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European Travelers and Greyhound Buses

“If you really want the underbelly of the American experience you should ride a Greyhound bus across the country,” I suggested to the same English girl. A blank face of stark fear stared back at me. I felt as though I scared a rabbit out of its brush pile hiding place. This English girl was [...]

“If you really want the underbelly of the American experience you should ride a Greyhound bus across the country,” I suggested to the same English girl.

A blank face of stark fear stared back at me. I felt as though I scared a rabbit out of its brush pile hiding place. This English girl was obviously warned about the Greyhound, and would probably bolt like a rabbit if she ever encountered the people who use this service.

The people who use Greyhound are a slice of America that is not shown on the TV screen, the movies, or in advertising; the people who ride Greyhound buses are the guts and innards of American society: they are the sludge that built up at the bottom of the melting pot that refuses to be cleaned.

To see America, you need to ride the bus — just once — across the country.

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Phoenix, Arizona, Southwest USA, North America
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Wade’s Travel Gear | All Travelogue Entries
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I thought that I would warn her some more about Greyhound, in the hope of enticing some strain of curiosity or wonder. Perhaps if I told her how truly awesome of an experience it is to shamedog it across the USA, she may consider it.

Greyhound Bus Logo

Greyhound Bus Logo

“I wish for every European who thinks that they know about the people of the USA to take one long trip on the Greyhound,” I spoke with a laugh, “and I guarantee they will leave the country with a different impression. To travel by bus is to see the underbelly of this culture.”

The English girl did not think that the Greyhound was a very safe way to travel. She thought that if she tried to bus it across the USA that somebody may find themselves murdering her. “But I don’t think it is worth the risks, what if something happens?”

I told her that the worse thing that would probably happen would be that she meets a lot of heroin addicts asking for money.

“How do you know that they are heroin addicts?” she asked.

“They tell you, they lift up their shirts to show you their skinny bellies and gaunt ribs and show you the needle marks on their arms.”

“Why would they do something like that?”

“Apparently, it is profitable being a heroin addict in bus stations,” I replied.

Greyhound Bus

Greyhound Bus

But the English girl did not want to meet the heroin addicts in Greyhound stations. So I told her that prisoners who are just released from prison are often given Greyhound bus tickets to a destination of their choosing, and how she could look for men and women with clear plastic garbage bags full of stuff and know that they just got out of prison.

I almost started telling her about a Latino man that I saw in the Cincinnati bus station that had one of these garbage bags and was wearing a white t-shirt that still had dried blood stains all over it.

I did not think that this would help my case.

I then sought to tell her that she could meet the underside of American culture on buses, but I could only think of all the fat dirty loud people that have been my bus companions across the USA, I could only think of all the ghetto fabs with big diamond earrings triple sized shirts and pants falling down to their knees who would try so hard to intimidate everyone and sometimes yell profanities up at the driver.

So I kept my mouth shut.

There was no convincing this English girl that the experiences to be had on the Greyhound may potentially give her journey across America a real sense of life that could potentially knock her down from her teatotolling throne.

Apparently, the English girl had no interest in seeing heroin addicts, ex-convicts, or the underbelly of American culture. She wanted to see “San Francisco,” “New York,” one postcard image after another, and the inside of hostel walls. This is ordinary, and I could not object.

Hell, Americans don’t even want to ride the Greyhound.

Then I remembered that most travelers travel to see places, to do places, and avoid the sharp edge of life from being stabbed into their guts at all cost.

Most people who travel seem to just want to confirm and strengthen the throne they sit upon, the last thing they want to have happen is to be knocked down off their pedestal to the ground and watch their preheld constructs of culture, the world, and themselves laying in rubble and ruins all around them.

It only takes a moment to smash a world-view that took a lifetime to build.

Greyhound Bus Station Pittsburg

Greyhound Bus Station Pittsburgh

Image of Pittsburgh Greyhound Station by Jonny Jet

So I did not tell her about the joys I have had getting drunk with a Native American in the back seat of a Greyhound bus moving across the Midwest; no, I did not go into the story about a wierd night of riding through North Carolina playing leg rub with an Iranian woman who I never did share a word with; no, I did not tell the story about how I was riding up from Miami to Tallahasse in a bus where everyone was singing songs and playing guitars and telling jokes to everybody else.

No, the Greyhound was not made for the English. The Greyhound is too American for that.

Few people really want to see the countries they visit . . .

And this is OK.

Filed under: Arizona, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

17 comments… add one

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  • Mike Crosby October 4, 2009, 12:14 pm

    Wow. I took the Greyhound across the country twice 25-30 years ago. It was tough going, and I was a young man. But seeing America, yes. That really is a way to meet its people. But maybe because I was so young and naive at that time, I never saw the addicts and prisoners.

    One story I’ll never forget. I was young and poor at that time. And the food at the bus station was always terrible. Finally we stopped at this place in New Mexico, Arizona area that had a buffet. Man, was I hungry and did I pile up the food. When I sat down to eat, there was a sign that said “$1.00 charge if you don’t eat all your food”. Half way through my dinner I was full. But I had to eat the rest so I didn’t have to pay the dollar. These people next to me, must have known what was going through my mind as they watched me force this food into my mouth. They were quite amused by my troubling situation.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 4, 2009, 12:36 pm

      Mike,

      This is an experience that everyone who comes to this country needs to have. It is amazing the experiences that you can have riding a Greyhound bus. It is THE way to see America — the good, the bad, the annoying. I like your story about the buffet. That $1 fee for not finishing your food is actually a real good idea. So I take it there was no way you could have stuffed that food into your pockets? haha.

      Thanks,

      Wade

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  • Emery October 4, 2009, 12:39 pm

    This is another good example of the difference between a traveler and a tourist, I suppose. Then again, it may have more to do with the level of fear she has built her life around. I know a woman who only eats in chain restaurants because she assumes they have higher standards of cleanliness. Then there are others who will only eat home cooked meals because they don’t know what’s going on in that public kitchen. Perhaps it’s because they don’t know what kind of negative energy the cooks and the handlers are pouring into their food. Or maybe they can’t trust that the cooks aren’t using the same pans to cook meat as they use to cook other foods. Or maybe they think the cooks might be trying to pass off dog meat as chicken, or human as beef. You just never know.

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  • Bob L October 4, 2009, 9:54 pm

    I took a Trailways Bus back and forth across the country back after I got out of high school almost 30 years ago. Back then, Trailways was cheaper. One thing I found *interesting* was the places the buses would stop. The worst parts of cities. Rural towns. Someplace on a two lane highway in the middle of a corn field. The good, the bad and the ugly. A very interesting way to travel indeed.

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  • Dan Engstrom October 5, 2009, 12:39 am

    I took one major Greyhound trip once, a round trip from Portland, Maine to Dallas, Texas and back 10 days later. On the trip down I had no idea what to expect. Normally the bus drivers give a rudimentary speal before your bus enters the terminal giving you some idea of where to go when you get off the bus. At the Port Authority bus terminal my driver from Boston flipped out for no reason and started screaming over the intercom to get the **** off of his bus. There I was in New York City bumbling through hallways trying to figure out where to go. I found an old rusty information booth that happened to be manned and asked my question, “Where is the bus to Washington?” The woman pointed down a hallway and said “That Way.” As I walked down the ramp that was pointed out to me and reached a 6 way intersection of hallways I realized that I was doomed. At this point a large black man that happened to be holding a small stack of $20’s asked me what I needed to know. I simply said “I’m all set bub!” and exited stage left. as I fumbled my way down the hallway a kid approached me. “Dude” He said, “Where the hell is the bus to Washington?” At this point we teamed up and made short work of finding the correct hallway. On the final leg of our journey to the proper gate, we found a couple more guys that were just as lost as we were. A few minutes later we triumphantly found our gate. There we were, four country boys from different sections of New England, all with roughly the same itinerary. As we made our way across the country, we all basically watched out for each other. If one of us needed to use the bathroom, there was always at least one of us that would watch the baggage for the rest, the same for eating. Normally I wouldn’t trust anyone on a Greyhound bus, but just this once it worked. I can honestly say though, that I did witness the dregs of society on that trip. On the way back through, 50 miles outside of Memphis, The bus got boarded by the ATF and searched everybody’s bags. The kid three rows back from me turned out to have a kilo of coke sitting in his duffel bag. Just as soon as the bag was opened, there it was. After the kid got arrested and we were in motion again, I mentioned to a few people that were within earshot, “That’s nice, I wonder where the real shipment is!” which of course gut a chuckle out of a few people on the bus.

    To take the bus you have to be willing to put up with some weird things happening. Once you get the hang of it it can be a lot of fun. I remember in Boston’s South Station helping an asian guy decipher his ticket utilizing a hybrid form of sign languge that I had to make up on the fly culminating in a round of applause by the people around me in line. Also the 3 hour layover that I made for myself so that I could enjoy Times Square in NYC. Riding the bus was an interesting experience that I suggest anyone to try at least once.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 5, 2009, 12:56 am

      All of these comments about riding the Greyhound across the USA is making me want to do another journey on the bus. There is just something special about riding the bus in the United States, it seems to turn the impersonal to the personal — for better or worse. It is an extremely raw way of traveling in a country that is suppose to be modern and cubicalized. The bus is the underbelly of America: it takes you places that you would never otherwise go and introduces you to people that you would never otherwise meet. Long bus journeys across the USA takes you out of your comfort zone — you never know what is going to happen — and this is good. If the wealth of life can be measured only in memories, then riding the Greyhound across the USA makes a person exponentially richer.

      Every traveler needs to bus it across America — at least once.

      Walk Slow,

      Wade

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  • The Longest Way Home October 5, 2009, 6:57 am

    Wade,

    So whats it going to take getting you to tell us this Iranian leg pub story! 🙂

    The site is shaping up very well by the way,

    Dave

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  • The Longest Way Home October 5, 2009, 7:07 am

    that should have been iranian rub and not pub. Blame predictive text!

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  • bus rider October 5, 2009, 3:53 pm

    Wade, I’ve done quite a few trips on the silver dog, including one from the midwest down to guatemala (greyhound as far as laredo). One thing I’ve noticed on those trips is a distinct difference in the buses out east and those down in the southwest. The bus itself is the same but the people riding tend to be a lot different. I did one ride from el paso to new york city. I’ll never do that again; the riders kept getting rougher and rougher as we went east. Out west most the passengers were mexicans and salvadorans headed north for farm work along with truck drivers who drove one way runs and young marines from california going back east on leave. At the customs checkpoint on I-10 a couple of ‘cans with incorrect paperwork were pulled off but most people seemed quiet and respectable. From Dallas on northeastward the mexicans got off and were replaced by down and out whites and blacks. Some of those folks were more than a little frightening. But I learned to ride on the front of the bus. The ride is a lot smoother up front, you can see the road better, and the criminal element all hides out in the back of the bus. The best thing about the bus is how cheap advance purchase tickets are. Buy tickets a month in advance and you can cross the country for about $100. Tell that english girl that the bus out in arizonia, new mexico, colorado really isn’t that bad at all, just don’t ride it past dallas. –sidenote greyhound is actually owned by an english company these days.

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  • Heidi October 6, 2009, 12:39 pm

    Yes yes yes! I’ve been trying to convince everyone I meet who’s going to travel to the States to go on the Greyhound at some point. I spent 2 months travelling round using the monthly passes and the myriad interesting situations I got into were the stuff that great memories are made of. You certainly do get to see a section of American society which non-Americans don’t know exist.

    The type of people who seem to travel the Greyhound appear to be those who are less aware of the wider world outside the vast expanse of the USA, so being a lone English person attracted wonder and many, many conversations! It’s making me want to do it all again….

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  • Mike April 5, 2010, 8:28 pm

    Thank you everyone, for sharing your Greyhound Stories. This brought back some good memories of my youth as I traveled a lot by Greyhound.

    Things sure have changed since I first took to the open road and the World of Greyhound. My first trip was when I was fresh out of high school and I did the “Go West Young man” thing. This was way back in 1982 and the tickets were $99.00 from Akron, Ohio to Los Angeles, California.

    I was a smoker so I most defiantly rode in the back of the bus. We could smoke in the last few seats and the ashtrays were even attached to the bottom of the windows. I couldn’t believe that we could not smoke once we crossed over into the State of Utah.

    We all laughed about it and joked that what was the driver going to do if we were to light up, call a cop? Yes, he would call the cops and there was always one person that had to challenge this rule. Who knew way back then that the no smoking rule would change the way that it has.

    I last rode the Greyhound a few months ago (Louisville, Kentucky to Las Vegas, Nevada) and sad to say but that was my last trip via Greyhound.

    Maybe I’ve gotten older or maybe just grumpier, I don’t know. The people seem a lot different and the trip was not fun but more of a chore that I couldn’t wait to finish. The tickets were not even close to $100.00, even with advanced purchase. It is cheaper to fly and more comfortable.

    The food has gotten worse and the cost is just out of sight. I think that they put the bus stations way out on the edge of the towns so they can sell more stuff. There is no stores (other than foreign owned and expensive) close so you have no choice but to buy the over priced microwave junk.

    Most people did nothing but gripe about the price of their tickets. A fight could breakout at any moment if someone was to say that they paid less for their ticket.

    People were rude, crude and some, just outright obnoxious. People would run and cut into line if there was just a glimmer of a opening. The pushing and shoving was unreal and there was not a hint of common courtesy in the whole place.

    I sincerely hope that it’s just me getting to be an old coot and that there is still hope for the Modern Traveler. It’s sad to think that people now a days, would not be able to enjoy seeing this Great Country of ours. Up close and personal, via Greyhound……

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 5, 2010, 9:25 pm

      Hello Mike,

      Thank you for sharing your memories of riding the old silver dog. There is something romantic about traversing the great big USA overland — but I agree with you, the modern Greyhound bus service can quickly take the wind out of your sails.

      I have had some great Greyhound journeys though, but they are often intermixed with dealing with often terse circumstances.

      My hope is that other buslines such as Mega Bus extends their services. As the overland journey across America is something that everyone should have indelibly imprinted on their memory.

      Thanks,

      Wade

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  • Sarah November 30, 2010, 1:44 pm

    Although I’ve ridden in many busses in Europe, I’ve never thought to take one in the U.S. My parents always scared me away from the idea, mainly because of the horror stories they’d heard and because I’m a single girl (now woman) sans traveler (as opposed to tourist) friends. Reading about all your experiences, though, I hope that, someday, I’ll be able to travel by bus across the U.S.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 1, 2010, 10:28 am

      Your parents have a point, when judged form the surface — Greyhound bus stations are often pretty sketchy looking places. Though they are often not as bad as they look. Riding a bus across the USA is a great way to see the country and to really experience traveling. I highly recommend it.

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  • Dominique May 18, 2012, 11:17 am

    I ride the Greyhound bus because it is cheap and interesting. I’m a quiet, middle class white woman who for 20 years has chosen to sit near the back with the people that everyone else is scared of. Funny thing is that ex-cons and gang members end up being some of the nicest people on the bus ride because they don’t have to put on their tough street persona.

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  • Lydia July 31, 2013, 9:00 am

    Hey! Great article. My friend and I (both 19 year old girls from England) recently rode the Greyhound down the East Coast and the South of the US for 2 months travelling and had a great time.The people who ride the Greyhound are certainly ‘interesting’ and I completely agree that you wouldn’t necessarily choose to spend time with them outside that setting; many of them in bad physical and mental state. For us I really felt that we saw ‘proper’ America – we visited big touristy cities as well, but we took 12 hour bus journeys every 3 days across the country and really experienced a side of the country that is brushed to one side. I’d love to go back and do a photography project or some kind of documentary about the buses and the passengers to really show people what’s it really like, as I feel my stories don’t do it justice. The main difference between the US and UK bus systems in in Europe people of all classes, ages, and walks of life ride the bus, whereas in the US absolutely everyone drives so the bus passengers seemed to be either people too poor to drive or too mental unstable to drive. So many American citizens I spoke to said they would never dream of taking the Greyhound and some even hadn’t heard of it! It’s unlikely i’ll take the bus across country again, as although they’re mostly harmless, being around many of the people is often uncomfortable and the long journeys tiresome, but i’m so glad I’ve experienced it at least once.

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