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Vital Land Link : Buses Run Where Only a Crow Flies

May 05, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

BILLINGS, Mont. — I left my home in Norfolk,

Virginia--California on my mind.

I straddled that Greyhound and rode it into Raleigh and on across Caroline . . .

The Promised Land, by Chuck Berry, 1964

The Greyhound from Seattle pulls into Billings at 12:35 every night for a brief pause on its eastward journey across America's Empty Quarter, destination Chicago, two days and a lifetime of highway miles beyond.

Montana's largest city (population 66,000) is quiet as the prairie at this hour, except for Cattin's Cafe ("We gladly accept local checks"), its lights ablaze a block away, and some of the passengers straggle off the bus and cross deserted First Avenue in search of coffee there. Others settle onto the terminal's wooden benches to await the arrival of connecting buses that will take them to Thermopolis and Shoshoni, Roundup and Great Falls, Casper and Cheyenne.

No Ordinary Thing

To those whose souls are captive to the restless energy of the open road, the long-haul buses that crisscross the nation are no ordinary thing. They speak of small towns wrapped in darkness, of the loneliness of passing as a stranger through the night, of a great love left behind in the dusty-hamlet shadows of another era as a bus moves slowly away at dusk, on its destination sign the name of some far-off place.

At 1:35 a.m., Francis Sullivan, who wears a 17-year patch for safe driving, reboards his 20 passengers and heads the 43-seat Greyhound out of Billings and onto Interstate 94, toward Huntley, Worden, Custer, Hysham and the other little ranching towns scattered across the plains of Montana and North Dakota.

Spare Tractor Parts

In the freight compartment under the belly of the bus are bundles of the morning newspaper, the Billings Gazette, a shipment of blood and medical supplies for several country hospitals and spare parts for a rancher's broken tractor in Medora, where cattle rustlers once were hanged from a tree that still stands in the town of 94 inhabitants.

The man who got on in Big Timber, bound for Cleveland, folds his jacket into a pillow and says: "I could've flown and it might've been cheaper, but I hate flying." Across the aisle, in the front seat with the best view of the highway, is a retired couple with time to spare and things to see. Behind them is a nurse who flew to Billings from Las Vegas and is trying to get back to Glendive in time for her morning shift, a cowboy traveling to Bismarck with a connection on to Minot "to do some fishin' and drinkin'--and not necessarily in that order--with my brother," and a man of about 40 who boarded without a suitcase, says he hasn't eaten in five days and has no other apparent possession in life except a bus ticket to Chicago.

"There's work there, I heard," he said.

While urban Americans by the millions have turned away from intercity buses in the past decade, lured by cheap air fares and the demands of time, out here in the open spaces of the West, a land hostage to the tyranny of distance and the sparsity of people, the Greyhound line is still the heart line , much as the stagecoach was a century ago, in the days before the railroad.

Without backtracking through Denver or Minneapolis, you cannot fly from Billings to Fargo, N.D. (population 61,000), the largest cities in neighboring states. Nor can you fly between the capitals of Helena, Mont., and Bismarck, N.D., without making a double connection. Just one passenger train, the Empire Builder, rolls across the two states once a day in each direction on the far-northern High Line that links Chicago and Seattle.

So, out here, if you want to travel, if you need machine parts, medicine or document delivery in a hurry, you have two choices: your car or the bus.

Only Link to Cities

"The bus is our link--our only public link--to the bigger cities," said Margaret Schmierer, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Glendive, in the sagebrush flatlands of eastern Montana. "We've lost the passenger trains, and if we lost the bus, too, we'd be hurt. Especially on holidays, you'll see people from all over northeastern Montana here waiting for the Greyhound, going east or west."

But most Americans share neither a dependency on nor a romance with the nation's intercity bus system that serves 15,000 U.S. communities (compared to 625 cities served by scheduled airlines and 525 by Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger rail service).

Buses command a declining share of the long-distance transportation market, and since the industry was deregulated five years ago, the companies have dropped unprofitable routes, ending service to 776 communities--and the 1 million Americans who live in them. Earlier this year, Greyhound's chief competitor, Trailways, pulled out of Montana and Wyoming entirely. Greyhound, which introduced transcontinental bus runs in 1929, has seen its annual passenger count cut in half, to about 30 million, in the past decade.

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