The following are excerpts from Todd Pate’s non-fiction novel, Down the Road With the Rest of America. In September and October of 2011, Pate traveled the United States via Greyhound, logging over 6,000 miles, sleeping on buses, at bus stops, and on the occasional friend’s couch. In the book he recounts the places and lives he passed through during his odyssey across the endless American road.
Alabama into Mississippi
Some Bus People only hope that where they end up isn’t worse than where they’re coming from. Some have a direction, a hope that there is something—a job, a someone—at the end of the road. But they speak of such things with caution.
The bus speeds through America. People make phone call after phone call, trying to get in touch with someone who’ll pick them up as we approach desolate bus stations in the dark before dawn. “We’re comin’ into Montgomery…” “I’m never goin’ back to Florida again…” “Mobile, this time, honey…” “Amarillo…at 3am…” “Can you please…” “If you get this please call me…” “Listen, I love you…”
At a stop in Tuscaloosa, half the passengers got off to smoke. The new sun hovered over the horizon. Over their heads a lighted billboard posed a question: “Jesus, do you know him?”
They paced about slowly, wearily under those giant words. Inhaling, exhaling.
We crossed into Mississippi on I-59 South as the sun struggled against rain clouds to reach its mid-day peak. Outside Meridian, “Closed” signs hung in the dust-covered windows of huge empty buildings that used to be department stores. Grass and weeds reclaimed huge, empty parking lots beside them. A gigantic rendering of an abandoned Old West town.
Across the aisle from me, a young black woman held, in the crook of her arm, a weeks-old baby. Its eyes were wide open as it pawed at its mother’s palm like a kitten. The newborn emanated a sort of peace, and all aboard seemed to lighten in demeanor as we swayed drowsily to the rhythm of the bus. All except the newborn’s mother. She watched, unblinking, as her tiny child reached into its new world.
A middle-aged white mother sat next to me. Her son was fully grown, in the army, and stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso. He’d just received a deployment to Afghanistan and she was headed to El Paso to see him off. Her eyes gleamed with pride and fear as she talked.
A tired, young black man behind the dreamy infant thumbed through his release papers from the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He would put the papers down, watch Mississippi speed by for a while, then pick up the papers again, which curled at their ends. Over and over, he alternated between gazing out the window and inspecting the papers that told him he was free. Every now and then he’d look around the bus, as if he didn’t know if he was dreaming, or if he’d just woken up.
Directly in front of me, an old black man sat next to an old black woman, both bespectacled under their silvering hair. He was going to Jackson. She was going to New Orleans. In no time they were talking like good friends. They’d both lived in Chicago for a while. They both drank too much and smoked too much marijuana there, too. They laughed at their crazy youths in unison, one articulated memory after another. Then the laughter led to sighs, and finally, a moment of silence.
“Well, I just got old and gave all that up,” sighed the old woman.
“Yeah,” seconded the man. “I got addicted and had to change all my friends.”
The Mississippi trees and grass were a vibrant green. In every little sleepy town, it seemed every house, no matter how small, had a veranda. Over the roofs, steeples and crosses of Baptist churches reached for God.
We pulled into Brookhaven under the quiet, gentle threat of rain. The bus stop was a convenience store on the edge of town, run by an old man and his daughter who looked at a customer as if he was an oddity. Then they’d say, “hello,” as if they’d suddenly remembered they operated the store.
Outside the bus, the smokers stood in a circle and engaged in a little banter. The bus driver smoked just outside the circle of passengers, listening, but not participating in the camaraderie. It seemed everyone on the road was just outside of someone’s life, with a clear view into it, listening, but firmly planted in the position of stranger.
The smell of rain was in the air. I felt a few raindrops. Gray and silver clouds hovered overhead, making all that was green even greener.
Fargo and Points Further North
At Fargo, two men, a white man and an Indian, sat in the seats in front of me. They wore identical sweatshirts with a company emblem I couldn’t make out in the purple glow of the evening. I wouldn’t have to, though, because the white man told me he and his co-worker and all ’round good buddy sitting next to him, the Indian fella, worked for an oil company and were heading to Grand Forks to get a camper.
“Things are so busy out west, in Williston, you know. All the hotels are booked. We’re picking up this camper, gonna stay out on the location.”
The Indian rifled through a plastic bag. He pulled from it a can of beer, cracked it open, took a long swig.
“Hey, you looking for a job?” The white man asked me.
“We have the lowest unemployment in the country. Three percent. And more people are comin’ to work here and they automatically start workin’. There’s lines at all the restaurants, even at the fast food stops. Hey, you can get a job at a McDonald’s. People are getting paid fifteen dollars an hour to wipe the tables clean. They’re payin’ high because anyone able-bodied’s goin’ out to the oil field where they can make seventeen an hour starting off.”
The Indian crushed his empty can, reached down, cracked open another. I watched him drink, tilting the can higher and higher. He paid no attention to the white man’s sermon the entire ride to Grand Forks. Just drank.
“I tell you I’ve never seen a place with this much work. I’ve been everywhere. Scrounged around for years in California, Arizona, trying to make a livin’. More time just lookin’. I’m not leavin’ North Dakota. I’m workin’ here until I don’t have to work anymore.”
Suspended in its own lighting in the dark beyond the interstate a billboard read, “The Bible. Inspired. Absolute. Final.”
Behind me a woman talked on her phone to the person who was to pick her up in Grand Forks, a relative she hadn’t seen in some time.
“I think I’ll remember you when I see your face.”
She told the relative that she had exactly forty-five days to visit, then she had to leave because, “of my probation,” she whispered. “Of course, I’d like to stay longer, but…” When she hung up, the oil man turned from me to her.
“Up here lookin’ for work?” He asked her.
“No, just visitin’.”
“There’s a lotta work up here. You can get a job at the windmill factory. That’s a boomin’ business, too. You can make thirteen dollars and thirty-two cents an hour putting the wings together. Twelve-hour shifts, three days a week. You can’t afford a car? You can buy a bike at Wal-Mart for fifty-two dollars and fifty cents. Rent’s gonna be around four hundred—”
“I’d like t’work,” she interrupted, “but I cain’t stay up here.”
“I know,” said the man. “But what you do is get the job. Get workin’. Then you go back, tell ’em you’re workin’ up here. Tell ’em you’re tryin’ to do good for yourself up here. They’ll set it up for you to work up here.”
At the Grand Forks stop, as passengers were grabbing their things from the overhead racks and waiting to get off the bus, the white man approached the woman again.
“Hey,” he said, leaning close to her and speaking quietly, “all you have to do up here his tell ’em you’re looking for work and tell ’em you’ll do a good job. You tell ’em that and you don’t have to tell ’em anything else. You hear me?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you”
The Indian crushed the last beer can, shoved it in the plastic bag, crammed the bag under the seat, got up, walked out. The white man put his hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“Take care, now” he said to her, “and God bless.”
Matt in Grand Forks
Matt and I went to get a hand apple squeezer out of his garage. He’d been wanting to try it out for some time. We loaded it into his trunk and headed out to the country.
The North Dakota landscape lay incredibly flat with a color spectrum that ran from gray to a grayer gray.
“There’s a lot of color out here,” Matt said. “If you’re here long enough, you can see. The yellows, violets, so many colors. But you have to be here for a while to see them.”
I began to see them as I stared out the window. The grays shifted to a silver-green, or lavender, with the slightest change of the wind.
Further out, we passed picturesque, abandoned farm houses. Each stood alone in the sprawling landscape, their windows broken, their high, sharp-angled roofs losing their battles with gravity. Crumbling monuments to an America that now seemed like ancient history.
“Unfortunately,” Matt said, “a lot of farmers are burning down the old houses. Drug dealers sneak in and set up meth labs. If a meth lab is found on a farmer’s property, whether he knows about it or not, he’s responsible for the cleanup. That could be in the thousands of dollars.”
Chrystal meth was changing the landscape of North Dakota, too, along with the oil boom and floods. Matt said it was easy to cook meth here because it was easy to get far enough away from everyone to do it.
We were certainly far away enough to do it, but we made apple juice instead. And we made incredibly slow progress. Our arms were sore and we were out of breath by the time we managed to squeeze a quarter gallon of juice.
Matt’s father took a look at our apple juice operation and smiled.
“We thought we’d have more juice by now,” I said.
“It’s just good to be doin’ somethin’, isn’t it?” said Matt’s father.
He was right. Sunlight came down on us unimpeded and the air was cool with the slightest breeze. It was a profoundly fall day, and getting tired felt good.
On the way back to Grand Forks, Matt pointed out an Air Force base that the government nearly closed some years ago. It used to handle the maintenance of mid-air refueling airplanes.
“Now, it has to do more with the unmanned drone program.”
I had recently seen a report on a bus-stop TV, in what town I couldn’t remember, about the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen by an unmanned drone belonging to the United States. Al-Awlaki was purported to be a member of Al-Qaeda, but he was also a U.S. citizen. Still, no arrest, no due process, no pilot.
The government was also selling off property in North Dakota that had housed underground missile silos in operation during the Cold War.
“It’s crazy,” Matt said. “I never knew just how many there were until they started to sell them. There are…a lot.”
He also pointed out, in between potato fields, land that was intentionally un-farmed.
“The crop rotation bureau pays the farm to let it go wild for ten years,” he said. “It’s more profitable for some to go for it. The crops have taken a beating the last few years.”
Closer to town, new subdivided neighborhoods had sprung up on land that Matt said was farmed not too long ago. Many farmers resorted to commercial relief along with government help, changing the landscape of North Dakota even more.
The next morning, on the way to the bus stop, we were halted by a long freight train. As it rattled on in front of us, Matt told me his grandmother would frequently find hoboes in her barn.
“She learned their signals, a pile of rocks or something to signify a friendly home, or a warning of a farmer who may shoot at you. I guess my grandmother was a friendly.”
I wanted to hop the train. Since childhood I’d romanced the hobo’s life. I wanted the freedom that it offered—to call nothing but the earth my home. To let go, completely. But hoboes seem the practical type, and a hobo might think it foolhardy to opt out of a cushioned bus seat for the cold floor of a freight car. Anyway, the train I really wanted to hop belonged to another time. Another America, before the North Dakota’s mansions of agrarian society gave way to meth labs, and where no hobo ever said to another, as they rolled around in a rattling freight car through Lakota Country, “See that—that’s where they build them robotic airplanes, yes they do.”
The train passed through and the guard rails lifted and Matt drove on to the bus station. Minutes later, I waved to him as he drove off. It was good to make a new friend.
Las Vegas to Winslow
I found myself in Las Vegas again. The next bus to Flagstaff would not leave until dawn, six hours away, so I camped out the bus stop’s floor. Every hour, a security guard checked us for our tickets, ejecting a few loiterers and vagrants each time.
In front of me, a woman talked to an invisible person. She wore very heavy, almost clown-like makeup and looked caught between two unknown places. Then she cackled and peed where she sat, the urine dripping to the floor and forming a yellow pool. She didn’t seem to notice, or mind, and continued her conversation with her phantom friend as if the two were at a picnic.
I felt weary, like the world came to me through a tin can on a string. Just floating in the orbit of the Las Vegas bus station among the other cosmic wanderers.
Dawn arrived as we boarded the bus. Morning in Vegas is more fascinating to me than night. The air is still and cool. The casino lights shine dull in the apricot sky. Humans, dressed in last night’s clothes, stumble under their glow. Their eyes express fragile relief as the sunrise hits them from the East. They look around the abandoned streets like babies, clutching their hotel room key-cards tightly. But where’s the hotel?
Beyond the moonbase that is Las Vegas, the desert cannot be hidden. A jagged and dusty wilderness surrounds the electrical abyss. The only things alive out there have thorns or teeth that break the flesh. People can die out there. But all you have to do is turn around and there’s the city again, with all its chances, easy money, and miniature Eiffel Tower. I like to think of what old Vegas must’ve been like, before the Grand Plan, when it was two or three bearded and bent miners in a bar playing cards with gold dust in their nostrils. When it was America’s Frontier.
I sat next to a paraplegic on the way to Flagstaff. He wore a well-worn Greyhound baseball cap with a Route 66 pin attached to it. His wheelchair displayed stickers from many American cities. He would alternate between reading a paperback so worn I couldn’t read the title, and staring out the window, which offered a view of cedars, junipers, mountains, and mesas, along with the rocky desert floor and a blue sky. The rest of the passengers seemed content with staring at the back of the chair in front of them. Most were smokers, white or Indian, wrinkled, and dressed only because it was illegal to go naked.
A train ran alongside us for a while, as did the decaying pavement of old Route 66. Metal towers passed the power-lines westward. Las Vegas. Los Angeles. The skeletal towers stood obediently, resigned to their endless task.
I checked into a motel, along Route 66 in Flagstaff, and then went to a cafe and ordered a chicken fried steak. I planned to walk the town for a bit, but as I ate, I noticed that I stunk terribly. I couldn’t look the pretty waitress in the eye, so I suppressed my urge to flirt and left as soon as I finished my meal.
It was time for a bath. I had the time and my bones needed a good soaking. The bathtub’s stopper was broken. The hotel clerk didn’t seem like the kind of woman who cared, so I crafted a makeshift stopper out of a plastic bag and a cup only to find the bath faucet had been disconnected from the tap. I settled for a shower then crawled into bed to take a short nap. I woke up seventeen hours later.
The next day, Occupy Flagstaff was alive and well, camping out along a piece of Route 66 in the middle of the town. All types protested: “No to the Fed,” “No to Capitalism,” “No to Taxes.” Old and angry people stood in solidarity with young and angry people. A woman dressed in black leather bondage gear wearing a gas mask posed like Christ on a crate on a street corner. She stood in stark contrast to the blue sky behind her. Dedicated to her pose, she moved only with the gentle desert wind.
Music spilled into the streets from the bars and cafes where tourists took breaks from shopping at quirky stores. Buskers played their guitars on the sidewalks, too. Disheveled wanderers intermingled with the tourists and townsfolk. There were no understood rules to follow in Flagstaff.
“People like it here because they can be what they want,” said the man who operated a boot store where I tried on a pair of boots I couldn’t afford. “And if people wanna be left alone, they can be alone.”
The only rule was to let other people follow their own rules, if they had any. Flagstaff lies on a high altitude, and the air is thin. Anybody can move through it.
Further down Route 66, I walked past one old motel after another, draped in the sleek architecture—and hope—of the postwar era. The motels appeared from a future long since past, but in the shadows of their angles, time ticked backwards and Route 66 looked alive and well. The ghost came back to the body and the Mother Road, as Steinbeck called it, pulsed vividly, and once again became the main artery pumping the blood of America. A road to a mythic land—sounding something like Cal-i-forn-ia, when pronounced—where one could begin again, where castes and classes could be shattered, and prosperity knew no bounds. It was the land of dreams, big movie star dreams. Or, humble and modest dreams, the lyrics of a Woody Guthrie tune. Route 66 was the conduit to those dreams, to the final frontier of America.
But it also presented the dream chaser with a test. Whoever took the trip had to pass through a wilderness, actual wilderness, and one’s more dangerous wilderness within. Along the way, car after car, the devil sits in the passenger seat, his proposal to give up, to settle, sounding good. The driver stares straight ahead. The lights of Amarillo, then nothing for hours. Albuquerque, then nothing. Flagstaff, where is Flagstaff? The dashboard glows green. The tank is almost empty. The devil grins, pumps his fist in the air. Then, from out of nowhere, the lights of a motel, as if its owner knew the traveler would be more frightened than ever at this exact spot. The traveler checks into the motel, then goes for a friendly cup of coffee poured by a waitress at the all-night cafe. She smiles at the weary wanderer then grins at the devil as he fades away underneath the neon sign.
An Indian lady asked me if I needed any help, shaking me out of my American daydream.
“No,” I said and smiled, “just passing through.”
“Oh, well, have safe travels,” she said.
After she walked on, I took one more look at the old motel. Its windows were caked with dirt. An old refrigerator and some chairs adorned the walkway. Doors swayed in the wind on their hinges. Grass grew through the parking lot. My dream was no match for Time, and, besides, it was time to go.
As I waited outside the bus station, an Indian came up out of the darkness. He asked me if I was taking the eastbound bus. I nodded yes.
“I’m goin’ to Winslow,” he said. “I got a nephew there’s a cop, can you believe that?”
His name was Gerald and he was heading back to the Hopi reservation. He recently traveled to the Lakota Reservation and attended a Sun Dance, during which a young brave is pierced in the chest with spears and raised to the sky. There he hallucinates a vision that is to define his life.
“I didn’t know they had them anymore,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. Still have ’em.”
Gerald had also traveled to the Masasuki Seminole Reservation in Florida. He was part of a group whose effort was to unite different Native American tribes for the purpose of strengthening traditional schooling for youths on the reservations. The journey also went through New York to make a funding pitch to a group potentially interested in the project.
“We got a good lawyer there,” he said, “knows Indian law. But it’s the same old thing, you know. A few of them [leaders of the reservation] get some money and they just do what they’re told.”
Gerald planned to start a treatment center on the reservation for alcoholism, too. I told him I was sober.
“I am too,” he said, “but I stay sober for six years or so, then fall. Fall hard, man.”
Before boarding the eastbound bus, Gerald and I went to use the station’s bathroom. Gerald went in first. He came out holding a Styrofoam cup with a lid and straw.
When we arrived in Winslow, Gerald didn’t exit. I waited for a bit, then went to Gerald’s seat. He was fast asleep and bent at a drastic angle against the window. The Styrofoam cup lay empty beside him. I shook him awake and told him we were in Winslow. He didn’t seem to recognize me and looked around, confused. His eyes were deep red and the smell of alcohol rushed from him. He mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and tried to shake my hand, as if he was swatting at a fly. He exited the bus with a sloping, open smile, bouncing off the backs of the seats. Then he stumbled through the light of the truck-stop parking lot until, finally, he disappeared into the darkness beyond.
The waning moon hovered just over the desert floor as we motored eastward, beyond Gallup, New Mexico, and its Route 66 memorial bandanas, hats, coffee cups, and magnets. Then, after a few hours of quiet darkness, we would see the lights of Albuquerque.
A gaunt, gray-headed black man next to me played an invisible piano to the tune of his own song. The desert allows for such things.
Todd Pate is a writer and actor. His short story “An American Ghost Murder,” appeared in the fall2008 issue of The Straddler. Born and raised in South Texas, he now lives in New York, where a number of his plays (including Too Far Gone out in the Middle of Nowhere) have received production.