“Greyhound wants to cease serving Alaska Highway customers from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse” — headline, Fort Nelson News, 6 September 2017
On a sunny spring day in 2007 I was sitting on a Greyhound bus a hundred miles west of Winnipeg, listening (because no one in the front half of the bus could help but listen) to a whining passenger a few seats behind me, as she bemoaned her fate into her cell phone. “Yeah,” she whimpered, “they decided I needed to go to this meeting, and now it’s a two-hour trip on the flippin’ loser cruiser.” I rankled at this, partly because of her sniveling and partly because this was something like hour 36 on the Greyhound for me, having been aboard a succession of buses since departing from Hay River, the roadhead on the southwest side of Great Slave Lake at 0800 the previous morning. I turned in my seat and she, still yammering away, shot me a scornful glance which plainly said “Yeah, I mean you, loser.”
I have long been a bus rider — partly because I gave up hitchhiking quite a few years ago, and partly because I am by nature somewhat backwards and contrary. I like to think that Muir and Thoreau, not to mention a dozen of my other literary and life heroes would have honestly preferred “slow” overland travel by bus and train to “efficient” airline zap-zipping, given any reasonable sort of choice. Also I think it is demonstrable that short-haul airline travel is an environmental blasphemy — launching kerosene-guzzling pressurized Spam cans to 30,000 feet above a landscape already amply festooned with highways, backroads, expressways, and railroad tracks. The bus is cheap and simple, and can be half-assed enjoyable when compared to other modes of transportation. I live 160 miles past the nearest terminus of the continent’s road system, and we have not owned a car or truck since 2000, when we more or less retired from the winter road-warrior life of the racing sled dog musher. When we need ground transportation more elaborate than shank’s mare or a bike, we rent a car, take a cab, or hop on a bus. (Do the math.)
I like the bus, or I mostly have over the years, mainly for its pace and its straightforward simplicity. On that 2007 trip, for instance, I flew the Husky to Hay River one evening and rolled out my sleeping bag under the wing for a nice night of sleep on warm green grass (it was early May.) Early in the morning I took my knapsack and hiked a mile or so to the bus depot on the edge of town. Boarded the bus with my bundle of books and pens and pillow and thermos, a $200 round-trip ticket in hand, and set off to see my sisters and Mom in Minneapolis. It was a long trip, and I don’t know that I would do it again — but Greyhound, driven by our own preferences and assumptions — is steadily withdrawing the option. On that trip I smiled at times, musing that I was saving $15 an hour, over the entire 80-some hours, back and forth across the continent, and at my weariest moments I would imagine a smiling attendant appearing in the aisle every hour on the hour, handing us all our savings, in cash. .
For decades I told anyone who would listen that they should try the bus, and the train, and I would encourage them to do so. Dare them, even. Now I don’t. I used to say that airline travel had become just like bus travel — but now I don’t. Airline travel has certainly become unpleasant, but bus travel, when last I rode (last December, Edmonton to Fort Nelson, 16 hours, $180. 6 hours or so, $600 on Central Mountain Air) had dropped even farther down the scale of petty annoyances and discomforts. On that trip, at least until we hit the Alaska Highway and things started to become more rural and civilized, that midnight bus from Edmonton really was starting to feel like the loser cruiser. I tried to take it all in a good light, and root for the Hound in the face of WestJet, just like I have tried, with mixed success over the years, to cling to other quixotic notions.
But no. The bus and the train nowadays choose their own, and until that unlikely day when the lunacy of launching skyward for a 300-mile journey, complete with a requirement to arrive at the airport (miles from the center of town) at least 90 minutes before liftoff, for a battery of X-rays, interrogations, and sniffer dogs, dawns on people — perhaps only through their pocketbooks, which is the only way any real-life decision seems to come to most people — the bus and train routes through the hinterlands of the west and the north will continue to dwindle.
Airline travel was once elegant. The Greyhound has never been elegant, and it never will be. At best it can be dignified, but nowadays its dignity is faltering right along with the dignity of airline travel. It is good to travel with a sense of humor, when travelling on the bus — and I suppose nowadays on the increasingly maddening airliners — so that you can chuckle when the bow-legged and thoroughly inebriated cowboy who got on at Manning lurches up the aisle to proclaim in a booming voice that the toilet at the back of the coach is “locked up tighter ‘n a bull’s ass in fly time.” On the bus this is just standard stuff, like standing alongside the coach under the stars with the driver at three in the morning while he smokes his smoke and whacks the tires with a baseball bat to check their pressure at 35 below zero..
But here, my friends, is the beauty of the bus, and to some extent the trains of the far north (limited as those are nowadays, even more limited than the buses.) It is the beauty that comes from three words, three words that WestJet, Air Canada Jazz, Delta and all the rest will never rival: All Points Between. When the voice comes over the loudspeaker at the Edmonton depot, (sadly now relegated to a grim location far from the nightlife and bookstores of Jasper Avenue), announcing a bus “now boarding on Track Two for Grande Prairie, Dawson Creek, Fort Saint John, Fort Nelson, Whitehorse, and all points between — that final phrase is one of the enduring values of bus travel.
To be aboard a bus as it pulls over at a lonely road crossing on the Alaska Highway or the south coast of Iceland or a farmstead in north-central Norway, and watch as someone young or old gathers their bags and steps off, or steps on, greets the driver, finds a place that suits them, and plops down with a happy sigh, just as the bus begins to roll forward again, or to feel the train slow down and stop late on a spring night in northern Manitoba, and watch a Cree family step up from the spruce forest alongside the track to load their packsacks and a canoe and a couple of dogs into the open door of the baggage car… these are the moments and the convenience and the elegance we are now losing, as we lose the loser cruisers. Soon no more bus to Fort Nelson; already no bus south from Hay River, and years since there has been a bus clear north to Yellowknife from points south. There are things I won’t miss about the bus, but I will miss its simplicity and efficiency, and that unmatched access to All Points Between. Sometimes I wonder if I am the only one.