On an overnight bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I asked a woman dressed in comfort clothes — a loose black tank top and pants — for advice on surviving the night.
"Double up on sleeping pills," she suggested, before drawing the curtain to her bunk.
A man removing his shoes a la Mister Rogers seconded her suggestion. He then disappeared into his slot for the night.
I had brought only nonprescription aids, a meditation app and East Coast jet lag, but I wasn't too concerned: I have slept on buses before, upright, head swinging like a pendulum. Cabin was an upgrade, with horizontal mattresses and bedding that doesn't work a day job as a coat. I was hoping for full-on R.E.M. sleep but would happily settle for a seriously deep doze.
Cabin, a new start-up begun by two Stanford alumni, began service in mid-July as a third way to bounce between the NorCal and SoCal cities. The self-proclaimed "moving hotel" is an alternative to the 75-minute flight or 380-mile drive. (Amtrak does not depart directly from San Francisco.) A one-way ticket starts at $85, a budget option, especially if you factor in lodging.
I booked a bunk for September and chose a Sunday because, well, all the popular nights were sold out. Boarding begins at 10:30 p.m., half an hour before the doors close. The bus, which is painted gentleman's-club black with a crescent moon graphic, departs from a dimly lit parking lot near the Bay Bridge. Travelers dragging bags on wheels materialized from the darkness. A car pulled up, dropped off three people and peeled away. Halfway down the coast, passengers in a parallel universe were stepping into an identical double-decker bus.
Accommodations are first-come, first-snooze. Guests can choose from 20 single-person private bunks stacked like freight containers on the second floor. The ground level contains two diner-style booths, an airline-size bathroom and two sleeping pods ideal for passengers with mobility issues, including navigating narrow stairs at highway speed.
A chipper guy with a flashbulb smile stood outside the bus checking off names on a clipboard, no ID requested. I asked Michael, our attendant for the first half of the trip, for suggestions on selecting a bed. He said the back of the bus is more stable but slightly louder and the front section is quieter but wiggles more. I selected a top bunk in the middle: moderate noise and movement, better window views, no feet near my face.
The sleeping chambers measure 75 to 77 inches in length, 25 inches in height and 26 to 31 inches in width. For context, the average size of a casket is 84-by-23-by-28. Fortunately, Michael said we could stash our carry-on bags in the pod without the mattress. Many of us also piled our belongings in a seating area by the stairs.
The scene onboard was more lights-out on a school night than Saturday evening slumber party. Passengers immediately cinched themselves inside their cubbies. I briefly chatted with two repeat Cabiners. One was a teacher who lives in San Francisco on weekends and works in Los Angeles during the week. On her last trip down, she said, she slept soundly and the bus arrived early, so she didn't have to rush to make the 7:30 a.m. bell. The guy from Los Angeles, meanwhile, had taken the bus the night before and spent 17 whirlwind hours in San Francisco before reboarding. He didn't fare as well.
"I was sleepy," he said, "but I need a lot of sleep."
Michael joined us upstairs to officially welcome the group aboard. In a soothing nighty-night voice, he told us to release our worries and reminded us to breathe deeply. He informed us that we would sit for 20 minutes, so that we could acclimate to the bus. He also wanted to give the melatonin-spiked Dream Water time to kick in. (Each bunk comes with a grab bag of amenities, including bottled water, ear plugs and shoe covers.) He handed out tiny USB reading lights to the society of night owls.
Passengers in the lower bunks can easily slide into bed. To reach the top cabin, however, I felt like a letter trying to insert myself into a tall mailbox slot. The uppers don't come with ladders, so I had to stand on my toes, lift my body with my arms and slither on my belly until I was securely on the mattress. Then I had to swivel and kick my legs in one direction and my head in the other. Once I was comfortably supine, my feet hit a hard object at the end of the bed: my book. Because of the low ceiling, I had to exit the pod to retrieve it, using the airspace over the aisle as a turning lane. On the return, I nearly toppled out.
I drifted off a few pages later but woke up at 2:22 a.m., when the cradle ceased rocking. We had stopped in Coalinga for a crew switch. I bolted awake two more times: first from shivering (I warmed up by putting on my coat and closing the air-conditioning vent) and later from a vivid "Speed"-like dream. The next time I popped open my eyes, I saw a pale blue sky and palm-tree trunks. (I couldn't sit up tall enough to see the fronds.) We had arrived in Santa Monica, nearly an hour early.
I wriggled out of bed and greeted the teacher, who was already packed up and heading to Starbucks to change into her work clothes. I found the Los Angeleno outside, a bit dazed. I asked him how he slept.
"Not so good. It was bumpy, and I have a stuffy nose," he said. "I am going to bed now, for real."
I went back inside the bus for a hot drink, one of the promised perks. The Cuisinart coffee maker was unplugged, and the attendant was a no-show. I asked the driver whether he knew how to work the machine. He didn't, although he acknowledged that he, too, could use a cup of coffee. (Co-founder Tom Currier later explained the mix-up: "One of our backup Los Angeles attendants was unable to meet the vehicle in Santa Monica for morning beverage service. This was the first and only time that occurred, and we've already refined our internal process to mitigate any such instances.") A jogger peered through the open door and asked to use the toilet. Seconds later, he ran out, repelled by the messy bathroom.
Several people were still asleep upstairs. The driver said he would grant them 30 more minutes of shut-eye before rousing them. I tidied up my space and brought my bags down. Eventually, the lollygaggers bumbled down the stairs. I said farewell to the driver and headed to the beach. I had planned to take a nap, but I wasn't tired.
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The overnight bus departs daily between San Francisco (Bayside Lot No. 26, 1 Bryant St.) and Santa Monica (Palisades Park, Ocean and Arizona avenues) and the reverse route. Doors close at 11 p.m.; expected arrival time is 7 a.m. One-way fares range from $85 to $115.