Cheap Seats: 39 Hours on the Greyhound – With a Toddler

Would riding across Canada by bus with his two-year-old prove people wrong about taking the ’Hound—or would it break him?

Vancouver’s Pacific Central station. Photograph: Nkocharh/Wikipedia

Three summers ago, I took the Greyhound from Vancouver to a family gathering in Winnipeg with my two-year-old son. When I mentioned to friends that I was taking the bus, they were surprised. With a toddler? Was it safe? Did the passengers stink?

The choice wasn’t difficult. My partner and I didn’t own a car. We were also self-conscious about the size of our carbon footprint, and I’d decided that I wouldn’t fly if there was another reasonable option. The train was a possibility, but one-way economy-class seats on the train were more than $1,000, a sleeper cabin twice that. So I bought Greyhound tickets online for $369. In conversations, I emphasized my environmental motives.

My son and I took a cab to Pacific Central Station, where our driver helped us unload our bags and backpacks stuffed with storybooks, toys, Cheerios, juice boxes and a batch of freshly baked tuna turnovers—anything to keep a two-year-old occupied for 39 hours. The trip wasn’t unfamiliar: I’d taken the bus often in my 20s as a university student. But now, in my 30s with a toddler, it felt like a different matter. I wondered if it was a good idea.

The Greyhound depot was at the far end of the train station, a grandiose building with Doric columns and beaux-arts stonework. On our way there we passed the train passengers in polo shirts and wool blazers and the uniformed porters waiting to carry their suitcases. At our end of the building, the dress code was pilly fleeces and army surplus jackets. People’s luggage lay where they had dropped it. A group of twentysomethings from Montreal lounged on grubby backpacks. They had hitchhiked west and were bussing it home.

I had another reason for taking the ’Hound that I didn’t mention: I’ve often wondered why more of my friends don’t consider the bus, given its affordability and fuel-efficiency. Greyhound ridership in Canada has been declining for years, forcing the company to cut routes and ask for government help. Granted, the bus is neither a swift nor luxurious way to cross the country, but there’s more at play than convenience. In Canada, there is a perceived hierarchy of transportation—with buses ranking near the bottom, a step above hitchhiking. In 2008, intercity bus ridership across Canada took a dive after the macabre killing of a Greyhound passenger by a mentally ill man. An event so bizarre and unlikely could have occurred in a movie theatre or a café. But whenever I mentioned my trip, people brought it up. Underneath it all, there seemed to be a class-based fear–one I wanted to prove wrong. If I could bus it across the country with a toddler, why couldn’t they?

As it happened, our bus was over-booked. While we waited for another coach, I let my son scamper around the waiting room, using the luggage as a playground.

Two oranges and a tuna turnover later we were in our seats. The farmland of the lower mainland rolled by at nine that morning while my son entertained himself by making faces at other passengers. The Montrealers chattered in French, happy to be homeward bound.

By Kamloops, though, my son was squirming in his seat. I’d been letting him out to run circles at every stop, but most breaks were so short that passengers had to choose between a cigarette and a queue for a coffee at Tim Hortons. We stopped in Kamloops for a 40-minute lunch break and a change of coaches. I lingered near the door of the station hoping to be first on the new bus and snag the seats at the very back next to the toilet—not the spot most people would pick, but three seats would give me room to make a bed for my son. Maybe I could convince him to nap.

But when our bus rolled in, my son hightailed it across the parking lot, his blond hair flouncing in the air. By the time I’d hunted him down and gathered up backpacks, food bag, pillow, and booster seat, a dozen people had boarded ahead of me. A woman with schoolmarm glasses had camped out with her luggage on the coveted back seats. I dumped my son a few seats ahead of her and barricaded him in with bags. Couldn’t people see I needed a little extra space?

“Why don’t you sit at the back?” the woman said. “There’s more room there.” I looked up and saw she was, in fact, sitting in the second-last row. Chastised, I mumbled my thanks.

A few years ago a Yale researcher published a paper studying the antisocial behaviour of Greyhound bus passengers. During a two-year period, Esther C. Kim crisscrossed the U.S. on buses, taking notes with an ethnographer’s eye. She wrote about “non-social transient behaviour,” or strategies people use on buses to protect their personal space. They pretend to be busy, for instance, or pile belongings on the seat next to them, plug in their headphones, or give potential seatmates baleful looks. These behaviours are typical of crowded public spaces such as nightclubs or neighbourhoods with a reputation for crime, where people are particularly cautious.

I’ve engaged in it myself. But I’ve also observed something else: a camaraderie that develops among people who have limited control over the circumstances of their lives. Bus riders huddle together at smoke breaks, share cigarettes, gripe about the weather, and tell you their life stories, whether you want to hear them or not. Alliances form.

After Kamloops, my son and I enjoyed three spacious seats to ourselves for a few hours. He declined to lie down, but at least he was happy jumping back and forth. In Revelstoke, the empty seats filled up and we relinquished our extra spot to a middle-aged woman with grey-blond hair and a baggy sweater. By this time my son was getting cantankerous. Cheerios had lost their power, as had the Dr. Seuss videos on my laptop. The only thing that still worked was me singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” I invented new sounds for wombats and octopuses, hoping the woman next to me wouldn’t get annoyed.

But when she did speak up, it was only to offer tales from her life as a single mom dragging her own children across the province on Greyhounds. How far I was going?

“Winnipeg.”

“Oh my God. Vancouver to Winnipeg. How many hours is that?”

“Thirty-nine.”

“Oh my God.”

My son didn’t fall asleep until after midnight. At one point during the long hours spent trying to soothe him to sleep I heard one of the Montrealers, a young man with a lumberjack beard, picking out “E-I-E-I-O” on his ukulele.

I woke up cramped. The sun was a bright orange globe rolling along the rim of the prairie. Low morning sunlight gave the swells of pasture a rich, shadowed texture. Swooping telephone wires and lines of barbed wire that split and reconvened drew quiet attention to the shape of the land.

Our new driver, a man with an iron-grey mullet and small, round glasses, introduced himself over the intercom as Wayne. In Moose Jaw, he walked to the back of the bus, touching each seat as he passed. He stopped in front of the hitchhikers. “Smells like marijuana back here, boys,” he announced, loud enough for the whole bus to hear. “Just want to let you know that sometimes they send the drug dogs on the bus. Just giving you fair warning. ’Cause I can smell it.”

“Fuckin’ hate busses,” the ukulele player muttered as soon as soon as Wayne was out of earshot. In that moment, I had a sense of alliance with the ukulele player so strong I felt like firing a spitwad at the driver just so I could get kicked off the bus, too.

By late afternoon on day two my son had worked himself into a state of frenzied exhaustion. He had, by my count, only slept four hours since we left Vancouver, but he refused to lie down. He sobbed, his face soaked with tears and snot, until his eyelids finally fell shut and he pitched forward on to his pillow. I kept waiting for someone to voice their irritation. But the complaint never came. Instead, I fielded sympathetic glances. No one judged me for dragging a two-year-old on a cross-country odyssey on the Greyhound. When you’re taking the bus, you do what you must. We were all stuck on the ’Hound together: unrepentant pot smokers, defiant toddlers, exasperated parents, totalitarian drivers. Just trying to get where we needed to be. Hopefully somewhere with a decent bed.

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