I love people. And there’s nothing like your first year away from home to push you out the door wishing to see more of “whatever’s out there.” At least that’s what happened to me!
I was nineteen; my brother was fifteen. Greyhound Bus Lines offered a 15- day Go Anywhere pass, and travel-by-bus fit right into my budget. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t shower, but hey, I could hit the road.
So…hit the road we did. It’s not like the bus had a tour guide or like cell phones were invented or like we knew relatives along the way. I did make arrangements to stay overnight with a couple of college roommates. One had gone back home to North Carolina and another, I’d be meeting up with in Georgia. Our bus left SLC on an early June morning; Dad had driven us to the station and walked us right onto the seats. At the time, it seemed kindly but weird. Now that I’m a parent myself, I totally get why Mom and Dad tried so adamantly to talk us out of it. With the exception of a few Collect Calls from random pay phones, we basically vanished for two weeks. Eventually, at least, Dad grasped our adventurous spirit. Mom, not so much.
We were somewhere along a Kansas road when we felt the first tinge of homesickness. Grandma, fearing we’d starve to death, had packed some food for us. Cans of Vienna sausage, apples, hard-boiled eggs. Scrawled on the eggshells were little penciled notes-“Miss you!” “I love you!” “Home Sweet Home.” Her plot worked; her tenderness pricked our hearts, and we loved her for it. We enjoyed the sausage for awhile but eventually our pillows began to smell like the stuff. That aroma, mixed with diesel fumes, perspiration, and tobacco smoke is a smell we’ll never forget. Funny: Smoking was only allowed in the back of the bus. I guess we non-smokers in the front felt safely cocooned from carcinogens at the time.
My brother seemed content enough looking at maps and taking pictures. I adored him, but neither of these things interested me. To pass the time away, I had brought a journal, a book, and a cross-stitch square I was working on. “To Strive, To Seek, To Find…and Not To Yield,” it said. That was the perfect mantra for me. It’s also the only thing I ever embroidered in my life.
Gazing out the window is what I did best. I remember seeing a woman wearing a polka-dotted housedress (remember those?) stand on her tiptoes to reach a clothesline where she hung her wet laundry. I wondered if she had any idea she could be seen from the highway, and what was going through her head as she worked through her basket. Being in Kansas made me yearn to spot a tornado, which is completely indicative of how stereotyped we get when our horizons are limited. (You know, like don’t ALL Hawaiians live in grass huts? Don’t ALL Las Vegans live in casinos?) I enthusiastically eavesdropped on some passengers talking about how tornadoes rise from the ground and get taller and taller. That went against everything I’d ever learned about tornadoes, and then with disappointment realized they were discussing tomatoes. A fairly chatty lady climbed onboard singing, “Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder…” in the happiest of voices. It was like a giphy, it never stopped. Too happy. My brother and I exchanged glances and shrugged.
By the time we got to Missouri, days and nights had become the same. We were now groggy but never-quite-asleep, around the clock. At the Greyhound station in St Louis, quite near the famous arch, a tuxedo-dressed man with shiny shoes relentlessly paced the hallways, asking passersby a nonsensical question. In his thick Southern accent he drawled, “Y’all wab I suhwee?” We had no idea what he was saying until I entered the Ladies Room and saw half a dozen girls smoking joints and talking about their lucky bounty. Oh! “Ya’ll wanna buy some weed?” had been his question.
My brother and I declined.
It was about there in St Louis, 2:30 AM, when the impact of our alone-ness really hit. We were “not in Kansas anymore.” Or Salt Lake City, or my college dorm, or anywhere near the Rockies. Being among strangers 24/7 can do that to a person. Nothing was familiar, no one was “in charge,” and we felt overwhelmed with making decisions and protecting our cash. A young lady just about my age approached us in our woe, asking, “Is it okay if I sit by you two? I’d feel a little safer if I could.” Wade and I were so startled by her perception that we confessed we felt the same vibes, and we all managed to calm each other down til at last it was time to board the bus. It felt good to have her around, thinking we were stronger than her. Seeing ourselves through her eyes did strengthen us.
We forged on toward Nashville, where we were greeted by banjo players with glittery blue jeans and haphazard whiskers. They seemed to have no concern for anything but the Here-and-Now, and their joyful smiles were infectious. We laughed and joked with ’em, ate a warm meal, and felt tremendously cheered. Though still surrounded by strangers, the thrill of adventure had returned. Though I knew we’d never see these people again, the Heart Hinge happened. Again I say: I love people.