Long-distance buses are cheap and surprisingly attractive options for travel

11/10/2013 12:00 AM

11/09/2013 6:05 PM

They say that if you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and not much money, this is the way to travel. What they don’t tell you, but should, is that you also need to embrace your sense of adventure and let go of your snobbish class consciousness.

Yes, we’re talking about a Greyhound bus road trip.

Ridin’ the ol’ gray dog, setting for so many picaresque pop-culture touchstone moments, from Kerouacian fictional exploits to Simon & Garfunkel sentimentalizing. Nothing encompasses both the romance of the road and its attendant dirty realism – the hard-luck story in every seat, the sadness of a bus terminal in the predawn gloom, the bright promise exuding from a young couple holding hands – more than crossing the threshold of those pneumatic doors and hitting the open road with an impassive, blue-jacketed driver who’s steady at the wheel.

Airplane travel? Sure, you can traverse the state in less than two hours. But you must endure the TSA gantlet, wedge into seats barely wide enough to fit a supermodel’s skinny tush and beg for that extra packet of peanuts.

Amtrak? A valid option, certainly. But this isn’t your classic, storied riding-the-rails train trip, which is more like an extended commuter shuttle, with passengers staring at screens until their retinas burn and yakking on cellphones about that 10 o’clock meeting with some angel investor at a venture capital firm.

Car drives? Perfect for the asocial or control freaks who want to stop when and where they want along the highway, but have you seen the price of gas lately?

So, there’s always the bus. Oh, get off your high horse (another inconvenient travel option, by the way) and give it a try. You may find what many skeptics, even the one writing this story, learned: That, far from being the last resort for the down-and-out and a festering cauldron of contagion, many seasoned travelers looking for frugal deals find this mode of transport attractive. So attractive, apparently, that there now is heated competition in the long-distance bus industry.

The recent rise of Megabus.com, a British company featuring bright blue and orange two-decker coaches that began service in Sacramento in 2012, has prompted Greyhound to expand and upgrade its service. The result is a boon to travelers. Both bus lines promise cheap fares (as low as $1, if you book weeks in advance, but mostly in the $10-to-$30 range, with online booking) aboard spiffed-up buses with leg room a Southwest Airline passenger would envy, “express” service with few stops, departing from major hubs such as Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and free Wi-Fi and power outlets for one’s various electronic devices.

Greyhound may still be the industry leader with instant name recognition (both for good and ill), serving more than 25 million passengers a year with 3,800 destinations. Nearly 10 million passengers have ridden the “Express” service since it began in 2010. But Megabus, the upstart, is fast approaching in Greyhound’s rear-view mirror. Since 2006, it has carried more than 30 million passengers with hubs in 100 cities. Other imitators have followed. CAShuttleBus.com offers low-cost jaunts between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But, as I found out recently, the rival bus lines have distinct personalities. As a public service, and to escape my cubicle, I rode Greyhound from Sacramento to Los Angeles on a Monday, and returned via Megabus the next day. All told, about 17 hours of sitting on my tail to tell a tale chock full of romantic road notions and intermittent annoyance, heartbreak and heartburn, as well as long stretches of, well, long stretches.

Greyhound: Sac to L.A.

People talk to themselves on Greyhound

Even the driver strains to hear

They tell the same forgotten story

Will it fall on forgetful ears?

— Ellis Paul, folk singer

She looks as if she knows her way around. In fact, it seems Elizabeth Wright has taken up temporary residence in the roped-off “Express” seating area at Sacramento’s new and still spotless Greyhound station on Richards Boulevard.

Surrounding her is a plush pillow the size of a bean-bag chair, a fuzzy blanket, a red Target bag stuffed with edible provisions, a gray Tupperware container holding who-knows-what, and a suitcase. Wright commands a lot of space reserved for passengers taking the “Express” buses to Los Angeles. Passengers on local routes orbit around us. Greyhound apparently is attempting to make its “Express” passengers feel special, hence the roped-off area, a mounted plasma-screened TV and an actual red carpet leading to the boarding area.

When I approach her, just to see if I’m in the right place for the 8:10 a.m. to L.A.,Wright is in mid-rant to no one in particular about a TV story about women buying breast milk online.

“What kind of woman does that?” she squeals. A woman nearby, clutching her purse, nods, while a young man wearing a backward green Oregon baseball hat feigns indifference but furtively watches the “Today” show’s Savannah Guthrie grilling of weepy young mothers. “I mean,” Wright vocalized, “that’s just sick!”

I ask if this is where L.A. passengers gather.

“I have no idea how this works,” she said. “They just told me to sit here. ... I got off the bus from Seattle and they pointed the way. I’m going to Arizona. Can you believe these women feeding their babies some other woman’s breast milk? Jesus Christ!”

I give Wright a wide berth and chat up Yasamean Azizi, a UC Davis student. Outfitted in college-casual attire (pajama bottoms, Converse sneakers) and peering into a textbook, Azizi says she’s a rookie Greyhound rider. “It’s just because of the money,” she says. “I looked up airlines to L.A. Way too expensive. Amtrak was, like, $160 round trip. I didn’t know what to expect at the station. I read all the Yelp reviews, but this looks pretty good.”

Pleasant surprises popped up numerous times on the trip. The first: The bus left on time. It boards at 8, sharp, and a ticket taker calls each passenger’s name, based on time booked. And, yes, we walk on the red carpet and are greeted by a black-jacketed attendant with “SECURITY” stamped on his back. He asks for ID, checks it against the paper ticket (mine, downloaded from the Internet) and waves us on. I try not to make eye contact with those poor souls waiting for the local bus to Lodi and Fresno, but could feel their envy like a stiff breeze on my back.

Speaking of breezes, boarding is just that. No X-ray machines. No metal detectors. No pat-downs and unshodding of one’s feet. You could either store luggage in the bowels of the bus or, like Wright, carry all your possessions with you.

“If I whack you, I’m sorry,” she bellows on her way to the back, whacking me in the shoulder with her pillow. “Sorry. Sorry. Damn, I’m dropping (bleep) all over.”

Once settled in, along with about 15 of us, Wright vocalizes what everyone was thinking. “It’s so damn hot on this bus,” she says, loud enough for driver Everton Adair to hear. “Hot as hell.”

Right on time, the bus pulls out, and Adair tells us over the PA system we’ll be stopping for five minutes in Stockton to pick up passengers, then have a half-hour lunch break in Avenal, in Kings County. Our expected time into Los Angeles: 3:30 p.m. Before signing off, he adds: “Please, no loud noises. We don’t want to disturb anyone.”

Wright, loudly: “We gotta make this ride enjoyable.”

The seats help on that end. There are two on each aisle, black leather that recline. They are wide enough to accommodate a transfat-loving populace. Two electrical outlets are wedged in each seatback. Unlike airlines, there are no tray tables or even mesh pouches to store items. There are, however, overhead compartments.

I test the reliability of Greyhound’s touted Wi-Fi service and logged on right away – not before forking over personal information such as my email address, age and gender (“all fields required”) and then a survey. Can you say captive audience? Once signed on, I tweet about Wright, the passenger who never had an unspoken thought. When we reach downtown Stockton to pick up passengers, she takes in the gritty urban decay and says, “Oh my gawd, look at this place!”

The bus is full now and the woman next to me falls asleep before I can ask about the red rose she clutches. I check out the bus’s bathroom. Clean, smelling like pine trees and ammonia. No sink, but Purell hand sanitizer suffices.

In the next three hours, from Stockton to Avenal, I pick up enough ambient snippets of conversation to keep me entertained. A woman in sweats and wearing pigtails and hipster black-rimmed glasses wraps up a call by saying: “I love you now. We will see in 20 years, OK?” A movie-watching man in front of me on his cell: “They’re going to take it right out of my check. Yeah. Uh-huh. No, they suspended my license in September.” A female voice from behind: “I did sign the power of attorney, but ...”

Then there’s Wright, she of the running commentary. (Note: Ellipses replace the expletives.) When the bus grinds to a halt near the Firebaugh exit because an overturned car has closed a lane, she bellows: “Move it the ... out of the way. And Lord, make sure everyone’s out OK.” When we pass the pungent cattle ranch near Coalinga: “Damn, it’s stinky ... hell on this bus.” She goes on to regale her seatmate with a recipe for making beef jerky (coating the paper bag with butter is a key) before, in a total non sequitur, she rambles on about woodpeckers: “Did you know when a woodpecker pecks, it wraps its tongue around its brain so it doesn’t get all knocked around? Isn’t that cool?”

(I tweet her remark and, not two minutes later, get a reply from a biologist who sends a link disputing Wright’s woodpecker-tongue assertion.)

At Avenal, three lunch options beckon: Subway, a joint called Asadero’s Mexican Food and the food mart inside the 76 station. Subway is packed, but passenger Orlando Gonzalez chooses to sneak a smoke outside instead. He’s employed as a cook in a small Southern Oregon town named Talent, and apparently doesn’t like the culinary options. A short, dark-haired heavily tattooed man in his late 20s, he’d been on Facebook most of the morning. He laughs when I ask him his story.

“I’ll start with this, man. I’m on my way to meet my son for the first time,” he says, grinning.

Gonzalez grew up in South Central Los Angeles, got hooked on drugs, moved up to Oregon last winter to get clean, find work, clear out his head. His pregnant girlfriend didn’t want to go north – “she’s an L.A. girl, for sure, man, discos and the whole L.A. life, but I’m over it already” – so they split. They are still close, though, so when the baby (a boy named Isaiah) was born last month, Gonzalez got some time off from work to see him. He couldn’t afford $300 to fly down, he said, so a round-trip bus fare of under $200 worked out.

What he was ranting on Facebook about was the overnight bus trip from Medford to Sacramento.

“I was there all night waiting, and the bus station was completely black,” he says. “This is downtown Medford. There was crazy dudes walking around. The dude next to me on the bus was scary. Sketchy. I know you get all kinds of people who travel, but I was shocked. And I’m from South Central. The bus stank, man. Stank. Dudes all laid out. I couldn’t get a seat. I had to wake somebody up, say, ‘Excuse me, can I sit next to you?’ All around me, there were feet up in the air, super uncomfortable. The dude went back to sleep and he kicked me. And so I slapped him. He wakes up looks at me and then goes right back to sleep. He could’ve said, ‘Excuse me’ or something. Anyways, I felt like pounding his face in. The whole time I was fantasizing about it.”

His thoughts so far on the Sacramento to L.A. leg?

“This bus is nice, man,” he says. “Happy with this bus. I can recharge my phone.”

Post-lunch, the final three hours into the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound terminal are uneventful. Even Wright ceases her running commentary, though she did boast while re-boarding, “I bought 50 packs of gum. I’m set.”

We arrive at 3:14, 16 minutes ahead of schedule. Passengers disperse in all directions. Wright flounces off and lugs her belongings to the waiting area, Arizona-bound.

Megabus: L.A. to Sac.

We want you to have a great time traveling with us, so please keep your conversations, cellphone use, laughter and entertainment devices at a courteous volume.

— Onboard Megabus safety video

It is 6:15 a.m. at the bus bay of Los Angeles’ Union Station. Believe me, no one waiting for the Megabus to San Francisco – I’ll have to change buses, with a two-hour layover, to get to Sacramento – is laughing or even whispering.

The only sound, other than the roar of buses pulling out, is the reflective-yellow-vested Megabus employee engaged in a shouting match with a homeless man draped in a ratty blue blanket lurking by the Megabus kiosk. (Note: Again, ellipses replace the expletives.)

“What the ... you doing?” the worker scolds. “You Megabus? No? Then get the ... out. What the hell you doing? This is Megabus only, understand. You need to ... leave here.”

After dispatching the homeless man, the worker apologizes to Maryum Jenkins and me, as he checks our reservation numbers and hands us a numbered boarding card. First come, first served. Maryum is No. 1. An L.A. native, she’s headed to San Francisco to meet some friends and then fly to Washington, D.C., for a vacation. She’s never taken Megabus. The only other time she’s been to the Bay Area, she took the aforementioned California Shuttle. “Kind of sketch,” she says. “They pick you up in front of a Denny’s. This one looks nicer.”

Indeed, the bus is clean and spacious. Though the seats are a padded polyester blend, not leather a la Greyhound, there seems to be more leg room and a top deck that looks even more roomy. A dozen people trudge on, most in their 20s, wearing hoodies touting a range of colleges. An elderly couple hefting a grocery bag sits across from me and immediately tears open a bag of pork rinds and unscrews a cap of “Smart Water,” which they share. Breakfast of champions at 6:30.

“This isn’t looking too crowded,” says Allen Zhou, a young businessman from San Francisco and a Megabus regular. “I’ve been riding it since January and it’s gotten more crowded. But it’s still a smooth ride. On a Tuesday morning, it shouldn’t be packed.”

In fact, our driver, Sergio Gonzalez, announces over the PA that we’re making a stop at the Burbank Metro Link station to pick up more passengers. This was not noted in the Megabus online reservation information. Nor was a drop-off in San Jose, which also is planned for this trip. But with a two-hour layover in San Francisco, I shouldn’t miss the connection. “This bus is always on time,” Zhao says. “Every time for me.”

A safety video plays as we roar off toward I-5, with a perky female narrator dressed like a flight attendant. She tells us everything we can’t do. Short list: Don’t put feet or arms in aisle, don’t walk down front stairs, don’t talk to driver, keep laughter low. She explains how to access the free Wi-Fi, then mentions that “some security measures are implemented to block inappropriate content.”

No porn on the Megabus, in other words. Which is no problem to the college student in front of me, who’s already streaming “Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Sith,” rated PG-13.

Even after the Burbank stop, the bus is only half full, and no one says a peep as we chug up the Grapevine and down to the Valley floor. The silence makes the crinkling of the pork rind bag all the more noticeable, and I can even hear the couple swallowing the Smart Water. When we stop in Buttonwillow for a just before 10 a.m., Gonzalez’s announcement wakes up many passengers. We park at a McDonald’s, and Gonzalez beats me to the counter, first in line. He orders an Egg McMuffin and tells the clerk he’s the driver and gets a discount.

(I later tweet about the exchange on the free Wi-Fi and a reply comes quickly: “McKickback?”)

Right on time, we’re back on the bus, and many are nodding off again. Gonzalez strides up the rows, counting bodies. We’re missing one. He jogs over toward the McDonald’s and here comes pork-rind man hustling out of the bathroom attached to the gas station.

Despite the Buttonwillow delay, the drop-off in San Jose and Bay Area traffic, we still arrive at the Cal Train station in downtown San Francisco 40 minutes early. Great news, but now there’s a three-hour wait before the 4:30 bus to Sacramento. The line forms at the temporary kiosk 90 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive. This time, it’s a more diverse group, ranging from gauged ears to gold cufflinks.

This last leg has the feel of a glorified MUNI bus (much tidier), with people chatting on cellphones and pecking on laptop keyboards. We get all the way to Berkeley before I can make out the tune leaking out of someone’s ear buds. Fittingly, it’s “Voices Carry,” by ’Til Tuesday.

Tuesday has seemingly stretched on forever by the time the Megabus rolls into the 65th Street light rail station at 6:23 p.m. For those counting at home, that was an 11-hour, 53-minute trip, but worth every cent of that $16 ticket price.

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