Mankind is capable of incredible acts of endurance – watching a Jason Statham film or listening to Kiss FM for more than five minutes for instance. But very few people have the necessary mental strength and the willpower required to survive a three-day journey on a Greyhound bus.
If you aren’t familiar with this iconic mode of North American travel then sit back and imagine the scene. You’re sat in a space so cramped you can’t move your legs. Next to you, making small talk for the entire journey, is the banjo player from Deliverance. And finally, the beguiling scent of Eau de urine is gently wafting through the cabin from the toilet. Basically, Greyhound makes the UK’s Megabus seem like the Orient Express.
However, this mode of transport is of course cheap and, as an impoverished backpacker travelling across Canada, the option to save a few hundred ‘bucks’ was irresistible to this author. I mean, who knows how many crude pasta meals and happy hour beers the savings would fund?
But what I didn’t know, is that you can’t put a price on nightmares. What follows is a harrowing, blow-by-blow account of 72 hours which will haunt me for the rest of my days.
Monday: Bus 1, Vancouver to Kamloops
1900: Having safely negotiated the severe-looking, monosyllabic woman at the ticket counter, I am on board the bus and ready to go. Window seat secured. MP3 player fully charged. Stockpile of books. $1 travel pillow inflated. Bottle of water and snacks at hand. 2754 miles lie ahead but spirits are high. There is something comforting about a long journey in that, once underway, there is nothing you can physical do until arriving at the other end. I find it often leads to a relaxed, almost spiritual state of mind.
1905: The person in front of me puts their seat so far back their headrest is almost touching my face.
1910: A grown man has his iPod on so loud I can hear Avril Lavigne six rows back.
1915: Choose to ignore these staple irritations of public transport anywhere in the world and immerse myself in book number one – The Mask of Fu Manchu.
2030: Dinner stop in some place beginning with a C. The only option is Tim Hortons which, for the non-Canucks, is a sort of Starbucks/Subway hybrid that can be found on every street in Canada.
2100: A burning smell starts to fill the bus. People start coughing and the driver pulls over.
2200: After a painful hour of inactivity in the middle of nowhere, the driver announces we’re returning to the previous stop – the last thing you need on an epic journey.
2230: At the previous stop, we pile on to a new, already occupied, bus which becomes filled to capacity. I have to sit next to a guy wearing a tracksuit but I’m relieved to be moving again.
Bus 2 – Chilliwack to Kamloops
2255: My seat ‘buddy’ makes a phone call aggressively dropping the F-Bomb loudly at least 25+ times. I do my best to radiate a simultaneously harmless but don’t-mess-with-me persona.
0100: We arrive at Kamloops where a connecting bus has been held back to wait for us. As I board I’m met with looks of hostility from the current passengers. They’re thinking, A) Thanks for holding us up, and B) You’re not sitting next to me buddy. I’m forced to wake up a sleeping girl, sprawled over both seats, who doesn’t react well. This bus appears to be vintage model and has shocking legroom. There’s a foot rest that you either use and sit with your knees pressed up to your face or don’t use and it digs into your shins like a razor.
Tuesday: Bus 3, Kamloops to Calgary
0115: On the road again – I also realise my assumption that it would be one bus for the entire journey was ridiculous and that my journey actually consists of numerous connection journeys. Will I manage to negotiate that many vehicle changes? Will my bags? It also appears I could be marooned in the same set of clothes for 3 days.
0120: The bus somehow hits a post. I hold my breath as the driver gets off to inspect the damage. He returns saying ‘They’re good these old buses’ and we continue.
0200-0500: No sleep – people visiting the toilet like it’s a free bar. A stench of urine fills the bus. What are these people thinking? Surely, you only use a bus toilet if absolutely necessary? You stop at least every two hours, so with a modicum of self-control there’s really no need ‘to go’.
0530: Finish The Mask of Fu Manchu. Enthralled by the superior intellect of criminal mastermind Fu.
0600: We cut through the Rockies and the sunrise casts an ethereal light over the spectacular scenery. Incredible views – the highlight of the trip.
0700: Breakfast: box of Nerds (lemon and raspberry flavour).
1000: Arrive in Calgary – terrible bus station. Facilities on offer comprise a teddy picker arcade machine and a tired cafeteria/diner. I contemplate purchasing some Beef Jerky but come to my senses and choose to starve.
Bus 4, Calgary to Winnipeg
1130: Can’t believe there’s still over 2 days to go…
1145: Start reading a biography of Genghis Khan. Yes, the pickings in the second-hand Vancouver bookshop were slim.
1200: Brief feeling of euphoria gazing out on the vast, endless, rolling plains of Alberta. Also, for the first time in ages, I’ve a seat to myself.
1230: Someone sits next to me.
1400: MP3 Player runs out of power.
1600: Stop at a place called Medicine Hat – Who names these towns?
1615: Obese family proceed to eat recently purchased burgers on board. Why not eat in the station?
1800: Brief laugh at smokers who scramble to get off the bus at every possible stop for a fag no matter how little time they have.
2000: Option of dinner at Tim Hortons.
2100: Lots of people coughing in the cabin making a combined sound like a diseased frog’s chorus.
2300: Regina – long stop here. Modern bus station but nothing around. Offend the security guard by pronouncing the name of the town wrong. We re-board and there are plenty of spare seats. I stretch out and relax, comforted by the prospect of getting some sleep.
2330: Stop at somewhere called Moose Jaw. A large guy gets on and, out of all the seats he could choose, sits next to me. Hard to conceal my disgust.
0200: Finish Genghis Khan. One book left, War and Peace.
0300-0500: Terrible night’s sleep drifting in and out of consciousness, groggily waking up every now and then as we pull into another garage/bus station. At some point I purchase a chocolate milkshake.
0600: Driver stops in a town called Beaver for breakfast at… Tim Hortons.
0800: Desolate landscape as we arrive in Winnipeg. The bus station is at the airport. Driver: “There’s a Tim Hortons in the terminal if you want food”.
Bus number 5: Winnipeg to Toronto
1000: Hoping for a half empty bus. Surely nobody will be going from Winnipeg to Toronto on a random Wednesday morning?
1030: Bus is full. A large family group of 16 get on including 8 rampaging kids. Person in front of me puts their seat fully back… at 1030 in the morning.
1100: Each member of the large family uses the toilet and the stench of urine quickly envelops the bus.
1200: Crushing low as I realise there’s still 30 hours to go.
1400: Great scenery as we hug the side of a frozen lake.
1500: No option but to listen to a woman tell another woman the detailed and precise minutiae of her dull life story.
1600: Phone runs out of power – I’m officially off the map.
2000: Thunder Bay – a snap shot of an apocalyptic future. Buy a disappointing bagel at Tim Hortons which, apart from endless smoking power stations, is the only building for miles around. Briefly charge up MP3 player.
2100: MP3 Player runs out again.
2300: Terrible night’s sleep in prospect. Two people in front have put their seats as far back as possible despite one of them being a small child. They also keep their overhead lights on for the entire night.
0200: Bus is full. I’m sat next to a Latino guy who has been on since Vancouver. We’re like brothers despite never actually speaking to each other.
0500: I etch ‘Time is just a method of measuring pain’ into the window frame.
0600: Location unknown but breakfast stop at Tim Hortons. Decline and eat an apple.
0700: Drift in and out of consciousness. My $1 travel pillow finally paying dividends.
0900: Trance like state of mind.
1000: Pass the time by attempting to draw a perfect circle.
1030: Mild burst of euphoria – just 8 hours to go.
1200: We stop in Sudbury. Nothing around for miles but a bus station vending machine or a McDonalds next door. Eat first Big Mac since mid-90s – as disappointing as I remember.
1230: Final leg – Sudbury to Toronto. Man in front of me has his music, Ricky Martin, on at a ridiculous volume.
1500: Moose spotted by the side of the road!
1700: Finish first chapter of War and Peace.
1800: This is it! Close to tears as we traverse the sprawling metropolis of Toronto and finally arrive at the station. I step off the bus feeling like Neil Armstrong. It’s absolutely freezing. Miraculously my bag, which I haven’t seen since Monday, has arrived too. I avoid the embarrassing embraces and handshakes I witness the small band of passengers who also got on in Vancouver exchanging and set out on foot to the nearest squalid hostel where I find I can’t sleep unless I’m scrunched up and wedged between two uncomfortable pieces of thinly-cushioned plastic.