America at Last – Part 6
By Parson Thru
NYC – Roanoke: 526 miles
When we travelled around southern India ten years previously, I packed six or seven books to read. A whole damn library carried on my back in the heat. My plan was to read them sitting under shade trees in idyllic peaceful settings. Of course, India isn’t like that and the only opportunities I had were lying on a bunk in an open sleeper carriage or on the plane home. We weren’t sure what to expect on long-haul Greyhound journeys. All we had to go on was the Paul Simon version and a few on-line anecdotes that prepared us for the stamina-sapping distances.
For the first fifty miles through New Jersey we settled down into our environment. The seats were big, well-cushioned and roomy. I found out why when a super-sized me fell backwards into the seat in front of me at Newark. The seat sagged and I thought I might have to be cut from the wreckage, but the structure gracefully held and bounced its load gently up and down for the next few hundred miles. Greyhound buses seem to emanate from the same philosophy as American Standard toilets, Harley-Davidsons and Leatherman knives. They are built for the job, and more.
As we grew more accustomed to the sights of the freeway, Natasha took out a travel guide and began reading up on our first destination: Roanoke, at the end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I already had images of the Bluegrass bar where we would be spending an evening whooping and hollering. Foolishly, I shared my vision of the music shop where I would find battered and unloved Bluegrass banjos stacked to the ceiling, just waiting for me to give one a good home for a few bucks. I might even take the dungarees, too. I sat like a child staring out of the window at an exotic, yet so familiar world. Huge signs and billboards like giant lollipops adorned the margins.
Every now and again we passed a colourful truck-stop with a huge truck climbing off the hard-standing back onto the highway. In Europe, trucks are nearly all flat-fronted forward-control, or cab-overs as they’re known in America. The US has mainly stuck with normal-control trucks with huge long bonnets and flared mudguards. I was soon able to distinguish my Kenworths from my Peterbilts and Macks. Photographing these became one of my obsessions on this trip, the other being trying to photograph the highway route markers (Highway 1, Route 66, etc.) that stand on the verge. I must have taken a hundred shots and barely hit one.
As we rolled south from New York, we settled into a routine with comfort stops every four hours or so. For the most part, they were service stations much like our own – probably more like the continental ones as British ones tend to be mean and grotty like everything else back home. Our fellow passengers kept themselves to themselves in the main and, other than city-spotting on road-signs and snatching a view of what we thought might be a distant Washington DC, the trip was fairly uneventful.
Around about 6pm, we rolled into the Greyhound station just outside Richmond, Virginia and disembarked. This was our first change. The original bus would drive on south to Atlanta on its way to New Orleans. We had a couple of hour’s layover to pick up the westbound bus that would take us to Roanoke. If we travelled through the night, we could ride all the way to Nashville. Natasha was up for that, but I vetoed it on the ground that I might die of tiredness – I need my sleep. Richmond bus station is just across from a huge stadium that looked to us like a baseball ground. We grabbed a snack and a metal seat in the terminal and prepared for the wait. Cars began to fill the stadium car park and pretty soon the stadium itself came alive with fans. It looked like a big night for Richmond. As we waited, it became clear that the bus was delayed. We were both pretty tired – the flight from Heathrow was beginning to catch up. Soon we each fell into our own gloom.
Mine wasn’t helped by a conversation behind us between two New York home-boys that developed into a gangster reminiscence of who shot who, who’s dead and who killed ‘em and who’s doin’ time. I thought I’d be able to dismiss it, but at that point I was in no state of mind. The bus arrival time kept slipping, the aura of the stadium lights grew in the deepening darkness and my own darkness became impenetrable. By now my mood was pissing Natasha off. As Alain de Botton puts it succinctly (paraphrased), the problem with great holiday destinations is you always bring your self along.
The wait became painful. I was feeling exhausted and dejected. With no bus in sight, the ball-game ended across the road and soon the car park was empty and the stadium lights dimmed. It began to rain. Some of the passengers were becoming fractious and there was a darker feel to the bus station at night. We stayed rooted to our seats as the waiting room filled up. Eventually, the bus turned up. It had been waiting for a late-running connecting service – something we would experience more of. With only one or two services per day, waiting for delayed connections is a humane policy, but…
We learned our first good lesson boarding that bus – get in line early. Queuing is the accepted way and is policed by Greyhound staff. The ticketing and queuing system is run with efficiency and an iron rod. Their word is the law and the law is respected. And they are usually pretty big. This time we didn’t get in the queue until the bus arrived at the gate, in front of which stood a line of determined travellers, their luggage and small children. We grabbed our cases and shuffled along trying not to lose any more ground than we already had. It wasn’t certain that we would get on the thing at all. The prospect of spending the night in the waiting room just pushed my head under. We kept moving forward towards the gate.
We shuffled out into the night and placed our bags alongside the hold. The driver checked off tickets and re-boarding passes at the foot of the steps – re-boarders get priority. The bus was busy. People were trying to cram on hand-luggage anywhere they could. Peering into the gloom, I couldn’t see two empty seats together. We moved down, not really speaking. About three-quarters of the way towards the back, we spotted them and made a bee-line. They were almost the last two. We settled in and Natasha wrapped a shawl around her for the chill. Pretty soon, we were bumping over speed-humps and heading out onto the highway, past the ball-park.
We forged on into the wet night, through great commuter towns with smart suburban houses. About two hours on, we made a further stop to squeeze on more passengers. One of them was a real good ole boy. He was a big man in his twenties with curly blond hair and revealed himself as an armchair expert on American Football. An encyclopaedia of facts, figures, line-ups and, for the next four hours, kept up an endless flow of opinion while standing in the aisle behind us.
The atmosphere changes at the back of the bus after night-fall. It takes on a darker, more threatening feel. We tried to sleep and keep a low profile. There was a brooding feeling around us – a subdued, unarticulated violence. A girl – I suppose you’d call her “white trash” – was bent on giving it a voice. She could be heard reeling off prison stories, like war stories of old soldiers, as credentials with which to ingratiate herself. They teased her and ribbed her, but she kept coming back, using her sex to up the ante. I wondered how many knives and guns were stashed around us. Maybe I was paranoid. I wouldn’t be surprised – I wasn’t at my most mentally robust having just gone through two months of watching my dad die. I was verging on exhaustion by this point and my emotions were all over the place. All the same, even if nothing kicked off, I didn’t want to get dragged into any conversation that might raise the profile of two naïve English trippers a long way from home.
There were times when the good ole boy seemed to be pushing his luck and others when he single-handedly lightened the mood. He didn’t seem to care either way. He was one of many taking an epic bus journey that wasn’t for fun. He was heading up to the north-west and the promise of a job.
At half-past midnight we rolled into a deserted Roanoke bus terminal. Roanoke sells itself as the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains – major hang-out of RV drivers and their families. Right now, it wasn’t selling itself at all. About six of us came off at Roanoke into pouring rain. There were no cabs outside and we had no idea how to get to the motel, but we knew it was a good distance from the bus station. As people dispersed, we were left standing with one other person. He was a local. Natasha asked him if there were any cab companies – I was beyond even talking to myself. Generously, he called us a cab on his mobile and the two of them chatted for a while. I felt embarrassed by my mood, but I wasn’t going to start making conversation. After a while his cab came and I managed a strained thank you as we said goodbye. We waited another quarter of an hour in the rain. We were cold and tired.
Eventually, an MPV swung alongside us. A big man with long silver hair opened up the trunk and swung our cases as we climbed into the back seat. We gave him the name of the motel. Turned out there are two. After some shuffling through papers, he got the right one, shoved the cab into Drive and we were moving. “Where you from?” he asked. “England.” we replied. “England? What the fuck you doing here?” We told him about our trip and how we were en route to Nashville and read that Roanoke might be a good little overnight stop. I didn’t mention about the banjos. “Let me tell ya, this place is a shit-hole. All anyone wants to do is get the hell out. Now, when I drop you – right over here – you go straight in the motel and don’t come out until tomorrow, then get yourselves right back on that bus. Truckers hang out in the motel car park, right there. All kinds-a shit happens.” He pulled up outside the entrance, where we paid him, grabbed our cases and watched him drive away.
The motel was a low-rise, looking well past its best and reminding me of a Raymond Carver short story. A scattering of people hung around the reception-bar area. They looked like commercial travellers and a family group. We showed our booking receipt and passports and were given a key and breakfast menu. We walked along the edge of the car park to an outside chalet-style room of the type synonymous with low-budget murder films. We unlocked the door and let ourselves in. It was no better inside. A huge air-con / heater unit stuck out of the wall below the window. We didn’t look too hard at the bedding, opening our cases just enough to reach night-clothes, then wandered into the bathroom like rain-sodden zombies. I don’t recall that we said much to each other before falling into deep and grateful sleep. Tomorrow would be another day, another bus.