Riding the Dog: Cross-Country by Greyhound

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 26, 2002

Tell someone about your cross-country bus trip and stand back. The Question is on its way. Why would you do that? Why ride the Greyhound instead of driving, or taking a train or plane?

A couple of months ago, a friend and I each had a week to go somewhere, and where we really wanted to go was Los Angeles. We were sick of security lines and cramped flights, neither of us had a trip-worthy car, and Amtrak was on the verge of shutting down a big batch of its long-distance trains.

What about the bus, we thought, poring over maps and schedules and making little puffs of mental exhaust. My friend had just read that buses are the safest type of travel -- something I had to look up to believe. But sure enough: According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, of almost 44,000 travel-related fatalities in 1999 there were fewer by bus (.03 percent) than on airplanes (1.4) or intercity trains (0.2).

Like the people we told about our trip, we weren't sure if we could hack a four- to five-day ride from D.C. to the West Coast. But we were tempted by Greyhound's seven-day Ameripass that lets you get off and on whenever you want, and break up the ride with a few nights in motels.

We decided we would give the thing a try for the sake of adventure. We would aim south for warm weather and check out exotic-sounding towns like Texarkana, Tex., and Las Cruces, N.M. We would try to set foot in Mexico, and also hoped to get a quick glimpse of the Grand Canyon, which we had never seen.

And we wouldn't come back until we had answered The Question once and for all.

Day 1: Washington to Knoxville, Tenn.

It's a traffic-clogged morning downtown, but the D.C. cab driver assures us we're going to be on time for our 9:30 bus. "You're gonna make it," he yells. "You're gonna make it." We miss it.

After a five-hour wait, we board the next Tennessee-bound Greyhound, a chrome-trimmed "Americruiser" with a backward American flag stenciled on the side. Our driver sports a royal blue necktie and silver tie-clip shaped like the familiar racing dog. On his belt jingles a ring of keys, ticket-puncher, flashlight, walkie-talkie and . . . could it be? It is. A can of mace.

Legroom is airline-tight: I measure exactly four inches between my knees and the back of the seat in front of me. My friend Judy, who is 73 years old and has never been west of Pennsylvania, is worried about our connection in Charlottesville and pipes up to the driver about it. He doesn't seem to hear, as what comes next is a "No Smoking/No Drinking" speech over a crackly microphone, and then the warning that since Sept. 11, no one crosses the yellow line up front or sits in the first row of seats. With this, gears grind, brakes let out a sigh and we're on the road.

Near Roanoke, Va., hills bunch up around the bus, and soon we can make out the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once the sun sets, I remember what I've always liked about bus rides. It's cozy zooming along in the dark and, since the interior lights are turned off, your eyes are focused out into the night and not on whatever's happening on board. This sheltered darkness is almost porch-like -- it's good for reminiscing -- and Judy tells me about a lettuce-and-grape-jelly sandwich she once ate.

We pull into a Hardee's for a meal break, and when we get back on, the driver has something else to say. "I do not carry a key to the restroom," he announces. "If you or your child can't figure out how to unlock it, you'll be in there until we get to the garage in Atlanta, about 15 hours from now."

No one seems to be heading back there, so I squeeze myself in and check it out. The toilet is a stainless-steel well with a pool of disinfectant swishing around some yards down, and instead of a sink, there's only a countertop and dispenser full of Fingerbowl brand moist towelettes. When I tell Judy, she just rolls her eyes. It's going to be a long ride.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2002 The Washington Post Company