When I was 18 I travelled around America by Greyhound bus. I still have the Hagstrom folding map I took with me, my gap-year odyssey marked out in black felt-tip pen: west from New York, skirting the Great Lakes; across the vast prairies of Minnesota and North Dakota; over the Rockies to Salt Lake City and San Francisco; back through Arizona, Texas and the Deep South. It was the first great adventure of my life – one that has yet to be surpassed.
My perception of Greyhounds was a romantic one, based on the song that inspired my journey: Paul Simon’s ‘America’. But in the years that followed I found surprisingly few references to them in popular culture. And not until I was asked to review Irma Kurtz’s The Great American Bus Ride (1993) did I come across a book that did justice to the extraordinary experience they offered.
Because Irma Kurtz was best known as the agony aunt for Cosmopolitan, I snootily assumed that she couldn’t be much of a writer. I soon realized my mistake. From the outset she proved the most engaging of companions: wise, compassionate and witty, with a beautiful turn of phrase, an excellent ear for dialogue, and a fine line in self-deprecation: ‘The truth is, I am a hussy of low appetites who always yearns shamelessly for rough travel, and I grab the chance whenever I can to arrive at my destination exhausted, knowing I’ve earned my goal the hard way. Greyhound and I were made for each other.’
To European eyes, Greyhound’s Americruisers with their red, white and blue livery look glamorous, even luxurious. But as Kurtz makes clear, no one in the automobile-obsessed USA takes the bus if they can help it. It is the preserve of the young, those down on their luck, and the mad; Greyhound depots, generally in the dodgiest part of town, are modern-day last-chance saloons. Yet for anyone keen to understand the country’s immensity and variety, there is no better form of transport.
Though Kurtz trav
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