Where all of Canada would meet, sort of … A Greyhound bus waiting at the old terminal in downtown Winnipeg. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Where all of Canada would meet, sort of … A Greyhound bus waiting at the old terminal in downtown Winnipeg. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

A lament for the golden age of bus travel

The days are gone when all of us humped it all over Canada on the bus. More’s the pity …

This is a strange feeling that I wasn’t expecting.

I confess that the news that Greyhound has shut down all its Canadian bus routes actually left me feeling a little — what? Melancholy?

Listen, I know every bus station in Canada from Victoria to Quebec City. There was a point in my life where I believe I spent more total time in bus stations than in whatever apartments or shared houses I was using for mailing addresses.

All these bus stations gradually merged into one single giant bus station in my experience, being exactly identical in every way, as I waited to get on a bus, or got off to stretch my legs or get a coffee as the bus made a short stop, or got off a bus at my destination. They become overly familiar. Welcome and unwelcome. Comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time.

Back in the salad days of the 1980s, there was for a while a maximum bus ticket price — $100 for any one way trip in Canada. And I was riding the buses all the time. Short hops between towns, heading out to a job or a school, going home to see my folks or travelling to see friends, or long marathon rides across Canada — it took 48 hours one way between Saskatoon and Montreal, and I did it more times than I can count, usually without a single cent in my pocket. It’s funny — when you’re really, really hungry and riding the bus, mooching a cigarette off a fellow rider is the best strategy.

Cigarettes were very important when riding the bus. Back in the day, smoking was allowed in the first seven rows of the bus. It seems inconceivable today. But sitting in the rows further back seemed more comfortable to me. So if the bus wasn’t full, you could move up to the front rows to smoke, then go back to your seat. Imagine that!

I was able to sleep well enough on a bus. I’d bring a pillow. I’m not sure why this should be, seeing as how I cannot sleep at all on a plane.

Back in those days, it seemed the whole country was riding the bus. People from all walks of life, all classes and income brackets. I feel like I met everyone in Canada on the bus. I myself never had any problem with any seat mate, conversation was always amiable and friendly. The only time there was discord was once when I fell asleep and my head lolled over onto the shoulder of the soldier who was riding beside me. I woke up to him shouting at me — “Look, Buddy, I’m a friendly guy, but …” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.

Sometimes, when the bus pulled into a station on one of these long, long trips, I would look up at the sky while I was sucking on a smoke, imagining those lucky travellers who were jetting through the clouds, arriving at their destinations mere hours after setting out. Flying seemed prohibitively expensive back then, and a privilege. It is less so now, although I’ve noticed airports have acquired that same universal sameness as bus stations had back in the day.

While my life has changed enough that I no longer need to ride a bus several times a year, I still cannot imagine Canada without that service. How will people travel? Does everyone in Canada now own a car? Has air travel over the years got the same convenience, affordability and accessibility that bus travel used to have? Or is it a case of the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer? There are some people who do not drive, for whatever reason, or cannot fly if they need to travel. Is this the beginning of a future where we will be marooned in our communities, like medieval peasants who never left their villages?

Surely not. Much as our communications over the past 25 years have changed so remarkably, our access to transportation is becoming more accessible and convenient.

Still, I offer this lament to what’s now an officially vanished era, when we humped it all over Canada on the bus, getting to know each other in ways we can’t today.