Don’t let the horror make you abandon the bus

The first thought I had when I read the news was there must have been a mistake. Surely this sort of thing only happens across the border in the United States, and certainly not in sleepy Manitoba? But no, the news story was correct – the horrific, unprovoked beheading had happened just west of Portage la Prairie on a Canadian Greyhound bus travelling from Edmonton to Winnipeg.

Although I live in London, England, I have a personal interest in this terrible event. A couple of years ago I spent a glorious summer travelling solo around the United States and Canada on Greyhound. Starting in New York, I headed south to Washington then south again to Florida, across to Texas and then up to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco. Stopping briefly in Seattle, I headed over the border to Vancouver, Banff and Winnipeg, before heading back to the States to visit Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard and to see a friend in Chattanooga. It was a once in a lifetime trip and something I will look back fondly on for the rest of my life.

On every journey I would find myself sat next to a complete stranger, and more often than not we would while away the time chatting to each other about our respective lives. I met some truly extraordinary people that summer – from the Blackfoot Indian woman travelling from Vancouver to Calgary who was struggling to bring up two children on her own, to the guy from San Francisco who told me how the automobile industry had conspired to destroy the American public transport system in the early part of the 20th century. Then there was the man who had spent four days travelling non-stop from Boston to San Diego to see his elderly mother and the young girl travelling hundreds of miles to surprise her best friend in Ohio on her birthday.

Rather than the upwardly mobile Americans I was used to seeing on TV in shows like Friends, Dawson’s Creek and The O.C., I met people struggling everyday to make ends meet, who didn’t have enough money to feed themselves during their journey or were moving hundreds of miles in the hope of a better life way from the troubles they left at home.

However, tell a middle-class American or Canadian that you are travelling on Greyhound, and you will often be greeted with a look of snobbish horror. This is because although a diverse range of people travel on Greyhound, the company generally caters to the poorer sections of society – those who can’t afford a car or to fly to their destination. And, yes, the stations themselves tend to be in the worst part of town, and certainly not somewhere you would choose to spend long periods of time. And the less said about the food in the stations and at the scheduled stops the better.

Bad things do occasionally happen on the bus, but it would be a shame if people were discouraged from travelling on Greyhound because of the gruesome events that occurred on the Trans Canada Highway. We should see the murder of 22-year old Tim Mclean for what it is – a random act of extreme violence that, although gruesome and frightening, is not indicative of the experience of the vast majority of the 25 million people who travel on Greyhound in North America every year.

With people living increasingly atomized and privatized lives, the public transport Greyhound provides is more important than ever. Sitting in your own car you can feel sure of your own opinions as you are in complete control of your environment, but on the bus you may, heaven forbid, have to listen to someone you don’t agree with. You may even have to speak to, compromise and adjust to those around you – a good working definition of community, I think. In addition, with the threat of irreversible climate change hanging over the world, travelling by bus also has the added advantage of being better for the environment than flying or travelling by car.

Of course be safe and aware of your surroundings at all times, but don’t let irrational fear and suspicion stop you travelling on Greyhound and conversing with others. If you do, who will talk to me when I sit down next to you?

*This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press.  [email protected]

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