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What I Learned as a Kid Alone on a Greyhound Bus

My parents unintentionally taught me about the world, but I can't pass on those lessons to my children.

What I learned by myself and frightened on a public bus.

I took the first of many lonely Greyhound bus trips as a first grader in 1981. My mother and father were recently divorced and they had decided to solve the logistical nightmare of joint custody by putting me on an eastbound route every other weekend. On that first trip, I mounted the steep steps of a dusty silver and blue Americruiser with trepidation and found a seat behind the driver. The trip took two hours, but it took me another 35 years to understand just how much my parents hated each other. Now that I have a first grader of my own, I better understand not only why they made the decision they did, but also that it allowed me to experience the world in a way that my children never will.

Hate is the only thing I can imagine that would make me put my kid on a Greyhound bus alone. It’s not that my parents didn’t have any other options. They had cars. And, frankly, the physical distance between them wouldn’t have been a terrible burden if they’d met in the middle. But it was the meeting part they couldn’t handle.The emotional distance was too big to cross.

To be fair, they tried the in-person kid-swap after my father moved to a minuscule Colorado mountain town called Ridgeway to be a teacher. My mother had stayed in Grand Junction on the arid border of Utah. The halfway point was the appropriately name Delta, not far from where they met in high school.

There was a bar parking lot in Delta where they would pass me off. On Friday, it would happen around happy hour and my dad would take me to the bar for a bowl of popcorn while he had a couple drinks to wash away the anger. But one day the anger just exploded there in the parking lot. They fought loudly and savagely while I hid in the car. It was the Greyhound after that.

The great irony of the Greyhound bus is that it is insanely slow. It was then. It is now. And Route 50, a two-lane highway with little out the window but sage-choked arroyos and crusted white alkaline flats, didn’t help. At night, I could see the lights of a uranium mine in the distance. That helped pass the time.

There wasn’t much to see inside the bus. At least not where I sat. The drivers were uninteresting and grumpy, nothing like the smiling men on the TV commercials. The roughest of the passengers sat in the back as far away from the driver as possible so I could only get a glimpse of them.The back of the bus felt dangerous. The occasional loud curse word would float forward and the driver would cast a dirty look into his mirror. When I was lucky, older women would keep me company. I’d be temporarily adopted by a traveling granny. They also sat up by the drivers. They’d give me hard candies and ask me questions.

Here are the things available to a first-grader for bus entertainment in 1981: a transistor radio, a drawing pad, a grip of Hot Wheels cars, and very short books for the beginning. Largely, the force of boredom drove me inwards. It drove me to make up stories and songs. I built vast worlds in my imagination as the bus rolled and swayed along. I learned very quickly that being scared got me absolutely nothing. I learned that I was able to travel like an adult. There was no one on the bus like me.

Because it was early in my life as a child of divorce, those realizations were very important. I learned to be alone on a Greyhound and that mattered. Without the bus, I’m sure I would have suffered through my parents’ other absences. But I learned to cope and I learned to read and I learned to amuse myself–to live inside my own head.

I want those skills for my own first grader, but I don’t want to put him on a bus. What would he do if he were there, his Leap Pad replaced by a notebook and crayons? I believe he’d be very frightened. Sill, I think he’d rise to the occasion. He’s more outgoing than I was at his age and the grannies would be utterly smitten. The driver wouldn’t get a moment’s peace.

Even if he could do it, though, I couldn’t. Despite my own largely positive experience, my imagination would build the most gruesome, unthinkable scenarios. I’d be too overcome by thoughts of danger. I’d become another parent fallen victim to the panic of the evening news.

In fact, it was thoughts of danger that brought my Greyhound riding to an end. One day, at the terminus of my trip at the strange, dilapidated bus depot in Montrose, Colorado, my father watched a man exit the bus after me. He had long, stringy hair and a filthy jean jacket. He was rail thin and plainly drunk. He had large white paper napkins sticking out of both of his ears. My father kept me close to him as the driver unloaded the luggage. “That man has napkins in his ears,” he observed. After he gathered my bag, we went to get a bite to eat. He asked me about the people I’d seen on the bus over the years.

In 1984, I stopped riding the Greyhound bus.

The ability to confront loneliness and the specific type of boredom that comes with it makes for a good adult. I want my sons to be able to find themselves without company (digital or otherwise) and feel at ease moving around the world, but I can’t just throw them in with tempting fate or lawyers. I do not know how to teach my boys to wait out feelings of powerlessness or leave fear by the side of the road. I can try, but I will almost inevitably fail. I’m not, after all, going to buy them bus tickets.

I do, however, try to engineer a mental Greyhound of loneliness for my boys, sending them into the yard without their mother or toys, save for the sticks they can find on the ground, for hours or asking them to be quiet in the care. But I know that’s different and I know my boys have each other.

Looking back, I don’t think my parents were terrible. I think they were terrified. But unlike modern parents, what terrified them most was not the grim possibility that their only child would be abducted from a Greyhound bus—that narrative was yet to become a part of the American parenting zeitgeist. What terrified them most was dealing with their feelings towards each other as they learned to be lonely. I don’t want my boys to feel that fear, but I don’t think I can protect them.