SOME OF MY friends sniffed a bit disdainfully when I announced recently that I intended to ride a Greyhound bus to Springfield, Mo., for a reunion with my wife, who had left Arlington a month earlier for a periodic inspection of the 600 acres of Ozark farmland on which she and her two sisters raise cattle and walnut trees.
I had several valid reasons, I thought, for taking a bus.
First of all, since my retirement last fall, I seem to have more time than money.
Secondly, I didn't want to fly - I've made the same boring trip out of National Airport so many times in the past 20 years I could do it blindfolded.
Thirdly, rail travel was out - the nearest I could get to Springfield via Amtrak was St. Louis, 200 miles short of my goal.
Finally - and most importantly - I felt that the time was ripe for checking out an alternative form of transportation if I intended to do much U.S. traveling in an era when scarce gasoline will top a dollar a gallon; when some air fares are rising and schedules are contracting; when rail passenger service is shrinking.
And I felt, too, that the intercity bus - which the American Bus Association, a national organization of 400 intercity bus companies, says can yield up to 300 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel under optimum conditions - at least deserved a try at a time when everyone is being exhorted to save energy.
(Actually, according to the bus association compilations, U.S. intercity bus companies burned 178 million gallons of fuel during 1978 to carry riders for 25.4 billion passenger-miles - a rate of 143 passenger-miles per gallon. With fuller bus loads projected this year, this passenger-mile rate will increase.)
I learned from a couple of telephone calls to Greyhound information that I had a choice of seven departures from Washington to Springfield each day, and that the trip would take a little under 27 hours with changes in Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
I learned also that the fare would be $69 (compared to the $108 coach air fare) and that those 65 or older can save 25 percent with a senior citizen's ticket, but that travel at this reduced rate is restricted to Monday through Wednesday.
Advance ticket purchases for a bus trip are unnecessary and seats are not reserved. But if a bus you want to take is filled, Greyhound promises to put on a second section. If you want your choice of seats you should arrive at the station early enough to stake out a place near the head of the line at the depar ture gate - 15 or 20 minutes is usually enough.
Promptly at 2:05 on a Wednesday afternoon, our 43-passenger bus - less than half-filled with 19 riders - inched out of the terminal at New York Avenue and 12th Street NW and began threading its way through Washington traffic toward Interstate 70 and Frederick, Md., our first stop on the road to Pittsburgh.
At 6 p.m. we pulled into tacky Breezewood, Pa. (which marches proudly under two different banners proclaiming it the "Gateway to the South" and the "Town of Motels") for our dinner stop at the Post House cafeteria. The Post House - which carries a no-nonsense sign on the front door decreeing "No shirt, no shoes, no service" - was not the refurbished Jockey Club, but the food was adequate and the restrooms were clean. I had a bowl of excellent vegetable soup, a plate of green beans and bacon, coffee and an apple - all for the satisfactory price of $1.90.
At dusk we eased through the Breezewood toll gate onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which slices through the Alleghenies toward Pittsburgh. It was at the Columbus, Ohio, station, a modern low-slung building in the heart of the city's Civic Center district, that I got a first-hand view of Greyhound's efforts to make their stations safer. A smartly uniformed guard patrolled the station, and restrooms were locked from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. Admission to the restrooms was provided by the ticket agent, who pressed an electronic button that swung open the appropriate doors.
This element of security was noticeable at every big-city station where I stopped. I remembered a decade or more ago when bus stations seemed too often to be havens for drifters.
I had slept reasonably well (due to past experience on all-night ski bus rides from Washington to New England, and the fact that I had a double seat to myself). Our next major stop was Indianapolis, where we arrived at 6 a.m. for a breakfast and rest stop (at a restroom that was dirty). I had scrambled eggs in the station cafeteria, along with buttered toast and jelly, coffee and an apple. Total bill: $1.72.
There were 38 passengers aboard when we departed from Indianapolis for a ride through highly productive farming country and rolling, wooded hills. We breezed by Brazil, Ind., and made a brief stop at Terre Haute.
Miles before reaching St. Louis we could see Gateway Arch, an inverted weighted catenary curve of stainless steel soaring 630 feet above the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The arch commemorates St. Louis as the gateway to the West.
We made a brief stop in run-down East St. Louis, Ill., to discharge a pair of passengers before proceeding to St. Louis across the mighty Mississippi, swollen by heavy spring rains and runoffs of melting winter snow, and looking muddier and angrier than usual.
The St. Louis bus station was an architecturally agreeable structure looking not unlike a small Dulles Airport terminal. Nestled in the heart of the city's expensive and expansive urban renewal area, it is light, airy and clean - clearly the best-looking station on my tour and a perfect example of the contribution to traveler comfort and urban renewal the bus companies can make if they are so inclined.
The St. Louis station stands in the shadow of the plush Bel Air Hilton Hotel, but I was too near my final destination to stop off for a Rest and Rehabilitation interlude. Stopovers are permitted on your bus tickets, however, and first-rate hotels are located near the various bus stations.
The journey from St. Louis to Springfield - cutting through the rugged hills, plateaus and deep valleys of the Missouri Ozarks - was to me the most scenically satisfying of any portion of my trip.
At 4:40 p.m. - the exact minute promised by the Greyhound timetable - our bus drew into the station at Springfield, Mo., culminating my 27-hour ride.
Highlights of the bus trip:
I liked leaving the turnpikes for the few miles' drive into towns like Terre Haute, Inc., Washington, Pa., Effingham, Ill., Wheeling, W.Va. This fascinating eyeball contact with small-town America is something denied the traveler 35,000 feet in the sky.
I liked meeting and talking with people who ride the bus and who make up in common sense what they may lack in sophistication - people like the bearded Amish farmer who, with his wife, was on his way to Kentucky for a reunion with his brother who had just returned from Paraguay after eight years' service as an Amish missionary; the young driver for a Junction City, Kan., recreational vehicle manufacturer who spends his days criss-crossing the United States delivering new RV's to various dealers, then returning to Junction City for a new assignment; the real estate man who quietly expressed to me his readiness to die if he failed to survive open-heart surgery scheduled two days later; the college piano teacher who was en route to Los Angeles to visit his two wealthy maiden aunts.
I liked watching the ever-changing landscape - the Allegheny Mountains, the flat, fertile farmlands of Illinois, the rolling hill country of Indiana. I liked seeing and crossing rivers with such ear-pleasing names as the Monongahela, the Meremec, the Gasconade, the Scioto and the Wabash. (We also crossed Mad River and Mud Creek.)
I liked seeing examples of small-town boosterism, like the sign on a petroleum truck owned by the Lowe Oil Co. of Clinton, Mo., declaring that "Business Is Good" - which sentiment, I'm sure, would not be disputed by the sheiks of Saudi Arabia.
And I especially liked the delicious - albeit brief - periods of time when no one could get to me by telephone, by letter, by mailgram or by ringing my doorbell as I rolled serenely along between, say, Richmond, Ind., and Teutopolis, Ill.
As for specifics on the bus operations:
Drivers were extremely courteous, but when they repeatedly extended a helping hand as I clambered down the bus steps I began to wonder if my age was showing more than I like to believe.
There were plenty of rest stops along the road, and there is a restroom on the bus that will do in an emergency. The restrooms themselves were usually clean, but there always seemed to be a singular lack of soap in the liquid dispensers. Hot air machines, with which all restrooms were equipped, substituted, functionally for paper or roller towels. Sometimes there was hot water, other times not. Toilets were of the 10-cent, pay variety.
Shun the three bus seats in the last row of the vehicle - they don't recline. But a young couple, riding out of St. Louis for Dallas, found these rear seats perfect for spreading out their two babies. Seats were confortable and the buses air-conditioned. Cigarette smokers were required to sit in the rear of the bus, while pipe and cigar smoking was prohibited entirely.
No alcoholic beverages were permitted aboard the bus, but cocktail lounges in some of the stations along the route helped fill this void. For insomniacs, individual reading lights did fine when the overhead bus lights were turned off.
The bus stations were generally comfortable, well-lighted and amply supplied with lockers, telephones, eating spots, gift shops and the like. The D.C. station was the least impressive of any of the big-city terminals I visited, but even it was a far cry from the dimly-lit, generally depressing spot I remember years ago when I used to catch the commuter bus to College Park after a day's work at United Press.
I've been amazed at how few of my friends have ridden an intercity bus in the past 10 or 20 years - or, for that matter, how few have ever ridden such a bus. Bus travel has been badmouthed, and it does have certain disadvantages which might not willingly be endured in a period when alternative travel is less difficult.
Nevertheless, my suggestion is to try the bus - you may like it. For starters you might take short Greyhound trips to places like historic Frederick, Md. (round trip, $9.90); Colonial Williamsburg (round trip, $24.80); or a bit longer journey to Pittsburgh through some of the prettiest country you'll see in the United States for a round-trip price of $44.40.
Trailways - Greyhound's big continental rival for the bus rider's dollar - also offers a multitude of short and long trips out of Washington. For example, you could try one of the many non-stop express trips the company operates each day from D.C. to mid-town Manhattan. Time for most of the runs is 4 hours and 20 minutes and the price tag is $34 round trip. Of if you're not in a Big Apple mood, Trailways will haul you the other way to Richmond, Va. - rich in Revolutionary and Civil War shrines - for $16.55 round trip.
Such junkets will give you a chance to check out the bus stations, the restrooms, the riding qualities of the bus itself and to ask questions. If you and the two major bus companies still feel compatible after these or similar trial runs, you could consider buying passes that are good for unlimited travel on any of their lines in the United States and Canada. You pay $99.50 for seven days; $149.50 for 15 days; $199.50 for 30 days.
And if you're feeling really adventurous, you might even try a trip to Springfield, Mo. The Ozarks are beautiful this time of the year. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, John Pack for The Washington Post