While reading an article on Grist about making travel with kids on public transportation safer and more enjoyable, I was reminded of a sojourn I took years ago, before I had kids of my own.
At the end of an extended trip through the Canadian Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, I was heading back to New York, and because I wanted to save some dough, I decided to take the “Big Dog.” I’d traveled on Greyhound before, but the longest stretch I’d ever been on a bus up till then was about 6 hours.
I really had no idea what I was in for.
I boarded a bus in Bellingham, Washington, changed to the cross-country line in Seattle, and settled in for the long-haul. Almost immediately there was a complication that maybe should have prepared me, Bette Davis style: “Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” While the driver wasn’t looking, a disheveled homeless man in layers of dirty clothing boarded without a ticket, and for the few short blocks before someone reported him, he (and, I feared, a collection of lice) occupied the seat right next to mine.
After the stowaway was put off, the journey across Washington was uneventful, and despite the constant bickering of an older couple seated behind me (warning #2), I enjoyed the scenery for a number of hours. In Coeur d’Alene we had a little layover, then back onto the bus after dinner. Just when I was silently rejoicing that I would have a double seat to myself, I noticed a little girl, alone, walking slowly down the aisle, looking right and left. I gazed out the window hoping she’d pass me by, but within a minute or two, had the distinct feeling that I was being watched, and turned around to see a pair of seven-year-old eyes staring speculatively into mine. She seemed to be sizing me up, just as I was her.
“Is this seat empty?” she inquired meekly.
Although I’d been relishing the thought of having some space to stretch out on through the night, I was a little concerned about this innocent waif ending up beside some pedophile and realized that whatever adult had accompanied her to the bus depot had probably tried to assure her safety by telling her to find a nice lady to sit with. Sighing inwardly, I moved my stuff, and the child plopped down.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I was a participant in my own personal version of “The Ransom of Red Chief” (the O. Henry story of two kidnappers and would-be ransomers who end up paying off the little fellow’s father to take him off their hands), and that she probably would have been fine sitting next to anyone on the bus. After answering my inquiry about where she was headed by letting on that her parents were divorced and that she was going to visit her dad in Butte (quick calculation: six hours with her as my seatmate), she launched into her first commentary of the evening.
“Did you know that lipstick comes from wells?”
I struggled to figure out what the heck she meant by this assertion, not at all aided by the explanation that her teacher had told the class this wondrous fact. It was only when she muddled on about a swimming creature that had a huge quantity of oil in its head that I realized she was talking about whales, and that either she or her teacher were a little mixed up (although in some places, ambergris is still used in the manufacture of perfumes).
My companion talked on and on into the night, adding to our fellow travelers’ annoyance by making a squeaky racket with the Audubon bird call I’d handed her in a misguided attempt to occupy her attention and hopefully keep her quiet. When I re-appropriated the offending object, she stood on her seat, the better to observe the man behind us. At first, I was relieved that I might get a rest from her incessant chatter, but that was not to be. In fact, the fellow behind us turned out to be equally curious. When Red Chief told him I was traveling “all the way to New York”, he stood up, hung over the seat, and marveled loudly to me (and the whole bus), “Neeeeww York! I know the seven cities of New York… let’s see… there’s Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, uuhhh….” and he proceeded to regale me with malapropisms and a bewildering array of misinformation. My astonishment gave way to amusement when he opened his briefcase to reveal an extensive collection of comic books, all of the superhero genre.
Red Chief was impressed, and I silently thanked Comics Man when he told the little chatterbox that she was welcome to borrow a book, if she was careful with it. Amazingly, the comic diverted her attention, and while she traded each comic in for another, I enjoyed a somewhat tranquil respite.
After a little while, a boy about the same age boarded with his mother, who went to sleep almost immediately. The boy looked around for some amusement, and – oh joy! – noticed Red Chief sitting almost directly across, comic book in hand.
“Where’d you get that?” he asked.
I swear I could see a mischievous gleam in her little eyes as Red Chief answered nonchalantly, “I don’t know… I just put my hand out like this,” and here she illustrated, extending her arm back in the aisle in the direction of Comics Man, “and it just appeared.”
The boy looked at her quizzically, but she kept on with her ruse. “Try it,” she suggested helpfully. Gamely, her neighbor stuck out his arm, but no comic magically appeared, and he narrowed his eyes at Red Chief with suspicion. She, in turn, putting on a very sweet and innocent demeanor, engaged him in an animated, but mostly one-sided, conversation.
Evidently hoping that I could put a stop to this long-winded interrogation, he leaned over and asked me beseechingly, “Is she yours???” Stifling a laugh, I simply said, “Nope,” and shrugged my shoulders sympathetically as he settled resignedly back in his seat, turning away from his inquisitor. Feeling I’d already done my good deed for the day, I took a cue from him, closed my eyes, and feigned sleep.
After a few more hours, we finally reached Butte, and Red Chief was met by her dad, leaving me a free seat, with peace and quiet to boot. Eleven hours down, 66 to go. Rest assured though, parents, that this was only the beginning of my adventures on the Big Dog, and that children are the main characters only in this comparatively small part of the insanity. It’s the adults you have to watch out for!