The thing I like best about traveling on Greyhound is how every person aboard the bus becomes a citizen of the world. There's no reserved seating for Westerners or Easterners on the Dog, no special sections for Californians or Carolinians or Croats. Urban sophistication evaporates upon boarding, as does folksy bumpkinism and small-town sensibility. The perpetual motion of cross-country bus travel is a powerful equalizer: Everyone aboard is so hopelessly in transit, so tightly wedged into a matrix of Departures, Arrivals and Layovers, there's simply no room left over for concepts like Home and Place and Belonging. You surrender these when you hand over your tickets. You leave them at the dingy Sacramento bus station with your well-wishing college chum and your hope of a good night's sleep.
Passengers on the bus are defined almost entirely by where they're headed. It's the first thing they ask one another: Where are you going? Rarely do you hear: Where have you been? Greyhound passengers are a forward-looking people.
My first glimpse of the Western United States came from behind the Plexiglas windows of a Greyhound bus. A teenager on a cross-country road trip, I pressed my face to the glass to watch the clean, Euclidean horizons of the Midwest yield to the irrational spires of the Badlands, then retreat altogether before the utter nonsense of the Rockies. Raised in the land of ten thousand lakes, I marveled at the lack of standing water. I reeled from vertigo at the Omnimax sky and saw a thunderstorm so distant, I could cup it in my palm. The human landscape was no less foreign. We took our smoke breaks in a series of should-have-been ghost towns, places where the bus layovers kept the gas stations afloat and the graffiti had its grammar all wrong. I was startled by bullet holes in lonely stop signs and followed skylines where the silos were the water towers' only competition.
That was my introduction to the West, one set to the six-wheeled sonata of a laboring engine and accompanied by the magnificent gibberish of my fellow passengers, each one, right then, as placeless as I was. Today, I live in Missoula, Mont. -- a Western town, by most standards. Mail reaches me here. I pay taxes. But I'm a few decades and a Subaru shy of being able to call it home. Damned if I don't still sometimes wonder where all the lakes are, if I don't remain mildly shocked at the sight of that bullet-pocked road sign. I know that I'm attached to this place, but I also know that moving to Montana doesn't make one a Montanan any more than moving to Mars makes one a Martian.
This consciousness of myself as an outsider is one reason that I still sometimes seek out the asylum of the Greyhound bus, the one place I know of where placelessness is a precondition and where I can watch the West go by in the company of 50 or so other geographic orphans. Thanks to the imaginative logisticians at Greyhound Central, I can buy a round-trip ticket from Missoula to Sacramento that allows me 2,200 miles, 60 hours, and six states' worth of not caring whether I belong to the West, or whether it belongs to me.
Returning home from a recent trip, I nabbed a window seat in Sacramento. I stowed my laptop and settled in for the 27-hour feature presentation: Nevada, Utah, eastern Idaho. Scanning a map of the route, I put mental pushpins next to the towns with the most exotic names, places like Arabia, Bliss, Oasis, Farr West. Sometimes I suspect these towns might be reachable only by Greyhound, that each one is like a tumbleweed Tir Na Nog, the enchanted Irish isle glimpsed only in the presence of a supernatural guide.
As the bus thundered on, I stared with no less attention than I had a decade ago. The blue of Nevada's high-country lakes defied the bus's tinted windows, the kind of blue that makes other lakes look lazy and unmotivated. In Utah, I saw a sunrise over the Wasatch that made the long, sleepless night seem like only a drum roll. Eastern Idaho was a plague of cattle in ochre fields, a place where the mountains shot up so abruptly, I wondered if they'd overslept.
It was there, in the hinterlands of Mormon country, that I overheard my neighbors across the aisle. She -- in floral rayon with a stretch of thick, fake pearls -- was explaining the basic tenets of the Latter-day Saints. He -- with sagebrush hair and sheepskin vest -- was cooing appreciatively. I think I like Mormonism, I heard him say. You can't be both a Mormon and a Catholic, can you? Her reply was slow and deliberate: You can be whatever you want to be.
Spoken like a true orphan, I thought. They laughed and I smiled and the landscape hurried by. I'm not a Westerner, not yet. But during those long, lateral hours aboard the Greyhound bus, where the horizon unspools behind Plexiglas planes, I do believe we can be whatever we want to be.