A Cross-Country Bus Trip in the US: 2022

Jul 24, 2022 | Articles, Issue 1166

by Cornelius Koopman

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

TLDR: Don’t do it if you can avoid it.

Pros: NO baggage inspection of any kind at any stop. You control bags into and out-of luggage area.

Cons: Too many to list

I work from home and there was a company meeting in Bozeman, Montana in late July that I had to attend. For various reasons, I couldn’t take the train. Planes have been off limits for me since 2004 when I was put on some sort of list and got gate-raped continuously.

Coming from New Hampshire, that’s a long trip. Please note that I have owned three buses – two Blue Birds ( 31′ and 35′ ), and a Neoplan ( 40′ ). I love buses that have been converted to RVs. Which is why, perhaps, nostalgia overruled commonly-known issues with bus transportation in the US.

It started ignominiously-enough with the very first bus being ninety minutes late. That said, I did not miss any connections, so it was moot other than producing anxiety.

The busses themselves were either Prevost ( X-45 ) or MCI – each 45′ long. Before this trip, I’d always drooled over owning a Prevost. Now, I prefer MCI for reasons I’ll go into later.

The trip to Montana, for some reason, had me routed through Boston, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Columbus, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, then points-west. Because bus stations in big cities are frequently in the “bad” areas, I took the only defense item I could that I knew would not be refused: a cane. Luckily, I never needed it for its intended use.

The onboard internet is not very good, even when buying the “Platinum” plan. Turn off ALL picture downloads on your email programs and don’t load graphics-heavy websites or you’ll run out of your 1/2 GB ( ! ) pretty quickly. Do not run movies from anywhere, either.

However, they offered a selection of movies, TV, and music which was actually quite good and up-to-date. Those do not run off the internet, but are clearly stored aboard. I watched “The Batman” and “Midway” in high-definition and had very few glitches. I played some music to see how that worked. However, the Audiobooks section had only one-or-two full selections, and a couple dozen “samples” and was basically useless.

The first day was not too bad. The buses make a few stops designed to allow you to walk around and get the blood moving again. However, the nights really really sucked.

In my case, I’m 6’3″ and not svelte. Leg room is not as cramped as airplanes, but I still could not extend my legs at all. Further, the seats don’t recline very much – just enough to irritate the poor passenger behind you. And, every time the guy behind you moves, it jars your seat. Fun.

I could not find a comfortable position to sleep, and resorted to using my backpack on my lap as a pillow of sorts. Also, sitting that way, if you have foot edema of any sort, that ain’t good. Your body cannot get that fluid to your kidneys for expulsion. I saw one older lady with that problem.

The other problem at night is that the bus is – moving, constantly. It really depends on your driver’s skill to make it survivable.

Seriously.

When I was in the military, one of the benefits was the Military Airlift Command (MAC) flight. MAC flights were usually run by the Air Force, but the Navy had them, too. Basically, you could tag-along as a passenger on any flight that wasn’t otherwise full. Typically, a C-130, C-5, or other cargo planes. The pilots of these transport planes typically would not bother to make smooth maneuvers. If he needed to go left – ZOOM– he went left. Plane-tilting, g-force loading, etc., were of no concern. He got the job done and did not bother trying to smooth things out. These are what I call “Cargo Pilots.”

On the MAC flights on passenger jets or turbo-props, the pilots made nice smooth transitions and turns. They did not go screaming from altitude to altitude, and generally tried to prevent the admirals and generals that typically took their planes from spilling their drinks. Airline pilots are like these – only better. They don’t want to freak-out their passengers.

On the overnight bus ride from Philadelphia to Pittsburg, the driver, apparently, was trying to make up time. He was also a “Cargo Pilot” who did not care one whit about passenger comfort. I could not sleep at all from the 3am to 8am run to Pittsburg. Among many other things, he was extremely aggressive – always in the left lane – even when signs said all busses and trucks in the right lane. One particularly egregious example of this was at mile-marker 71 when he was passing a truck, going downhill, on a leftward curve, and drifted over into the right lane, forcing the truck into the rumble strip. The truck frantically honked his horn to prevent an accident. There was a very narrow shoulder at that point. This was after signs demanded right-lane only for buses and NO PASSING.

I tried to call the “Tell us About Your Driver”  – to report this maniac, but that service was always unavailable. In Pittsburgh, three other passengers remarked on the crazy driver, and at least one other tried to report him.

At this point, I’m tired and cranky, but the trip to Columbus, Ohio was fine. I was gratified to see tons of farms and pretty good rural infrastructure. In Columbus, we used a service called “Baron Bus” which contracts with Greyhound. Holy cow, their bus was nice. Very new, and they used the MCI platform instead of the Prevost. I immediately noticed that there was more road-feel and the coach did not sway nearly as much as the Prevost. On mountain passes, I would much prefer MCI.

That very pleasant part went through Ohio, Indiana, and into Illinois. The bus was excellent, and the driver was accessible and not behind a plastic shield. I never got the internet working properly on it, but didn’t try too hard.

Finally arrived at Chicago amidst tons of traffic. My bus was late, but they held my connection for me ( only about 10 minutes ) which I appreciated a lot.

Bus full, of course, and the lady driver stopped just outside of Chicago for a stretch. She came back with a bag of goodies and coffee. Then proceeded to drive with her wrists as she ate her dinner and drank her coffee. At 70 mph inside suburban areas – lots of turns, lots of traffic. She did fine, but by this time, I’m nervous about everything. Maybe I’m old or something, but I’d’ve maxed-out at 60 in those conditions and would have use hands rather than wrists. She did use turn signals, though, unlike Crazy Penn Driver.

Same bus from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. Got into Minneapolis early morning. The bus station area was really interesting and in pretty good shape. Early 20th century brick buildings surrounding it were in fine repair and 5-7 stories or thereabouts. I didn’t see any of the riot damage. We switch busses at that point on our way to western Minnesota.

There we switched vendors to “Jefferson Lines” which is what Greyhound uses for most of its western states’ runs. It started badly as the station master acted like a drill sergeant, corralling passengers into straight lines with luggage on the left and so-on. Very aggressive. Then she handed us off to her son who happened to be the driver. Once aboard, the son was even more obnoxious, going into separate diatribes about smoking, vaping, alcohol, and abusing the bathroom. Any of these offenses would lead to you being stranded at the side of the road, and probably a fist-fight if you resisted. I hadn’t heard anything like that even in high school on the band bus.

They used an MCI platform as well with a standard transmission. The first driver, clearly, didn’t understand that the first two gears were extremely low, and you usually start-off in third unless you’re on a hill. So – a bit jerky on starts and stops.

Same bus, new ( much older ) driver in Sioux City. This guy really knew how to drive – absolutely silky-smooth shifts, and I could ride with him any time. He was very quiet, and his speech about what not-to-do on buses was not offensive or aggressive at all. Nice guy. Would hire him in a second.

Somewhere in Wyoming, we switch buses and drivers again. Had enough time to fetch pretty good tamales at a Mexican place. The driver, again, was super-obnoxious about rules. Weird. He did know how to drive the stick pretty well, and the first part was uneventful but relatively short.

Somewhere else in Wyoming, we got a “New” driver – which turned-out to be an actual driver-in-training. That’s fine, except it was noted that he’d never driven that particular bus model before, had never driven down that massive mountain pass before, much less at night. But – he had an instructor with him so OK.

Except the instructor was playing Tetris the whole time and not really paying attention.

To be fair – the new driver did just fine. Only hit the rumble strip three times on the very long pass, and didn’t have any real maneuvering issues. This was where the MCI platform really shined over the Prevost. It was much more stable with minimal sway, and felt very solid. If I ever get a shell to convert, it’ll be an MCI.

We pulled into Billings and switched drivers. Another obnoxious one. Really, what is up with that, Jefferson Lines?

My trip west ended in Bozeman at around 4:20 am. The stop was at the Walmart. My company had graciously reserved a motel room at the Comfort Inn. That one-night room cost $300! I’d initially refused it when they offered, but was sure glad they ignored me. I’d’ve been a basket case otherwise. They’re smarter than me, clearly.

I feel sorry for my fellow passengers that continued all the way to Seattle. We were all tired and cramped, and very uncomfortable. One guy had started from Tampa, Florida, and was therefore the mileage leader. Coming from New Hampshire I was second.

That said, a camaraderie developed amongst us, and we helped each other spontaneously. In northern areas of the East coast, there were a large number of passengers from the Caribbean islands. After Philadelphia, there were lots of Spanish speakers, and after Chicago, it seemed that most passengers were Caucasian.

One in our long-haul group was from Zimbabwe, and she was very interesting to talk to ( and look at ). She was on some sort of pass and would be on busses for 30 days. I cannot imagine doing that myself. But, she could curl-up for sleep easily as she was petite.

After my business in Bozeman was done, I set-off to the Walmart three days later to start my trek back to New Hampshire. I did not look forward to it, but at least I didn’t have a deadline so if I missed a connection it wouldn’t matter.

The bus east was due at 1:30am. I arrived at 12:30 ( yeah, I know ). Another person arrived at 1. We waited.

1:30.

2:00.

2:30.

3:00.

Finally, at 3:30 – a bus arrived. For Butte, not Billings. It was the wrong bus going in the wrong direction. Upon gentle querying, the extremely obnoxious, chain-smoking driver said, “I’m a driver, that’s office shit.” He did verify the other bus had broken down.

Having called the number for Jefferson Lines (nobody there ), AND Greyhound ( nobody there ). I gave up and went back to the motel which had an 11am checkout.

I arranged a flight from Bozeman to Manchester, NH. I hate planes, but at least I didn’t get gate-raped. I was already fairly stiff and uncomfortable from my bus-tribulation, but the 737-Max ( yeah, I know ) out of Bozeman was quite comfortable. AND SHORT at less than four hours flight time. Newark was a basket case, of course, and very hot and uncomfortable. But, I had some excellent “Pretzel” wrapped hot dogs in the terminal. I mean, they were fantastic. ( I’m really not that hard to please ).

Flight to Manchester was uneventful, and thank God I’m home.

Neither Greyhound nor Jefferson Lines will refund my return ticket. They claim that their bus was “late” not “canceled.” The fact that they can claim that it’s ok for people to stand outside, sans ANY shelter, in the middle of the night in Montana for 24 hours waiting for the next bus is crazy. Particularly when it is impossible for a passenger to find out what is going on. We’ll eat the $248 plane ticket and chalk it up to a “learning experience.”

Greyhound’s bus drivers were professional in demeanor and polite. There was that one Cargo Pilot after Philadelphia, though. Their in-bus entertainment is actually quite good and free. Internet – don’t bother.

Greyhound’s “partners” however, are all over the map (pun intended ). Baron Bus in Ohio was fantastic. Jefferson lines was surly and left us high-and-dry in the middle of the night in Montana. ’nuff said about them.

The only advantage of bus travel is that you’re not continuously inspected and scanned, and your luggage is basically under your control at all times and is also not inspected.

Final analysis: Don’t do it if you can avoid it.

 

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