There’s been much in the news lately about tense confrontations between airline passengers and the flight attendants doing their best to manage large crowds in narrow spaces. But once in the air, I can enjoy looking out an airplane window, seeing the clouds and landscapes passing by underneath — it is a rarified feeling. I also prefer flying because it is much faster than road travel. A long bus ride is just that — long.
But a recent bus trip was much simpler than most of my plane trips. There wasn’t online check-in 24 hours ahead. No security line. I got to kept my shoes on. No worry about getting space in the overhead bin near my seat. No risk of being dragged off the plane. The trade off, though was I had seven long hours to kill.
Sounds like fun, right?
Seven hours is a long time. But there remains a nostalgia for bus travel. My mind conjures up images from the movies. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Ghost World, The Graduate and The Fugitive or The Shawshank Redemption. All have scenes of buses traveling. They evoke a sense of freedom, longing, uncertainty, even danger.
The reality, I learned on my trip, is not nearly as dramatic as that. Just ordinary people on a bus. Before all else, bus travel is egalitarian. There is no first class or business class on Greyhound. Not even premium economy. Just people. People getting from point A to point B. A long journey, yes, but not much class warfare once we’re on board.
The journey on a bus is as much an experience as the destination. I know it’s rather cliche to say that, but I had to make the most out of the seven-hour trip. Having a Jesuit companion does help, but we wouldn’t be talking for the entire trip. So without packing my electronic device with three full-length movies, there was only a few other ways left to keep me occupied. Pray, sleep, read, check Facebook, and look out the window.
* * *
As the bus sailed along the interstate, I had front row seats to the passing sceneries outside.There is a constantly changing view outside the window, yet not moving too quickly that I wasn’t able to appreciate it. Rolling hills blanketed in snow, frozen rocky mountainsides dripping with icicles, and bare-boned trees that dotted the countryside. As the bus spun around a turn, a new landscape unfurled, as if just for me. And as I watched this winterscape, I found myself imagining what this part of the world would look like in different seasons. The hills would be covered with the spectacular colors of autumn leaves. Of spring and summer greens.
The bus trip allows me to be taken on a journey through the landscapes that I would normally pass over rather quickly looking down from above. It affords me enough time to savor what I am seeing. The views hold me, keeping me from being distracted by the next trifling thing I might otherwise do to pass the time.
* * *
I can hear you sighing. “But time is money, and I don’t have that kind of time. Yes, it is true we often can’t afford to take a long bus trip, even if it is more affordable than a airplane ride for the same distance. But even if I had flown, I would have to take two flights and a total of five hours of travel to my destination. So it wasn’t costing me that much in the long run.
But on a deeper level, flying begs an important question – what are we willing to do to “save time”? We pay to sit closer to the front of the airplane. We pay to get into the airplane ahead of almost everyone else. We pay money (and forfeit a lot of personal information) to bypass the normal security check and immigration clearance, just to keep our shoes and belt on. We join frequent flyer program to accumulate mileage so we can get upgrades and premier/elite status. We get to use the airline clubs to get away from the hustle and bustle of the ordinary waiting areas. We humblebrag about how we got the lie-flat seat upgrade. We read travel blog article on which credit card that would allow the most transferable frequent flyer points.
Seems like that’s a lot of energy and money spent in the interest of saving time.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a criticism of the premium frequent flyers and airfare bargain hunters. Everyone needs a hobby, and I did all of that at one stage of life or another. And, what did they give me? A bit less stress and more comfort than the ordinary flyers, I suppose. A couple of (seemingly) freely tickets.
But not until I sat on a Greyhound bus did I realise the absurdity of it all. Of air travel and the things we do to get a little bit ahead. To save a bit more time. To be a little more comfortable. To feel a bit more ‘refreshed’ so I can hit the meeting soon after landing.
No doubt, there are real reasons for all of that. Today, air travel in coach/economy class (notice the terms) with no frequent flyer perks is an unpleasant and stressful experience. So to alleviate or minimize the stress and frustration, and increase time saving, we pay for Early-Bird Check-In and all the little more incremental travel-perks the airlines have invented. We expect to save more time, be more comfortable, and have less stress. But we still have to fly or pay more to get the perks. Money and time separate those who have more and have less, all sitting on the same airplane. But “in the unlikely event of an emergency” those in first class and in economy are going down on the same airplane. An extra few inches of comfort doesn’t amount to much then.
Yet, in the back of my mind is that bit of hope that I still can accumulate enough frequent flyer miles to get an upgrade to a long-haul Qantas business class seat one day. It’s a challenge to change the human nature that drive us to strive to be the elites.
And, what do we do we when we get on the plane? We want to be left alone to our newspapers, our works on the laptop, and our inflight entertainment system. And, when the airplane arrives at its gate, we are all murderously itching to get off the plane. Don’t believe me? Stand in the aisle unloading your overhead slower than you need to, and watch the faces of those trapped behind you flush with anguish and rage.
* * *
By contrast, my no-frills bus trip let me slow down and appreciate the distance and time that it takes to reach a physical destination. The long ride on the bus, other than showing me the landscapes and towns I haven’t passed through before. It has given me the time to idle, to reflect and ask questions without the distraction of trying to keep myself occupied.
* * *
Have we lost sight of time as a gift?
Yes, we can buy more time with our Elite Gold status memberships. But, it is really more about what we do with the time we have, and to whom and what we give it. The experience that came from receiving such gift is more valuable than money can buy.
My bus trip affords me a new perspective on travelling simply. It brought me down from rarified airs to the ordinary ground that I spend the rest of my life on. On this bus, I was with ordinary travellers, where the Elite Gold status didn’t really matter. It was a lesson that took me seven hours to learn — and it was worth every minute.
Cover image from US National Archives, available on Flickr here.
Image of woman on bus by Flickr user Tais Sirole, available on Flickr here.