Press "Enter" to skip to content

Graveyard run to Boise


Greyhound at Ontario, Oregon/Randy Stapilus

There’s this, to begin with: The Greyhound bus run scheduled to depart Portland at 11:50 p.m. left at 11:50. That is exactly what the big clock on Union Station north of downtown, and next door to the Greyhound station in PDX, said as the bus cleared the building.

The bus was scheduled to arrived at the bus station just west of downtown Boise, more than 400 miles away and after eight intermediate stops, at 10:05 the next morning. It pulled it at 10:04, and I stepped off the bus at 10:05. The precision was impressive.

I hadn’t been at all sure what to expect. But what emerged over the course of the ride is an argument that “riding the bus” ought not to be considered a second-class (or worse) option.

I’ve not taken a long-distance commercial bus ride for a long time, 25 years at least, maybe more. For a long time, I suspected I never would again: The trend lines seem to be running against commercial bus lines. When you see a business, even one as big as Greyhound, scaling back on lines (the closest GH stop to our residence, a long-time stop at McMinnville, Oregon, was dropped a few years ago), expectations aren’t necessarily of the highest. And there’s something about the bus in the culture, as something people wouldn’t take if driving or flying were available options. A mode of last resort. With, maybe, a clientele reflecting that.

The reality turned out to be a little different, and even intriguing.

The bus was neat, clean and comfortable – the seats more comfortable than most airline seats (not to damn with faint praise). Air circulated well through the coach. The driving was smooth and not especially noticeable (which is a compliment). Some Greyhound buses on the east coast have wifi and other services installed, which would be a nice feature. They’re not on the Pacific-side buses yet, but the people at the Portland station seemed to think that may be coming in the near term; more enhanced buses apparently are rolling off the lines this summer.

How much traffic do these graveyard, long-run routes get? Enough apparently. A bus departing Portland station for points south (to California) at 11:25 was sold out at least a half-hour before boarding. A crowd assembled quickly into line for it at gate 8, and everyone there seemed to get a seat.

My bus was about half-full initially, but at a midway stop at a Pilot truck stop at Stanfield about 3:30 picked up a dozen or so more people, apparently on a run originating from the Seattle area but headed southeast. At peak, it was nearly full. I got the impression that’s more or less average.

Who were all these people traveling hundreds of miles in the middle of the night?

That would be worth knowing, because there’s a whole culture here. The people who boarded in Portland with me seemed to know the drill; they were not bus newbies like me. I had arranged my ticketing online, printing the ticket at home and simply presenting it at the station. That seems to be Greyhound’s preferred way of dealing with ticketing, probably simpler for them and customers both. But so far as I could tell, none or almost none of my fellow boarders ticketed that way: Rider after rider turned in the hand-written flimsies that must have been cut at a bus station.

They were mostly male – maybe a half-dozen of the 60 or so passengers were women. There were no children. (Which makes sense on an overnight run, but on plane flights I’ve seen plenty of children on night flights.) They were mostly younger men, in their 20s or 30s, few much younger or older than that. There seemed to be either no or almost no couples or other groups traveling together; these were solo riders, though a number of them were sociable enough.

They were also courteous and disciplined. When the bus rolled out of Portland, the reading lights went out, all but one or two (I and one other rider periodically read a book). Everyone slept. Everyone was quite. There was either little or no sound from electronic gadgetry; those who had them used ear buds. All you heard was the sound of the bus. Talking resumed somewhat after sunrise, but even after that many of the passengers slept.

Why were they traveling? There were occasion references to heading to a job – this was a decidedly blue-collar, not white-collar, group. Some were visiting friends or relatives. Some were heading out for truly long distances. The bus stopped in Boise for a cleaning and refurbish, but was scheduled to continue on to Salt Lake City and Denver. A few of the Portland boarders said they were headed all the way there.

Not a run I’d want to do every week, or month. But it worked neatly and as advertised. You get the sense that more people would try it . . . if they tried it . . .

Share on Facebook