The big grey hound and me

It will take some time to process living in a world without seeing the Greyhound pulling into the nearest bus station

The news that Greyhound is axing its rural service in Western Canada struck a chord with me — almost a physical reaction. It’s hard to imagine life without it, out here in the boondocks.

I understand, really I do. If a business is losing money, it’s got to cut its losses. Even if it’s a Crown Corporation, apparently. The Province of Saskatchewan not long ago deep-sixed its government run bus service, the Saskatchewan Transit Company.

Air travel is getting cheaper. More and more people have cars.

Still, bus travel is for uncountable many the only realistic mode of travel. Students, lower income folks, people living in remote communities. If you don’t have a car, how do you get from Cranbrook to Lethbridge? Bum a ride, or fly — one extreme or the other.

I feel, personally, the loss of Greyhound’s rural service.

It’s been years since I last took the Greyhound, but for a considerable chunk of my life, Greyhound was my home on wheels, my shelter, my faithful best friend as I travelled around the country going to school, planting trees, or wherever my itinerant life led me.

These were the glorious days of the 1980s and early ‘90s, when you could travel anywhere in Canada by bus for 100 bucks.

Thus for example, as a student, I rode the Greyhound regularly, between Montreal and Saskatoon, home for the high holidays and back again.

And being a student, I usually made sure I spent every dime I had on beer before getting on the bus. That trip was a full 48 hours, and not a minute under. So for two full days I would ride the bus without a bite of food, nor any sleep, except for that strange unrestful half-sleep, out of which I would jerk awake every few minutes when my head rolled over onto the shoulder of the passenger in the seat beside me.

We would inhabit four provinces during that trip, but it all seemed to take place in Ontario — days and days of endless Ontario, the Canadian shield, hugging Lake Superior’s big head. From Sudbury to Sault St. Marie, to Wawa to White River, to Marathon to Nipigon, to Thunder Bay to Dryden to Kenora, and at last the prairies, to my famished relief. Or the reverse direction back to Montreal.

All our stops seemed to be at night. I’d stumble off the bus for a 10 minute break, try to find someone new to mooch a cigarette off of, and stare up at the sky. “There are people flying through that sky right now,” I’d say to myself. “It only takes minutes to get where they’re going. And here I am, crawling along the ground.”

There would be other passengers in for the long haul on those bus rides. On trips of that length, the passengers tended to get a little chattier, and little louder, sometimes a little raucous. Strange conversational relationships would develop. I never much cared for it. I got a lot of reading done. Mostly I just stared out the window, if I had a window seat.

Though by and large, taking the Greyhound was comfortable enough. It was certainly cheap and reliable, and less effortful than driving across the country, which I started doing instead, as soon as I was able to afford a car.

In my Greyhound-centric life, I got to know every bus station in the land — and I’m only exaggerating a little. To be honest, a bus station is a non-place to spend as much time in as I did. Cups of coffee and plates of fries, and sleeping sitting up while you waited for your connection.

Back in the day, bus stations also sports banks of lockers, which were very useful. You could leave your heavier luggage in a locker — sometimes for days — while you wandered around downtown Toronto, waiting for that friend to finally come home so you could have a place to stay.

In 1984, an American named Thomas Brigham planted a bomb in a locker at Central Station in Montreal — while the Pope was in town. Since then, the lockers have been phased out of bus stations, victims of the tensions of the world we live in.

My world is changing. While I’m now more familiar with airports than bus stations, I feel our transportation situation has become more precarious. What happens if it becomes cost prohibitive to operate an air service out of smaller airports? If the price of gasoline becomes astronomical? From travelling more and more, we end up having to travel less and less, spending all our time in a our remote communities. Our educational or employment opportunities are reduced, the consciousness expansion of travel denied us, staying connected with our scattered families becomes more difficult.

It will take me some time to process living in a world without seeing the Greyhound hoving into a bus station in my town.

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