Bus seats afford a good view of Pyramid Lake, near Castaic, on a Greyhound… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)
Mindful that great American road trips occur in all sorts of vessels — heck, Huck rode a rickety raft — we're on a Greyhound bus heading up California's flat, slender belly.
"Why?" you ask.
That's a sensible question, but let us open our hearts and heads to this for a few seconds:
By the time we're done, we'll meet a vagabond grandma and a former prostitute, an impish computer genius and just maybe the ghost of Jack Kerouac, who looked at Greyhound and California's wide-open roads as gateways to the finest American right of all: the right to wander.
Still skeptical? Wonder if I told you that a trip to Sacramento or San Francisco could be booked for a buck, making this Greyhound trip the best bargain in all of travel. Might be the best bargain, period.
So, climb aboard. No security checkpoints, no luggage fees. No pillows or drink service either, but also no charge. A few of my fellow passengers, some more hollow-eyed than even I, have prison on their faces. A few are students, but most look like the same sorts you see on commercial airlines these days.
I don't take much comfort in that.
This isn't so much a road trip as a Paul Simon song. "Cathy I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh . . . Michigan seems like a dream to me now."
On a Thursday morning, the bus moans out of its Alameda Street barn in downtown L.A., past the glorified freshmen dorms that pass for apartments in Little Tokyo and onto the Hollywood Freeway, where I can peer down into the laps of commuting drivers, my first indication that this 380-mile jaunt from L.A. to Sacramento will be anything but just another road trip.
It's late spring and the California drylands are mostly the color of concrete. In two hours exactly, we're in Bakersfield, where we break for lunch.
Greyhound just started offering these Express tours in California, aboard sleekly painted dark-blue buses with leather seats and big windows that — unlike in a 737 — you can actually see out of.
The Express includes four quick pit stops on my eight-hour jaunt to Sacramento.
Unlike standard Greyhound buses, the Express has free Wi-Fi and outlets for your laptop, phone or, in the case of some of my neighbors, electric razors.
That's not to say that this is luxury travel; that's not the vibe. The bus stations tend to be clean but dreary. The clientele is a little shaky, me included.
But now and then there is the sense that you are doing something special. The ride is gentle, softly rocking, the pace steady and true. The bus is three-quarters full on the journey up. Legroom is plentiful.
Keep in mind that if you manage to snag one of the limited number of $1 seats (the rate is best found a few weeks in advance), you'll be traveling for about a third of a cent per mile — about what it costs to vegetate on your mother's couch.
That alone puts a shine on the face of Marie Allen, gracious and gorgeous at 86, and on her way home to Walla Walla, Wash., the town so nice they named it twice. ("It means 'many waters,'" Allen says.)
This Greyhound great-grandma travels solo by bus all the time, for trips to Miami, for trips to New York. She has a sanguine outlook; she's one of those improbably upbeat people who makes you feel like a slacker even if you're not.
"Greyhound is my favorite way to travel," she says, nodding a little as she talks. "You get to see things, you get to meet locals. On a plane, you don't have that.
"We can definitely afford to fly and the best of everything, but I go Greyhound and stay in hostels," she says. "It's an adventure."
What am I going to do, argue? Allen is one of the most amazing people ever. (Weeks later, we still chat by phone.)
Besides, I'm about to meet an ex-hooker and a computer visionary-rascal. Not the same person, but they share the same seat, within moments of each other.
Yep, this Greyhound is an adventure all right.
"I went into a chili joint and the waitress was Mexican and beautiful. I ate, and then I wrote her a little love note on the back of the bill.... She read it and laughed. It was a little poem about how I wanted her to come and see the night with me."
— Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"
Kerouac saw the days and nights of America from the open road, sometimes hitching, often catching the Greyhound. From this he explored a forgotten side of the American soul, describing California fields "the color of love and Spanish mysteries."
You don't spot that from 30,000 feet.
Trips like this are also a reminder that we hurry too much when we travel, stare too much at clouds, worry ourselves to the airport three hours before flights just so we can be hassled by security.
If airports are like big cities, buses feel more like small towns. You don't see so many faces that they become inconsequential. There is a sense of place.
And I'm speaking specifically to you, Alec Baldwin: You can play your cellphone games from start to finish aboard a Greyhound bus.
Mercifully, no one does.