Sometimes my blog is wonderings, sometimes it’s wanderings. This is one of the latter, more of a meander than a meditation, prompted by a soulful version of an old song. Sting offered a wistful take on the Paul Simon classic, “America,” when he and the songwriter concluded their co-headlining tour in Orlando this week. Great show.
“Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces”: the song perfectly captures the sweet longing for something more, as those on the Greyhound “all come to look for America.”
You can still find her there, on the bus. But she is a different country viewed from the highway rather than the flight path most travelers take, from ground level instead of thirty thousand feet. The fuzzy promise of distance, future hope, can become the disappointing focus of detail, present grind.
I got a glimpse of that on a Greyhound trip one time that seemed to be more about lost than found.
Lost luggage. Operating on a tight budget, the only way for me to get from my then home in Colorado Springs, Colo., to Atlanta was bus. Given that it was going to take two-and-half days, it seemed best to dress casually for the long haul—hence the baggy tee-shirt and (then fashionable) patterned house pants.
I wasn’t counting on Greyhound losing my stowed bag somewhere en route, a travel hazard I had believed to be limited to air trips. Not so, forcing me to appear at my first conference meeting on arrival looking a little like a Grateful Dead fan who had taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Lost directions. With a splash of Jack Kerouac romanticism, I had thought of America’s interior highways as still her true heartbeat, her neglected bloodline, her source of life. But it turned out that one of our drivers couldn’t find the pulse.
He’d gamely volunteered to step in when our scheduled driver failed to show up to take the wheel at our Nashville stopover, but this substitute turned out to be unsure of the route. That’s how we ended up crawling along the road in some small town off the freeway, with the driver leaning out the window and asking those walking by if they could point us to the Greyhound bus station, please.
Lost souls. For a few of my fellow passengers, the road trip seemed to be a slice of adventure, a choice made from privilege. For most it was just a slab of necessity, simply the most affordable way to get where they needed to be. There were people just out of jail, heading to what they hoped would still be home. People heading to prison to visit loved ones. People looking for a fresh start further down the road.
Every few hours we’d stop at a roadside diner, shuffle off to eat and freshen up, then climb back on board. One guy who came from the back row had boarded in Seattle, I learned, and was headed all the way to Miami, making my sixty hours seem like a mere hop and a skip.
The man looked even more crumpled and pasty than I did after too long on uncomfortable seats; a little as though he had been embalmed. I thought of him there at the back, passing the hours staring out of the window, and it brought to mind when scuzzy New York hustler “Ratso” Rizzo finally realizes his dream of making it to Florida, in the closing moments of Midnight Cowboy, a gritty movie that ends with a tender pearl of a moment.
A decade or so after my trip, Matt Butcher made a similar long Greyhound ride, finding the same kind of muted sorrow I’d encountered, and inspiring a song that echoes some of the sadness of Simon’s.
“I’m empty and I’m aching and I don’t know why …”