When people have asked me where I live, I used to joke “on the Greyhound.” The first time I heard, “Kathy, I said as we boarded the Greyhound in Pittsburgh,” from Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” I thought the Greyhound was cool. The only time I rode it as a child was with my two sisters, from Calgary to Vancouver and back, when we went to visit my grandparents. On the way back there was an avalanche in Revelstoke, which created a five-hour detour. When my parents came to the station in Calgary to pick us up and we weren’t there, they went to the counter and asked if there was any information. Apparently, the woman at the counter suggested that we had probably just run away from home. My poor mother said we weren’t those kinds of kids, and the woman said that all parents think that. Customer service has never been the strong-point of the Ol’ Blue Chariot, but even at thirteen years old I remember the special feeling I got reading my book in the wee hours of the night, riding through the Rockies in the darkness with my overhead light on. A soldier across the aisle had asked me what I was reading. It felt like an adventure. They even gave out granola bars and juice boxes in those days and showed movies. That was before they introduced Wi-Fi and everyone had their own device.
I recently found a pencil drawing I made at about seventeen years old. It was at one of a few art-therapy sessions I was sent to because, well, let’s just say, I was feeling a bit more distraught than usual for a while. The drawing was faint, but it was of a girl leaning her head against a bus window, with a somewhat blank stare. I remember the therapist asking me where the girl was going. “I don’t know,” I said. “She just likes the ride.” If there is foreshadowing in life, that was surely a moment of it.
Years later, when I decided to go full-time with my music, I confided in a fellow singer-songwriter whom I had met in Toronto. He laughed and said there was no way I could be a Canadian touring artist without a car and a driver’s license. That Greyhound Discovery Pass was like the universe saying, “Oh yeah? Watch her!”
Indeed, the best thing that happened to me, as far as I was concerned, was discovering “The Discovery Pass.” Greyhound used to issue it as an option instead of individual tickets, and I would pay $600 for two months of unlimited Greyhound travel in any direction. This included the States, but without a proper work-permit to go play shows there, I never did, and I had enough to do in Canada anyway. This was my ticket, no pun intended, to a full-time music career without an agent, manager and publicist. All I needed were a handful of guaranty gigs (meaning, agreed-upon pay regardless of turn-out), and the rest could be filled with pass-the-hat or ticket gigs which I could afford to risk because I didn’t have to pay any extra money to travel to them. I was couch-surfing while touring anyway, and getting pretty hefty favours as far as recordings prices went, so really, those six hundred dollars were my only expense other than pressing CDs, the odd bar of soap and toothpaste, tampons, and the food and drink which, at least once a day, if it was a gig-day, I often didn’t have to pay for anyway.
God, I rode that bus everywhere. Toronto to Thunder Bay, (21 hours), sometimes with a stop in Sault St. Marie, Thunder Bay to Winnipeg or Saskatoon, from there to Calgary, or Edmonton, and through the various towns of the Okanogan and British Columbia, to Vancouver, to Vancouver Island, and back again. I became acquainted with the tiniest of stops, the fifty-cent second hand, terrible romance novels in the Wawa corner store pit-stop, the vending machines in North Bay where there was a one-hour wait at five in the morning with nobody working there, the graffiti at the Red Deer station that said “Have no Fear, Have Music,” the convenience store at the stop between Toronto and Ottawa that reeked so badly of moth balls, whatever food you bought there tasted like them too, and the cowboy saloon-style convenience store in the middle of the Rockies on the way to Nelson, that advertised, “now selling Samosas.”
I once had a 24-hour ride that popped me out in Brandon, Manitoba, to play a bar-gig until 1.a.m., only to get on again at 2.am. to head to Alberta, another 24-hour ride. I once had a four-hour wait between the gig and the 6.am. departure from Golden, B.C., where the gas-station store worker drank vodka and “jammed” with me, playing a bucket as a drum while I sang some Johnny Cash song at his request. I would play a gig in Peterborough, and then hop on at 4.am. and continue on to Toronto for a matinee show the next say. I rolled around through the Okanogan, and had a six hour wait in Kelowna, even though I was only one hour away from Penticton where I needed to be. I rode it to the States and back twice, (boarder patrol on a Greyhound is quite a circus, let me tell you). Some have asked if I feel safe on it, especially after that horrific and infamous beheading, but I have lived in Jerusalem where, for a period, buses were blowing up or getting shot at every few days, so one freak occurrence in Canada wasn’t going to phase me.
I’ve seen sunrises and sunsets over mountains, prairies and forests, thunderstorms and blizzards, all through Greyhound bus windows. I have heard snippets of hundreds of strange conversations about family feuds, prison, drugs, reunions and heartbreaks. I’ve heard people talking to their loved ones on their cell phones, and at annoying times, listening to their music too loudly through headphones. I’ve heard babies cry and get comforted, seen people be helpful or pretend to be sleeping so they wouldn’t have to give up the seat next to theirs. I’ve stood and smoked cigarettes in pit-stop parking lots, in silence with the other smokers, or in smokers’ conversations where for six or seven minutes you share some life-story and then get back on the bus to your seats never to meet again I’ve squatted over moving toilets after too much coffee and pumped liberal amounts of sanitising gel onto my hands, can conjure the smell of the cleaner all the buses use. The smell lives in some part of my brain like it’s as common as the smell of a rose. I’ve stepped over many pairs of legs of sleeping passengers who spread across the aisle for something akin to comfort, and I have heard the variations of dozens of bus-drivers giving their welcome-aboard spiel, some with good senses of humour, some with bad ones, and some with none at all. One driver sang John Prine songs into the announcement microphone as we arrived into each stop.
The Greyhound may be crazy, but it was kind of my one consistent home. For someone who travels pretty much full time, I still get anxious about each journey: The packing, the prepping, the timing of getting to the station on time, the worry over whether they’ll let me bring the guitar on board rather than put it with the luggage, which, during winter means it’s in a freezing cold place for hours, on top of bouncing around with suitcases. I was once told by a station official that I couldn’t bring it on board because it could potentially be used as a weapon. I looked at her like it was obviously crazy and she said “if you don’t believe me I can show you the policy in writing.” Those Greyhound workers in the stations can be awfully power-trippy and nonsensical. I just got on the bus with the guitar anyway. The Greyhound is one of the only places where I am actually defiant, though I’m smartly quiet about it. I worry about whether my luggage is overweight and whether I’ll be charged for it, or if they’ll notice that I have one too many carry-ons. And there is always some anxiety about shifting scenery, leaving whomever I’ve been staying with and arriving in the next place with the next set of people.
But when I board the bus and nestle into my seat, (preferably a window seat so there is something to lean on, and preferably, two seats to myself which makes all the difference in the world to comfort), there is this incredible wave of relief. I’m on, I’m seated, and now I can just sit there and not worry about anything until the ride is over. It’s out of my hands, and that is a surprisingly glorious feeling. The letting go of control for a set number of hours has its own therapeutic value.
When I’m not on the Greyhound, except for the very rare times I am house-sitting alone, I am always around people, a guest in their space. There is always conversation, and a lot of it. These conversations are intense experiences of human encounter and they give me much to think about, to ponder and philosophise, and when I’m going from show to show and home to home, there is often not enough time to process it. Tour-exhaustion has as much to do with this as it does with performance fatigue. Those several-hour stretches on the bus have been for me like a kind of sanctuary, where the turning wheels below me allow my mind to do the same without any interruption. There ain’t nothing like staring out a window for hours with scenery rolling by to clear the mind.
The pattern is almost always the same. I put the guitar in the overhead compartment, placing my to-go mug of coffee on the seat, (and often spilling some, I’ve learned to bring napkins). My carry-on goes by my feet, my purse as a kind of pillow. I watch as other people board and let my mind invent little stories about each one. I pray nobody sits beside me so I will have more room. I settle in and get comfortable, and I use that term very loosely. Over time I have nearly perfected the as-close-to-comfortable-as-one-can-get techniques. It is as though Greyhound seats were designed by a torture-specialist. No matter how you try to position yourself for something akin to sleep, there is always, always something jabbing you somewhere. I have a travel neck-pillow that I move from neck to back and even under my butt sometimes, all in the efforts to prevent pain in the various parts of my body that, over the years, have begun to complain more. And I always bring an extra two sweaters to try and soften the hard bits that dig into me, the arm-rest, or the window-sill.
I have also nearly perfected my bus snacks, which is no small feat when you’ve discovered, twenty years too late, that you have always had a wheat allergy. It’s just as well, since the only stops for food the bus makes are in fast food joints, or Tim Horton's, (I won’t pretend I don’t miss the doughnuts, though). The only restaurants are the Husky station in Golden, B.C. and the diner in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, where there’s a statue of Spock from Star Trek, and the greasiest food I’ve ever had in my life. Sure, the odd treat is ok, but if you spend as much time on the Greyhound as I have, you don’t really want to partake in those indulgences lest you end up with premature heart disease. Those who have seen me off to the station have likely seen me prepare my feast of a dozen rice-cake and peanut butter sandwiches. Those things would survive an apocalypse. Their only downside is that they leave you looking like you’ve been through some kind of Styrofoam explosion.
And so, as prepared as can be, I wait for the bus to start rolling. I wait for the announcements to come and go, and then I lean my head against the window and fall into something like sleep. It is not quite sleep. It is almost more like a meditation. It feels very much like I enter some other layer of consciousness where the thoughts in my head sort themselves out without any direction from me. It feels like a clearing of conversational debris, a sweeping, an unconscious synthesising. All the worries tumble around and, one by one, they leave and I come out of it feeling mentally refreshed and ready to think about something in a focused way. When I come to, or wake up, I usually take out my little laptop.
In the beginning there was never Wi-Fi on the buses, so I would either listen to tracks I was working on, or write long journal entries, poems and sometimes songs. I would think about where I had been, I would plan what to say at my next show, I would daydream about my future and try to sort out what felt unresolved in my past. I would try to find meaning in the short-term memories of where I had just been, and in the long-term memories that rose in me out of a subconscious suggestion of relevance. Rolling along on the Trans Canada Highway seemed to be the perfect place to do this because it was like the concretisation of the metaphor of being on life’s journey. I was on the road, but really, I was, in those moments and hours, on the actual road.
I had, long ago, on a bus from Ottawa to Montreal, written a spoken-word piece that never saw the light of day. The notebook it was in got lost and I was never quite able to remember it, but it went something like this:
“On the bus from North Bay to Alberta,
Or from Antwerp to Berlin,
I’m not in the place I’m going to
nor where I have just been,
The highway stretching out for miles
Just kind of sets me free,
Because I am just now,
But too, just was, and soon will be.
When I die, just spread my ashes where the cargo loads,
So I don’t have to choose a place, I’ll just stay on the roads.”
A few years ago, I went with my Discovery Pass to the counter in order to get my luggage tag. The guy said, very nonchalantly, “oh we’re not doing those anymore after October.” He had no idea who he was saying that too, and I had no idea what I was going to do. It was around that time I found out that Via Rail had an on-board entertainment program, which meant if I got accepted, I could travel Toronto to Vancouver, or Montreal to Halifax, for free in exchange for performing for the passengers. I have been a Via performer ever since, which has been an incredible experience but has also meant I don’t stop in as many towns along the way. Thunder Bay, which was at least a once-a-year stop, or Brandon, or even Winnipeg, just don’t end up happening anymore. But I’ve still been riding Ol’ Blue all over Alberta and British Columbia, still living the humble dream of sharing my songs and stories with the people of Canada, still able to afford it despite the measly income playing these shows provides.
And now I have read that come this October, the Greyhound will discontinue altogether from Saskatchewan Westward. Even if I learn how to drive, I won’t realistically be able to go from never having driven to suddenly driving through the Rockies alone, and how will I be able to afford a car, and gas, and insurance? I would have to make a lot more money doing what I do, for that scenario or for hiring a driver, and who in their right mind would come along on my never-ending tour? At a time where venues are paying less if not closing down altogether, and people are paying for music less because they can download it illegally or stream it, riding the Greyhound was my answer to the dire financial reality of music-as-income. With the bus gone, my touring survival remains to be seen.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’ve had many obstacles before and persevered, and so I am very curious to see what the next chapter brings. But one thing is for sure. The Greyhound is as imprinted on my ass as it is in my heart and mind. This is the end of an era, and I shall look back on it with fond memories of hours and hours and years and years, during which my little determined self said, “Yes, I can do this. Yes, I WILL do this,” all while staring out a window, taking in that one-and-only smell of Greyhound disinfectant.