When the Concord Trailways bus deposited me on the side of the road on the outskirts of Bath, I was momentarily overwhelmed by the kind of high lonesome only a solo traveler knows. Just one other person got off at my stop, a young man with a backpack who was greeted by (what I assumed was) his girlfriend. No tearful reunion, this. They regarded each other for a moment and then set off on foot up the highway toward town. No one boarded. The bus sighed and groaned and rolled back on its route.
The “station” — a business called Mail It 4 You — was buttoned up tight. I gingerly lowered myself onto the sagging bench out front that felt spongy under my butt. It was a raw afternoon, and I was underdressed for the weather. I contemplated crossing the road so I could be in the sun, but then I thought my ride might not see me. I pulled my cycling shell a little tighter, crossed my arms and waited.
When I was a kid growing up in this Midcoast town, I had a great interest in buses — Greyhounds, back then — but only of the departing variety. I would gaze longingly as the hulking machines pulled up in front of Hallett’s drugstore — not on the outskirts, but right in the center of town, across from City Hall. No one we knew used public transportation. My parents drove my brothers to college at Orono until they had cars of their own. Visitors arrived in their own vehicles. Even my aunt and uncle, who came every summer from Florida, drove. There was no Amtrak in Maine, no local bus service in Bath. There was only one taxi, driven by a Mr. Wilbur Higgins, and that, I imagined, was only used by widows whose husbands had always done the driving. If you wanted to go somewhere in that shipbuilding city, you went under your own sail.
But those buses that threaded through Bath made my heart ache with longing. Even at a very young age, I was biding my time until I could shake off the dust of that two-bit town. This desire was fueled by the songs I listened to: “California Dreamin’,” “Me and Bobby McGee,”
“City of New Orleans,” “Homeward Bound,” “The Wheels of the Bus.” Did I know, as a little twerp, that those songs were about the loneliness of travel? It didn’t matter. Nothing could dampen my desire for flight.
My first bona fide bus trip took place when I was in eighth grade. My parents were going away for the weekend, and they sent me on one of those Greyhounds to stay with my brother and his wife in Bangor. Oh, how I swanned around the sidewalk in front of Hallett’s, bag in hand, in the hope that someone, anyone would see me and ask where I was going. Hollywood, you hick, I’d respond, as I dusted them with ashes from the end of my cigarette. It might go without saying that no one had interest in this big break of mine but me.
Though it might be impossible to fathom today, there was a time when people traveled without the benefit of electronics plugged into their heads. They conversed, read, or, in my case, mooned out the window to my own internal soundtrack. “America” played in my brain as we pulled out of town. Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together. I imagined Paul Simon nestled in the seat beside me. Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. I said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy… There was no one in the seat next to me, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that then.
Further along Route 1, I had thrown Paul over for James Taylor. The first of December was covered with snow, so was the turnpike from Stockton to Bangor. (OK, so it was only mid-autumn, and not Stockbridge/Boston, but, hey, you work with what you got.) James and I had 10 miles behind us and 10,000 more to go. There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway, he crooned, and it was already my anthem.
Three years later, I was once again parading at that bus stop, this time with a giant pack on my back and a fresh curly perm smashed down under my blue bandana. My friend Liz Akar and I were heading for the Amtrak station in Boston, and from there, across the country for a Sierra Club backpacking trip in Wyoming. Oh, we got attention — these two teenage girls with packs practically larger than their own skinny frames — as we mugged for the camera and our parents clicked photos before hesitantly sending us out into the wild world on our own. And as that bus pulled away, John Denver sang, a bit awkwardly, in my head: She was born in the summer of her seventeen-eth year, coming home to a place she’d never been before.
A year later, with high school and Bath in my rearview mirror and Joni Mitchell’s lonely road calling me (Looking for something, what can it be?), an era of wandering began that involved countless comings and goings, and those 10,000 James Taylor miles were many times multiplied. There were dozens of trips back to Bath to visit my family, but always in one of my various Subarus or Hondas. The idea of a journey to Bath by bus never occurred to me.
Until now. My husband, John, needed the car to go out of town, and my brother in Georgetown had invited me to dinner and an overnight. As fate would have it, I also had an editing client who lives in the Bath area, with whom I had been trying to arrange a meeting. What if, I proposed to her, she met me at the bus station, took me to town where we could discuss her manuscript, and then my brother would come fetch me? I could ride my bike from East Deering to the terminal in Portland, leave it overnight and have my brother drop me there in the morning. Easy peasy.
The one thing anyone who relies on public transportation knows, however, is to not make firm plans. Who among us has not sat on the tracks in a stalled Downeaster or on the runway at the jetport? Who has not cooled their heels at the Trailways terminal, waiting for a northbound bus to untangle from Boston traffic? The one time I tried riding the Metro into downtown Portland from my neighborhood, I waited for a half hour and finally gave up. I retrieved my car, passing my almost-fellow travelers who were still waiting, and slunk down in the seat like the traitor I was.
So, when on this day I noted the time was 1:55 and there was no sign of my 2 p.m. bus, I made inquiry. “Oh no, it’s running 20 minutes late,” I was told, as though I was supposed to have known that. I called my client and left a message that I was running late. I’d text her, I said, when the rubber actually met the road. (No, I didn’t use those words. One doesn’t throw around clichés with an editing client.)
After I settled in my seat and sent the text, I set about glaring at the well- dressed, silver-haired man in front of me, who was having a loud phone chat. When he finished, he thrust his seat back into my lap and began wolfing a vile-smelling lunch from a plastic container. I moved to the aisle seat and watched in the window’s reflection as he plunged into each bite, like a hyena going in for the kill. I looked around; there were no available seats that wouldn’t involve joining another passenger. (Awkward!) When the Tupperware was dispensed with, one last emanation oozed from his seat — a perfect coda to this meal.
Still, the old romance of transit tingled somewhere in my psyche. I loved the sweep of the road through the front windshield, the blur of trees to the side and the ability to close my eyes and feel the road unfurl beneath me.
Here’s what I didn’t know: that buses, like planes, can make up time. We did depart 20 minutes late, but arrived only five off schedule. I almost enjoyed feeling bereft again for a while as I waited at that makeshift bus station on the outskirts of my old hometown, the one I had so passionately longed to leave. On this day, it meant coming home.
A truck rumbled into the dirt parking lot in a spray of gravel. I was delivered.
Elizabeth Peavey used one of her own writing prompts, “a journey gone awry,” for this column. If anyone has an idea for next month’s, she’s all ears. To learn more about her teaching programs, go to elizabethpeavey.com.