Salina, Kansas. The driver’s voice splinters over the intercom, jerking me from a thousand-yard daze as the Greyhound rumbles past mile after mile of smooth, wind-shivered wheatfields.
“Now, folks, a few minutes and we’ll be hittin’ a storm. Round these parts things get bumpy so y’all just sit tight.”
I turn back to the window; a long bleed of green trailing into the horizon, the late afternoon sky big and grey and the light coming down in long, fractured columns. Then I spot it: a huge, bruise-coloured vortex of cloud stirring slowly and crawling towards us.
Five minutes later the bus lurches like a bathtub duck as we cross its outer edge. Rain mashes the windows. Zero visibility in all directions as a thunderclap detonates, the driver wrestling to keep us in line. Bumpy? Jesus, this is horrific.
I tighten my seatbelt, wishing some of the endless curveballs that travelling corner to corner across America on a Greyhound throws out would slacken. No. The home stretch of my 6,593-mile journey from Seattle to Miami and back, and I’m being pummelled by a Midwestern tempest.
I glance around at my new travelling companions. Everyone’s busy. The ex-gangster-turned-children’s-entertainer with the gold teeth from Oakland is practising card tricks, unphased. Justin the Apache is deep in concentration, thumbing herbs into the little medicine bag around his neck. And to my right, Dean and Sarah are somehow fast asleep. She’s curled into his shoulder-nook, his hand still clasping his only possessions — a handful of dog-eared family photos. They’d met late last night in St Louis and now sit wrapped together after realising the stark similarity of their situations: no job, no cash, no place to call home and Denver the city they’ve both chosen to start anew.
If there’s one thing travelling long distance via Greyhound has shown me, it’s that America’s ever-shifting landscapes are every bit as vast and inexhaustible as the patchwork of characters who punctuate them. From Eastern Washington and Montana to the gnarled badlands of South Dakota and Wyoming through Memphis and Chicago in the pre-dawn mist; Indiana, Kentucky and Georgia down to the steaming Florida swamps, you’d imagine boredom would be a defining characteristic of what is approaching 180 hours on the road. But there’s an awful lot to take in from the window of a Greyhound — from its crammed downtown depots; dusty, whistlestop layovers and its wigged out pilgrims.
Buses may have Wi-Fi and air conditioning these days, but its passengers seem every inch as raw, antiquated and archetypal as those hopeful drifters and mill workers who rolled back and fourth across the country when the company began in Hibbing, Minnesota back in 1914.
Soon enough the rain slackens, the storm hammering its course eastward and into the distance. I breathe a discreet sigh of relief as we pull up to a gas station for a rest stop.
Outside, I shake hands with a well-dressed man in his fifties leaning against a wall. He’s an artist transporting a painting from Atlanta to Portland. It’s an abstract of his ex-wife’s favourite shoes that appeared in a dream he’d had days before she phoned long distance to tell him she was sick. I ask why he wouldn’t rather fly it to her.
“The road’s a healing place,” he says, shrugging. “It’s dumb, but I’m hoping bringing it this way will help keep her strength up. We loved taking the bus together for the same reason.
“You see it all here. In America, the cream might rise to the top, but the gold sinks to the bottom.”