary to the Great American Roadtrip, or the Eisenhower Interstate System. There is something here that transcends practicality. It’s one of the last spaces to access what feels like suspended time. No one expects you to call them back if you’re on a Greyhound bus. Ultimately, perhaps, the myth of the Greyhound is the myth of escape: The Greyhound is one of the last almost untracked forms of transportation. To ride the bus across the country is to realize how lonely it is, the true scale of its emptiness. It’s to realize how much it changes, when you fall asleep rolling past Christmas tree lots covered in frost in Tennessee and wake up to the smell of smoke from a taco counter in small-town Texas.
People with hours to kill on a lonely highway will inevitably turn their minds to the narrative that brought them there, and as such, Greyhound becomes a vehicle for self-mythologizing. When people speak about the lives they’ve left behind and the ones they are hoping to find somewhere new, there is a common rhythm: fireside, last call, half-naked in a dorm room; the rhythm of stories told as vividly as they are felt, of personal history portrayed as biopic. There’s a reason these tales make room for such gravity: there needs to be room, within the telling, for re-imagining. For Alice Adams, those rides between Sacramento and San Francisco allowed her the time to compare herself to her fellow passengers and, in doing so, figuring out who she would become post-divorce. The bus, then, seems like the perfect vehicle for those searching for a new life: It provides the time to figure out who you’ll be when you get there.
After all the men got off the bus to go to trucking school, I stayed onboard, heading west. As I looked out the window at the small desert towns that gather at the foot of California, I saw a sign pointing down a dusty strip of main-street-somewhere. Wooden, weather-stripped, and, written in black paint: COWBOY POETRY.