Friday, March 16, 2012

Bus ride to Arizona

On Wednesday night it became clear that my gamble failed. Instead of going down, the prices for the last-minute airfare to Phoenix kept climbing. One way tickets were now being sold for over $650. I had promised Dave that I would join him for the weekend part of this trip, and would visit with him his aunt and his childhood friend. Dave and I have been together for fifteen years, our relationship lasting in a large part because we know how to have a good time together. But lately I've been so focused on my work and writing that I've been putting in fifteen-hour days, including weekends. To pry me away from my books and the computer is becoming increasingly difficult. Dave goes to an annual conference in Scottsdale, and after the conference he takes time to hang out with Bill and Jen and their kids, and with aunt Linda and uncle Stan. I have met Bill and Jen twice, briefly, at our wedding and then at theirs. Linda and Stan used to come to San Francisco to visit Stan's son Brad, but last year Brad moved away to Las Vegas, and I see Linda and Stan once a year, during annual family Thanksgiving in New York. I promised Dave I would go on the trip, but procrastinated on buying the tickets. Dave didn't insist; he probably thought I was trying to bail. After all, I do have an endless reading list.

Things got more intense when my friend Toni, who lives in London, emailed that she is in San Francisco for a couple of days, and wants to have lunch together. I asked her to have breakfast together instead, and we met Thursday morning at cafe Tartine. Dave texted me to say that it was official: the prices for Friday morning flight weren't going down. He was surprised and pleased, I think, when I told him I would take the bus. I did some research, and the price was right: $110 to Phoenix, but everything else about the trip seemed outrageous. I would have to leave San Francisco Thursday night, and would arrive to Phoenix after a 17,5 hour ride at 3:30 pm on Friday. I laughed when I looked at the itinerary on the screen, and then realized: I could do it. Why not? I could read on the bus, and using my new fancy Asus EeeePad, I could even write on the bus. Yes, sleeping on the bus wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world, but I've done it often enough in college, going between Rochester, NY and NYC, and I have to say that airplane seats aren't all that much more comfortable. The only thing that stopped me from considering the option was that nobody I know in San Francisco ever takes the bus anywhere. Flights to Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix are generally cheap enough, and road trips on the West Coast do take a long time. Things are more spread out. There are mountains to cross.

So, on Thursday morning, I packed my overnight bag, and ran out to meet Toni for breakfast. It was raining in San Francisco, which was annoying because I had to wear boots and pack sandals for the desert. I also had to take my umbrella, which as of that morning, has come undone in three places and was almost but not entirely useless. I ran five long blocks to cafe Tartine, where Toni was already waiting for me. The place was packed, as usual, and they didn't have the one thing Toni wanted on the menu. We got pastries, and talked about everything we could talk about in 45 minutes. She was telling me about visiting her mother and sister in Hungary, and also that her husband Eric and she are planning a big neighborhood party in London for the Queen's anniversary of fifty years being a queen. Eric and Toni are planning a gigantic potluck for the neighbors and lots of games and charades for the kids. She invited me to visit, and I would love to, but, but, but.

As I ran out of the cafe, I realized I left behind my umbrella. I looked for it for a couple of minutes, but somebody must've grabbed it. I happily let it go. The rain had all but stopped, and I didn't need a broken umbrella with me in Arizona. At 10:30 am, not much later than usual, I was at work, where the first order of business was to pay for my Greyhound ticket online. I did, and texted Dave, and soon Dave replied that he bought the return tickets -- by air, arriving to San Francisco at 1 am Monday morning, but first class. Gambling on airfare results in the oddest itineraries. Work went very well after this. I cleared my inbox from 60 down to 30 messages, no small feat after a week of not much progress. At 6:30 pm, I went to a reading -- a monthly reading series, InsideStoryTime, organized by James Warner, Yanina Gotsulsky, and Ransom Stephens, where they feature five or six different writers each month. Yanina was reading a part from her novel, an event I didn't want to miss. I've known her for three years, and haven't heard her read before. She selected a very dramatic chapter, in which her protagonist meets the man of her dreams, count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy :) The setting is a train car between Moscow and Leningrad in the late 1980s, which makes the scene all the more bold and fascinating -- and also seemed all the more relevant because of my current predicament. Yanina's reading reminded me that in the 1980s in the Soviet Union one couldn't just hop on a train (or a bus) and travel to another city. One had to have a reason for travel, special travel papers, and on arrival had to register either with the hotel, or if visiting relatives, with the local police department. I think that's how it was. These rules still apply to the foreigners visiting Russia today.

After the reading, I walked to the bus station. It was no longer raining, and the evening was quite warm. I walked through the touristy Union Square, where young people had flocked from all over the Bay Area to start celebrating St. Patty's day early. I crossed Market Street into SOMA, where people with badges on their chests were getting out from some after-conference parties and looking for more parties. This was the most physically challenging part of the trip, navigating through crowds of slow-moving people with two overpacked bags on my shoulders. One tipsy man, not watching where he was going, barely avoided collision and exclaimed, "Oh, shit!" It's a character trait really, not "Oh, sorry!" or "Excuse me," but -- "Oh, shit!"

I don't know when the current Greyhound terminal in San Francisco was constructed -- and aren't they building a new one? -- but it looked shiny and new. A small, enclosed waiting room in front of a large parking lot for buses. I seem to remember taking a bus to Los Angeles several years ago from a different terminal -- a grungy, run-down place that seemed to have not been renovated since the 1960s. This was different. I had an e-ticket, and so was able to get in line immediately after a very brisk security bag search. The line consisted primarily of Japanese and Indian students going to LA, hardly anybody older than me. The kids sat on the floor waiting to get on board. Direct bus routes from San Francisco go to Northern California, Los Angeles, and outside of California only to Las Vegas and Reno. I didn't see neither Portland nor Seattle on the board. Nor, for that matter, Phoenix or Tucson -- to get to Arizona, I had to go to LA first. Which was fine by me. I slept for most of that ride, disturbed only by the stops the bus was making: San Jose, Gilroy, etc, etc -- I remember the stops, but was too sleepy to register the names of the towns.

We arrived to Los Angeles at 6 am, and my transfer to Phoenix was at 7 am. The bus station in Los Angeles is larger than San Francisco, includes a cafe on premises (in San Francisco there were only vending machines, where I bought a bottle of water). I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, and then read, waiting for the bus to arrive. The crowd at the bus station in Los Angeles was very different. A lot of Mexicans, white men wearing cowboy hats, elderly couples, single parents with unhappy teenage kids. The bus took off half-empty, but started filling up as we made the first stops on the outskirts of LA. Soon, the driver announced that 51 out of 55 seats were full. Greyhound was in demand! The sun rose as we left the urban area behind, and for the last three hours I've been watching the landscape change slowly. Well-irrigated green fields and pastures have disappeared, slowly giving way to low-lying shrubs. At some point, I noticed mountains on my left -- a wall of sharply outlined reddish-brown rock -- and later, mountains on the right as well. The road we're on doesn't have much of a slope, but I can see two parallel lines of mountains intersecting ahead of us. An illusion of perspective, or are we actually going to cross a mountain range to get to Arizona? The landscape is all sand and intermittent brush, but no cacti yet. And the sky is blue. It was foggy in LA, almost as humid as in San Francisco, and it might have even drizzled while I slept. But there isn't much humidity in the air now. I wish I had a map or a 3G phone with me now, to be able to pinpoint the geography of where I am. This is my version of the American dream, I guess: for a $110, you get on the bus, and you go wherever you like. Why haven't I thought of this before? Why don't I travel to Arizona every, well, every other weekend?

It's good to know that Dave is going to be there when I get off the bus in Phoenix.