I never developed any enthusiasm for The Firesign Theatre, but quite often I have invoked the title of their fourth album, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. I think it quite often when I ride COTA in Columbus, and the title was ringing in my head as I was travelling across country this week to San Francisco.
I am typing this in the ballroom of the Green Tortoise Hostel in San Francisco’s North Beach. The time is just before 10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Saving Time, and I arrived here in the city by the bay just before 7 a.m. today. I’m early arriving at the hostel, so I had breakfast, and I’m blogging here while waiting for my room and my key to be available.
Last year, I came out here for Bay to Breakers, the 7½-mile footrace from The Embarcadero to the Great Highway, run annually since 1912. I had such a blast that I decided that I will make this an annual event. (Last year was even more unique in that I flew out here, and then took a bus trip to Titusville, Fla. so I could be in Brevard County to see Susie graduate from high school.)
I am a long-time veteran of Greyhound travel, and I think that if they had anything analogous to frequent-flyer miles, I’d never have to pay for it again. This trip was no exception–when I announced my plans to friends, jaws dropped over, heads shook, they made the latest of many doubts about my mental stability.
The trip began Tuesday night at 11:20 from the Greyhound station in Columbus, and ended this morning at the station on Folsom St. here in San Francisco. I changed buses in Denver, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
The bozos on the bus came to the surface as we were crossing Kansas. The trip from Columbus to Kansas City was uneventful. I was disappointed that it was too foggy in St. Louis for me to see my beloved Gateway Arch, especially since its other name, the Gateway to the West, would be especially appropriate.
Once we crossed into the Sunflower State, that was when things began to be… noteworthy. I have crossed Kansas before, but I was totally in awe of the section I saw, so atypical of the prairie, very high skies, and desolation I had experienced in previous journeys, and what usually comes to mind when someone says “Kansas.” (On the other hand, having grown up in the Allegheny Plateau in Southeast Ohio, I wondered why so many people think Ohio is flat.) The area was hilly, and rich with vegetation. I texted my friend John in Madison, Wisc., who has traveled with me many times by bus and by thumb, and who was Google Maps before there was such a thing. Totally taken aback, I texted him: Leaving Junction City. Can’t remember Kansas being this hilly and un-prairielike. He told me I was in the Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas, known for its cattle ranching, and an area quite unlike the rest of the Kansas grasslands. (I have not read William Least Heat-Moon, but I understand he wrote quite extensively about the region in PrairyErth.)
My awe about this soon took a back seat to the wildlife riding with me. There was a kid of about 19 on the bus with his girlfriend, and dressed like some of the white gangsta wannabes I saw when we lived in Franklinton–baseball cap turned sideways, the nightgown-sized T-shirt, the pants tailored for clowns, and a skateboard. He went back into the bathroom, and after about a minute we could all smell cigarette smoke. (Smoking has been 100% forbidden on buses for at least a decade, although I remember when it was permitted in the last three rows of the bus, although they did not allow cigars or pipes.) The driver wasted no time in pulling over, and telling the kid he would be getting off at the next exit, which happened to be Enterprise (pop. 855). The kid tried, in vain, to stay on the bus, but the driver would not budge. He pulled over the bus, and I saw the kid hop onto his skateboard and roll away, leaving his girlfriend whimpering in the seat they had shared. (The postscript to this story is that he managed to hitch a ride almost immediately, and reached Denver ahead of us, where he met his girlfriend when we arrived. Commander William Riker has said that “fate protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise,” and I guess this proves that.)
There was a food and rest stop in Salina, and a woman on the bus apparently did not learn from the lesson of the smoker who could not wait 30 to 45 minutes for the rest stop. A new driver took the wheel at Salina, and the woman–who had boarded at Pittsburgh and was riding all the way to Riverside, Calif.–was so bold (or stupid) as to roll a blunt right in front of the new driver, while the driver was reviewing all the logs and paperwork before getting behind the wheel. So, we were minus another passenger when we pulled out of Salina and headed westward.
We were an hour late getting into Denver, and I worried that this would throw off the rest of my schedule, but I worried for no reason. The new bus managed to make it to Las Vegas on time, and I surprised myself after dawn by spending my time with my nose against the window, totally awed by the rock formations, plant life, and high canyon walls that flanked I-70 at that point. (My first trip across the semi-arid land in New Mexico in 1980 put to rest my pre-conceived notion that the desert was just one huge sandbox, but I was not ready for what I saw as I crossed southern Utah.) I took many pictures, and posted them to Facebook in real time. Friends in St. George and Salt Lake City told me that this was part of the allure of living there.
Las Vegas was every bit as dismal as I expected. When the first thing you see is a man in an underpass, wrapped in a filthy sleeping bag like a mummy, you understand the nickname “Lost Wages.” Even the hotels and casinos I passed had a sad look about them. (I’m not enough of a New Ager to say they exuded bad vibes or had a negative aura, but they broadcast “Stay away!” to me.) During his four years of self-imposed exile in the penthouse of the Desert Inn, Howard Hughes wrote in a memo to Robert Maheu, his majordomo and chief cook and bottle-washer, “I like to think of Las Vegas in terms of a well-dressed man in a dinner jacket and a beautifully jeweled and furred female getting out of an expensive car.” No question he never ventured outside his penthouse when he thought that, and managed to turn the city into his own personal Monopoly board.
I did not gamble in Las Vegas, because within 20 minutes of my arrival, I was in line for the bus to Los Angeles, and I was blessed with my own seat all the way to Anaheim. We made stops in Barstow (which made me recall the opening lines of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which may be the “Call me Ishmael” of 20th-century American literature) and in San Bernardino (which I heard a woman on the bus call “San Bernaghetto”), and I fell in love with Riverside, especially its theaters, churches, restaurants, and clubs as our bus moved down Mission Inn Ave. I want to come back and explore it more some day.
Going from Anaheim to L.A. drove home the point that Southern California is no place for a non-driver. Even after 10 p.m. on a weeknight, the 91 Freeway was moving slower than a funeral procession, with vehicles very close together moving a few feet, stopping for several minutes, and moving again. I thought at first there was an accident or an event getting out, but it seems to be typical for the Los Angeles area regardless of the time of day.
I slept most of the way up I-5 from L.A. to about Livermore, except for some parfait at a rest stop in Avenal. I watched out the window more than I read for most of the trip, because the trip left I-70 at Beaver, Utah and took I-15 all the way to Los Angeles, which was unfamiliar terrain to me.
Arriving here in San Francisco just after 7 a.m., I immediately walked up to the Green Tortoise here in North Beach, happy to be walking again after sitting almost non-stop since Tuesday night. There will be much more to blog about between now and my flight out of San Francisco on Monday afternoon, so stay tuned.