At the Greyhound, Seven Stages, and Trailways bus stations, when you approach the ticket agents behind the glass that separates the world of employees and rules from the public at large, you may be asked, “Where are you trying to go?” I’ve heard that question often—the last time addressed to a very young, backpacking couple in the New York City Port Authority, their faces as bright as sunlit glass. The couple remained impressively unfazed, eager, and hopeful, despite the peculiar welcome.
In an airport terminal, you would be asked, “Where are you going?” or “Where would you like to go?” These are phrases that bespeak service, comfort, a desire to please. The other—Where are you trying to go?—suggests lowly, hardscrabble transience. The journey, it says, may be uncertain. This is very often the case.
A search on Google will pull up ads from the history of Greyhound, which was founded in 1914, preceding the age of mass transit, and which stands today as the sole provider of national bus service. (Though you still see their names, buyouts have made the other lines subsidiaries. Regional lines that compete with Grandfather Greyhound provide transit only between major cities.) The ads illustrate the company’s struggle to forge a pleasant or, if possible, benign identity. They record the historical difficulties of promoting interstate bus travel.
A 1947 ad reads, Greyhound alone, of all the transportation systems serving this Amazing America, can take you to and through every one of the forty-eight states, up into Canada and down to Mexico. Trips through the glittering snows of the North are as restful and as pleasant as travel under sunny Southern skies. The ad features a pristine white family in unruffled clothes, enjoying a Where would you like to go? rather than a Where are you trying to go? experience. Ads throughout the 1940s and 1950s stubbornly appealed to patrons with images of fun, frolic, and family. The picture was fanciful then; today it seems sentimental and slightly fantastic.
The Greyhound romance (if it is still alive) isn’t a holiday one. A long distance ride can be a rough adventure, but not the kind that friends and family traditionally envy. No one would think of promoting long distance bus travel as particularly “restful.” It doesn’t have a strong word-of-mouth reputation among the business-minded, even less among comfort-seeking vacationers. Greyhound is a cheap means to an end that lacks the salt and pepper of travel excitement—a feeling of having been lifted beyond the commonplace, as when in love.
There was a time when the stations were newer, brighter, cleaner, and the clientele solidly middle class, but the claim of an attractive getaway option was always strained, primarily appealing to the American imagination, rather than describing actual services. Even in the “good” old days of the classic Hollywood bus movie, 1934’s …