Note: Originally posted on Blogger on June 10, 2006
Unfolding the Map
Sal never actually stops in Ashtabula, just like he never actually "stopped" at the Holland Tunnel. But he mentions it, and it is our first stop outside the New York area. And as usual, Littourati, his passage will be used to spark new reflections. As always, click the image to the right to get to the updated map.
"It was an ordinary bus trip with crying babies and hot sun, and countryfolk getting on at one Penn town after another, till we got on the plain of Ohio and really rolled, up by Ashtabula and straight across Indiana in the night."
On the Road, Chapter 3
The first time I ever heard of Ashtabula was on an old TV show. Maybe it was that 1970s sitcom set in Mel's Diner with Flo, the wisecracking waitress -- was that show called "Alice?" Maybe not, because Flo usually said "Kiss my grits!" Anyway, somebody said "You can kiss my Ashtabula!" I hadn't really thought about it since then.
What gets me thinking are a couple things that Sal says in this sentence. First, he says that it was an "ordinary" bus trip. I imagine that for many of us today, bus trips are anything but ordinary. We are part of the car culture, and if we can't take a car cheap air travel is available, and the bus seems to be reserved for down & outs who don't own or can't afford a car for some reason, and who come into town off the bus looking disheveled and like they could use a good shower. Bus stations, especially in big cities, are seen as being a bit seedy, with the type of people that one shouldn't necessarily associate with on a normal basis. However, bus trips were pretty normal in 1947. Nobody but the most wealthy could afford a plane flight and traveling by plane was a fabulous affair, with food served on good china with linen. Travel by train was very popular, but not the cheapest, and again was considered to be a chic and fancy style of travel. But if you just wanted to get somewhere, no frills attached, kind of like we use Southwest today, the bus was the way to go. It was ordinary, and lots and lots of people did it.
The second thing is his description of the what the "ordinary" trip is like. "Crying babies" and hot sun and countryfolk getting on and off. Regardless of the time period, I'm pretty sure that things have not changed much in long distance bus travel. I remember my first really long bus trip, on par with Sal's. I was asked to be in a wedding in Wyoming in the mid 1980s. I was living in Milwaukee at the time, and I did not have enough money to afford a plane ticket. My bus left Milwaukee early, and after a bit of a layover in Minneapolis, we headed out west across the plains of North Dakota. I had never seen such flat country in my entire life. People got on and off at various places, some of whom I was happy to be sharing a bus with, some of whom I wasn't. I remember cigarette smoke, the smell of alcohol on people's breath. I remember trying to sleep in the uncomfortable seats in the night. We stopped at various local stops. On the way back, I remember one mother, who looked a little distressed, getting on with her crying children. The children cried and cried for a long time. When another rider who was trying to sleep said "Shhhhhh," the woman turned around and snarled, "Don't you 'shhhhh' my fucking kid!"
I had one friend while I was in Milwaukee, Charles, who saved travel money by taking the bus. He took the bus so often that he could exactly imitate the announcements at the Greyhound station. He was very good at it, and always made us laugh with his "Now leaving for South Bend, and all points east: Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Ashtabula, Scranton..." etc. Today in Albuquerque, where I live, I see the busses leaving from little dinky stations toward points in Mexico. Our Greyhound station was just moved into swanky new quarters, where it will soon develop the seediness that befits its reputation. (The old station will probably be developed into something "swanky.") The bus seems to catch America at its most real: a little weatherbeaten, even down and out, but always moving.
If You Want to Know More About Ashtabula and Bus Travel
Next up: Chicago