Wednesday, August 13th 1986
The bus left Chicago just before midnight. I had the prime seat at the front almost opposite the driver. I watched as an attractive young girl ran up towards the bus and only just made it before the doors closed. I thought for a minute she would sit next to me. I hoped she would but then I was also relieved when she didn’t. I needed to sleep. We set off into the darkened Chicago streets.
Thursday, August 14th 1986
I had a bird’s eye view of the road but almost as soon as we got onto I-51 I fell asleep. I was awoken by the driver shouting “Champagne, Champagne”. I thought it was some kind of celebration, but I soon realised it was 2am and we had arrived at the small town of Champaign. There was definitely no cause for celebration and I watched as about 20 guys got off the bus and headed towards a waiting convoy of cars and trucks.
The bus was now almost empty. I fell back to sleep and only woke as we were arriving at St Louis itself. We crossed the Mississippi (something Mike and quite a lot of other Americans had never done) and we headed past the great arch to arrive at the Broadway bus station at 6am. I had a top-half body wash in the toilet. Whilst I was washing I was approached, as usual, by guys wanting to sell me drugs.
I walked out into St Louis. There was a wonderful sunrise and I was greeted with quite a busy atmosphere on the streets. The city was waking up and starting to go to work. I kept walking and eventually I came to the large expanse of grass just in front of the massive arch, the symbol of St Louis.
To me the arch looked just like one half of the McDonald’s logo and I wondered if there was a connection. If they built another one next to it, I thought, it would be exactly the McDonald’s logo. The arch didn’t open until 8am and, as it was only just 7am, I decided to find a McDonald’s for breakfast. The power of advertising !
The McDonald’s I found close by was situated on a real Mississippi river boat, or possibly it was just a replica of one. It was moored on the river just upstream from another Mississippi river boat covered in Burger King flags. I ordered an apple Danish and a coffee and took myself up to the top deck and then, looking out at the sun rising over the wide river, I felt quite pleased with myself.
When the arch opened at 8am I was fourth in the queue for the train (or tram as they called it) that takes you to the top. I boarded a capsule containing 5 people that was itself part of a train of 8 capsules sitting inside the arch. As we rose 630 feet to the top I was surprised that the capsule kept itself upright. As the arch itself was clearly curved I thought it was quite ingenious.
The view of St Louis didn’t present as spectacular a panorama as New York or Chicago had done but it was interesting all the same. Whilst I was looking out I heard the first southern US accents that I had encountered.
After the train ride down to the base I toured the Museum of Western Expansion at the bottom. It was small in scale but brilliantly done. There were model teepees, cowboy and Indian gear and lots of quotes from Thomas Jefferson. They showed an interesting film entitled “time of the west”. I emerged satisfied that I knew pretty much “how the west was won”.
I got a bus out to the Anheuser Busch brewery. The whole site was strewn with little railway lines and had a wonderful, perhaps not surprisingly, brewing smell to it. I had a double cheese burger, fries and milk in the little restaurant before signing up for the Budweiser Brewery tour.
We started with a look at the gorgeous Clydesdale horses, originally from Scotland, which used to pull the company beer carts. We then proceeded to a 5-floor brewing house for an explanation of the whole process. We finished up in the massive bottling plant and a sample tasting of 3 different beers.
It was the first factory tour I had ever been on and the great thing was it was all free. There was a gift shop at the end and it had a mesmerising display of books, T-shirts and key rings displaying the logos of the various American beer brands. I bought nothing.
I got the bus back into town and then in the court house building I learnt more about the growth of the city of St Louis. Yet again, the Americans proved to be really great at providing interesting museums. There were models of the riverboats, old photographs and displays which all told the story of a relatively insignificant piece of history in a really fascinating way.
The centre of St Louis had a nice shopping mall and I walked around it for a bit and then I went over to a new development they were building called Lacledes Landing. It was obviously destined to become a redevelopment along the lines of Covent Garden in London or Station Square in Pittsburgh but it wasn’t entirely completed. They were just in the process of redeveloping the old warehouses into shops and creating a cobblestone area in an “old world” style.
I watched an Amtrak train cross the river and then walked down the riverbank taking a closer look at all the river boats moored along the Mississippi.
I decided to get some food for the journey to Dallas. I was determined to improve my diet and get away from all the processed food I had been having up until now. I went back to the centre but I found few shops selling groceries. I came to the conclusion that most Americans shopped for food in the large supermarkets in the outskirts of towns. In the centres there seemed to be few shops selling quality food. The best that I could manage to find in St Louis was a loaf of white bread, some processed cheese and some fruit.
By 4:15pm I was back in the bus station. I tried to change in the toilet but I was foiled by a wet floor and bums searching for things in the trash cans. I sat and waited for the bus and reflected on my time in St Louis. It hadn’t been a bad place to stop. I only really inserted it in the itinerary to avoid arriving in Dallas at midnight, but I was glad I had.
I clambered aboard the 5:15pm bus and I noticed it had “Los Angeles” on the destination blind. That encouraged me. I was certainly heading west now I thought. Except that I was actually heading south. We left St Louis and headed along I-50. I-50 duplicates the path of Route 66 all the way to Springfield and Oklahoma.
The scenery hadn’t changed too much. It was still green, still lots of trees and still masses of advertising hoarding signs every few hundred yards. The biggest change I could notice was that the radio stations now began with a K instead of a W. I listened to KADI 96 on the Walkman, it was an interesting station but the signal was crackly.
We made the first stop at Sullivan. There was a type of wild-west country store that doubled as the Trailways’ bus depot. The next stop was Rollas, a small place but a very popular stop where a lot of passengers got off. The bus station at Rollas was hidden in a shack in the car park at Dairy Queen.
The settlements were certainly getting fewer and far between now and the land felt more spacious and open. Lake Woebegon proved to be quite a good read and I made progress with it as the sky got darker and the lights of the trucks and the big Ms of the roadside McDonald’s went flashing past the window. Neon signs “Truck Port 28″ – “Fuel, Food, Lodge”.
We stopped late in the evening at Fort Leonard Wood, a large military installation, where shaven-headed soliders who had just finished basic training got on board. They scrambled for seats and when they had finished there weren’t many free ones left. Luckily I just missed out on getting a seatmate.
Then we stopped at Waynesville. It wasn’t on the schedule but the driver announced it as the last chance for hot food before Oklahoma City in the morning. He told us there would be a 15 minute stop whilst he himself had a quick meal. A few passengers decided to join him. I didn’t.
After 5 minutes I got off to deposit my litter and watched them all in the restaurant hurrying on with their food. I sat on the step of the bus which had had the engine left on and was gently idling. On the right hand side was a big garage with a sign “Phillips 66 – Service on 66” I had one of those “What on earth am I doing here?” moments. I got back on the bus and made myself a cheese sandwich.
Friday, August 15th 1986
Before long we were rolling down the freeway again. We had a driver change in Springfield and then set off yet again. I fell straight to sleep and, apart from the odd moment where I came to for a few seconds, I slept all the way to Oklahoma City. The bus was on time as it pulled into Oklahoma at 5:05am. I had been hoping it would be late.
I had an hour and fifty minute wait at Oklahoma until the bus for Dallas was due to arrive. I had a cup of coffee and got more hassle in the toilets from the tramps. They told me they wanted to sell me Cologne rather than drugs. They obviously had a higher class of tramp in Oklahoma.
The highlight of my stay was an elderly gentleman interrupting my reading of Lake Woebegon by breaking wind loudly and sending the Chinese girl next to him scurrying away in disgust. This started a chain reaction of coughing, spluttering and other noises. Whilst all this was happening, calls were being made for Kansas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Memphis.
Finally Dallas was called.
I was one of the last to board so I was surprised to secure a double seat behind the morbidly obese driver. I was thinking I was safe when just before the door closed an old lady got on and sat next to me. I fell asleep as we were pulling out of Oklahoma and when I woke up there was a different person sitting next to me.
I was right behind the speedometer and I could see that we were chugging along at a constant 60mph. The roads were a lot quieter now and the scenery was more parched grass with rocks here and there. I fell asleep again and when I woke again I saw that whoever had been next to me had got off.
At the stop before Adrmore another man got on and made to sit in the seat next to mine, but he never quite made it. Instead, he stood the whole journey to Ardmore discussing the transport unions and union politics with the driver. I guessed he must have been a fellow driver.
We arrived at Ardmore and some people made the most of the 7 minute stop to get a Doctor Pepper from the Doctor Pepper machine.
The driver now hooked up his fuzz buster radar detection system on the dashboard. He secured it with a piece of wood and tied the electric cables together so it would get power from the electrical system of the bus. We set off again doing a steady 65mph. When it bleeped he slowed to 55mph just before we passed a waiting police car at the side of the road.
If all this wasn’t worrying in itself, the guy really was seriously overweight, he seemed to be taking some kind of pills and drank coffee whilst he was driving.
Eventually we reached the outskirts of Dallas. The driver juggled with the steering wheel whilst he attempted to dismantle the whole fuzz buster paraphernalia and store it in his black bag.
A short while later we arrived at the large bus station, the central hub of the whole Trailways system. It was just after noon. I managed to find a locker for my stuff straight away and I bought a carton of milk.
My trip to Dallas was on the recommendation of my uncle. He knew an American guy called Rick there. Rick had apparently agreed to put me up for a few days and show me the city. To be honest I wasn’t that interested in the idea of Dallas, but I had agreed to going to stay there mostly to please my uncle.
I found a pay phone and called the number I had for Rick’s office. The office told me that he had relocated to Houston and wouldn’t be returning to Dallas. They asked me if I needed the number in Houston. I told them I didn’t and hung up.
The curtailment of my visit to Dallas didn’t worry me at all. I quickly looked up the time of the next bus to El Paso and found a departure at 5:45pm. I had about 5 hours to kill so I ventured out into the intense heat of the city.
I took an almost immediate dislike to Dallas. Part of this was my fault. I ignored a “Don’t Walk” sign and crossed the street. A policeman blew his whistle and shouted at me that it was a 25 dollar fine if I did it again.
Then my efforts to bond with the locals didn’t go to well either. Attracted by a sign “Hamburgers 38c”, I went into a place called “Spikes” and ordered a burger. The guy behind the counter insulted me for the way I looked and the way I was dressed. I was wearing a flowery T shirt and had blond highlights in my hair. That obviously didn’t pass his masculinity test. I walked out.
I know it would be unfair to trash the whole city on a couple of experiences, but I wasn’t really in the mood to be open-minded. I walked down to the place where JFK was shot. The memorial wasn’t that impressive to be honest. It was just a simple black slab with a tribute inscription surrounded by four concrete slabs.
Perhaps simplicity was the key to it, but it didn’t really move me in the way perhaps it was meant to. I think I was probably expecting a more impressive museum like the ones I had seen in other US cities on the trip. I noticed that the book depository window from where JFK was shot was not even marked.
I walked back to the bus station in a few circles taking in a few shopping malls and book shops. It didn’t go well. It was much too hot and the more I saw the more I disliked the place. I knew in the back of mind that in order to know a place you probably had to live there and Dallas was probably as fine as anywhere else, but I just couldn’t wait to leave. I got some cheese slices, wheat bread and apples from a grocery store and headed back to the bus station early.
I sat down on one of the moulded plastic chairs and waited with an assortment of bums, Texans and Mexicans. Some of them were watching the coin operated TV’s integrated into the chairs but most of them looked quite bored.
I chatted with the clerk at the Trailways counter. He told me the bus for El Paso would leave at around 6pm and arrive in El Paso at 7am. “It crosses the whole of Texas and it is a 24 hour trip” he said. I told him it was actually only 14 hours and that included the 1 hour time difference. He agreed with me but I got the feeling he wasn’t entirely convinced and that he most likely wanted Texas to be even bigger than it really was. As they finally called the bus, I thought to myself that shitty old Trailways certainly picked an appropriate place to base their operation.
The bus was not one bus but three. There were to be two duplicate buses on the route to El Paso. I wondered whether it was because El Paso was so attractive, but I decided that people probably just wanted to get out of Dallas. I was almost at the front of the queue so I headed to the first bus.
When boarding switched to the bus behind us, there were only two empty seats a couple of rows behind me. A rather plump black lady put her infant child on one and a box on the other. Two Mexican lads who had been hoping to switch to sit together started to shout at her. She shouted back and the whole thing got a bit out of hand for a while. The compromise was for the child to go back on her lap and the box to stay where it was. Welcome back to Trailways!
Every Trailways journey started with a long driver announcement and this one was no exception. In one long sentence spoken very quickly in a Texan drawl we got the low down on the whole trip. We were informed that the distance would be 545 miles, there was to be no smoking as Federal law forbade it, no drugs and no alcohol either and finally we were wished a good evening and told that the drivers name was Bill.
Bill immediately came in for some heavy stick. The air conditioning wasn’t working at the back of the bus. There were constant shouts from the guys at the back to turn the “AC” up. When Bill ignored these the passengers in the back began to open the windows. This had the effect on the rest of the system and there was soon a chain of opening windows going forward. Soon we were sitting in a windy box on wheels.
Meanwhile, I was getting a running commentary from two guys behind me who were, in extremely loud voices, pointing out all the details of the scenery and discussing their plans for arriving in San Francisco.
The scenery was changing a little now and there were lots of ranches. There were lots of Texaco garages too and I supposed that that made sense given that we were in Texas. The sun was slowly setting and it was, I had to admit, a really beautiful sight.
My seatmate, a 20-something well-dressed white girl, was ignoring all of this. She had a Walkman on when she sat down at 5:40pm and removed it just once at 8:20pm to ask me the time. She sat there reading Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She got off at 10pm and left me to a double seat to myself.
We trundled across Texas and made a few stops along the way. At each one Bill would unload items from the bus and place them into large wooden boxes marked with the Trailways logo and placed at the side of the road. I hadn’t seen this before. I assumed it was some kind of mail system. Someone was obviously going to come along later and collect the items.
We had a longer stop just as it had got dark. We pulled into a McDonald’s and it was then that Bill realised that all the windows were open. He told us to shut them all and everyone, except those in the back, quietly agreed. I queued in McDonald’s with everyone else but I only bought a Sprite. I went back to the bus and made myself cheese and jalapeno sandwiches.
I made the most of being on my own. I made an improvised bed. I put my feet inside my rucksack on the floor, put my leather jacket over my knees and wrapped my pullover into my sheet sleeping bag to make a pillow. It was my third consecutive night on a bus and I slept soundly. I woke just once to get a can of Coke at 3am from a 7-Eleven shop we had stopped at.
Saturday, August 16th 1986
The sunrise finally woke me. It was a glorious one and looking out I could see that the scenery had now changed and become much more like desert. The ground looked dry and sandy and there were just small clumps of grass here and there. There were also extensive mountain ranges in the background. It was a dramatic change from what I had experienced so far. I adjusted my watch from 7am Central time to 6am local time.
We arrived in El Paso at 7:15am. The town was very Spanish or, I suppose, Mexican looking. I munched my last cheese and jalapeno sandwich and drank another Coke as I watched the baggage boys throw my bag from out of the side of the bus. I rang the youth hostel, got a bed and directions and set off.
After Dallas, El Paso felt very refreshing. It was strangely European in character and it had a nice little plaza in the centre. The whole place had a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere. The youth hostel, actually called the Gardiner Hostel, was an absolute classic. It was an old colonial building with a dark cool interior. The furniture must have been original and there was a 1930s Coke machine sitting in the lobby. The warden gave me a key and said I could check in even though it was only 8:30am.
I used the jerky old elevator to reach my room on the second floor. Two French guys were just leaving as I threw my bags under one of the two bunk beds in the room. I had a lovely shower, changed and then headed out.
It was still only 9am as I walked along Stanton Street. I wasn’t going for a look around El Paso. I was heading straight for the border a few hundred yards down the street. I was off for the briefest of brief looks at Mexico.