"Greyhound Bus Terminal" by James and Helen McCaffery, June 1967. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 266-10041.

The Middle Distance 1.27.12: A Long, Strange Trip

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photo by Sean Cayton

In the early 1970s I took my first solo bus trip. The Memphis Greyhound station was located in a rundown terminal on the far south end of Main Street. I picked up my ticket at the old-fashioned grill window of the ticket office, then stepped outside into the still, 5 a.m. air. My destination was Columbia, Missouri, 400 miles away, where my boyfriend attended a small college and studied art.

I was a student of boredom and impatience, stuck in a rotten job with no money for school that year. But once a week my heart leapt when the mailman delivered a hand-colored letter from him, the envelope doodled so extensively the address was hard to see. He illustrated song lyrics with loopy pastel figures. “Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing,” said the most recent one in yellow and blue curls across the page.

From the far middle distance, nearly 40 years later, that trip stands out in memory not because of how much I adored that boyfriend, but because of all I saw and heard that day, just sitting in my seat on a Greyhound bus.

I climbed aboard, settled near the back at a window and watched the muddy Mississippi River roll beneath the Arkansas bridge just as the sun was rising. “Welcome to Arkansas,” said the sign halfway across, “Land of Opportunity.” Past West Memphis, Wynne and Russell, the bus rumbled over low-lying highways through rice farms and soybean fields. Every few miles a row of wind-blown shacks popped up, leaning sideways. People still lived there, evidenced by a wisp of cotton curtain blowing through an open window, or a slope-shouldered man, covered in dust, walking along the shoulder of the road.
In Conway, some noisy boys took the backmost seats, just behind mine. They dropped acid and asked if I wanted some, but I declined. The road grew flatter and the roadside emptier as the boys grew more excited at every curve in the road. “Wow,” they murmured. “Far out!”

At the Jonesboro station, I got out to stretch my legs and buy a Coke. I returned to find a girl curled up in the seat next to mine. Turned out she was 14, pregnant, she was pretty sure, headed to St. Louis and an older sister who would help her figure out what to do. She cried a little every few minutes, looking out the window with strained pink eyes. A tree. A house. A smear of clouds. The boys hooted behind us while we watched the rest of Arkansas roll by. A transistor radio played fuzzy Motown tunes. The bus stopped at a Stuckey’s in Kennett, the first town across the Missouri border. The girl slept now and the boys in the back chain-smoked, dropping their cigarette butts into the aluminum toilet across the aisle.

Finally, St. Louis, a break in the monotony of the road and the slow countryside. Traffic roared and the downtown bus station buzzed with activity. The girl got off with a shy goodbye and the boys went bounding into the crowd. “Whoa, man,” they shouted. “Far out!”

A gray-haired man in a starched white shirt boarded the bus and sat next to me in the girl’s seat. He was headed home to Kansas City. Polished and polite, he kindly asked how old I was and the purpose of my trip. He pulled out his wallet and showed me a picture of his wife and kids.

“She’s gonna kill me,” he said matter-of-factly, the smile fading from his face.

“Why?”

“Because I lost all my money gambling.” He stared at his fingernails and shook his head. I thought of offering him money, then thought better of it. Twenty-five dollars probably wouldn’t cover it.
Finally, after Jefferson City, Columbia and my boyfriend in an unfamiliar car, borrowed from a roommate. I was dizzied by the motion of the bus, drenched in the condensation of a day’s worth of human breath.

My boyfriend looked a little different, skinnier. He looked wonderful.

The sun was setting and we headed away from town, down a country road.

“I have a surprise,” he said. He drove to an abandoned rock quarry, a lake filled to the top with clear water. We climbed down a rock face to a flat slab where we watched the sky turn purple, then black. I had never seen so many stars or such a sky, mirrored in the glassy water.

“The water’s so deep here,” he said. “They say no one has ever reached the bottom.”

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

6 Responses to The Middle Distance, 1/27/12: A Long, Strange Trip

  1. Isabel says:

    You never cease to amaze me, not just with your writing but with your memory. I absolutely love it.

  2. Rosanne Gain says:

    Wow, thanks Kathryn for sharing your story and painting an eloquent picture of days gone by. It stirred memories of a Greyhound bus trip I took from Jacksonville, FL to Ontario to visit my grandparents for the summer when I was in my teens. Taking a trip that long – and alone – would be unthinkable these days but I will never forget all I saw and heard along the way. Thanks again for the reminder.

  3. JohnS says:

    Cliffhanger? Tune in next week?

  4. Mary H says:

    I found it odd as a 20-something to ride so long in a small space with strangers. I found it odd as an adult to ride a train for the same reason. It almost forces you to reach out to each other, even if it’s just evesdropping. But it seems that people end up in conversation of some sort. Like the song says, it’s dream-like, so lonely and disconnected from real life.

  5. hannahfriend says:

    So you’re a Grateful Dead fan?

  6. Bill says:

    I’m about your age & this one took me back, both to my CC experience as well as my own road trip sojourns in the years that followed. Nicely capped w/ Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” at the end. Middle Distance is definitely the anchor of The Big Something.

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