(Bozeman, MT) — Once again, I’m driving a school bus across the United States. This should come as no surprise, because, well, that’s what I do. I woke up this morning in Kadoka, South Dakota, home to Badlands Petrified Gardens, one of the state’s numerous old-style tourist attractions. Many of these, according to the signs, are “Rated #1!” By whom they are so rated is never mentioned. But Roadside America describes the Petrified Garden as “…a grassy compound, hidden from non-paying customers behind a high fence, dotted with petrified wood stumps, logs, and piles. Unfortunately, as usual, I can’t stop to enjoy the wonders of stony stumps, logs and piles. I have a school bus to deliver.
Sometimes, though, I see things that are inexplicable, at least to me.This morning, for example, I was heading west on I-90. About 20 miles east of Rapid City, I saw an enormous cloud of smoke ahead on the right. As I got closer, it looked like a fireworks store had exploded. There was a fairly sizable fire in back of a metal building… and every couple of seconds, a colorful display of rockets or something would shoot skyward from the blaze. I was a bit tempted to take the exit that obviously led there… but realizing immediately that would be poor judgement on my part, I kept going.
A few months ago, in a money-saving effort, I switched from Verizon to Boost Mobile as my cell phone carrier. It does save money, but in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and parts of Nebraska, there’s no cell coverage at all. I made a mental note to Google “Rapid City, fireworks,” to see what showed up. What showed up was nothing. Not a word. So, as usual, I have no idea what that was all about, and probably never will. I guess I’ll just have to live with that.
Tomorrow night I’ll spend in Spokane, if all goes well. I don’t think there are any exploding fireworks stores or anything petrified on the way. But there will be something I won’t be able to explain. There always is.
(High Point, NC) — There’s one thing we adults generally take for granted. Okay, there’s more than one. But this is the only I’m thinking about right now. That’s the freedom we derive from readily available transportation. And for the past couple of months, I’ve been without that.
It’s been difficult. Life since November has been difficult enough: There was the unexpected implosion of my marriage. A return to Pennsylvania and one last shot at broadcasting – which didn’t work out. Then, on the way back to North Carolina to resume school bus delivery and writing, my beloved 2002 PT Cruiser suffered a terminal illness. I sold it for $200. Since then, I’ve been living in my sister’s rec room, borrowing her car when it was available, driving school buses across the country, and generally hating my life.
I’m not around town enough to get involved in normal things like church activities, community theater, and other stuff I love. Dating has been out of the question, because, well I live in my sister’s rec room and I have had no car. For the same reason, I haven’t been able to get into a counseling regimen, which is something from which I could very much benefit.
But today, I took a baby step. Actually, it’s more than just a baby step, it’s a big, big step: I bought a car. When I got here, my goal was to buy a “beater” car, just to get around. I thought maybe a 15-year-old car… maybe $3000… and even then, I thought, because of my credit history, I’d have to get my sister’s help as a co-signer. It all sounded unpleasant and, frankly depressing.
A couple of months ago, though, because I no longer have anyone to pick me up at the airport and drive me home, I had to find transportation from the Charlotte Airport to the Amtrak station, so I could take a train home. You can fly into Greensboro/High Point, but it’s generally much more expensive than flying into Charlotte. And then, when I got back to High Point, I had to find a way from the train station back to my sister’s rec room. Not a lot of joy in that.
And that’s when I discovered Uber. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a ride-sharing system which employs private drivers, using their own cars. It’s completely smartphone app-based. You establish an account, based on a debit card, a credit card, or PayPal. When you need a ride in a city served by Uber, you simply go to the app, and request a car. Generally, within just a few minutes, a car shows up. You already know the name of the driver, and what he or she is driving. And they know your name as well. You can call or text the driver to give exact instructions. You watch on the GPS-based map where your driver is, and exactly when he or she is arriving.
It’s a brilliant concept… and as you might expect, traditional cab drivers absolutely hate it. I love it. I’ve spoken with a good many drivers, most of whom are making a good bit of money. They set their own schedules, drive when they want to, and find it to be lucrative.
Uber requires drivers to have a car that’s no older than 2006, a nice car with no damage. Drivers go through a background check, and since no money changes hands, it’s much safer than driving a traditional cab. Not only that, but since Uber has all its riders’ personal information, one would have to be pretty stupid to try to rob an Uber driver.
In any case, it dawned on me that if I could somehow get a late-model car that met Uber’s criteria, I could use my downtime from shuttling school buses to drive for Uber. And if all I made from it was enough to cover car payments and insurance, that would be fine.
So, miraculously, considering my less-than-perfect credit, I was approved. The car I bought today (a 2010 Honda Fit) was named by Consumer Reports in 2010 to be one of the two “Best Value” cars of the year. It’s probably the best car I have ever bought. And I did the research – I’m paying a fair price. No accidents on its record, and a nice, clean CarFax report.
Anyway, this is a long-winded way to say that it looks as though, after wallowing in depression and despair for the past five months, I have finally taken the first step toward living like a grown-up again. Yes, I’m still living in my sister’s rec room with the cats, but now the light at the end of the tunnel does not seem to be an approaching train. There’s something about one door closing and other opening….
There are a number of people who have helped in ways that frankly astound me. I will not mention any more than that here; I have already sent my sincere thanks personally. But there are more who have offered encouragement, love and moral support on this awful road… and I offer my sincere and eternal gratitude to you.
I have a long way to go… but finally, I am feeling some real hope.
(Hickory, NC) – Yup. Still here in Hickory, North Carolina. In our last episode, on Saturday, the bus I was taking from North Carolina to Portland, Oregon, broke down in Hickory, NC. That’s less than a hundred miles from home.
At first, it looked like it would be a quick fix, and that I’d be back on the road in a day or so. But I’ve been at the Red Roof Inn, waiting. Hickory seems like a relatively nice little town, but I am astounded at how many people here, both men and women, do a perfect impersonation of Gomer Pyle. And I’m stuck with no transportation… I’ve walked to the convenience store up the road a few times… and ordered from Domino’s… but other than that, I’m pretty much confined to my room.
This morning, I found out that the part necessary to fix the bus won’t be available for about a week. So my only choice is to get a Greyhound bus back home. This is interesting, at least to me, for a few reasons. For one thing, I have just applied for a job as a Greyhound bus driver. And I’ve been accepted to go to Greyhound training, which won’t happen until sometime this summer, but still, it’s moving forward. The other thing, though, is that except for charters, I have never ridden on a Greyhound bus before. I’m looking forward to it, sort of. I have heard a great many stories about the regular Greyhound clientele. Not that I’m being elitist or anything. Okay, I am.
Anyway, I take the Greyhound back to High Point tomorrow. Then, on Thursday, I will pick up another bus, and take it to Portland. Or Seattle. Or someplace out there. When I return, in about a week, I’ll get back here to Hickory somehow, and pick up the bus here, and resume the trip where we left off.
There are pluses and minuses to this. On the plus side, I’m finally beginning to make some pretty good money. On the minus side, I’m getting really confused. When I return to High Point tomorrow, I am going to meet with a car dealer… and hopefully will be able to afford a car (and it looks pretty good at this point) that will allow me to drive for Uber during my down-time from the bus job. But all this is leaving me a bit disoriented…
There are things about having a regular, sedentary job that are quite comforting, if boring. This is definitely not boring. Lonely, but not boring.
(Hickory, NC) – “On this trip, there will be no break-downs,” I said. “On this trip, everything will go smoothly,” I said.
It’s a great big, brand new Thomas school bus – one of those buses with a flat front, more like a city transit bus than a school bus. They ride nicely, they’re fun to drive, and this morning, I started out from home about 6, to take this bus to Portland. It’s a five-day trip across North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. I enjoy this drive, and I’ve done it so often, I can get from High Point to Portland without a map, or GPS. Which is good, because my GPS is still at a bus dealership in Texas.
I started up that bus… it only had 24 miles on the odometer. I even like the way it sounds when you start the engine and release the airbrake. Put my headphones on and dialed up an audio book… all ready to go. I hit I-40, which would be my home for the next 8 or 9 hours… then in Nashville, you switch to I-24, and head north. I had a room booked at the Motel 6 in Metropolis, which is the self-proclaimed Home of Superman.
I got as far as Hickory. Then I noticed something disconcerting: the check engine light came on. I briefly considered fixing it by putting some electrician’s tape over it. That generally works pretty well for me for a week or so. But I could NOT ignore the digital display which, in no uncertain terms advised me to CHECK COOLANT. ENGINE TEMPERATURE 210.
No… NO! In just a few recent trips, I had brake problems on a new bus… the battery cable on another new bus worked itself loose… the tread stripped off a tire on a nasty, smelly old used bus… and this was NOT supposed to happen.
But, well, there we were. There was an exit just ahead, so I pulled off, and parked in the lot of a Raceway convenience store/gas station. I went around to the engine compartment, and opened the door. And coolant was everywhere. It had sprayed all over the engine, was dripping off the door, and was copiously leaking onto the ground, creating a pink puddle.
It was time to start calling my list of numbers. First, to Rob, who owns TransBusiness, the company I was driving for. We discussed what to do, and then I called Freightliner’s roadside assistance hotline (it’s a Thomas-Built bus, but the chassis is made by Freightliner.) The voice on the other end said, cheerfully, “Thank you for calling the Freightliner Assistance number; this is Rhonda – how may I help you.” I couldn’t help it. I said, “Help, help me Rhonda…” She had apparently heard this before.
I gave her the numbers she asked for: The VIN, the body number, my phone number, all that. And she responded that for some reason, she was “unable to mandate the warranty.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. She gave me a number for Thomas, but it’s Saturday, and evidently Thomas doesn’t believe in 24/7 assistance hotlines, because although the pleasant recorded voice assured me that my call was very important to them, they were closed, and I was urged to call back on Monday. I was also encouraged to have a good day. It was already too late for that.
More phone calls, more messages left, and finally I got hold of the West Carolina Freightliner Sales and Service Center, which was right there in Hickory! Not only that, but they work 7 days a week. Take that, Thomas. A few hours later, an enormous wrecker pulled up, because, as I was informed, they don’t do roadside service.
I got a ride in the truck (We’re goin’ for a ride in a big truck!! YAAAAY!) to the Freightliner place. Rob had said he didn’t think it would be anything serious. Probably a hose that hadn’t been tightened enough or something. Sometimes those guys do miss tightening things. On one bus I took to Oregon a few months ago, we discovered that several of the lugnuts were not tightened. So I figured I’d be back on the road in a jiffy, or perhaps the twinkling of an eye. Or maybe a New York minute. I settled into the drivers’ lounge, surfed the web for awhile, even went back to the bus and got some ramen which I cooked in the Official Drivers’ Lounge Microwave.
Then, in walked Mike. He had the demeanor of a doctor who was about to say, “We did all we could… but….” What he actually said, though, was, “It’s a molded hose.” I though he had said a moldy hose, and I nodded sagely, pretending to understand what he was telling me. But what he was telling me was that a part had to be replaced before the bus could be driven again. And that was not a Freightliner part, it was a Thomas part. And, as we have discussed, nobody’s at Thomas to help on weekends. So with any luck, the part will come in on Monday… but it’s more likely going to be Tuesday before I can get back on the road. This causes all kinds of problems, because I have a flight home booked on Thursday, and there’s no way that’s going to happen
So Mike offered to drive me to a motel… and here I am. Rob thought I should go back home and wait there. But there’s no way to get home except by AmTrak or Greyhound. And I had to cross AmTrak off the list of possibilities, because they don’t have Hickory-to-High Point service. The nearest Greyhound station to High Point is in Greensboro… about 23 miles away, and the fare is $45. So after doing the math, I realized that it’ll just be cheaper and easier to stay here in Hickory for a couple of days.
There’s not much to do here, and I have no transportation. Uber hasn’t arrived here yet, and as I discovered this afternoon, the cab fares are very high. Nonetheless, it’s the first time in months I’ve really had a break, with nothing I should be doing. Actually, of course, there are things I should be doing, but they’re back in High Point. And I’ll be reimbursed for whatever I spend on accommodations and food, so I’m just going to relax and enjoy. Later in the week, I’ll resume the trip to Portland. What could possibly go wrong?
(High Point, NC) – When it comes to adventure, I’m no Indiana Jones. I’m sort of tepid on the whole idea of a big round boulder chasing me from a temple. Particularly a temple of doom. My bar is set much lower than that. So last week, when I was driving a very used bus from Oklahoma City to Houston, and heard BANG! Whappetywhappetywhappey… I felt no sense of adventure, just a sudden certainty that I would not enjoy the next few hours.
And in accordance with that prophecy, I did not. At 4PM, I was tooling along I-45, about two hours north of Houston when the tread stripped off a right, inside tire. Of course, I immediately pulled over and called my company, asking what I should do. The company has been in business for many years, so I expected they would immediately have the solution. They did not. I carefully whappety-whapped a mile further where, just by the grace of God, there was one of those truck weigh stations. It was closed and abandoned. But there was a stone picnic table and a bit of shelter. And that’s where I camped out for the next three-and-a-half hours. Just waiting.
There was, apparently, a lot of negotiation that took place among the various parties who might have been able to do something: the transport company for which I work, the dealership in Oklahoma from which I picked up the bus, and the dealership in Texas to which I was supposed to deliver this sorry-ass school bus that very day.
The upshot of all this is that I waited, on the side of Interstate 45, for three-and-a-half hours for someone to come and get me out of this predicament. And someone finally did. It was Ricky from a tire and road service place in Centerville, Texas. Oddly enough, he was not nearly as happy to see me as I was to see him. That’s probably why he seemed a bit standoffish when I hugged him.
But within 25 minutes, Ricky had jacked that bus up on this little thing that didn’t look like it could hold the weight of a school bus, pulled the outside tire off, pulled the afflicted tire off, put a new (actually used) tire in its place, put the outside tire and wheel back on, and I was on the road again.
Because of the delay, though, I didn’t get the bus delivered until after 10 o’clock that night. And because there was a good bit of road construction in that area, my GPS seemed quite confused as to where the bus should be dropped off. So I drove for 20 or 30 miles in suburban Houston until I found a parking lot full of school buses.
“Eureka!” I shouted. Or would have, if I were given to such exclamations. As I took a closer look, though, I discovered that this lot was where some school system parked its buses for the night, and was not at all where I wanted to be.
Within half an hour, though, I did find the correct place, and pulled in. There was a guy there… at 10:00 on a Monday night, doing some mechanical thing to a car. He was quite friendly, and signed the bus in for me. But there were no lights there. Complete darkness.
When I drop off a bus, I have to drop off the Bill of Lading (which strikes me as an archaic term… What on earth is “lading?” And why do you have to have a bill for it?) Then I have to update the Drivers Log Book. And then, take off the license plates (they belong to the transport company, and I need them for the next trip,) pull the DOT placards off the sides of the bus so I can use them for the next trip, clean the bus up a bit, make sure I have all my stuff…. the whole thing can take half an hour.
By 10:30, I was done. Exhausted. Beat. I got my phone out and used the handy app to contact Uber for a ride to the Motel 6 near Hobby Airport. The ride took more than a half hour, because my driver missed an exit. By the way, don’t forget to ask me about Uber. I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Anyway… got to that Motel 6. That’s when I discovered that I had left my GPS on the bus. In the dark, I had not seen it. But a call to Southwest Bus Sales confirmed that it’s there, waiting for me.
Tomorrow, I set out on the exact same trip: High Point to Oklahoma City… drop off bus… get used bus… take it to Cypress, Texas. Same days of the week, same route, same everything. I’ll get that GPS and fly home. Unless there’s a big round boulder intent on crushing me to death.
(El Reno, OK) – I’ve been on the road for a couple of days now. I’m delivering a bus to a dealership here in El Reno tomorrow morning, picking up another one, and taking it to Cypress, Texas. And there have been a couple of mildly interesting experiences along the way.
Yesterday I stopped at a Tennessee rest stop to take a… uh… a rest. Parked next to me was a large pick up truck, hauling a flat-bed trailer on which sat a small, beat-up car. In the driver’s seat of the car was a young guy. I went up to him and said, “You know, if you want to get this thing moving, I think you should be in the truck, not the car… heh heh.” And he told me that he’d been there for 21 hours, because the truck had broken down. I caught words like “torque” and “engine” and “truck.” So apparently the truck was having a problem involving the engine and torque.
In any case, he was waiting for his buddy to come out and bring him another truck. And the buddy lives in Kansas. More than 700 miles away. He said it would be another 10 hours before he’d get there. He had already exhausted all the fun opportunities available at an interstate rest stop, and was resigned to just sitting there and waiting for more than 30 hours. He’d been living on stale cinnamon buns, Doritos, cookies and chips from the vending machine. He’s on leave at the moment, stationed at Ft. Riley, and had to be getting back.
I felt helpless. I really wanted to do something for the poor kid, but there was nothing I could realistically do. He was a bit concerned about the fact that it was supposed to get pretty chilly last night, and I offered him a sweatshirt, which he declined. Nice guy, and I really felt bad for him. I hope he got out of there unscathed.
Then, this morning, I awoke at the Knights Inn in Jackson, Tennessee (which is good, because that’s where I went to sleep Saturday night.) A little after 5:00, I went outside with a cup of coffee to wake up, and heard an engine running, a bit roughly. I didn’t think too much about it – thought it was a generator or something. But I went outside about 45 minutes later, and by the dawn’s early light, realized that it was a car, still idling in the parking lot. Then, at 7 or 7:15, as I was getting ready to climb aboard the bus and head out, I noticed that the car was still idling. And that’s when I got a little concerned.
I didn’t see anyone in the car, but I didn’t want to get too close either. For a few minutes, I debated the idea of calling the police. On one hand, do they care if a car has been innocently idling for more than 2 hours in a motel parking lot? On the other hand, why would a car be idling for more than 2 hours in a motel parking lot? It couldn’t be anything good. So I called the Jackson Police. The very nice dispatcher told me they’d send someone out.
I was ready to leave before the cops got there, but I decided to stick around for a few minutes to see what would happen. Two squad cars pulled up, I pointed out the car, and tried to look busily disinterested while they investigated. Turns out there was someone in the car. They found a young African-American guy in the reclined driver’s seat. I wanted to stick around a few minutes to see what happened next, but I had to get on the road.
So I didn’t get any closure on either of these two experiences. Did the army guy’s friend show up from Kansas with a replacement truck? Did he finally get back to the base?
And why was that other guy sitting in a car in a motel parking lot for hours with the engine running? Did they arrest him for something? Was a drug deal going down?
Not knowing is something I can live with.
So today, I’ve been in two states I’d never visited before: Arkansas and Oklahoma, where evidently thewind comes sweeping down the plain, where the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.
Let’s recap: A controversial law has been passed in Indiana. I’m not going to get into whether I agree with it or not, because that’s not relevant.
Then, an opportunistic reporter named Alyssa Marino, from the ABC affiliate in South Bend, went shopping for someone to say that he or she would not serve gays. What she found instead was the owner of Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana (population 2144.) And she asked whether Memories Pizza would, if asked, cater a same-sex wedding.
Innocently, the woman said that she had no problem serving gay people in her store, and that the law would have no effect on it anyway, but she wouldn’t cater a gay wedding if asked. It would go against her religious beliefs. And that was pretty much it.
Most people would not have a wedding catered by a pizza shop. Further, the owner of Memories Pizza said it had never even come up. My guess is that it’s something she had never even considered a serious possibility. She answered the question honestly, according to her religious beliefs. She’s not a bigot. She’s not a hater. She’s not anti-gay. She owns a pizza shop. And according to how she interprets her religion, she would, if she were ever asked, not participate in serving a same-sex wedding. That’s it.
But then came the fire-storm. Memories Pizza (by the way, I think that’s an awful name for a pizza place) has been forced to shut down. The family that owns it has received hundreds of death threats. There’s a movement afoot to burn the place down. Some have claimed that this is an enormous hoax perpetrated by the family that owns Memories Pizza, accusing them of cynically manipulating the reporter just for the money from a GoFundMe campaign which was begun to benefit this little mom-and-pop business. At this writing, it has made something like 800-thousand dollars in donations.
I ask again, what has happened to us? And, again, I don’t care what you think about Indiana’s new law. It’s not relevant. And what I think about it isn’t relevant either. But does anyone reading this really believe that Memories Pizza deserves this Kristallnacht treatment?
Now, in the LGBT community, this is not, to be sure, a lock-step opinion. A wildly attractive lesbian friend of mine has this to say about the whole affair: “I am a businessperson at heart, and my take on the whole thing is that if you have a small business, you should have the right to serve/not serve whomever you want and see how that goes for ya.”
So many times recently, the left has moved to shut down discussion, diversity of opinion and free speech. Fake outrage, make-believe offenses and “micro-aggresions” are their coins of the realm. Free speech for everyone! Unless you disagree with me! And then I will rain hellfire on you!