Bus to Banff by Mandelbrot
The driver said, “Are you fit to travel, sir?” and the crack smoker said, “Are any of us fit to travel?"
Outside the Vancouver bus station at 5:00 a.m., a man with a limp approached me for money and cigarettes. I gave him a dollar and said, “See you later,” though I didn’t plan on it. Inside I counted out change for breakfast at the station café. I now had three dollars, and Calgary was fifteen hours away. I bought a bottle of water (one-fifty) and clutched my lunch bag.
By 6:00 a.m., we were all shuffling onto the bus. I sat down. The seat was wrong. I didn’t like the view. I tried one on the other side of the aisle but that one was wrong too—there was a stain on the armrest, or possibly a bit of old gum. I got up and tried another. I finally came to terms with the fact that this trip was going to suck no matter where I sat. I settled in.
This was to be my second-longest Greyhound trip, my record having been attained years earlier with a twenty-six- hour journey from Montreal to Myrtle Beach, undertaken in the name of adolescent drinking. But I was younger then and sturdier of mind, and my mother had given me sleeping pills for the journey.
We rolled out of the depot and into the faint light of dawn. The bus driver addressed us: “Good morning, everybody. We’re about ready to get on the road here. Hopefully everything’ll go smoothly . . . usually when I do this trip there’s an avalanche or a rockslide or something and I end up having to dig us out of the snow and whatnot. Anyway, let me know if you’re too cold or too hot so I can adjust the coach temperature. I can’t feel it, ’cause I’ve got my own controls up here. I can’t tell if it’s too hot in the coach. You’ve got to tell me, okay? If you don’t, and you’re too cold or too hot, it’s your own fault.”
Twenty minutes into the ride I took out my journal and wrote “FREEDOM” on a fresh page. Dare to dream!
Fifteen hours to go.
At 6:30 a.m., we pulled into our first stop. It was unexpected: the signage at the Vancouver bus depot had indicated only five or six stops along the thousand-kilometre route to Calgary. When I read the itinerary at the bus station, I had been amused by place names like Salmon Arm and Chilliwack. But we were in Coquitlam, and had barely left our starting point. What was going on? When I saw the long line of people preparing to embark, I knew that the two-seats-to-myself situation was over.
What to do? What to do? Pile my luggage onto the seat next to me like the girl across the aisle? I only had one small bag! Pretend to be crazy? I cursed my cute outfit. Who’d believe I was insane in an ironed cardigan? The masses began to board. I threw myself across the empty seat and pretended to sleep.
The first few people filed past, but more people kept coming. I held fast, my eyes screwed shut, my mouth hanging open. I even threw in the occasional muscle twitch. What was taking so long? I risked a peek. The queue was endless. People tramped down the aisle single file, carrying cardboard boxes and children, shopping bags dangling from their free fingers. I closed my eyes again.
The inevitable call to action. I didn’t move.
I maintained position. Then—the shoulder tap. It came like a thunderclap at sea. I raised myself and surrendered to an older, pissed-off looking woman. I hated this woman. I hated her with all my heart and soul. Because of her, I now had half a square metre to myself for fourteen and a half hours. Because of you, I hissed internally. Because of you! (I also hated the girl across the aisle, whose mountain of luggage had protected her.)
I sat up and wiped the pretend-sleep from my eyes. Oh, I had been disturbed.
The woman sat down beside me. “This bus is a real piece of crap,” she said.
I agreed that it was.
“My name’s Pam. Are you going all the way to Calgary?”
I said something like “You bet your hat.”
“Well, the bus usually empties out at Revelstoke. Maybe I can leave you alone again after that.”
Pam understood. She was an angel. I told her that this was my first time taking this bus.
“Really? Well, it gets pretty later on. But the first ten hours are a real pain in the arse.”
I watched people boarding the bus. One, a teenager, got on with a friend. He walked with a limp and wore clothes several sizes too big for his tiny body. His head was shaven bald and covered with tiny cuts. He told his friend that he was going to fall over if he didn’t sit down soon. “Whoa,” said his friend, who held his arm and steered him into the closest row. He collapsed into the seat. He was holding a cereal box. His friend, who looked spiffy in that teenaged drug dealer way (crisp hoodie, polished silver chain) gave him a supportive shoulder slap and left the bus. The small bald teen—a crack smoker, I guessed— held his cereal box in his lap and stared straight ahead of him. Wouldn’t he be more comfortable if he put his Frosted Flakes in the overhead bin? I decided not to say anything.
More people got on. Most of them possessed a downtrodden Oliver Twist look, only less thin. A tall man with short black hair and a porous complexion, like an orange, stomped up the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette and had a canvas backpack slung over one shoulder. He continued to smoke his cigarette until he was three rows deep in the belly of the coach, at which point he turned and tossed the burning stub out the door. He took the seat behind me. I heard the cords of his bag being untied and then the unfurling of metal. Through the crack between Pam’s seat and mine, I could see him nibbling pieces of tinned salmon from the end of a fork.
We prepared to depart Coquitlam. The bus driver, expertly manoeuvring his tremendous girth down the aisle, collected our tickets. He arrived at the back and stopped. “Sir?” he said. “Where are you going today? . . . Sir?” No one answered. He began to shout. “Sir? Where are you going today? Sir?”
There was no reply.
“Are you fit to travel, sir?”
“Are any of us fit to travel?” said the crack smoker.
We stopped every three hours; we filed out of the bus to gather in clumps and smoke cigarettes. When we weren’t smoking there was a lot of talk about doing it later, like “Man, I’m gonna love that smoke.” Those who didn’t have cigarettes bargained for them, the have- nots offering the haves whatever change was around. Money was never accepted, but everyone appreciated the gesture. In Golden, the man who sat behind me told me he fished. It was seasonal work, he said, so he got to move around. In the summer he fished and lived in a river. “In the shallow part, on the rocks,” he explained. “I’ve got a van.” In winter he left for the Okanagan Valley, where he fixed logging equipment and sometimes drove a tractor. He blew the smoke from his joint out the side of his mouth so it wouldn’t get in my face.
Nine hours into the ride we stopped at Revelstoke, where the bus did empty out as Pam had promised. The sun beat down on the concrete expanse by the tiny bus depot. Inside there were pamphlets about skiing, and bags of gummy candies, and a vending machine selling coffee, black or with cream. We sat on the curb in the shade, waiting for the driver to gather us up again. I traced the outline of my bare toes with a stick. The crack smoker got out his pipe and lit it. No one said anything.
The migrant worker sidled up again and asked where I was coming from. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten to ask.
“Vancouver,” I told him. He asked if I lived there; I said I lived in Spain.
“Spain!” he said.
“For now,” I said, “but I’m from Montreal.”
“Montreal!” he said.
It was my first time out west, I said.
“Yeah? Pretty beautiful, eh?”
It was. The mountains rose behind the gas station, the McDonald’s and the boxy houses of the town; they were tremendous, they made the town look funny, like an amusing attempt at permanence. Ha ha, civilization, I thought. How ridiculous streets and buildings and people seemed against a landscape like this, that had always been here, that had nothing to do with gas prices or the calories in a Big Mac, or a kid smoking crack on the sidewalk.
I spent the rest of my money on cherries from a fruit stand by the gas station. I bought ten of them, because that was what I could afford.
When we got back on the bus, Pam moved across the aisle and I was finally on my own. The migrant worker offered me peanuts, which I didn’t want, and I offered him cherries, which he didn’t want but politely tried anyway.
The little boy sitting in front of me twisted in his seat. “Where are we, Mom?” he asked repeatedly. “Mom, where are we?”
“Hey kid,” said the crack smoker from a few seats up. “Be quiet.”
The kid went still.
Four hours to go. I stared out the window, the only tourist on the bus. Everyone else dozed or talked. They’d all done this a hundred times. No one listened to music, or sent texts, or took pictures. There was just quiet, and trees, and the counting down of time.