The Road to Nashville

I was in New York and was going to Alabama to see Jason Isbell in concert.

The plan was to ride the Greyhounds to Nashville and hang out there soaking up the music (and Jack Daniels) for a few days before heading across to Birmingham.

I’d spent three months as a kid riding the Greyhounds around Australia and survived locust ridden road houses and sat next to the bodies of unconscious, unwashed alcoholics on 22 hour journeys. After that, so I thought, the Greyhounds in the USA would be simple.

Not so.

My friend dropped me off at the Port Authority bus stop around 9pm and, since I had insisted on arriving preposterously early, I had a few hours to size up the station and watch the crowds.

A helpful gentlemen in what I later realised was not a legitimate Greyhound staff uniform must have read the naive angst on my face as he helped me check in my bag and firmly insisted on a $10 tip for his 12 seconds of trouble.

Relaxing only when the huge bus finally squeezed out of the Manhattan traffic I settled into my seat and engaged in one of my favourite activities; staring out of the window and allowing the road to smooth out my thoughts.

I woke from an uncomfortable sleep. The bus had stopped. We were in the middle of a two lane highway. People were stirring. A young boy was anxiously pestering his Dad with questions; what’s going on? why have stopped?

The driver was similarly confused. Whacking the steering wheel and throwing panic stricken, apologetic glances back at us weary, unamused passengers. “It won’t go. I don’t understand, it just won’t go.”

An hour or two later we were rescued by another bus heading along the same route. We wearily shuffled on and crammed ourselves into the already full bus. A huge man, barely able to fit through the door, wheezed and and deposited his enormous rear end beside a terrified looking young lady. “Sorry.” He mumbled, “I’m just too fat.” It was more sad than it was funny.

Our driver was outside talking in soothing, beseeching tones to a police officer who had stopped to supervise the chaos as trucks whizzed past our two parked Greyhounds on the neighbouring lane.

We were off again.

Dawn was rising as we pulled into Pittsburg. There is no such thing as an ugly city at daybreak. Every harsh building takes on a poetic grandier. Every staggering wino is a troubled romantic hero.

A quick change of buses, and again we were off.

Snow had fallen and the white fields were a beautiful sight through weary, aching eyes.

I remember clearly a McDonalds standing along the side of the highway. It was one of the most beautiful, picturesque buildings I have ever seen. Like a cute country cottage, roof covered in snow, faded yellow “M” speaking of an older, gentler America.

And we arrived in Columbus.

The snow had worsened and was falling from the sky as the clouds above greedily snatched away the sun.

The storm was growing. All buses were cancelled.

Fearful, I asked the ladies in uniform for help.

Large, battle scared woman who looked on me as if I were a drunk who had just vomited on the hideous white floor.

“All services are cancelled.”

They sent me back and forth like a ping pong ball.

“Sir all services are cancelled.”
“Yes I realise that but…”
“Sir! All services are cancelled.”
“Yes bus when…”
“Sir! All services are cancelled.”

I got the message.

Carrying my suitcase in one arm I left the station and went for a walk in the snow, hoping to find some food. Everywhere was shut, even Subway.

Squelching throw a snow sodden park I saw a huge sign; “No Concealed Weapons.” Friendly place.

Back in the station the staff looked at me with weary eyes worrying that I was about to resume asking absurd questions like “When is the next bus?” “It it worth me waiting here or should I find somewhere to sleep and come back tomorrow?” “Did you have an accident, or were you born this way?” etc.

Sitting on an iron bench across from a truly horrifying cast of scarred, disfigured, hopeless characters I started thumbing through my Lonely Planet hoping to find mention of a cheap hotel or backpackers where I could sleep out the storm. Nothing promising.

Hours passed. People drifted away, others stayed.

Then a Greyhound arrived. The driver leaped down from the bus and marched inside.

Tall, African American, he stood ramrod straight and his Greyhound uniform made him look as grand and elegant as a general.

He looked at me “Where you going son?”

“Well I was hoping to get to Nashville, but the storm…”

“You stick with me, we gon’ get you to Nashville.”

I smiled. “Really!?”

“The storm be coming in but we gon’ slingshot around it. We gon’ slingshot to Indianapolis. You gon’ ride with me and then I’m gon put you on another bus to Nashville. You gon’ get there before tomorrow morning. Now quick – give her your ticket…” Grumpy lady, outranked, snapped into action. Clasping my updated ticket in triumph, I followed my saviour onto the bus.

A few hours into the new journey we stopped in some grey, nowhere town. A large woman at the back of the bus exited the toilet with a look of horror on her face.

“Hey driver!”
“What’s the matter baby girl!”
“Driver!”
“Yeah baby girl?”
“There be blood in the toilet!”
“What’s that baby girl?”
“There be blood in the toilet!”
“Who bleedin’?”
“What?”
“Who bleedin’ baby girl?”
“It ain’t me. Thought it was me but it ain’t.”
“Ok don’t you worry baby girl. I’m a get a mop and clean it up. Don’t you be touching that blood now baby girl.”

Indianapolis. Finally. I overheard my trusty new guardian having a word with the station staff “Now you make sure my friend here gets on the bus to Nashville.” Then he vanished.

The lights above the station in Indianapolis didn’t hum so much as roar. I tried to sleep, gave up, and went for a walk to a fast food joint up the road.

Queuing, at least, for the bus to Nashville a dishevelled looking young man asked in a clumsy voice

“Where you goin?”
“Nashville.”
“Where you from?”
“New Zealand!”
“Nooo ZeeLand! Wow. What you doin here?”
“Just travelling.”
“Alone?”
“Yup.”

He went silent. Stared into space for a while, as if thinking deeply.

Looking at me with pity and with an indulgent half smile he said “well be careful!”

It was past 4 am when I reached Nasvhille. My dorm room was full of snoring Australians.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nathan James Thomas

Author Nathan James Thomas

Nathan Thomas founded Intrepid Times as a vehicle for sharing stories from the road and as an excuse to meet and interview his favorite writers. Currently based in Poland, Nathan spent two years in China and has traveled extensively in Asia and Eastern Europe.

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