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The Artful Voyager, 11-18: Hearts of the West
From the Bay to the Falls on the Dog

Water-logs: The author at the Giant Springs in Great Falls, Montana, to which he voyaged from the Greater Bay Area, California, on the great Greyhound. Photo by and copyright Deeling Gregory..

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

"But first a few rules," said the first of six drivers from Greyhound and affiliates who would take me from my hometown of San Francisco to Great Falls, Montana, an itinerary which would take us through Truckee and across to Reno, then large casino-brightened stretches of Nevada, barren Utah landscapes, more green Idaho and finally terrain that went from flat seemingly endless highways to breathtaking mountain vistas stretching into eternity in Montana. I had initially dreaded being on a bus for some 32 hours -- we'd depart at 1 p.m. Tuesday, arrive in GF at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday -- but friends had re-assured me that this was not the same Greyhound I remembered from 1997 and an ill-fated trip from NYC to Ocean City, Maryland to see a dancer with whom my relationship was already drowning; the buses were all new and comfortable. "You really feel like you're on a train, the ride is so smooth," one had told me. Well, she was right that Bus #6144 did not remind me of 1997; it was definitely from the '70s and were it a 1/4-sized model would fit right in with my collection of '70s memorabilia.

"There is no drinking of alcohol permitted on Greyhound busses," began the driver, a black woman in her 30s. "If you are caught drinking you will not get a second chance. You are welcome to use a personal stereo but if I can hear it it is too loud."

So far so good. But trouble was straight ahead.

"I am asthmatic, so no perfumes or lotions. If you didn't put it on before you boarded the bus, don't put it on after, or you will find yourself on the highway looking for a ride."

I thought of the shea butter lotion, pomegranate soap, oatmeal soap, Mexican chocolate soap, almond and aloe deodorant, blackberry bubble bath, vita-bath bubble bath, cucumber bubble bath, anise toothpaste, grapefruit shampoo, menthe mouthwash, and various other bodily condiments, gift from my step-mother, who owns a store called Common Scents in San Francisco, that were cramming the 20 pockets of my Glacier Park winter coat, Dickey black work jacket, and North Face thinsulate sweater. (To complete the sartorial picture: I also wore the brown-green Stetson I'd picked up in Perigueux, in southwest France, and the tan cowboy boots I'd scored for $10 at the Mexican flea market in Fort Worth, Texas.)

Except for the Donner Pass, interesting mostly for the shadows of the looming ghosts of the Donner Party, the scenery did not do much for me -- grand as they may be, I find the brown of California's mountains drab -- until we got to the Truckee River and then Truckee itself. Perhaps it's for us, the tourists, but I was taken by the village's charm and its setting, nestled in between mountains that, even in 2010, still give it the aura of a Gold Rush town. And now I knew that even without a car I could come here on Greyhound from San Francisco in a relatively short amount of time, the trip having endured just five and half hours at this point.

In Reno we'd been told to disembark so the bus could be serviced. In fact this wasn't true.

"Hey, the police are here with their drug-sniffing dogs," the woman in sweats, large sweater, and pony-tailed blond hair who'd been riding up front said discretely into her cell phone, talking to either her dad or her boyfriend, as we waited inside the station. "It's a good thing I didn't take the stuff."

"Hey, the police are watching me," said the Latino-looking mustachio'd gent who had been sitting a couple rows behind me.

I went out to the sidewalk, hoping to impress my fellow passengers when I whipped out my harmonica, but they were already grooving to loud rap coming from an open taxi. I tried to accompany the taxi for a few bars, but no one noticed so I went back inside.

Later I went outside, where one of the policeman, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt that announced, "Police - Drug Interdiction" was explaining the dogs to a passenger. "They can smell drugs in a can of peanut butter!" I thought of the peanut butter my step-mom had prepared for me, sitting in the food box between the two vintage red-plaid thermoses in a leatherette double-thermos bag I'd picked up at a Fort Worth flea market.

"Who does this back-pack belong to?," asked one of the three policemen, as we were allowed to re-board the bus. Its owner was actually dumb enough to claim it, and apparently what had been found inside was one marijuana brownie. After the police had terrorized the kid who owned it, a clean-cut youngster with short black hair and glasses, one of them kindly announced to us before we boarded, "If you had things in the upper-head compartments, they may have been displaced. We'll help you put them back." Help mon oeil!

In fact, this was just a ruse for them to go down the aisle asking each of us, "This bag yours?," itself a ruse to get my neighbor the young Latino man to identify which bag was his so that they could search it. Of course they found nothing, and of course my neighbor was justly riled. Having had British border agents effectively prevent me from boarding a Eurostar train at the Gare Du Nord in Paris last July because I was a dangerous dance critic -- they apparently feared I would stay there writing about Royal Ballet recitals and bad modern dance concerts forever -- I sympathized and made a point to tell him so.

Before I'd realized that the real story was at the station, I'd taken advantage of our break to cross the street to a short bridge over some narrow rapids. "Excuse me?" I asked a lady walking two poodles, "What river is this?" "The Truckee," she said brightly. After resuming her walk for a few steps she came back to announce, "You know, Reno used to be known as the divorce capital of the world. And legend has it that once these women were divorced, the first thing they did was to throw their wedding rings into the Truckee."

While she seemed too young to be one of these gay divorcees, the woman who boarded the bus after the rug sweep also seemed too young to be taking a Greyhound by herself; in fact, as further conversation was to bear out, she was just trusting.

She might have sat by me, but the protective measures I'd taken to ensure my two seats -- and room for me and all my stuff to stretch out for the next 11 hours -- which was to spread my stuff out across the two chairs -- warded her off, as she asked the verbose fraud agent behind me if she could sit by him.

"Hello, my name is Ed, and for the next 11 hours I will be your driver until we get to Salt Lake City," our silvery-haired new conductor announced. 'But first some rules. Greyhound is an alcohol and drug-free zone. That means anyone caught drinking alcohol or using drugs will be thrown off. There are no second chances. There is also no swearing. Anyone caught swearing will be thrown off the bus."

At this point, my neighbor who had been wrongly suspected by the police of being a drug-runner was -- justly -- complaining, "Fuckin' police, I knew they were going to fuckin' accuse me, even though I didn't fuckin' do anything." I realized that maybe I should cut off the conversation lest I be tossed with him for participating in a conversation with someone who was swearing.

The first hour out of Reno was still pretty sublime. Low-lying mountains set in twilight ombre made for a romantic ambiance as we rolled along, and as the fraud specialist prattled on trying to impress the art student, who we'll call Suzey, with his knwledge of her subject by bragging about a woman he used to know who had a Monet on her wall. I tried to butt in occasionally, but he'd just pause tolerantly and take up where he let off when I finished.

The 10 hours that followed were my Nightmare of the Glittering Casinos. The desert would be black, then suddenly out of nowhere an oasis of sparkling, flashing neon signs would pop up trying to beckon suckers into the riches that lay beyond the signs. I thought about the irony that while Nevada police were swarming down on one poor kid with one marijuana brownie, another much more pervasive addiction that hurt a lot more people was given free reign.

We took a lot of breaks. Just as I was starting to nod off in my twisted up sideways booted shoes stretched diagonally and squeezed under the seat to the right in front of me position, the driver would pull into another gas station with a store with corn dogs that had probably been turning on the grill for 12 hours to tempt us on our way to the restroom, as well as the occasional in-store casino. Donning my Stetson, I'd descend from the bus and after using the bathroom stand off to the side hoping my fellow passengers, the ones who got off to smoke anyway, wouldn't notice that I couldn't actually carry a tune on the harmonica I was playing.

The most debilitating moment was when, after we'd been grinding along in the dark for what seemed to me like several hours, I looked at another rider's watch and saw it was just 11:30 p.m.

At about that time I offered some coffee to Suzey. She demurred but gave me a granola bar and a bright smile.

Sleep was impossible; even the Bel Canto CD on my Discman couldn't drown out the non-stop talking of the guys two rows in front of me, one of them with an annoying chirpy southern accent, who apparently had stocked up on energy drinks before the trip.


We rolled into Salt Lake City at a quarter to six a.m., sans my ever seeing a single solitary salt lake. I had an 8:15 bus to Butte. Suzey, who had a 9 a.m. bus to Colorado, stood near the wide entrance to the large waiting room wondering where to go. I'd again piled up the seat next to me, so she just smiled at me politely and left the waiting room. I needed to wash up but didn't want to leave my stuff unattended. So a few minutes later, I went over to Suzey, who by that time had found a place on the row of seats behind mine, meaning just to ask her if she could watch my stuff.

"Would you mind -- ?"

"Not at all!," she answered, clearing a place besides her. So I moved my stuff to the seat and asked her to watch it, and my big bag, already holding my place in line for the bus to Butte, while I went to wash up and change from the slept-in snap-buttoned oxblood red cowboy shirt to the wrinkled but clean simple black shirt.

When I came back, we began by talking about art for a while; she'll be heading off in a year for art school in Chicago. I asked her what medium she preferred -- pencils. "I just can't get the colors right in water-color!' she said. "No matter what I do, they always come out brown."

"I know," I sympathized. "Whenever I try to mix, it always comes out looking like diluted sewer water." A handy bit of inside artmaking knowledge I'd picked up in my comic book-making class in Perigueux in the SW of France, where I was the only adult.

I told her about the drug inspection, which had happened right before she got on the bus, and shared my analysis about the irony of the state of Nevada ganging up on one poor kid with a marijuana brownie while leaving the casinos free to ruin the lives of thousands of other -- gambling -- addicts.

Suzey nodded vigorously. "My friend Hippy's life has basically been ruined by gambling," she said gravely. Hippy, she'd explained earlier, had been given this first name when an Ellis Island immigration clerk misinterpreted his mother's statement that they were Gypsies. (I told her about how an Ellis Island immigration clerk changed my great-grandparents' name from Vinek into Winer by making the 'V' a 'W' and the 'k' and 'r'; I'd changed my last name to Ben-Itzak -- my Hebrew name -- because I didn't like the idea that my last name was a mistake.) Hippy had lost his partner and was in the process of destroying his business so that he could continue to gamble. "He also responds to all those letters that promise millions if he just sends $20," she added. "The last time I was with him he said he'd stopped, but I noticed he had a big pile of $20 check stubs.... It also makes him lie. One time he accused me of stealing $300 from his bank that he had in a brown sack. 'You've hidden it in your bra!' he said. 'Well then let's dust the bag for my finger-prints, Hippy!' I told him. He didn't say anything."

"That's a cool tattoo you have on your foot," I said. "What is it?" I wasn't sure if it was a demon or a fish.

"It's one half of Aquarius," Allison said. "My sister has the other half. Our brother is Aquarius. I know it kind of looks like a demon fish. My ex-roommate made it."

"That's a great tattoo!"

"I know. He was in prison. Actually we didn't know this when we took him on as a roommate. We thought he was just a homeless person roaming the streets. I guess we should have known because of all the tattoos. Anyway, we found out he had warrants out on him in four states: armed robbery and other things. Eventually the police caught up with him. It was pretty scary. They called me a 'person of interest'."

"You were WITH him when they caught him?"

"Yeah. They told me I was lucky to be alive. That usually he doesn't leave any witnesses.

"So, after what happened with Hippy and this guy -- I don't know how I get into these situations, I guess I'm too trusting -- I decided it was time to go home to Colorado for a while."

It was only 7:30, but suddenly a tired security agent called for all passengers on the Butte bus to line up so he could search our carry-on bags. (Fortunately I'd already eaten the brownies the kid who'd been caught by the Nevada Police Drug Interdiction Force had given me for breakfast. Kidding.) Suddenly I got paranoid that I'd never see Suzey again. Despite advice I'd recently received that it was appropriate -- and more effective -- to suggest exchanging e-mails -- considering Suzey's recent experience with men I thought it would be too much on an hour's conversation and a night's Greyhound ride to suggest this, so I quickly gave her my card. "Keep in touch!!" I said, running off to line up for the bus. She smiled and nodded.

The bus to Butte was actually a mini-bus, with about half the seats of a grown-up Greyhound. Two sisters, a teenager and a younger kid, part of a larger unit including a brother, grandmother, and mother, the latter two huge, sat down behind me. At first they were pretty calm and even polite so I wasn't worried, but after we stopped further down the line at a store and their ma staked them for softies, the tempo, and the kicking of my seat, stepped up until they finally fell asleep.

The bus -- marked "Salt Lake City Express" -- was too small to need an intercom system, so the driver just announced to us where we were going; no litany of rules this time. That brief holiday was terminated when an older, tense, grayer, balding driver took over about two hours down the line. He was particularly emphatic about not drinking alcohol when we were off the bus, and added a litter rule; he'd installed a nice neat garbage can with a bungee cord in the corner of the bus above the exit stairs that we were to use.

I knew we were in Idaho when the passages started getting greener -- there was one scary, windy moment, when everything from the bus to the leaves in the fields outside the window seemed to be getting whipped up by wind and the horizon was grey -- and knew we were in Montana when they started getting flatter, until we were rolling down what seemed to be one endless highway under one Big Sky, the kind of highway you don't want to break down on; at least this was the feeling I'd had on it 33 years earlier when I traversed it with my dad and two brothers on our cross-country trip. Finally we got to Butte, where, just to terminate on a stern note, the driver insisted -- with a scolding of the head -- that I sit back down, even though we were in the parking lot of the Butte bus station, while he continued explaining how we were to find our next buses.

I went out to await mine, which would be an old '70s red Trailways bus, more roomy than the Greyhound, on the island of green across from the station where it would load up on the curb. It was suddenly chilly, but I welcomed the strong wind and grey-dappled skies, which announced I was in Montana. The nearby mountains also helped. From the peak a lady in white peered out and down on us. "That's Our Lady of the Rockies," said a young crew cut Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman standing on the other side of the picnic table I'd set my stuff down on. "Folks say when she appears there's a storm a-coming." (Okay, he didn't really say 'a-' coming,' but this was the spirit.) I'd learn later from my Great Falls hosts that this was the second largest Catholic structure in the world after the one in Rio.

A woman who looked by the color of her skin and round shape of her face to be Native American (about five percent of the population in Montana), or at least part, arrived in a flurry from another bus, with a teenager and two younger children in toe. I thought the teenager -- done up in hip-hop style, right down the backwards baseball cap, long shorts, and newly sprouted peach fuzz on his chin -- was her younger brother, but they all turned out to be her children; she didn't look to be older than 30. Except for the darker skin, she looked exactly like a woman I'd left behind in Paris earlier this summer, with regret, which made for an instant crush, so when she sat behind me, I took advantage of her persistent cough -- she had reminded the older son that she had an infection -- and extended my tin of exploding German berry bon-bons (they were covered with white sugar, which sent up a cloud of sugar-smoke every time I opened the tin) to her. "No thanks. Thanks."

Here our trip took on mystical tones, and not just because of the Johnny Cash mix I was listening to on my Discman, including "Bitter Tears," Johnny's ode to the American Indian, and "Solitary Man." It was twilight, and as we wove through the mountains, to the click-click-click sound of the window-wipers -- a light rain would start up then go away, then return again -- I felt their romance. This was astounding, as I'd just come off three years of living right across from giant cliffs in a valley -- the pre-historic Dordogne valley -- in rural southwest France. So I was not easily impressed by hilly landscapes. But there was something about these passages. Barren isn't exactly the right word, because it implies a degree of desolation. Pure is maybe better. Later I'd learn from my GF hosts that this area was famously sought after for the curative powers of its radium mines, so that may have had something to do with it. At one point -- the Elkhorn mountains -- we looked out ahead of us at what seemed to be an infinity of receding mountain ranges. At another, out of nowhere, a red neon sign nestled at the bottom of a mountain flashed, "Merry Widow." Somewhere we actually passed a sign that said "Continental Divide."

Helena was breathtaking, the mountains close, the cloud figures coming to life around them. "Look!" said the woman to her kids, "A sleeping giant!'

I asked her what she was going to Great Falls for. "I'm coming home."

Dam it!: Rusted-tin statues, placed there this year by high school students, of Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark look out on Great Falls much diminished since the time the real explorers and their Indian guide stood in the same spot by dams put up by an out-of-state power company which sends the power -- and the profits -- out of state. Photo by and copyright Deeling Gregory..

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