Seeing America by Bus

(January 1992)


For most people, riding 6200 miles on Greyhound would be as close to hell as they would ever wish to get.

It's not that bad, though. I went home and came back by bus during Christmas break, and I would definitely do it again.

Before you call the men in white suits, let me explain.

Traveling by ground has an authenticity that flying lacks. Crossing this vast land of ours in only seven hours, while a testament to technical progress, doesn't do us justice.

To read about America is one thing; to see it is another altogether. I wasn't fortunate enough to have had "educational" family cross-country trips while I was growing up (though some family vacation veterans would say I'm lucky), so I've learned much about the look of America since I came out to college.


A few observations from three years on the road:

Battle Mountain, Nev.: The Great Depression never ended here. Many buildings are made of unadorned cinder block and don't seem to get cleaned. Empty lots make up half of the town. Desert sand blows through the streets. Only the satellite dishes remind the observer that this isn't 1935.

McKeesport, Pa.: The Amtrak routing through western Pennsylvania is interesting. After traveling through scores of miles of virgin wilderness, the tracks abruptly cross into mile after mile of industrial plants. The rails pass dozens of factories, each one contributing its own clanking and humming to the powerful din. The awe-inspiring image helped me understand why we were so complacent about the Japanese 20 years ago: who would have thought they could out-produce this?

Indianapolis, Ind.: Those who believe that today's politicians are unusually lacking should look at the Indiana State Capitol. In front of it are statues commemorating three Hoosier politicians: President Benjamin Harrison, Vice-President Levi Morton, and Governor [????]. All three are on par with fellow Hoosier Dan Quayle: competent, but not outstanding. They were the best Indiana had to offer in the 19th century.

Nebraska and Iowa: Cornfields, cornfields, cornfields. Seven hundred miles of golden farmland. Traveling through our breadbasket is numbing, but also inspiring.

Benton, Ark.: Illustrates a truism about small towns: the nicest buildings are the churches, where people go to worship God, and the banks, where they go to worship money.

Texarkana, Ark.: Somewhere near here, my good-ol'-boy bus driver explained earthquakes to me. He rattled on knowledgeably for 10-12 minutes, saying they have something to do with bodies of water. I was torn between laughing, crying or trying to explain plate tectonics; not wanting to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere, I kept my mouth shut.

Tuscon, Ariz.: Proves that "new money" doesn't always equal "ugly." The downtown is one of the most beautiful and site-appropriate areas I've ever seen.

Dallas and Oklahoma City: However, new money and ugliness do tend to be found together.

Los Angeles: It stands face-to-face with New York; it overshadows Chicagoland; it dwarfs Columbus. The City of Angels and its suburbs comprise about 5000 square miles of tasteless, polluted, violent, neon-lit, asphalt-covered suburban sprawl. As New York amazes visitors with its height, Los Angeles amazes them with its width: one can travel 100 miles -- almost the distance between Columbus and the Indiana border -- without seeing a sizable open space. Just light and noise from Death Valley to the Pacific Ocean.


Traveling by bus isn't all sightseeing and wonder; you will find a lot of loons on the open road. Besides that, the smells (including your own, after a while) aren't pleasant, and it takes a while to get to your destination.

But if your time is less valuable than your money, and you want to know your country better, get your nose plugs and hop aboard!