Thursday, September 2, 2010

Childhood Memories

I wasn't completely honest the other night.  While the goal of this project is to ride around the country, learn about who's on the bus, listen to their stories and communicate them with the world, sometimes I need to sleep.  In the drizzling rain in Billings, Montana, I did yet another "claim and transfer".  Claim and transfer is fancy talk for, "walk out beside the bus, trample anyone in your way like you're at a Who concert, grab your bags and try not to let anyone steal anything for the next hour until you have to shove the bag into the bowels of another bus."

From Billings, we began the interminable trek across the southern belly of Montana in the dead of night.  I was exhausted.  In Bozeman or Butte or some such town, we stopped for a 10 minute smoke break.  I opted to just keep my head on the pillow, enjoying the two seats that I had eminent domained two states ago.  I tried to pretend I was sleeping as a train of 4 or 5 new passengers got on the bus.  I was wondering why people pick the seat next to me.  Why don't they sit next to the girl with the piercings?  Why don't they sit next to the college girl?  I've tried to put my bag in the seat next to me.  I've tried to rock back and forth and mumble to myself as people walk by. 

But, on this night, I had no choice.  The guy said, "I sit here?".  I huffed and puffed and moved my bag to the floor and crammed myself into the small space next to the window and then, in a moment of genius, I started coughing.  I started coughing like I couldn't stop.  Then, I said to my new seatmate: "You can sit here if you want, but I'm sick.  Really sick.  I think I have the pig flu."  He just smiled and sat down next to me.  I later learned that he didn't speak English.  Unfortunately, the father of six in the row in front of me did speak English.  "If my kids end up getting sick, so help me..."

I dropped the act and just accepted that I would be awake until I said goodbye to Jesus, when he would get off in Missoula.  I later fessed up to Carmen, the dad, that I didn't have pig flu or any kind of flu.  I just wanted to sleep.  "You gotta do what you gotta do, man", he said to me as we enjoyed a cup of coffee in St. Regis, Montana.  I explained to him that I was traveling the country writing my book about my experience.  "You are straight up crazy, man", he said to me with a smile.  "I just spent the last two weeks on this damn bus.  My kids and I went to Detroit for my grandparents' birthday.  They're 98 and we don't know how much time we got left with them.  So, I busted myself out buying these bus tickets.  I'm never taking the bus again."  Carmen is about the 50th person I have heard make that proclamation on this trip. 

His kids were really well behaved.  He was doing a great job with them, considering the required vigilance that it took to make sure that no creepy strangers talked to his kids, to make sure they were fed, to take them to the bathroom and to try and keep them from misbehaving on the bus.  Earlier in the night, Carmen went off on his daughter who raised the armrest and couldn't get it back down.  "Why would you do that?  I just put that (expletive) thing down and now you raised it up again.  What's wrong with you?"

At the coffee stop I said, "Carmen, your kids are amazing.  They are doing so well.  I don't think I could have handled a trip like this when I was 9 years old."  "Thanks, man.  It's just that they start acting squirrely and I worry they're going to bug everyone on the bus", he explained.  Carmen is a kindred spirit.  I have worried my whole parental life about that same thing.  There's nothing worse than thinking that other people believe you are a crappy parent or have no control over your kids.  You want them to behave.  "Well, you're probably the only one that's stressed at all.  It's because they're your kids.  Just relax.  You're almost home.  They're not bothering anybody.  They're doing great", I assured him.  Carmen appreciated that and was glad to have a new friend for the last three hours of his trip.  We talked about parenting, sports and life.  Carmen shared that this Friday, September 3, he was finally marrying his girlfriend of 19 years, the mother of his six children.  He was excited and had a beaming smile as he explained that they were going to get married by some lake in Eastern Washington with a large canopy of pine trees all around. 

He gladly let me snap this picture of his family when his girlfriend came to pick them all up east of Spokane.

Jean was our new driver in St. Regis.  She would take us all the way to Seattle.  The law says that drivers can only drive 10 hours at a time until they need to rest for 14.  That's probably a good law, but it means that Greyhound has carefully mapped out runs.  We said goodbye to Sean, a large Vietnamese driver who had taken us from Billings to St. Regis.  "I like driving at night.  Everyone on the bus is asleep and I don't have to deal with too much", he explained to me.

Jean was completely different.  She loves to drive in the daytime.  I soon learned why.  About a half mile out of St. Regis, heading west on I-90, she asked over the PA, "would you all like it if I shared a little bit of the history about some of these towns while I drove?"  There was very little reaction from the 55 passengers.  Finally, after an uncomfortably long silence, one person yelled out, "yeah".  That was all Jean needed.  For the next eight hours, she peppered us with history, biology, geology, geography and recreational nuggets of information.  It was all included in our bus fare.  It was the first time I had seen a driver do this.  It was like having a museum docent taking us across the entire state of Washington.

Jean started in about the Tamarack trees.  "The large pine trees you see are the Tamaracks.  They only grow west of the continental divide, which is somewhere around Butte.  Their needles actually turn yellow and orange in the fall and they lose them.  They grow new needles each spring.  If you look off to the left, you'll see some trees that were snapped in half by a wind blast, WAIT, DO I SMELL CIGARETTE SMOKE?  THERE IS NO SMOKING ON THE BUS!"  "It was me", said a heavily tattooed guy about halfway back on the bus.  He had just spent twenty minutes in the bathroom.  "I pooped and so I lit a match.  Sorry". 

I think he was smoking.  But the match story was a good cover.  Jean let him have it: "What do you think they would do to you if you did that on a plane?  Would you do that on a plane?  They would be waiting to arrest you.  What made you think you could do that?..."  The offending party said "sorry" a couple more times and then just stared out the window as Jean continued her speech from behind the wheel.

After five minutes or so, Jean had cooled off and then gently resumed, "the fire of 1910 claimed many lives here in Kellogg, Idaho.  Some people survived by hiding in tunnels under the mountain.  A man named Pulaski is credited with saving scores of people.  In fact the firemen have a safety procedure now named, 'the Pulaski'.  Over to the right, you'll see the mine that was the site of the tragic collapse in 1975..."

At this point, I did some calculations.  While Jean was speaking, of the 55 passengers, I would say 15 were drunk or high, 20 were sleeping, 12 more were either arguing with the person next to them or talking loudly on their cell phones and there were maybe 8 of us remaining that were dialed in to Jean's symposium on all things Idaho, and Montana, and Washington.

At a smoke break in Moses Lake, Washington, I felt a flood of childhood memories coming back.  I felt bad for Jean.  She was bright, very knowledgeable and had been driving this bus for the last 30 years of her life.  She's had to deal with snowstorms, moose in the road and match lighters on the bus.  I wanted her to know I appreciated her efforts to inform and entertain us.  But why?  Why did I need to compliment her?  Why did I care about how Jean was feeling?  Why is it my job to feel uncomfortable that nobody on the bus is listening to this woman who is trying to give us a gift?

I think it goes back to my childhood.  My dad got his PhD in Zoology.  Every ride in the backseat of the Buick LeSabre was incomplete without comments from my dad like, "Hey kids, do you see the ruby crested nuthatch?"  "Where?"  "Over there.  Don't you see it?"  "No".  "It's a male.  He's sitting on the power line."  I rarely saw the birds.  But, my dad kept trying to get my sister and me to be interested in birds and trees and thirteen lined ground squirrels.  I never have been much interested in them.  But, I wanted my dad to love me, so I did my best.

I guess I wanted Jean to love me too.  I moved from my seat next to a guy who I was sure was suffering from tuberculosis, to the front row of the bus.  I wanted Jean to know that someone appreciated her.  I guess that was my role in the bus family.  I asked her many questions.  I occasionally regressed into being a smart ass, which was a defense mechanism growing up.  "Cle Elum is the next town we'll be passing.  It means swift water in Indian", Jean offered.  "Jean, how would the Indians even know about Swiss people?"  "No, no no.  Swift water."  "Oh, my bad."

Jean loves driving the bus.  She's had the Washington and Oregon runs for the entirety of her 30 year career.  She started the same week that Mt. St. Helen's blew up, in May of 1980.  She grew up in Massachusetts, but went out west with a friend the summer after she graduated from high school and never came back.  "It was during the John Denver craze.  There was this romance of the mountains.  I fell in love with it.  I love it out here.  Washington has everything.  Within three hours of Seattle, you can be in the mountains, on the beach, in the desert or picking apples.  What other state can say that?"

I liked Jean.  I appreciated her.  She shared about her genealogy studies, how she once "nicked an elk" with her bus (I doubt the elk felt 'nicked'), how her brother got cellulitis from accidentally eating some turkey poop on their farm in Massachusetts, and how Washington exports tons of Timothy Hay to Japan.  "I like sharing some of this stuff with the passengers.  Most people are having a bad day on the bus.  Maybe I can make it a little brighter." 

Thanks, Jean.  You sure brightened my day.

Mike and Jean

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