Welcome to the Jungle: A Greyhound Experience

Here’s a slice of advice for anyone looking to travel Greyhound on their next trip: “non-stop service” may not actually mean your bus will arrive without stopping, as the description implies. It may, in fact, mean that — surprise! — your bus will stop for pickup and drop-off a total of three times (in just over 200 miles) at vacant lots and Chinese restaurants along the way. I thought about this at our first surprise stop, a dark parking lot behind a gas station in Lebanon, Missouri, and wondered quietly what I had just gotten myself into.

Recently car-less by choice and needing to get from Springfield, Missouri — my current hometown — to St. Louis to hop a flight to Las Vegas, I knew I had two transportation options: fly or take the bus. Flying from Springfield to St. Louis, it turns out, is much more complex and expensive than you might imagine. Springfield is Missouri’s third largest city behind Kansas City and St. Louis, and our airport — covering much of the Southwest Missouri-Ozarks region, Branson included — conveniently flies directly to neither of them. If I want to get to St. Louis by plane, I’m going to be routed through Dallas or Chicago, which makes as much sense as non-stop bus service that makes the occasional stop.

The bus, on the other hand, seemed like a reasonable option: $35 got me direct to the St. Louis Airport in an estimated 4 hours. Gasoline for the exact same route would cost nearly as much, and previous trips by car proved to be only an hour quicker, tops. Without much more thought on the matter, I booked my ticket.

What was I getting myself into? I had no idea, really; the closest thing to a Greyhound I’d been on was a few bus trips with my high school basketball team. This was different — way different. Or was it? That’s just the thing: I had no idea what to expect.

The bus awaits at the Springfield, MO Greyhound station.

I started with my circle of friends. “Have you ever ridden a Greyhound bus?” I asked, hoping that at least one of them was both stupid enough to be car-less in Missouri and desperate enough to ride the bus. Not a chance. The only “insight” came in the form of Guns ‘n Roses’s Welcome to the Jungle music video jokes, where I’d step off the bus (looking like Axl Rose, of course) and into “the Jungle,” where drug dealers and prostitutes would offer their services… if only I had the money, honey.

Is this what bus travel has been stereotypically reduced to — a haven for drug dealers, convicted felons, and washed-up rock stars? Did “normal” people ride the bus?

According to Greyhound’s official website, “thirty-two percent of Greyhound passengers make more than $35,000 per year,” and “nearly 30 percent of Greyhound riders have a college degree and are better educated than the U.S. population as a whole.” A set of statistics provided, no doubt, to curb many of the stereotypes associated with modern-day bus travel.

At least I’d be in the majority.

♦ ♦ ♦

The day finally came, and as I climbed the steps and into the cabin, my biggest worry was immediately realized: not only was I going to have to sit next to someone, but I was going to have to make the decision on who that someone was. The bus was full. I surveyed my options. Of the rows with an empty seat available, I immediately spotted the accomplished Greyhound riders: they sprawled themselves over both seats, faking slumber in an attempt to dissuade other passengers from encroaching on their open seat. It worked — I kept moving towards the back while passing up other empty seats, seats situated next to the ultra-overweight and horrible-smelling passengers, until I found my first potential candidate: a man in his mid-to-late twenties. “Is this seat open?” I asked. I took his vacant stare and silence as a resounding “Yes!” and took my seat, unaware that this would be the only interaction between us for the entire length of the trip.

Inside the Greyhound bus.

The cabin of a Greyhound bus is eerily similar to that of an airplane. The seats are laid out two-by-two with an aisle in the center that runs all the way to the back where the single-person bathroom is located. Overhead compartments line the ceilings, and each row has it’s own air-conditioning controls and light switches directly overhead.

A loud hiss escaped from the bus and we were off, bouncing along I-44, heading northeast down the ghost of the famous Route 66, eye-to-eye with the long-haul truckers. I took the last few minutes of sunlight to survey the cabin and it’s inhabitants while our driver — a chipper old woman encased in a protective cocoon of bullet-proof plastic — laid out the rules for the trip over a crackly loudspeaker: “No alcohol, no smoking, and no foul language,” she said, hesitating on occasion to peer through the rear-view mirror back at her passengers. “This is a non-stop service to St. Louis-Lambert. We’ll be stopping in Lebanon, Ft. Leonard Wood, and Rolla. Non-stop means you stay on when the bus stops, unless you’re gettin’ off for good.”

Greyhound station, cropped. Original by Ian David Blüm

My busmates were made up of two equally-numbered groups: first were the Marines. Our second stop, Ft. Leonard Wood, is the largest Marine Corps installment outside of Parris Island and MCRD San Diego. We pulled into the station (“China Buffet” restaurant), and half of the bus — all Marines — got off while another set of fresh recruits waited to take their place. They were young and bald, fresh out of boot camp. Most were quiet and kept to themselves, but a few spoke to each other which, to the uninformed citizen, sounded like a cryptic collection of incomplete sentences. “E-2? Yeah, same. Headed for Leave, gotta get in shape. Two weeks.” This made perfect sense to them, of course, and laughter filled the back of the bus with stories of botched haircuts and drunken weekend mishaps.

Then there were the stereotypical bus riders — the ones I noticed in the station before we left: wet-clothed, talking to themselves, and eating microwavable hamburgers out of plastic bags. Were they waiting for a bus, or using the station as a makeshift home? They were the Jungle, and surprisingly, they were in the minority. I spotted a few of them throughout the bus, but most of the passengers, I learned from eavesdropping in on conversations among those within an earshot of my seat, were “normal.” They had on dry clothes, spoke aloud only to others, and had valid reasons for traveling by bus: it was economical, quick, and filled with interesting people.

As I sat back and listened to their stories, I realized that, like me, most of the other passengers didn’t know what to expect either; they were just as curious as I was. I would have originally resisted the idea that I could share so many similarities with what a society so reliant on automobiles concluded was “not normal,” but I both graciously and proudly accepted this classification after spending four hours in a dark, crowded bus full of strangers.

The Greyhound hissed once again, hydraulics lowering it closer to the ground, and I made my way down the isle feeling a little more comfortable, a little more confident. I was now a Greyhound bus rider. One of them.

Welcome to the Jungle, baby.