Riding with “The Dog”

A travel adventure to most people means a climbing expedition, a safari or similar experience. Mine was much more modest – and economical.

Needing a one-way ticket from Cleveland, Ohio, to Portland, Oregon, I decided to “Ride with the Dog” – the Greyhound Bus. Armed with reading material, a notebook, an MP3 player loaded with podcasts and realistic expectations, I checked in at the downtown terminal.

Right away I noticed the folks waiting inside seemed better off than those I’d seen loitering outside almost every time I’d driven past. There was a mix of black, brown and white passengers; young and middle-aged; male and female. This diversity would hold true throughout my trip.

I was encouraged by initial moments of friendliness. I offered a woman part of the newspaper I was reading and she accepted with a smile. An older man with a cane, bent over almost 90 degrees, made his way to the front of my queue. “You’re supposed to be sitting down, Mr. Smith,” a female employee said in mock reproach. “I’m not going to forget about you.”

Then, a stern voice: “Come over here!” A male employee was scolding two young men who’d been standing outside in the boarding area. “I’ll show you where you smoke!” The “good cop, bad cop” pattern in Greyhound personnel also would hold true.

I had a backpack and a duffel bag for carry-on, but the bag wouldn’t fit into the overhead rack, so I had to return to the check-in counter to get a tag for the storage area under the bus. Another passenger encountered the same thing but simply placed his bag on the seat next to him. “This bus is going to be full,” the driver warned. “You’ll need to buy a ticket for it or move it.”

Small Town TerminalNo matter. Carry-on bags aren’t the time savers they are for air travel anyway. You needn’t worry about losing luggage, either. You can watch your bags being loaded and unloaded. When you change buses, in fact, you’re required to take them with you. A driver obligingly retrieved my bag from the storage area during one of the longer stops. When I reboarded, he stowed it along with the new passengers’ bags.

A word about reboarding. Ask the driver for a pass during stopovers at downtown Greyhound terminals so that you’ll be able to reboard ahead of any new passengers. Two exchange students didn’t understand this and wound up at the end of the line of new passengers who quickly took up the remaining seats, leaving the students to take another bus.

Don’t confuse reboarding with changing buses. Whenever you change buses, you become a new passenger and must wait for reboarders to take their seats. On my very first change I dawdled before getting in line for the next bus. It filled up and I had to wait an hour for another bus. But it proved a blessing in disguise. The extra hour I spent in the not-so-bad Columbus terminal was one less hour I would spend in the ancient, tiny, depressing St. Louis terminal. The overflow bus also had more room.

Even so, when changing buses I recommend taking your bags immediately to the gate for the next bus and putting them in line. That way you’ll be in position for –

Rule #1: Always, always sit as far toward the front as you can. Anybody bent on getting high or otherwise screwing around generally heads toward the back of the bus, far away from the driver.

Rule #2: Keeping in mind Rule #1, look for an empty row and take the aisle seat. Subsequent boarders will pass you up looking for an empty row or at least a seat on the aisle. Most people seem reluctant to step over someone to take an available window seat unless they must. You may wind up with the row all to yourself.

Rule #3: If the bus seems to be filling up, examine the line of passengers yet to board. See that thin, fairly benign-looking person? That’s your seat mate. If you try to hoard the last empty seat for your own comfort, you may wind up with a large companion who overflows into your space.

Rule #3-A: Before anyone – especially a big anyone – joins you in the row, make sure the arm rest separating the seats is firmly in place and lean on it to keep it that way. It may not preserve your leg room, but you’ll feel less like a Siamese twin joined at the hip.

Beyond selecting a seat mate, studying my fellow passengers proved very interesting. My initial thought was that they’d been sent over by Central Casting.

Quick Smoke BreakThere was the 50ish woman who reminded me of a faded Anne Bancroft, reading a decrepit paperback she might have found in a trash barrel. A younger man with staring eyes boarded with matched luggage — two pillow cases stuffed with clothes. An aging biker decked out in chaps and a leather vest carrying what looked like a Native American’s ceremonial staff made straight for the back of the bus, along with a guy carrying a drum and a young woman who would take up with one male passenger after another. One man reminded me of the big kid in the Goonies. Several more could have been extras in your average possessed-by-aliens crowd scene.

But before my sense of superiority could swell too much, I began to notice something else: a kind of human interaction one rarely if ever sees during air travel.

Anne Bancroft settled into a conversation with another woman across the aisle. Pillow Cases joined in from the seat behind her. Anne gave them her complete attention, listening carefully and affirming every so often. The other woman may have been sharing some personal problem because, as Anne prepared to get off the bus, she turned and with obvious sincerity said, “I hope that works out for you.”

At a meal stop a man dressed like a laborer watched the exchange students hesitating at a fast food counter. When they didn’t order anything he asked in a low voice, “Do you have money for food?” (I’m sure they had more than he.) At another break a young man of color offered me some of his fries. In one terminal the scary looking “Goonie” amiably explained the reboarding protocol to a newbie.

Even the Biker surprised me. He was among the majority of passengers who scurried off the bus at every opportunity to light up. Disembarking at his destination, he paused to address a fellow smoker, a woman who could have been the office manager of a small company. Extending his hand to shake hers, he said, “It was nice talking to you.”

Adding to my humility was the realization that, while I was sizing up others, they may have been sizing up me. During the layover in St. Louis, I fled the dingy terminal, ignored the cigarette smoke outside and stretched out for a nap. Some time later, a security cop bent over and asked, “Could I see your ticket?”

It was the first time I was ever mistaken for a vagrant but I appreciated his watchfulness. Your average Greyhound terminal isn’t located in the best part of town. Visible security is welcome.

Back on the bus, keeping order is up to the drivers and the drivers are more than up to the task. Our very first driver, after reciting the “Miranda warning” against cigarettes / drugs / alcohol, added, “If you have a question for the driver, do not approach past the first 2 rows … Now, are there any questions?” There were none.

Frankly, as far as Greyhound drivers go, I prefer “bad cop” over good. One friendly grandfather type seemed to lose authority at his first stop, a two-minute passenger drop-off, when he permitted a smoke break “– as long as you stay by the side of the bus.” Right! Several promptly made for the store some distance away.

“I didn’t have to give you that break,” he whined as we finally continued our journey. “I’ll probably have to cut our next one 5 minutes short.” Later, after the Nymph tried to get her latest companion to carry her onto the bus piggy-back (only she was straddling him from the front), Gramps’ voice crackled over the intercom: “I think some of you may have been drinking. You may want to stop or you may fail the breathalyzer test at the next station.” It was clear to everyone that all he really wanted to do was finish his shift.

The other drivers demonstrated much more command, in particular a crusty veteran who drove us through a series of whistle stops. At one of these he got off to stow away a new passenger’s baggage, only to look back as some of the smokers began to climb down behind him.

“Get back on the bus!” he bellowed. “I’ll tell you when you can take a break!”

At another stop he unloaded the bags of a passenger with a connection to Yakima, but the fellow was dozing. “I’ve got a couple bags out there and no owner,” the driver said. A couple of young men approached from the rear. He eyed them warily. “Destination?” he challenged each in turn, but neither answered. “Get back in your seat!”

The back-of-the-bus crowd often came in for special driver attention: “Put your shirt on, young man!” … “Whoever just lit up back there (how he could smell it I don’t know) might find himself on the side of the road!”… “This is a night run, so keep the noise down … and keep your shoes on — so you don’t give your fellow passengers an unpleasant surprise!”

A few of the drivers introduced themselves and a couple thanked us for riding Greyhound. One even called out the classic, “All ‘board!” Another said, “Sit back and enjoy the ride. I’ll get your there safely.” The lone woman driver was probably the most thorough in her announcements and an Asian man was the most creative.

“I want to tell you the story of Rock Springs,” he began, as we neared a meal stop in Wyoming. I settled back, anticipating a tale of some prospector who swung his pick and out came water. But, no.

“We leave more passengers in Rock Springs than any other stop,” he said. “There are a number of restaurants and other places that don’t look very far away. Invariably someone goes to one of these, loses track of the time and, when they come back, the bus is gone. The next bus isn’t scheduled until 12 hours later. On top of that they probably left their ticket on the first bus, so they have to buy another one — if they have the money.” He paused for effect. “Now, you have 30 minutes.”

No more than 25 minutes later, everyone had returned to the bus. Smiling, the driver maneuvered onto the Interstate as we gazed out the window imagining the poor souls marooned in Rock Springs.

At 5:45 on a Saturday morning, the Dog pulled into Portland — 2 days, 17 hours and some minutes after I’d left Cleveland. Noting that he would have been on time but for an unexpected detour around a parade, Driver #7 added his closing comments:

“Before you exit, please look to your right and left, under your seat and in the overhead rack. If you leave something on the bus don’t worry about it,” he reassured us, “because you’ll never see it again!

“For whatever reason caused you to take Greyhound, I hope the experience was satisfactory. As for myself, I had a wonderful trip. Thanks for riding Greyhound.”

“You’re welcome,” I thought. Except for the occasional seatmate squeeze, the coaches were comfortable and the ride smooth enough for reading and writing. The large windows offered a panoramic view that turned the otherwise mind-numbing Interstate into a scenic experience.

I mostly enjoyed the passengers, especially the exchange students, a young Latino family – and Anne Bancroft. I wouldn’t be averse to “riding with the Dog” again.

After all, it’s a good way to see the “real America” – and there are no live chickens on board.

3 thoughts on “Riding with “The Dog””

  1. I should have read your post before. It was my first time to take the bus from NYC to jersey. I didn’t know I was ahead of my trip so I boarded the bus…I didn’t have a seat! I was squeezed at the back end of the bus and it was a 4 hour drive! That was my longest for hour drive in my life!

    It was not Greyhounds’s fault. It was my innocence and stupidity.

  2. While I realize your trip was a few years ago, I’m fairly certain the Greyhound experience is still the same. I’ve been agonizing over a planned trip on The Dog and your blog has set aside some of my fears.
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Just a long-haul bus riding footnote … I’ve taken Megabus a couple of times and I think the same rider principles pertain with possibly one more:

    Megabus has double deckers, and I like the upper level, since it gives you a different view of the road. But it’s even more important to dress in layers, since the upper deck can get warmer than the lower so you may wind up shedding layers.

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