Travel: Greyhound bound - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Travel: Greyhound bound

That Summer: in the first of a series recalling memorable journeys, Sophie Campbell remembers her rite of passage through the US

AT 1AM on 3 June 1981, President Reagan had already been shot. So had the Pope. The Soviets were in Afghanistan, Mrs Thatcher was in No 10 and I was in a bus at LA Greyhound Station, in tears.

When I look back at my diary of that month crossing America, it seems hard to believe. Had I really never seen a bar code? Had I honestly not heard of dim sum, or the Grateful Dead? This was before the first space shuttle, before Di and Charles got married, before Aids. This was an eternity ago.

The diary, which is stuffed full of brochures from theme parks and maps of Smalltown, US, annotated in neat, schoolgirly writing, is chiefly interesting for what it leaves out. There in the gaps, like broderie anglaise, lies the story.

For instance, it never mentions that I was in tears - LA Greyhound Station is not a pretty place at 1am - or that my schoolfriend Penny (half my size and twice as brave) was the one who got us on to the bus. Instead it goes into lengthy route descriptions (first leg: LA to Yosemite to San Francisco to Vancouver to Banff) and makes lots of pompous 18-year- old observations about Americans.

Some bits I remember well. Such as trying to hang our food up trees because of the bears and never being able to get it down again (there are probably carrier bags full of boloney sandwiches and string cheese dangling from pine trees in Yosemite to this day). Such as falling into the river in the Canadian Rockies while trying to fill up a kettle, and putting hot rocks in my sleeping-bag to try to get warm (it didn't work), and the first guy we hitched a lift from giving us a lecture on why girls shouldn't hitch alone in the States.

Things really came alive when we met Al and Ken, deadheads from New Orleans who had been out west and were heading home on our bus. They, too, told us we shouldn't hitch, so we broke all our own rules and split up, boy- girl, boy-girl, in order to hitch into Yellowstone Park. It snowed 6in that night, not bad for June, and the "hot pots" (as Al and Ken called the bubbling geysers) pumped steam up into a blizzard. The bar in Gardiner was full of huge, pissed beardies, like the cast of an American road movie, who warned us about grizzlies, guns and hitching. "Big Grizz!" one of them kept slurring, chequered arms held high. "Big Grizz could take your head off, like that."

We found a college friend of Al and Ken's working in the park, stayed illegally in the men's dorm, ate nature burgers (organic food? What was that?) and learned all about Jerry Garcia.

Then we got back on to the bus for a three-day stint from Salt Lake City to Norfolk, Virginia, entering that twilight zone of travel known only to Greyhound users. They haven't changed much, Greyhounds. I went on one recently and it still made me feel poor. People on long-haul bus rides are people who can't afford domestic flights - and that, in America, is poor. So you get hauled out in the middle of the night to change buses or cross borders, and the lockers are never big enough for a pack, and the seats are never big enough for a human being - especially not for a Floridan or a Texan.

We stayed with friends in Norfolk and then moved on to Washington. People sat in rows in Greyhound stations, watching TV (a quarter for 20 minutes). The same jingles played endlessly on different channels: "Have a Datsun, it's good for yooooo ..." I can still hear the tune ringing in my head today.

We detoured to wild, untamed Niagara Falls - or rather, the honeymoon motel capital of the western world - up to Montreal and back down to the States. And after all that, after all those thousands of miles and border crossings and adventures, nemesis chose to present itself in Hartford, Connecticut, one of the most famously boring places in America.

It came in the form of Wazoo - commune dweller and spiker of hash sandwiches - after a hippyish sort of evening running about catching fireflies in jam jars and singing "The Streets of London" to a guitar.

The sandwiches tasted OK. As first-timers, how were we to know? Until the purple shirts of the band in a local bar shot across the room and wrapped themselves around our eyeballs, and people from long ago and far away began whispering right in our ears.

We had to be taken home and put to bed, like five-year-olds after a family wedding, and listen to guilty hippy whispering insinuate itself under the door ("You gave them too much". "I didn't." "You did.")

That didn't make the diary, I can tell you. The diary was meant to be about My Trip Across America, not some adolescent rite of passage. Back then, of course, I didn't realise that they were one and the same thing.

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