2005: The Great Divide (road trip essay)
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.
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.