I used to tend bar at the tavern across the street from my apartment while I finished my degree. I had just moved to Seattle and I found that I could make a decent amount of cash in a short time and the schedule worked out well with my classes, so dealing with the bar crowd was a bearable thing. After eight hours of pouring beer and listening to drunken banter I would tidy up the wreckage, lock the door and head home to bed, sleeping well into the next morning. It wasn't glamorous, but it was allowing me the flexibility to earn a living while I was going to school, so I didn't complain.
It was only a short walk across the street to my front door, so I made the most of it. On clear nights I would stop to look up at the night sky, taking pleasure in the fact that I was idly stargazing in what was usually a busy intersection, empty and all my own at three in the morning.
One particular evening, early in the Summer, I left the tavern at the usual time. I paused in the middle of the avenue to look up at the stars and think back to other times in my life when I had looked up at the sky: My childhood outside of Philadelphia where the lights of the cities around obscured all but ten or twenty of the brightest ones; My independent bachelor days along the coast of New Hampshire where I stared upward from the deserted Atlantic shore, yearning to see more of the world and life; The years I spent driving tour busses throughout the US, camping beneath the broad arch of the Milky Way; The early days of a relationship in San Francisco with a woman who would later become my wife, looking at the night sky and the city lights from a hilltop in San Francisco and planning our future together. . .
I don't know how long I was lost in thought and standing in the middle of the street, but I finally left the stars to themselves and headed upstairs to my apartment, dark and silent I knew, save for the deep breathing of my wife, asleep in our bed. There was another sound which met me as I walked in however, and I remembered that she had said as I was leaving for work the previous evening that she was going to go out and buy a fan for our room, since the early Summer heat had become uncomfortable, even at night.
I got out of my smoky clothes and lay down next to her, listening to the sound of her breathing through the drone of the fan circulating the warm, summer air of our bedroom. The breeze coming from the foot of the bed felt good and I reminded myself to thank her for picking up the fan while I was at work. I closed my eyes and let the images of the day pass before me: the laundry in the afternoon, dinner together before we both went to work, the smoky, honkey-tonk sights and sounds of the bar, the engine beneath me as my berth rocks on the airbags, the stars moving above . . .
I wake up with a start.
I'm half asleep now, but I sit upright and look around the room, trying to identify that thing which is foreign. Something is wrong, but I don't know what. There's no one there, just she and I. The night is quiet and there's no traffic outside. The curtains sway gently in the night breeze. All things are in their proper place. The only sound is her breathing and the fan's hum, but I swore I heard something else, felt the bed move. I lay back down, listening through the fan's constant noise and there it is again. . .
It's a familiar sound, but unplaceable for the moment, and as I close my eyes it surrounds me, while the bed begins to sway once more. I let myself fall into it and then I realize what it is: The roaring drone of the 671 Detroit Diesel engine which is below my berth, pushing the bus along as the road gently rocks it on it's airbags.
I am on the bus.
It's a hot summer night.
A warm breeze coming in the open windows relieves the heat.
I am laying in my berth looking up at the stars of central Texas.
I know this night. I am driving the Green Tortoise cross-country, East to West. I'm in the sleeper while Jerry, my co-driver, does the second shift.
I drove from our dinner stop the previous evening until about three in the morning. The warm mood of the after-dinner conversations moved naturally into the rhythms of another night spent in transit. The passengers gradually stopped their laughing and talking to roll over in their sleeping bags and fall into deep breathing slumbers in tune with the droning engine. The bodies of thirty-four people are stretched out and fitted together like sardines in a can, some up in the wide, wooden bunks by the ceiling and the rest nestled together on the platform below. There is not an open space between the driver's seat and the back of the bus which is not covered in the patchwork of multicolored mummy bags, a quilt broken here and there by arms and legs reaching out for cooler air. I sit up front with my thermos of coffee and my box of tapes, feeling protective and maternal as I do my best to avoid rough spots in the road and to shift gears smoothly, not wanting to waken my sleeping children.
Three of the passengers are still awake however. They were sitting up in the middle of the bus at one of the dinette tables which convert into bunks for sleeping. They don't seem ready to sleep, talking in serious, hushed tones as I watch them on and off in my rear view mirror, my only job at this point being to keep the bus between the lines of the empty two-lane highway reeling itself out beneath the broad, dark sky.
Jerry takes over at a cross-roads store, (which is closed). I sit with him while he is waking up and tell him about where we are, where I think we'll be at breakfast time and what we should fix when we get there. We talk for a while, both noticing a small irregularity in the feel of the bus and deciding that it is nothing which can't wait until morning. I mention that he should buy some diesel fuel if we pass any open service stations (just to be safe), but that we certainly have enough to get to our morning stop. I leave him with a cup of coffee out of my thermos and begin to wearily pick my way over the sleeping bodies to get to the driver's sleeper in the very back of the bus.
As I pass the three still awake they invite me to join them and I say I will, but just for a moment, which I extend after an offer of a warm can of beer. I sit next to Eddy at the last remaining seat at the table, facing Caroline and Sara, the two women across from us. I have been watching them all evening and now that it is about three in the morning I ask them what it is which is so interesting to keep them up all night.
"We're talkin' 'bout life man, where we've been, where we're goin'. Ya know what I mean?"
This answer comes from Eddy and I regard him for a moment, digesting what he's just said along with a sip of beer.
I am integrating his words into my understanding of the guy, thinking back to the first time I saw him on a street corner in New York City where we regularly pick up passengers, standing between his parents with his American Tourister suitcase at his side. He and his bag looked out of place among all those international travelers with their backpacks. He could tell that, and I could tell that he could tell that just by looking at him.
I didn't like him at first. Partly it was because he was a real New Yorker, too loud and too sure of himself. He had never been more than 50 miles from his home in Brooklyn and now he was going to California. He told me this as I took his fare and gave him his ticket.
"I'm going to hate this guy before we even cross the Mississippi", I told myself once he was out of earshot.
Eddy has some amazingly endearing qualities though. He was the spark plug in the group; getting people fired up about things, making sure the shy people got into the act, helping in the kitchen, and just plain being excited about everything we do. This makes my job easier and more enjoyable, so I've softened up on him and actually began to like his loud, East Coast ways. I think he always knew that I would.
This is not to say that I couldn't tell that it was all done for his own amusement and enjoyment I've known too many New York con man-types for that. It was my beer that he had gotten out of the brown paper bag and offered to me as I sat down. He was drinking one himself, but at that moment it didn't seem right to criticize hospitality . . .
It wasn't until we had crossed the Mississippi that I realized that there was something of a genius in him as well. Just across the Big River we stopped in New Orleans for the day, pulling in at dawn and parking the bus next to a quiet city park not too far from the French Quarter. Since it was just past daybreak I figured it wasn't worth sleeping yet (Jerry was in the sleeper berth anyway, and it's only big enough for two if you like each other a lot), so I paced around the bus with the last of the night's coffee, waiting for the passengers to wake up and realize that we were no longer moving. I had seen a couple of heads peek out of the windows, so I knew rising time was getting close.
Suddenly I saw a figure shoot into a upright position and spin it's head fully around, as if trying to take in the whole scene at once, and I knew that Eddy must be awake. He had asked me all about New Orleans the night before, and it seemed he was excited at the thought of being in a big city again. Only now did I see just how excited he was. In a matter of seconds he went from sound sleep into bold action, moving still-lifeless bodies to the side and somehow getting out that ridiculous suitcase of his from under the platform everyone was sleeping on. I frowned a little watching this. I had been so careful coming into town so that everyone could sleep, now he was getting them up for what?
The commotion settled down and Eddy emerged from the bus like he was coming out of his own front door on any morning in Brooklyn; he had on shiny Italian leather shoes and a flashy if not downright ostentatious three piece suit, open at the collar with no tie. He waved at me as one would the corner grocer and disappeared across the street and down an alley, as if it was what he did every morning. I shook my head and assumed he was in such a hurry because he had to find a bathroom (or a private place to improvise one), so I didn't follow him.
The others who had been sleeping near him came straggling out onto the sidewalk, bleary eyed, hair sticking up, pulling on pants and shirts if they happened to remember them.
"Where was Eddy off to?" one woman asked me, "He was in such a hurry to get dressed and off the bus."
I said I didn't know as I saw him jogging across the street in his city shoes, going immediately to the group of English and Australian guys he'd become friends with since New York.
"Hey guys, get your money together, I found a guy who'll sell us some pot!"
He stood on the sidewalk shuffling nervously, checking his watch as if there was a city full of people waiting for him, shooting glances across the street to keep an eye on his connection, while hurrying the still-sleeping Brits to find their wallets and fork over their share. Money in hand he was rushing back across the street in moments, giving a quick look about for anything suspicious before diving back into the alley.
The rest of us stood on the sidewalk watching him with open mouths. While only one or two people in our group had gotten as far as finding their shoes, (let alone putting them on), Eddy had already made new acquaintances and provisions for leisure activities in this strange city. From this moment onward myself and the rest of the group regarded him with a touch of awe.
Now Eddy is sitting with two women and myself discussing the meaning of life as the bus pushes it's way slowly across the broad belly of central Texas. He seems equally comfortable in this situation as well, sharing his life openly with total strangers, and once more I find myself taking another look at this guy whom I judged so quickly and I find that I am unable to not be impressed with him.
He's talking to Caroline about growing up in Brooklyn and about all the people he knows who have never been out of the five boroughs which make up The City of New York. Caroline is nodding in understanding, as she comes from a small town in North Yorkshire, England and most of the people she knows are the same way. They think they know it all, and they can't understand why anyone would want to leave everything they ever knew to visit a foreign country they know nothing about.
I'm watching Caroline as she speaks, dividing her eye contact between myself and Eddy. There has been an attraction between us since the start of the trip. We have already told each other about the relationships we have in other places which have a hold on us, (as if we hope that in airing this knowledge we will keep ourselves at a protective distance). Since that time we've been a little formal in our interactions, but still catching ourselves looking absent-mindedly at each other, then looking away when caught. I find it hard to look into her eyes even now, afraid of lingering too long and giving away too much. For her part she keeps her eyes moving quickly, and I wonder if she has some similar grain of unsettledness in her.
"I'm really in a quandary being here," she tells us, "There is so much about Yorkshire which I really miss. I know that it would be hard to try and live anyplace else, I'd be so far from me Mum and Dad, and I've got so many friends there as well. This place though", she says with a gesture out the window, "I've never seen anything like it before. We keep going to new places and they're all so different, it's like there's no end to this country. It will be hard to go home and be satisfied with the English countryside now. I can't stay here though, I miss home too much for that already. Now that I've been here I'm snookered, no matter which place I'm at I'll be homesick for the other."
For a moment the four of us become suddenly aware of the sagebrush tundra which we can see dimly out the window as it rushes briefly into the peripheral light of the headlights and then back into the near-blackness of a deep, warm Texas night. The stars are big and bright, (as the song says), and the emptiness feels as if it goes on forever.
Sometimes, alone on one of these country roads in the middle of nowhere, I will drive for an hour or two not seeing another vehicle or sign of habitation and I will feel a nagging fear within me that I really am alone out here. The people have all gone somewhere and I will drive and drive, but find nothing. Even as I count the miles to the next town the feeling only dims as the cold halogen lights of a crossroads filling station emerge out of the darkness.
There is a silence which passes through the group for a few seconds, each with our own thoughts of what we have left behind and what we look forward to at the end of this trip. As our attention comes back into the circle we are a bit sheepish for a second, shifting our positions as if we've just let too much show. It is strange how unsure of ourselves the wide openness of the land makes us feel, and how small the troubles of our lives are in comparison.
Sara breaks an uncomfortable silence with a question to me, and we jump a little with surprise. It is partly that we were quiet for so long and partly that she has said next to nothing since I sat down, and I think we forgot that she was with us. "What's it like being out here all the time, I mean, spending so much of your life in the wide-open spaces has to have an effect on you, right?"
I lean back and think for a minute. It's something which was on my mind this very evening and I had not come to any conclusion as to how I felt, so I have to go back over it in my head to form an answer for her. I think about who Sara is as well, gauging my answer more on what I know of her than on the others. Eddy and Caroline are both in their early twenties as I am, but Sara is almost ten years older and has traveled extensively as well. I picked this up about her immediately as she adapted to living in the small, shared space of the bus almost in an instant. Later I found out that she has ridden on these trips before, as well as spent many nights in hotels, hostels and campsites all over the world. I feel an at-homeness about her which allows me to relax in her presence.
We had talked a little the other night at dinner about the joys and difficulties of living on the road for long periods of time, the places we'd visited and how traveling effects your outlook on everything. I feel that her question now is connected to our previous conversation and I answer it as such.
"Well, I really don't spend all my time out here. The cross-country trip goes from Boston to San Francisco, and we also stop in New York, New Orleans, Chicago, Las Vegas . . ."
"I can't wait to get to Vegas man!", Eddy cuts in, bobbing his head up and down in anticipation of the big times he's going to have. Caroline laughs at this and Eddy smiles back at her, but Sara and I just let it go and I continue with my story.
"...I am only moving through this part of the country in the middle of the trip and see about as much as everyone else does. I don't have the time to really lose myself in the emptiness as I would like, because I have only come here with busloads of people, so I always have a lot of noise going on around me."
Sara is nodding in agreement. I think that she understands what I mean about noise, all the people clambering about what tape to play next, when the next pee stop is or who made off with so and so's day pack. It's part of the deal with a large group, but still I have noticed that Sara has a way of staring out the window at the passing landscape which says to the others, "Please don't disturb me, this is what I came for", and they let her be. I feel a bond with her in these times. There have been several things which I have noticed in the two years I have been doing these trips, and have pointed out to the group which I felt that only she heard and understood. I have taken to mentioning some of my observations only to her and she shares what she is seeing with me in the same manner, and I feel that we have an understanding.
She has weighed my last answer for a time and says, "It must seep into you though. I grew up in Sydney, but spent plenty of time in The Outback and I haven't been able to live in Sydney since. There's just something about the larger spaces which got inside me and never left. I've since crossed Africa by rail, and last Summer I took the Trans-Siberian trip in Russia and it's all the same in a way. The spaces are so vast that I just get lost in them. It doesn't matter what continent they're on, it's the same planet and the land goes on and on and you never think it's going to end!"
She stopped speaking, a little surprised I think at how animated she'd gotten. No one spoke as she slipped off for a moment into remembrances of these places she had once been.
Around the table the rest of us also sat in silence while a strange wind swirled around us. We sat once more staring out into the darkness as the sagebrush, unaltered in the time of our conversation, continued to move in dreamlike procession past the our window.
Suddenly I saw our bus from above, a small, glowing box throwing light out into the empty land, the headlights illuminating the road immediately in front of us while the whole world around that speck of light lay in flat blackness, save for the outlines of the distant hills, barely visible in the light of the night stars. As I sat and felt the American Continent passing beneath our wheels I also felt a larger presence with me. The Earth over which we traveled was the same Earth that spread out beneath the heartland of Russia, the breadth of Africa and across Australia. In that quiet moment I could feel all of them together beneath me, connected to our small world in the bus, and my mind opened wide to try to hold that image all at once.
It was Caroline who broke the silence. "I think I have to go to sleep now", she said with weariness in her voice. Everyone quickly agreed, realizing that the dreamlike quality which the night had taken on was due as much to exhaustion as the subject of our conversation. We got up and converted the table we had been sitting at into bunk beds and said our goodnights, now thinking only of sleep.
As I picked my steps carefully between the sleeping bodies to get back to my berth, the eastern horizon was just beginning to lighten. I lay down in my bunk after closing the sliding partition door and propping open the roof vent directly above my head. Up front Jerry made the slight steering adjustments which kept the bus to the gentle winding of the two lane country road, so that above me the stars moved in slow circles as I drifted into sleep.
In my bed in Seattle, a thousand miles and several years away, I fell into sleep as well. Lulled by the fan, my wife's breathing, the drone of the engine, and the sway of the bus on the airbags . . .