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by Joshua M. Bernstein

My post-college road trip across America had gone awry.

Initially, I envisioned a lazy, Blue Highways adventure greeting America on its backroads best. I wanted to meet Nebraskan grandmas who baked blue-ribbon apple pie, fishermen who gutted salmon in Seattle, and skater boys in San Diego. I wanted to swim in the Gulf of Mexico and gaze at buffalo in Yellowstone. I wanted…I wanted the road to tell me what to do with my college degree. At least that’s how I explained it to Mary.

Mary and I were decent friends in college, nothing more. We’d toasted beers and occasionally shared lunch, but weren’t best friends. We weren’t screwing, either. Mary and I were traveling only because she could afford to. And she owned a station wagon. Not the best reasons, eh? But I’d been plotting for more than a year, and the other option was returning home and sharing a bunk bed with my brother. Yeah, I’d take my chances on the road.

Late summer was when we left. With an AAA card in my wallet and road maps under the seat, we embarked from my Ohio home and headed in the direction of American adventurers: west! We hit Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nevada en route to the Burning Man Festival. After seven drug-addled days we set off for California’s coast. There, in the land of Hollywood dreams, was where the nightmare began.

My desire for a languid saunter up the Pacific became her reality of a high-octane drag race. What went wrong? In Mary’s words: "I’m sick of camping and I’m sick of spending so much time with you."

Those were definite problems.

By the time we’d flown up the coast and reached Canada’s Glacier National Park, our relationship was a festering zit. For the past two weeks we could’ve been mutes. Travel was marked by thick silence and caustic remarks. "Turn the fucking radio down" was all Mary said one afternoon. Like the banana, it was time to split.

After an afternoon spent hiking the Continental Divide, Mary confronted me. "Josh," she began, staring at the mountains looming behind us, "I don’t think we should travel together anymore. What do you think?"

We’d traveled 8,000 miles. I had $600 in my checking account. I was 22 years old. "I think I wanna go Greyhound," I said.

***

Twelve hours later I was in Great Falls, Montana’s Greyhound station, my life compressed into a backpack, boarding a bus bound for Mississippi. There I’d bunker with Tom, my sole friend west of the Rockies. To pass the 24-hour trek I had a Sherman Alexie book, 14 Camel Lights, and a pint of Jim Beam. At least I knew what to expect from the Jim Beam.

I wasn’t heartbroken that my friendship with Mary had imploded. Some friendships, like fine china and favorite jeans, just don’t last. No, what made me a sad lamb was that I seemed just as clueless as when the road tripping began.

The bus system is one of the last egalitarian methods of transportation. Hence, the scariest. Recently released prisoners (his name was Bob, and he was sure happy to get out), teenage mothers toting screaming babies, decrepit grandparents, and broke college kids populated the bus.

Amidst the suspect mélange I met several amiable Canadians, Ryan and Jeremy. They, too, were eager to numb the journey with whiskey. After spritzing cologne to mask any odor, the three of us shifted to the last row and drank ourselves into belligerence. At one point, overcome with nicotine urges, Jeremy and I walked into the bathroom, locked the door, and unhinged a bolted window. "This is the best cigarette I’ve ever smoked," Jeremy said as he ashed on a urinal cake.

Several hours later we had a layover in Helena. Our motley troika roamed Helena’s deserted streets and somehow discovered a club. Curious, we entered. A band! Swing dancing! In Montana! To celebrate the silly world, we chugged Budweisers until the bus beckoned us back.

Our posse somehow stumbled to the Greyhound, whereupon we conked out. When I awoke, my drinking buddies had vanished, my head felt like a construction site, and Boulder filled the horizon.

Once disgorged at the bus depot. I hailed a cab and sped to Tom’s house. After salutations and hugs, I accepted a turkey sandwich and Tylenol and sat down for a chat. Tom was one of my best friends from college. When I lay out my seemingly depressing scenario he, like all good friends, had just the right words.

"But is it so bad, Josh?" Tom asked. "Do you really need to know?"

I pondered for a moment, then thought about a woman on the bus.

At one point, seated next to me was a middle-aged blonde sporting dual shiners. Her black eyes piqued my interest, but curiosity wouldn’t kill my cat. I was blithely watching the world blur when she poked my chest.

"Are you from there?" my neighbor asked, pointing at my red "University of New Mexico" sweatshirt. "I’m going there."

I informed her a friend had loaned me the sweatshirt. Then I asked why she was heading New Mexico’s way.

 

"Because my goddamn boyfriend gave me these," she said, pointing to her eyes. "I’m goin’ ta find his sister and beat the shit outta her."

I smiled and said it sounded like a nice plan.

"Damn right it’s a good plan," she replied. "It’s a hella good plan!"

"It’s good to have a plan," I said, nervous. "I know I could use one."

"Son," she said, "here’s some advice. Yer nuthin’ but a baby. Ya don’t need ta know what yer doing. When ya got a clue is when things go ta shit."

And though I never thought I’d say this sentence, the black-eyed, soon-to-be sister-in-law beater riding the Greyhound across America certainly made sense.


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