Butte to Missoula
She is wearing a gray suit and carries an enormous black purse. Both are beginning to fray around the edges. Her long graying blonde hair flows down over her shoulders.
Over the next 114 miles, I will find out that she has 17 grandchildren and moved to Montana from Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, after her first husband died: "He always wanted to live in Montana, and so I thought I had better move here." Though she is pleasant and cheerful, she has a deep sense of sadness about her.
"I’m Tim," I say, holding out a hand.
"Oh, what a nice name. Timothy. You have your own book in the Bible." She never tells me her name.
Right out of Butte, the bus rolls through a spit of rain. But the squall passes and the driver folds the sun visor down against the late evening sun. It doesn’t come down far enough, so he has old ticket stubs duct-taped along the bottom. Somewhere behind us, a baby cries.
She says she is headed to a wide spot in the road north of Missoula called Ravalli to visit her current husband. She tells me that he lost his job and then got hurt. And then he needed an operation. "Then it all started to affect him in the head. Men’s egos are so tied up in their work," she says wearily. She adds quickly, "Some men, some men. Not all men."
She pauses, and seems to think carefully about what to say next. Then she says flatly, "I left him when I thought he would kill me."
The bus pulls up to a convenience store and the driver honks two quick blasts. The store — like the town — seems deserted. After a moment, the driver steps on the accelerator and the bus lumbers up to speed. "But we’re getting along better now," the woman adds.
Back on I-90, she looks out the window and nods at the angular hillsides passing by and the trees casting long, sharp shadows against the deep green grass. "That’s why I believe in God," she says. "Something that beautiful can’t be random."
I try to divert the conversation by asking about her children. Instead, I hit more sadness. "I have seven children," she says heavily. "But only six are on this earth. I have one beautiful daughter who is with God." She closes her eyes tightly.
"I’m sorry," I say sincerely and awkwardly. I want to tell her, but don’t, that the first time I held my son I understood that, from that moment on, the single worst thing that could happen to me would be to outlive him.
An African-American man sits on a wooden sidewalk that is supposed to look like something out of the Old West, in front of the kind of convenience store/truck stop/café/casino so prevalent in Montana. He relaxes against a post. It is a spectacularly beautiful morning.
He is dressed all in black except for white socks. He is lean with a shaved head; speckles of white dot his mustache. He looks out over the empty parking lot at the almost rain-forest-lush mountains off to the northwest.
A red Dodge diesel pickup, carrying two men and clattering like a tractor, pulls into the parking lot. Although the lot is nearly empty, they decide to park in the space directly in front of the man. The driver steers slowly into the parking space. Both men are smiling. The black man pays no attention. The truck stops just a few feet from him. Before shutting off the engine, the driver taps the accelerator and the engine revs.
Walla Walla to Boise
After a 10-hour break, I board the bus in Walla Walla, Wash., at 1:20 a.m. for the final 17 hours back to Salt Lake City. I’m the only one who gets on in Walla Walla, and the bus is barely a third full. Everyone is asleep, or trying to be. I lie down as best I can across two seats, but sleep never comes. I watch daylight bleed into the night sky as we approach Idaho.
After a meal at a truck stop in Ontario, Ore., on the Idaho border, we are moving again and just about to turn onto the interstate when someone from the back yells, "Driver! We left someone!"
At that exact moment, I see a man who had been sitting a couple of rows behind me running as fast as he can across the parking lot waving one hand. The image is oddly clown-like, but I feel it in my gut. Something like this, being left behind, plays into everyone’s deepest fears on one level or another. I look back at his seat and see his bag.
The driver hesitates for a moment and then says, clearly annoyed, "Well, you guys should have said something before we left." He hesitates again, but we are already on the on-ramp. "The next bus is in three hours," he grumbles.
Boise to Salt Lake City
"I can’t believe this is my fucking life," she mutters, sitting down next to me.
She looks barely old enough to drive. She carries a big red jacket and a Burger King bag in one hand, a large purse and bottle of Mountain Dew in the other.
Eventually, she turns to me and says, "I got left in Idaho. Do you believe that?"
I ask why.
"I was just left."
I ask how.
"These people I was traveling with, they just left me. They fucking left me in Idaho. Do you believe that? I wouldn’t leave my worse enemy in Idaho. No matter how much I hate them, I would never leave anyone in Idaho."
I ask who.
It goes on like this; I never quite get a handle on her story. She alternates from anger to defensiveness to politeness. She tells me twice, loudly each time, that she would usually never ride a bus. Then she asks quietly if it would bother me if she ate her lunch. For the rest of the trip she sleeps or makes the occasional random comment:
"I hate Idaho. This totally freaks me out," she says, waving a hand at the sagebrush landscape passing by. "Where are all the buildings?"
Salt Lake City
When the bus finally comes to a stop, I slip on my backpack, wait for an opening in the line of people shuffling off the bus, and then snake through the depot that is once again packed. I’ve been awake for nearly 40 hours.
Ever since that first morning, a sense of separation between the bus and the world it passed through has nagged at me. It was something unspoken and barely tangible, but it often felt as if the bus and its passengers didn’t quite fit in with the world we drove past. The feeling was there at truck stops, where people would sometimes go out of their way to park at a distance from the bus. It was there when I asked a convenience store clerk in Walla Walla what he thought losing Greyhound would mean for his town. "Not a thing," he said, even though earlier that day I talked to two women who had gotten off the bus in town and were deeply worried about losing the bus service.
And it is there when I walk through a small group of smokers on my way out of the Salt Lake City bus depot. It’s 5:10 p.m. on Monday and thousands of people are leaving their downtown office jobs for the day. Traffic is backed up and the light rail trains are filling up. I slip into the crowd. When I can no longer smell cigarette smoke, I feel as though I’ve crossed some great divide.
Tim Westby is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City who has written for numerous local and regional publications. He travels the West every chance he gets.