It is 7:30 in the morning on July 24, 2004 — the day of Utah’s biggest holiday. Salt Lake City’s usually reserved downtown is bustling. Parade floats are parked haphazardly along side streets. Spectators spill out of the city’s light-rail system, lugging lawn chairs and water jugs as they scope out prime sidewalk real estate for one of the biggest and oldest parades in the country. Boy Scouts wander the streets in small groups. High school band members roam about in their uniforms, holding instruments in one hand and oversized hats in the other.
"You going to play us a pretty song with that?" a woman wearing a leopard-skin cowboy hat teases a boy with a trumpet. He looks at her with wide-eyed adolescent embarrassment.
Every July 24, Utah celebrates Pioneer Day to commemorate the day in 1847 when Brigham Young led an advance party of Mormon exiles into the Salt Lake Valley and declared, "This is the place." For faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pioneer Day is a cross between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. For non-Mormons, it’s like the Fourth of July all over again — with better fireworks.
For better or worse, Utah is living up to its image this morning. Everyone looks friendly, healthy, tucked in, clean-shaven, middle-class and white. And that makes walking up to the Greyhound bus depot all the more jarring. Clustered outside the nondescript building a block away from the Mormon Temple, about two dozen people stand watching all the activity. Every one of them is puffing on a cigarette. The Mormon Church prohibits smoking, and Utah has had the lowest smoking rates in the country for years. I’ve lived here long enough that the sight of so many smokers is startling.
I’m about to spend the next three days making a 1,600-mile loop around the West — all of it by Greyhound bus. This will be my first time on Greyhound, and I am carrying a backpack full of romantic notions I know probably won’t hold up beyond the first hundred miles. I want to believe that I’ll see a side of the West most people don’t see. I want to believe that I will learn something about the West and its people. I want to believe that, in an era of instant messaging and discount airlines, it’s still possible to share a story with a complete stranger as the miles roll by. I want to believe Greyhound’s place in Americana endures.
Stepping into the bus depot, I see people of just about every skin color imaginable. I see duffel bags and suitcases patched up with duct tape. One man carries his belongings in a black plastic bag. Another uses an old cardboard box. A little girl, maybe 2 years old, runs around wearing a white T-shirt and a diaper. She is filthy; the bottoms of her bare feet are nearly black. Her brother, who looks to be no more than 5, is having trouble keeping her under control. Their mother is talking to a tall, thin man near the entrance. She looks like she is alternately arguing and pleading with him. He seems completely indifferent. The boy looks like he is about to cry.
Then a garbled voice announces over the loudspeaker that the bus headed for Butte, Mont., with stops in Ogden, Logan, McCammon, Pocatello, Blackfoot, Idaho Falls, Dubois, Lima and Dillon, is now boarding. I slip my backpack over my shoulder, and step into line.
Salt Lake City to Logan
"I’m never riding the bus again," a young woman says, laughing, to the man next to her as soon as she sits down. She is 17 years old and on her way from Mesa, Ariz., to Spokane, Wash., to visit her father and her best friend.
"I have to take the bus," he responds. "It’s all they put us on." He is a 28-year-old wildland firefighter who just spent 23 straight days on a fire in Texas. He has been riding since El Paso and is on the way home to St. Charles, Idaho, for a break before going to the next fire.
He is big and blond with several days of scruff on his face. He wears heavy-duty boots. She is tall and has a blond streak running through her brown hair.
He tells her that he makes good money fighting fires, enough that last summer he paid off his house. "I need another summer like that, except I don’t want to go back to Texas. There is nothing good about Texas."
We turn onto I-15 heading north, and a man sitting across from me slips a CD into his Walkman. I can just make out the opening bars to Bob Seger’s quintessential road trip song, Turn the Page: "On a long and lonesome highway east of Omaha …" The man next to me is reading a novel by Orson Scott Card. Outside the window, the generic neighborhoods and big-box stores of Salt Lake’s bedroom communities pass by — each one as unrecognizable as the one before it.
The firefighter tells the tall girl he can’t believe how freely drugs flow on a fire. "People get all pumped up, and I’m thinking, ‘Great, you’re watching my back.’ "
She responds by telling him her older brother just returned from Iraq. "He sleeps with a fake gun because he is, like, so used to sleeping with a gun. He can sleep with his eyes open."
He tells her about a friend who committed suicide. "He put a gun to his head. I was on a fire. But I still feel responsible, like there was something I should have done."
He gets off the bus in Logan, where his mother is picking him up, and she gets off to use the restroom. Once off the bus, they don’t acknowledge each other.
Logan to Butte
It’s a month to the day since Greyhound, citing losses of $140 million and 3.5 million riders in four years, announced it would drop 260 stops in mostly small- and medium-sized towns in a 13-state cradle-shaped region roughly outlined by Seattle and Chicago along the north and Denver to the south. On Aug. 18, 2004, the company went from 359 stops in the region to 99.
The announcement hit many small, rural communities in the West hard. Whole routes, like the one I’m now on, Salt Lake City-Butte, would be wiped off Greyhound’s map. Other routes being cut include the 1,000 mile-long route between Billings and Fargo; U.S. 40 between Salt Lake and Denver, which stops at dozens of small and otherwise isolated towns; and Highway 101 along the Oregon Coast.
Distance is not something to be taken lightly in the West, and for poor rural residents, Greyhound has often been the only link to friends, family and medical facilities in big cities and other small towns.
My seatmate, Christian, had been making his way from Virginia to the West Coast by freight train until he got caught hopping a train in Chicago. He plans to stay with friends in Idaho Falls for a few days before attempting to catch another freight heading west.
"I got caught because I was lazy," he says, "but now I’m addicted to it."
North of Dubois, Idaho, sagebrush and alfalfa fields give way to the Centennial Mountains and the climb into Montana. The engine gears down and becomes louder as the bus slows.
Shortly after Greyhound made its announcement, officials at the local, county, state and federal level sprang into action. Communities held meetings to brainstorm ideas. Six senators signed a letter to Greyhound asking the company to rethink the cuts. But the decision was made.
Local and regional bus companies stepped forward to take up some of the slack. Billings-based Rimrock Trailways, for instance, picked up the routes between Butte and Salt Lake. And the company has started one run between Billings and Fargo and will add a second if there is enough demand. There is also talk in Congress of beefing up subsidies to regional bus companies offering rural service.
Still, Greyhound’s decision will hurt. The small towns along U.S. 40 from Salt Lake to Denver — towns such as Vernal, Utah, and Craig, Colo., to name just a few — don’t have an alternative lined up. There are similar pockets all over the West.
I find out that many of the passengers have been traveling together for at least a day, and a sense of camaraderie is forming — as well as some tension between the passengers and the bus driver.
"There was a kid on the bus last night who fell asleep," a man heading to a powwow in Coeur d’Alene says to no one in particular. "He woke just as we were leaving Provo. When he woke up, he said, ‘What town is this?’ We told him, ‘Provo.’ But the driver wouldn’t let him off. I’m sure no one would have minded if the driver just pulled off somewhere and let this kid get off."
"Can I help you?" the man running the Butte depot bellows to everyone who walks in for the first time. His greeting is as friendly as it is unnerving. Later, he will stroll through the small outdoor waiting area and say just as loudly, "I’ve got phone cards. Phone cards for $5, $10 and $20 — $20 being your best value. Come on in and lay your money on the counter. We’d be happy to take it."
When it’s time to board the next westbound bus, a long line forms again. As we file into the bus, everyone passes an older Hutterite couple wearing formal wool clothing right out of the 19th century. They sit in the front row munching from a bag of Cheetos. I sit two rows behind them and watch a boy no more than 14 with long tangled hair stand behind the depot smoking. A woman approaches him with an unlit cigarette. He takes it and expertly lights it with the tip of his own.