I got dropped off at the greyhound bus stop at the Burlington Airport at 1:30 in the morning. The greyhound sign was hard to see at the tail end of the departure airline stops. It was also the middle of the night. Luckily my brother’s nocturnal schedule accommodates 1 am drop offs. Taking my bags out of his Isuzu trooper I started to get the feeling that I maybe should have packed a little lighter. Had it really been that long since I had gone on any significant trips? 18 months was almost longer than I could remember. When the days blend together like they had recently begun to, it was more than time to throw myself into another adventure. I was ready and the next 30 hours of bus travel were going to test my readiness for the road.

Vermont

Sitting in the airport lounge of BVT I was the first passenger to begin the wait for the greyhound bus to arrive. It had been awhile since my last bus ride on American soil. I tended to either drive my own car or opt for the airline. Budget restrictions needed to start with my journey to Florida, so I had brought a pillow and some apples to help get me there in one piece. Had I realized the number of times I was going to change busses and that each time I changed, would have to get my stowed bags and drag that and the carry-on parcels and stand in ceaseless lines for the next day and a half, I would most certainly have made a better plan to minimize my load. I have admitted problems with packing light and following maps. Spatial rotation handicaps explain the map issue, but packing problems seem to be more of a culture influence than a genetic disability.

We loaded onto the bus with plenty of extra space. Everyone had their own 2 seated-row except those travelling together. One of the pivotal points of learning in my European travels over the past few years had been how to best travel solo. Having luggage is an issue when traveling without a buddy, making it necessary to figure out how to keep bathroom breaks to a minimum. Carrying it to the bathroom is usually not feasible. Some areas are more high risk than others. Vermont isn’t too bad, but higher volume stops would be. I like to eat light and even drink as little as possible when travelling by train or bus. I bring my own snacks.  Healthy fruits, cut up vegetables and organic energy bars consumed slowly over the duration of travel controls both hunger and digestive elimination.

South Station, Boston, MA

We arrived in Boston about 8 am, just in time for rush hour. The driver was visibly frustrated. We crept through the city and finally slid into our slot at South Station. I gathered with the other passengers waiting for my luggage to be tossed out from under the bus onto the pavement, so I could haul it into the glass enclosed waiting area and find the right line to stand in. After collecting my ticket at the service desk inside the waiting area, I checked back on the two suitcases, red duffle bag and print yoga bag. Pretty sure none of the other bus riders were too interested in scoring books, organic food or a yoga mat, I left those things leaning up against my two suitcases filled with summer clothes holding my spot in line, while I shouldered the heavy little backpack containing my laptop, and ran off to find a bathroom.

Finding my bags untouched upon my return, I stepped back into line shortly before the first row was called. We were delegated out by the seat numbers printed on our tickets. I was in the front of the third line. I managed to contrive a method of moving myself and all my stuff. As long as I didn’t have to go too far or turn a corner, I moved pretty fluidly. Handing the driver my ticket, I sailed my two suitcases on wheels over to the loading area beside the undercarriage of the bus and dropped them off. I knew my carry-on bag would get lighter as I drank the water bottles and ate the food. Next stop New York.

Port Authority, NY, NY

Reading through the whole ride, I finished the last chapter just as the bus made its way through mid-town Manhattan to Port Authority. The bus took us underground to the station. Florescent lighting and the grit and grime made me feel as it was still the middle of the night even though it was only about noon. I lurched through the mayhem and found an information booth. Even the few minutes I spent waiting for people o ask directions caused my shoulder to ache under the criss-crossed straps I carried while clutching the handles of the suitcases. I asked about the location of the terminal for the next leg of my journey to South Carolina.

“Richmond is gate number 77,” she said. Looking up from her monitor she smiled. “You can check those bags in at the check-in behind the escalators.”

Praise Jesus, Halleluiah. I can finally ditch some of these bags! My load felt lighter just thinking of some of it being gone soon. I got to the check in station and waited until the attendant returned.

“It’s ten dollars each bag. First one is free,” he said. Looking at my collection of carry-on items, he scratched his cheek and changed the price. “I’ll cut you a deal, just give me five dollars.”

I had seen the signs but managed to avoid paying this fee so far. Happy with the price reduction, I handed him a five and the two suitcases on wheels. “Thank you,” I grinned and hoisted my other smaller bags over my shoulder marched off in search of a bathroom. It was 1:30 PM and my next bus was at 3:15.

Half an hour later, after having been driven out of a fast food court table and chair by a surly man demanding to mop where I was sitting, I was knee deep in another long busy line reading another book. I had decided to stand and read, as I knew I would be sitting for about 21 more hours. The ethnic ratio of the crowd at port authority put me strongly in the minority. I wasn’t sure if it was the southern destination or the mode of transport, but I had lived in Jacksonville, Florida long enough to feel pretty comfortable.

“Bitch, you need to be on Jenny Craig! You just almost trampled my little girl,” the tall gangly blond albino screamed. The woman could have been Gweneth Paltrow’s older sister except for the glaringly obvious signs of a crank addiction. She was model thin and ugly as sin.

The perpetrator seemed to be a middle aged big black woman who looked as gentle as Aunt Jemimah. People were staring and moving in closer as it looked like mob mentality was strongly in favor of Aunt Jemimah over the crack head scarecrow. The holiday buzz of waiting in line was making the mood flow from nervous energy to frustrated discontent. Some Port Authority security intervened, guiding the offended Momma off to the side and outside before anything ugly went down. Next on the scene was the greyhound comedian announcer who began directing ticketholders into their appropriate lines in between jokes. His voice commanded the crowded hallway full of eager to move bus travelers.

Just as things began to calm down after people readjusted to their marginally more organized lines, according to the number on the ticket. I caught sight of the attendant at the check-in counter moving through the crowds with both of my checked bags in tow.

“Miss, you supposed to take your own bags.” He handed them over to me. I sighed heavily and said thanks. I knew it was going above and beyond for him to have brought these down to me, but I did not brighten my new outlook on lugging these parcels through the remainder of my ride. I checked my ticket again. Boston, New York, Richmond, Fayetteville, Columbia, Sunnyvale, and finally Charleston, SC. That was going to be a lot of hauling.

I struck up a conversation with a woman who was right behind me, mentoring her psych ward charge. My new location nearer the front of another line had put me closer to the door to the bus I could see waiting outside. Finally the bottleneck opened and people began surging through the doorway. It looked like the organization of the lines had just been for show. My social worker friend and I noticed before the masses behind us became aware of this, so we pushed ahead quickly. The mentor wanted to get her person on board a bus and I was getting tired of the weight of my bags. We pushed through the door just ahead of the main rush. She even helped me wheel one of my bags, much to my gratitude. I waved goodbye, dropped my suitcases off by the open door of the storage area of the bus and jumped onboard.

On to Richmond, Virginia

Stopping at a large roadside rest area in Maryland called Chesapeake, I scrambled off the bus and made a beeline for the bathrooms. Everything seemed to be all about beating the crowds in this environment. We were all trapped in the same space, so making sure to get first pick was the m.o. I wasn’t too bad at it but really hated the beat or be uncomfortable reality. Perhaps it was just a microcosm of a larger socio-commercial element of the general state of affairs, but I missed the predictability of assigned seating in airplanes where you are pretty much assured a seatmate. Somehow I managed to avoid this at every stop, every new bus provided another creative challenge to invent a way to sleep taking up more than one seat while other passengers piled onboard.

I went back to the bus to grab my charger during the 30 minute stop, standing in front of a video arcade I shared the power outlet with, between the men’s and women’s bathrooms, I texted my last group text for the evening and saved up enough power for the morning. Turning my phone off, I headed back onto the bus to sleep until Virginia.

Arriving at Richmond about 10:30 pm, I got off the bus, circled the crowds gathering around the growing pile of luggage until my two familiar pieces appeared. Snatching then up, I moved myself inside the waiting area. I almost forgot to notice that the air temperature was mild and temperate, a far cry from the blistering 20 degrees I had left behind in Vermont. The line inside was just as disorganized as port authority without even the façade of a numbering system in place. I took my place and with two friendly bilingual Muslim women behind me, I made my break for the bathroom. When I returned I found that they had even let a space grow in front of us than cut ahead of me in line. I pushed my things forward and thanked them. The line moved slowly, my carry-on bags tore at my shoulder since the line moved just fast enough that I couldn’t set everything down without loosing my space, and just slowly enough to be painful (literally). As we crept toward the door where the driver took tickets, the surge began to swell. People were trying to cut ahead. I let a woman carrying an infant slip in front of me.

Pretty soon I was out the door. I parked my two big suitcases by the yawning bus bay and hopped onboard, again making my way to the back and hoping for the best as far as seating would go. There seemed to be enough spaces and I was just settling in when a young man plopped down beside me. The smell of alcohol permeated. He grinned over at me and said, “Could be worse, how you doin’?”

“Fine,” I said pulling out a book.

“Oh,” he said pulling out his cracked iphone, “you mind if I sit here?”

“It’s okay, just don’t feel like talking.” I was trying not to be bitchy to this kid. He was young and pretty and seemed harmless. “What time is it?”

“Ten thirty two,” he read off.

Par for the course, none of these busses had left before or at their scheduled time. “Thanks.” I returned to my book.

“Well that’s ok,” he laughed and made a grab for my knee.

I gave him a definite look, and he retracted, mumbling, “sorry.”

“Look, I have little brothers,” trying to be nice. “I’m tired, this is a long ride.” I smiled tiredly, “just stay on your side of the seat.”

I let the boy babble about his friends in various parts of South Carolina. Then he made another overly friendly move into my seating space, leaning his head affectionately onto my shoulder.

“Ok,” I said louder. “I am going to have to ask you to move.”

“You’re weird!” he got obnoxious pretty quickly. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Go find another seat right now!”

The gentleman sitting in front of me, a rather large older black man with a booming preacher voice stood up and turned around to look down at him, “Boy you best go find yourself another seat.”

The kid looked next to him at the other interested folks who had obviously heard the flow of the conversation. Everyone was staring at him.

“I think I am going to go find another seat,” he pushed himself up and staggered out into the aisle. “I don’t like you anyway.” The blonde young farm boy huffed and tossed a few more insults my way over the heads of the other passengers. Finally, he stumbled up the aisle of the bus until he found an open seat near a pimply boy with glasses chomping on beef jerky. “This chick back there thinks I’m trying to git with her,” he plopped down. “Can I sit here?”

The man who had stood up in front of me grinned said, “I got daughters who ride on busses.” He shook his head. “Them drunk boys think they got a date with anybody they sit next to.” He sat back down resolutely.

I went back to my book for another half hour then turned out the overhead light and slept till the next stop.

Fayetteville, NC

At 3 am the fluorescent overheads woke me from my 2 hour nap. “Fayetteville up ahead. Everybody off the bus! Those going to Charleston, go to gate H.” He proceeded to read off the rest of the changeovers. I was pulling my backpack over my shoulders and getting ready for my now familiar routine. Getting inside the small one room waiting area, I left everything but my computer and purse in a corner and went to the rest room. Seat-less toilets and no soap, not a big surprise.

Back in another bus, I hadn’t had the energy to try to get the front of the line, but luck had held out. There was one last double-seater in the back still open. Managing the few yoga stretches I could in between cat naps had kept me from stiffening to discomfort. I was exhausted enough to sleep until 6 am, where I changed busses for the last time.

Columbia, GA

Not much different than the bus stop in Fayetteville, but with fewer people. The bus pulled out shortly after we had clambered onboard like the sleep deprived zombies we all were. I was still able to sleep until we made a rest stop. Only two more hours to go, my tired body complained. I bought a cold vitamin water and drank it down, time to start rehydrating.

Charleston, SC

Waking up from a crunched position, folded between an old stained pillow and leather motorcycle jacket, I felt strangely revitalized and alert watching the hazy winter oak trees and pines along I-26 whizz by the greyhound bus window. After more than 27 hours of travel, my body was sore from sleeping in contorted positions and pulling all my luggage from each bus stop to the next line and bus.

I still didn’t know exactly what was waiting for me in Charleston. By now I was really curious. ‘Shuttle,’ was like a hotel pick-up, but the ‘Charleston style limo’ seemed to be something else. I could hardly sit still. The excitement of arrival seemed contagious. The kids behind me were chatting and I asked them if they had been to the Charleston bus stop before.

“First we stop at Summerville,” the girl in the row of seats across from me said. She reminded me of a friend of mine from college at UNF named Althea, appropriately so, as Althea’s mom had been a Jamaican beauty who had passed her heritage on to her,  naming her after the greek goddess of nature.

“But it’s practically down the street.” She grinned and I wondered how she looked so pretty with big coils of thick ebony hair perfectly in place after sleeping in the same uncomfortable window seat through the night. I felt myself to be filthy and frazzled, feeling more like I had ridden on top of the bus than inside it.

“Are you going to Charleston too?” I asked her.

“Yes,” the young Beyonce said, “I’m from Charleston.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the perils and pitfalls of the greyhound transportation system. Finally, at 9:47, the bus pulled into what resembled a run-down gas station with a lot of yellow cabs parked in the side lot. Off to the side I saw a silver colored shuttle limo service. I checked my phone, one missed call and two messages. “Found it,” I shot off a quick text and threw my phone back into my purse. I gathered my backpack and carry-on, leaving the yellow pillow behind in the seat for good.

Climbing off the bus I walked up to the limo. An older, kind looking man in a dress shirt took my bag from my hands.

“You must be Rose,” he said smiling.

“Do I stick out?” I asked.

“Like a salt in a pepper shaker,” he nodded. “Let me get that for you.” He opened the side door to stow the bag.

“I’ll be right back,” I handed him my backpack and motioned toward the bus, “I have two more under there.”

I darted off before he could stop me. I already felt singled out of the crowd, might as well carry those heavy bags one last time. I felt like I had bonded with some of my fellow bus riders. Magically my two suitcases were almost the first ones tossed out by the sweaty bus driver.

I walked back toward the silver limo van pulling my two black canvas cases behind me, loving the gritty sound the wheels made on the uneven pavement of the greyhound bus stop parking lot. That’s the sound of never again I thought.

Almost ashamed of myself for enjoying the luxury of being whisked out of the busy bus stop scene in such style, I grinned and shrugged off my false modesty as I gratefully handed over the handles of the nemesis baggage to the limo driver.

On the way toward Mount Pleasant, I chattered away, trying to nonchalantly pry the destination from the driver.

“We’re going to a place you will love,” he said.

“Here we are,” he handed her his card. “Call me to come pick you up when you’re done.”

Leaving my bags in the limo, I grabbed my purse and walked into Earthling Day Spa on Bay Street of downtown Charleston.

The front entrance was enticing with natural woodwork and the most subtle fragrances of earthy lavender mixed with salty sea and eucalyptus. After being informed of the heavenly sea salt scrub and hydro-aromatherapy treatment I would be having, I indulged in a long, hot shower and got ready to let the hours of grueling holiday travel be scrubbed and massaged from my body.

After two hours of rejuvenating sea salt scrub, aromatherapy and an hour long massage I floated back to the posh locker room and rinsed again before sliding into lacy black underwear and a new dress of black cotton and white lace trim. I blow dried and teased my hair into a loose chignon and gathered my phone to call the driver. Sitting on the cherry wood bench in the atrium near a fountain I sat back and drank a sweet cup of hot lemongrass tea.

It was a beautiful warm night, fountains roaring, a perfect place to celebrate the winter solstice. Strolling around old downtown Charleston arm in arm, we watched the gas lamps glowing and enjoyed the floral fragrances lingering in the air as they went from one restaurant menu to the next searching out vegetarian entrée options for dinner.

The longest night of the year and there was no other place I wanted to be more than the Courtyard Charleston Waterfront Hotel overlooking the seaside bay. I never felt happier or more comforted than I did this night. Coming to Charleston was even better than I could have imagined. My heart was in the right place to blissfully ring in the new year 2012.