The iconic Greyhound bus sign at the depot on the corner of Carrillo and Chapala Streets was taken down several years ago, and I was sad to see it go. For me, it evoked strange memories that swirled their way into giddiness and amazement that I am an actual local around here, perpetually relieved to be standing on solid ground not waiting for a bus. Because, as Langston Hughes knew rivers, oh, I have known buses.
In the 1970s, you could buy an Ameripass and ride all over the continental U.S., hoping to find a clue to your existence, and that’s what I did for a while. I saw that bus sign in the saddest part of every town, its blank block letters bleached blue, plain and forthright. I’d buy a coffee from a vending machine and take my place on a bench to wait, holding a ticket that held no promise, terminally lonesome.
It was 1973 when I first traversed the continent on a Greyhound. I started in New York, met up with my friend Cyd in Madison, Wisconsin, and then together we boarded the bus bound for Portland, Oregon, where her father lived. This route took us north through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho … states whose existence held as little reality to me then as the flickering filmstrips we’d watched in elementary school, bright images on celluloid. We pictured ourselves as a pair of rambling women in the spirit of hobos hopping trains or hippies hitching rides, but in truth, there was nothing even remotely cool about us.
Our fellow passengers were a motley assortment of humanity, a few of whom were willing to share their stories as we traveled through the dark: Tina with the joyless laugh was recovering from barbiturates and men, Randy had plans to invest in a filbert farm, and a tearful young girl with the ironic name of Lark was fleeing an abusive boyfriend. We became a sort of transient community, trading snacks and weary wisecracks, gathering together in the chilly air when the bus pulled into rest stops and depots in the God-forsaken corners of places we never dreamed we would be standing. Cyd even let Tina use her Chapstick, which was a little too intimate for me, but Cyd was in a Greyhound state of mind.
Another time, I boarded a Greyhound solo, rode for 20 hours, and got off in Panama City, Florida. It was a fairly random choice, a place an old boyfriend had spoken of fondly, not even a fantasy of my own. I turned 24 on that particular bus, shivering as night fell and a chill filled the carapace I shared with strangers. A skinny young man with a twang to his talk rifled through his duffle bag, unbidden, pulled out a jacket, and put it over my shoulders. “You looked cold,” he said. He didn’t know it was a birthday present.
That time, the birthday trip, I made my way to the beachfront at the Gulf of Mexico. I was a silly girl with a backpack and bandana and long brown hair, who stood now on a splintered boardwalk and lifted her scratched sunglasses to better see the view. It was all slow motion and alien silence; the air was humid and smelled like fish. I checked into a motel room at four o’clock in the afternoon, drew the blinds, and sat on the edge of a bed wondering why I was there. The next morning, I got back on the bus headed north.
I can’t explain it. Maybe today I’d have an Instagram account — #BusLife — and followers intrigued by my odd odyssey, but back then, folks weren’t posing and posting. Our lives had no audience. I could have found a therapist who would analyze my inability to properly launch and get to the root of whatever dysfunction or trauma had left me in suspended animation, but I hadn’t framed it as a problem yet. Tuition was dirt cheap at public universities, but I chose to be a dropout, earning money as a temp, and kept searching for a destination that might take the shape of home. Getting on a bus was unimaginative, but easy. Sometimes I forgot that I was scared.
An old man sat down in the seat behind me as we rumbled north on I-95. I was vaguely aware of the smells of tobacco, wool, and rain, all of it comforting and familiar. It didn’t really matter where I was going. I was passenger, not driver, and all things were possible. The rain had freckled the windows and smeared the passing lights. I leaned my head against the cool glass, feeling the vibration, enjoying the sense of passivity and motion. I was getting drowsy, but I loved the knowledge that even as I rested, I was moving. To the mournful beat of the wipers and the timbre of the engine, I gradually slipped into sleep.
Eventually, I disembarked for real and finally settled here, in a place that even now, battered by the pandemic and its own identity crises, is so beautiful it breaks your heart. And that’s why I always liked that humble Greyhound sign that contrasted so bluntly with Santa Barbara’s pulchritude. In its straight-faced, plain-wrap way, it told me anything might happen. It must be true. I’m here.