Now I Remember Why I Hate Greyhound
Growing up in Mexico, we used to ride the bus a lot. The bus service got really nice in Mexico around 1990. You could still ride the chicken bus on the lowest price tier, but a first class bus didn’t cost much more and it was a really nice ride. Some even came with complimentary tea and coffee in the back, played movies during the trip, and had big seats that would recline way back. As a kid, I remember imagining how wonderful the buses in the U.S. must be. I mean if they were this nice in a third world country, what must the experience be like in the developed world? Would they have free ice cream, maybe?
My first Greyhound experience was incredibly disappointing. So was every Greyhound trip since. The buses are inefficient, often dirty, and can sometimes attract riders who look like they’ve been recently released from prison. My last trip on Greyhound was back around 2005 or so, and it was just a short one-way jaunt for a couple of hours to pick up a company car. It was behind schedule, but as I recall I had the whole front seat to myself and so it wasn’t bad at all.
The many years that have elapsed between my last long-haul Greyhound trip and this weekend have deadened my memories as to the true horrors of the experience. It didn’t take long for the memories to come flooding back.
This past Saturday afternoon, Ann, my mother-in-law, drove me to Topeka. In my tightwadded spirit of frugality, I had decided to take the bus to Wyoming to meet up with Keith, rather than spend double the money on a plane ticket. The bus would put me directly in Douglas, Wyoming–so Keith wouldn’t even have to drive to an airport to pick me up. After running some errands, we went to the bus station. Or at least we tried to. I had the address and a printout of the location, but we couldn’t find it anywhere! The place at the address was a gas station, not a bus station. I went in and asked the cashier.
“It’s next door,” the man behind the counter waved his hand to his right. “Behind the ice freezer.”
Sure enough, there was a tiny office next door, with a tiny Greyhound sign. It was closed, of course. But the little signs on the tiny window were encouraging (I say this with great sarcasm). “Computer-generated baggage tags are required,” it read. “Baggage will not be accepted without these tags. No exceptions.” There was nothing about baggage tags on the website where I had purchased my ticket. I hoped someone would show up to the office before the bus arrived so I could have tags printed. “A ticket does not guarantee a seat,” another sign read. “If the bus arrives full you will have to wait until the next bus.” (Which as far as I could tell was 24 hours later.) I had arrived at the station hoping to get a good seat, preferably up front next to a window. Now I just hoped for a seat.
Ann and I waited and waited. Other passengers began to congregate around the solitary bench next to the ice machine. Nobody came and opened the office. At last, 30 minutes behind schedule, the bus pulled up to the curb. Then a second bus pulled in a half a minute later. I grabbed my luggage and randomly picked one of the buses, approaching the driver. “Is this the bus for Denver?” I asked.
The driver seemed polite and professional. “Yes ma’am,” he said. I handed him my ticket and ID.
“I realize I need to pay $15 for my second bag,” I said, pointing to my luggage–mostly camping gear that Keith wanted me to bring out.
He handed me back my ID. “Just pay for that when you get to Denver,” he said. “I’ll load your bags, ma’am. You can go ahead and board.” I was relieved that the driver hadn’t given me any trouble over the fact that I had no computer-generated baggage tags.
I gave Ann a hug and climbed onto the bus. There were seats available, but sadly all the window seats had been claimed. Many of the passengers sprawled across two seats, trying to discourage boarding passengers from sitting next to them. I tossed my backpack into the overhead area and sat down next to a young lady who had just woken from a nap. She turned her attention to her smartphone screen and ignored me. As I settled into my seat, I noticed that it was stifling inside the bus. The air was on, but it was coming out warm. The windows were the type that couldn’t be opened. Sweat glistened on the arms and foreheads of the passengers. It was going to be a long ride.
I hoped the bus would make good time, because I only had 30 minutes between buses in Denver and we were already over 30 minutes late. “Ladies and gentlemen, our next stop will be Salina,” said the driver as we pulled away from the curb, around 3 p.m. “We’ll be there in about two hours.”
I pulled out my iPod and checked for a WiFi signal, out of curiosity. Wonder of wonders, the bus was equipped with WiFi. I glanced at the wall next to my seatmate and saw that we had 120 volt outlets, too! Maybe this would make up for things. I checked e-mail and Facebook, then queued up some podcasts and sat back and relaxed.
We would have a 25 minute break in Salina while our bus went to pick up the next driver, we were informed us as we pulled in a couple of hours later. I unstuck my wet back from the black leather seat and stood up. All of the passengers filed off and immediately began smoking. As far as I could tell, aside from the children on the bus I was the only non-smoker. I tried to put some distance between myself and the tobacco cloud, and sat on a curb to munch on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
A half an hour came and went. Eventually our bus pulled in, bearing a new driver. We got back in and sat down. We waited. And waited. People started mumbling something about waiting for another bus. Yes, we were waiting for another connecting bus and it was two hours behind schedule. People filed back off and smoked some more. I got off and walked around. Ate some carrots.
Our new driver was having an argument with another passenger when I walked up to inquire about my options for getting to Douglas. I knew there was no way I would make my connection in Denver. “When can I catch the next bus to Douglas?”
“I don’t have any idea,” he said. I doubt it would have taken much effort for him to make a call and ask–after all he was an employee of Greyhound, probably had a direct number to a human inside the company, and wasn’t doing anything useful at the moment–but he didn’t seem in the mood. I pulled out my ticket and called the 800 number. The automated receptionist was of no help. Apparently Douglas isn’t in their database. I opened my iPod’s browser and checked the Greyhound website. It appeared that the only buses to Douglas left at 12:10 a.m. and 12:30 a.m. and both arrived in Douglas at 4:35 a.m. I would have to wait an entire 24 hours to catch my next bus.
I updated my Facebook friends as to my situation, and a kind friend in Denver offered to pick me up and let me spend the rest of the night at her house. Keith said he would drive down from Wyoming to pick me up.
After much waiting and passenger grumbling the bus finally showed up. Eight more people boarded, completely filling up our very stuffy bus. Three hours after we had arrived in Salina, we moved on.
“Our next stop will be in Hays,” the driver announced over the bus’s PA system. “We’ll have a 15 to 20 minute break there.”
The passengers groaned. “Can we just keep going since we are already so far behind?” asked the lady who had been arguing with him earlier.
“We need to take a break,” the driver insisted.
“We just had a 3 hour break!” the woman countered. “We don’t need another one!”
“Well I need a break,” the driver said. “I’m going to take my break.”
“But you just had one!”
“Are you telling me I can’t take my break?”
The argument continued between the shouting woman and the bus driver on his microphone, but it seemed the driver could not be swayed. He would take his break, and the passengers be damned. I pulled out my iPod and played a game of Settlers of Catan.
In Hays we stepped into the cool air and waited. The other passengers smoked. I had another PB&J sandwich. After a 20-minute break, we filed back on. I sat down and resumed my game of Settlers. The lights on the bus flickered on and off over the next couple of minutes.
“What the f***?” one of the passengers finally said.
The driver stood up to make an announcement and there was a ripple of wry laughter throughout the bus.
“Man, this is the worst day ever,” said one guy sitting nearby. Everyone got up and started walking off the bus again.
“What’s going on?” I asked my seatmate.
“The bus won’t start.”
“Splendid!” I said.
“That lady told you not to take a break,” another rider called out to the driver.
I grabbed my backpack and joined the passengers in the parking lot while the driver made some calls and kept working to start the bus. The minutes crawled by. Another half hour. Finally the bus’s motor came to life and the crowd cheered. We all got back onto the bus. Passengers begged the driver to open the overhead hatches to let some fresh air in. The driver argued with them, but finally gave in. He came back and opened the hatch completely, letting a flood of fresh air rush in. “If it starts raining we’re all f***ed,” said one of the young guys behind me.
I tried to put my seat back so I could try to get some sleep. I pushed and shoved, but it wouldn’t budge. So be it. I would do my best to sleep bolt upright. I put my eye shades on, zipped up my jacket, and played some relaxing music on my iPod. I turned sideways and wedged my little pillow in between the seat and the crook of my neck. It would have to do. As the night wore on the air rushing in through the hatch above my head got colder and colder. I grabbed my sweater and wrapped it around my cold legs. I did manage to doze off for a few minutes, until I felt the bus coming to a stop.
I lifted my eye shades and peered toward the front of the bus. We seemed to be on the side of the I-70, in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas. The headlights illuminated the rumble strip on the highway’s shoulder in the midst of the surrounding blackness. “Great,” I thought. “We must have broken down again.” But the driver was just coming to close the hatch. He left the front hatch open a crack. We kept on going and I peeled my outer layers off again as the bus warmed back up.
I fell asleep for a few more minutes, then woke with a start at what sounded like a gunshot, followed by one woman’s loud, hysterical laughter. Apparently the other hatch had suddenly blown shut. Rest came in fitful bursts as we lumbered westward.
Around midnight we pulled into Burlington, Colorado for a final break stop. Ten minutes. I snatched a few more minutes of sleep here and there until finally I pulled up my eye shades to see that we had made it into Denver. I began collecting my belongings.
The driver flipped on his microphone. “Wake up, wake up!” he announced. The passengers began to stir. “I do apologize for the delay,” said the driver. I knew he wouldn’t be able to leave it at that, though. “BUT, I did my job,” he said. “I got you all into Denver safely.”
I felt sorry for my seatmate, who I had discovered would be going all the way to Vancouver, B.C. It would have been a 60-hour trip, but with all the delays and missed connections, there was no telling how long it would take her. When we pulled into the station, I offered her my pillow, since she had none. She seemed very grateful for it.
A security guard met us as we came off the bus at 2:30 a.m. Everyone else had gone for the night. He had some information for those with connections. Those going to Portland, the next bus would leave at 6:30 a.m. Those going to L.A., the next bus was at noon. What about those going to Douglas, Wyoming?
“The bus going to Portland MAY stop there,” the security guard said. But he wasn’t sure. Well, according to the website the only bus to Douglas leaves at midnight, and I wasn’t about to come back to the bus station at 6 a.m. for a bus that may or may not take me to my destination. On the bright side, since everyone was gone I never had to pay for my second bag. My friend picked me up and I was grateful for a safe and comfortable place to sleep off the rest of that awful night. I really have awesome friends!
The next morning, Keith joined us and we all went out to eat brunch at a wonderful restaurant (Mercury Cafe in downtown Denver–highly recommended for anybody looking for great vegetarian and/or gluten-free food!). Keith and I went back to the station to try for a refund of the Denver to Douglas portion of my ticket. Amazingly, the lady at the customer service counter processed my refund very efficiently without any trouble. I am really grateful for people like her! I had expected them to point to the section of my ticket that says “non-refundable” and refuse. Good thing I asked.
Next time, though, I am flying. The hassle, discomfort, and fact that Keith had to drive 8 hours round trip to get me on his only day off in weeks canceled out any savings over what airfare would have been. So much for trying to be frugal! We’re done, Greyhound.