"Only crack sellers, loonies and ex-convicts travel on the bus."
This summed up the main message I read on the internet while researching bus travel in the United States, in preparation for a road trip that I was embarking on with a friend.
Additionally: it is likely that the bus won’t show up. And if it does, it will break down.
Coming from a place where public transport is a norm, and going to a place 'built for cars' -- not even mentioning the many other biases reflected in the comments -- I decided to take the reviews with a huge pinch of salt and bought the bus tickets.
About a month later my friend and I were at the Minneapolis Greyhound terminal, catching the 6:45 AM bus to Rapid City. It was a direct connection that, according to the schedule, would take twelve hours.
As the bus rolled out of the city, our eyes scanned happily the open horizon bathed in the morning sun. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a twenty-hour odyssey.
An observation we made early on was that all the rest stops were at fast-food joints. What if there were farmers' markets sprinkled along bus routes? The apples we had packed for the trip came handy, and reminded us of the privilege of fresh produce.
Stretching my legs outside at one such rest stop, I spotted a torn sticker on a lone light pole. The message was still readable: Corporate Violence for Sale. Close by, a group of fellow passengers had gathered to chat, standing in a loose circle. Most of them were wearing grey outfits, and many carried mesh bags that exposed their meager contents.
"When I got out two years back, I was determined to make this the best time of my life", said a tall young man. His voice had an energetic sound.
About five hours into the trip, we reached Sioux Falls, pretty much on time. A change of drivers. All passengers had to get out and identify their luggage as it was taken out of the hold and checked back in. The sky released a few raindrops that refreshed the skin.
Our new driver was a brisk lady, vigilant but amiable. As we hit the road again, she introduced herself over the speakers and set the rules for the journey. She spoke clearly from experience and I wondered what kinds of experiences she had had to handle in the past.
"If you smoke on my bus, I will let you go immediately. If you do alcohol or drugs on rest stops, that is where you'll stay. It will be twenty-four hours until the next bus. That is a veeery looong time."
Looking at new passengers boarding the bus and queuing to find a seat, my eyes met those of a young child squeezed in between legs and bags. I smiled and waved at him. His face was serious, but he responded by showing me two fingers (his age, as I would learn in a while).
The child happened to get a seat right behind us, sitting on the lap of his great-grandmother. Some rows further back was his six-year-old sister with their grandmother. The four of them were traveling from Texas to Washington state.
As we began to connect, the child's presence brought so much joy: a playful little face peeking from between the seats, saying "e-e-pow" in toddler language. A soft hand sneaking to surprise me with a pat on my cheek. The smiling eyes as we played hide-and-seek by covering our faces in our palms.
I penned in my journal: Such an interesting ride. All us fellow passengers, sharing a parallel route for a moment on our life journeys -- this same space, each other's energy fields, oxygen and carbon dioxide, the rhythm of the bus against the highway.
Across the aisle, a man with greying hair was listening to music. He had boarded the bus with big gift-wrapped boxes which he had carefully placed in the overhead rack. "Knee Deep Funkadelic (1979)" was the title of a video on his tablet screen. I felt like snatching his earphone and tuning in.
About eight hours into the journey, we stopped at a service station in rural South Dakota. There, our driver noticed that the gas tank was leaking.
We first waited for some four hours for a mechanic whose unsurprising verdict was that the problem could not be fixed. We then set to wait for a replacement bus, for an undetermined time. I guess the "fortune in misfortune", as we say in Finland, was that at least we were not stranded on the roadside.
Passengers spread out and about the station. Many settled inside around the tables of the fast food joint. Some stood in the shade of the gas station back wall. A few others took a breather sitting on the grass bordering the asphalt expanse. The mood was one of frustration mixed with resignation.
The long delay was a serious problem for many. My friend and I, on the other hand, had the luxury of time in our hands with no real hurry to get anywhere. When a fellow passenger heard that we were from Finland and headed to Rapid City, he offered to give us a ride. He was from the city and had asked his wife to come pick him up. He explained that this was his first time taking the bus -- and the last. Eventually, we decided to stay and to instead let others share his ride. For us the unexpected kink on the road was an experience, and it felt like something we wanted to see through.
We spent most of our time with the children, the two-year-old and his sister. We were amazed how their grandmothers trusted us with them, letting us connect. We colored and doodled in my journal. Out of nowhere, fellow passengers brought us real coloring books and a box of crayons.
The children's cheerfulness amidst what could have been a cranky drag was exceptional. They were present and engaged in the simple activities of coloring, telling little stories, and laughing at silly things. The two-year-old had a surprisingly witty humor. When, close to 8 pm, I asked him if he was feeling sleepy, he laid down on my lap and pretended to be snoring. The little comedy got us all giggling.
The Funkadelic man had brought the gift boxes from the bus. He told us they were for a special friend he was traveling to meet Washington state. When I asked about the music he had been listening to, he introduced us to the Gap Band. His favorite song, he said, had come out when he first joined the military.
Close to midnight, the replacement bus arrived, after an eight-hour wait. For all this time, the driver had kept us informed the best she could. Her manner had been upbeat throughout.
A group of men took care of transferring everyone's luggage from the broken bus. Tired but also a bit cheery, we all formed a neat queue to get on the bus. The Funkadelic man ushered us to the start of the line so that we could be sure to get seats in the front.
“If you let me drive, I will not stop until Chicago”, said someone.
Thanks to over-effective air conditioning, it was very cold on the bus. Again, out of the blue, a fellow passenger from the back of the bus came to offer us a blanket. We declined, trying to wrap ourselves into our scarves. A while later, the Funkadelic man asked if we were cold and at that point, we admitted. He got up to cover us with his coat. My friend fell asleep. I stayed awake staring at the dark scenery rolling past behind the windows.
As we approached Rapid City, a fellow passenger (he, too, in a grey outfit) called us a taxi from his mobile so that we would not have to look for one at 2 am in a strange city.
When it was time for us to get off the bus, I reached across the aisle to shake hands with the Funkadelic man. I thanked him and told him that his kindness had inspired me to pay it forward. He leaned over to hug me and said: "I am from Texas". In that fleeting moment, I realised that whatever stereotypes I had held about Texas, they now crumbled.
Before leaving, I turned to look at the little child. He was sleeping peacefully on the seat, next to his great-grandmother.
In the coming weeks as we made our way towards California, the memories of the moments spent with perfect strangers continued to warm our hearts. They still do. I do not know who they were, I do not know where they were coming from and where they were going to -- I do not always even know where I myself am headed in life. Yet, the connections we shared brought a lot of good and kind in us to the surface. They proved the power of magic in the mundane.
May we always journey like this.