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What I Learned About America by Traveling 150,000 Miles on Greyhound

6 minute read
Levitt is a singer, songwriter, and creator of The Greyhound Diaries, a journey over 150,000 Greyhound miles to shed light on others struggling to get by

Maybe it’s the hypnotic rumble of the bus wheels beneath me. Or sitting side-by-side with a stranger, as if I’m in a bar or a confessional. Maybe it’s the anonymity of knowing that we are almost certainly never going to see each other again. But I’ve found that we’re more willing to share our stories when we travel next to strangers. Our stories are where we meet; they are the crossroads of human experience. Perhaps more importantly, we share our stories to know we’re not alone.

This I’ve learned from traveling over 150,000 miles by Greyhound Bus across America for more than 15 years. It’s surely what led me to the bus in the first place.

When I was 16, I woke up one morning to find my father outside dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I blamed myself, knowing I was with him the night before and feeling that I should have done something. For years, I pretended I had dealt with his suicide, but the truth is I couldn’t cry. Music became my crying, and I put most of the processing on lay away.

I was 32 when I set out on my first Greyhound trip in 2004. Inspired by Depression-era projects like those of Woody Guthrie, James Agee, and Dorothea Lange that helped draw a fuller portrait of America, I bought an initial six-week bus pass, bringing along a Gibson guitar and a copy of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. I began writing songs about my fellow riders along the way.

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Through each one-stop-light town, each blighted-on-one-side-gilded-on-the-other metropolis, through successive presidents and parties in power, I’ve seen an America that might sound like it contradicts much of the news, but doesn’t—it’s an America that is greater than the sum of its differences. It’s the beauty of a country passing by on the bus, like moving murals, and is matched by the resplendence and resilience of the Americans traveling aboard it.

Greyhound’s bus routes serve roughly 10 times the number of destinations as the largest airline in America. This sweeping view of the country is part of reason I’ve continued traveling by bus, performing along the way in shelters, prisons, and VAs. For riders and drivers alike, there are truck stop smoke breaks, pre-dawn meal stops at Jack in the Box, transfers at 3 a.m. There is no other realm where retirees and runaways, ex-felons and vets, members of rival gangs all share a roughly 10-yard by 3-yard space for days on end in cases. There are pairings of humanity you’d never see anywhere else but this bus and this land at this time, sharing breaks by the roadside truck stops, or up and down the aisle at all hours. A rolling congregation of souls.

Yes, this is among the most fractious and frenetic periods in our country’s history. The political divisions are deep and significant, and yes, racial, economic, and class segregation exist institutionally and culturally. But at the same time, in so many of the places we spend time together, the differences inform the commonalities. Especially when we’re traveling, no one wants to get into a debate they can’t get out of. Instead, we seek points of connection.

This is no halcyon view of the country. No other mass transporter of Americans has been more reflective of the challenges of our time: the deepening disparity that has rural and urban citizens alike staring up at the stark underside of an unforgiving economy; the impacts of two of America’s longest wars in history; the entwined epidemics of addiction and mental illness; mass incarceration and recidivism; gun violence and suicide. It is a cross section of people for whom security has long been counted in days and weeks— not months and years.

I’ve seen a half-filled bus consoling a weeping woman on her way from Pennsylvania to California for the funeral of her brother who had been hit by a car. I’ve heard a soldier’s voice break as he spoke to another passenger along the aisle about failing his brother in arms in Afghanistan, spurring others to talk about their own self-blame. I’ve become dear friends with a man I met on the bus who discovered his son shot in the head by an errant bullet. “Why were we in that neighborhood?” he asked me. “I should have protected my son better.”

These riders forced me to realize that the reasons we set out to do something and the reasons we turn out to have done it are not always the same. The passage of time is the only light by which to know the difference. My story, including how I ended up on a Greyhound, was inextricably tied to theirs.

Closure is sometimes a group act, and trauma, as I’ve seen on the bus, is a universal binding force, a common denominator, propelling us to our life’s work. It’s the source material, the kindling for a fire around which we all sit at night. And this I learned from absolute strangers of disparate backgrounds on countless Greyhound buses when I was seeking nothing of the sort. Ultimately, I’ve found, we learn from one another how to forgive ourselves.

There’s something inherently American about these interactions, where aspects of identity that shape our stories give rise, in certain settings, to something more collective. Perhaps we’re a confessional, mobile culture. But the country I’ve seen is not the one of online spats and stats. In a season of unending discourse about our divides, in our politics and communities, my Greyhound journeys have served as a tonic, a counterpoint rooted in our common places, one that is not naive about the cleaving forces, but sees a broader, connected human story. A story in which we are all just travelers on a bus.

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