Half past seven on Sunday morning, and my North American jaunt had taken another weird turn. I was at Boston’s bus terminal, picking up a Greyhound service to Montreal, but finding myself delayed by a row between the driver and a youth who’d taken his elderly grandmother to the terminal. The old lady had almost certainly seen some real injustices in her long life, but as she tottered onto the coach, her grandson – young, twitchy and black – was exploding at some imagined slight from the Greyhound staff. The driver wasn’t having any of it. The comeback from the baggy-tracksuited one?
“Get a college education!”
“You should use your college education!”, the driver wearily muttered. And he was right, for no angry youth was going to be a match for the King of the Road.
I promised myself last year I’d return to the US east coast- lots of people and places I wanted to see – but having weaned myself off flying around Europe, I wasn’t pleased at the thought of spewing a load of pollution into the sky in my haste to cross the Atlantic.
The not-entirely satisfactory solution I came up with was to book a long trip, and go touring by road and rail and see as much as I could to get as much value as I could out of my travels. I got greedy, crammed in a couple of Canadian destinations, and so Sunday was Greyhound day, because it’s the only way to get from Boston to Montreal.
I’d heard the scare stories about travelling by long-distance bus – and my decision to break my 7-hour journey in Burlington, Vermont, cost me because Greyhound’s antiquated ticket system can’t cope with non-US citizens booking in advance from most stops.
(Strangely, though, Greyhound is now owned by the UK’s FirstGroup, which is bringing the name over here.)
So it was up early on Sunday morning, cursing my decision to wallow in Boston’s great bars only a few hours before. But the scenery soon put thoughts of a hangover out of my mind – the interstate highways were quickly surrounded by thick forest, and the thick forest was quickly surrounded by low cloud. On Sunday I’d been drenched by the remnants of Tropical Storm Danny and the last of it was still hanging around.
I was surprised to find that the Greyhound was a terrific way to travel – not exactly fast, but my seat was comfortable (fitting snugly into a seat designed for American backsides) with the kind of soft headrest which seems to have been outlawed in the UK several decades ago. With the driver’s easy-going drawl on the PA, this was a relaxing ride.
Spotting different states’ registration plates was also fun – New Hampshire’s carry the slogan “live free or die”. Well, now you suggest it…
Some of the interstate highways weren’t exactly smooth going – imagine travelling down a Bexley borough side street with its concrete surface at 50mph and you’ll understand what I mean. But it was cosy enough for me to doze off until just inside Vermont, where we stopped at White River Junction – the kind of place that’s a reminder that where much of Britain was built around the railways, the Americans built their nation around their highways.
A change of coach and we were off again – blue skies appearing, signs warning of bears and moose. It was easy to imagine the pioneers blasting their way through the forest to build these roads.
Four and a half hours later, I stopped off in the lakeside town of Burlington to call in on a pal and take in the views over Lake Champlain. The sun was now shining, the water was a deep, glistening blue. It looked idyllic.
Back on the Greyhound a couple of hours later – my early coach had been quiet, this was full of backpackers’ chatter, while next to me a middle-aged Frenchwoman told me how she’d been touring Canada and the US by water and road.
The border choreography was fairly simple – everything and everyone off the bus, speak to the guards, wait around, everything and everyone back on the bus, wait around some more. The young Australian behind me who fretted about not knowing what to do at the border was singled out for a lengthier quizzing. “And all I can show is this stamp,” she complained. Once she was done, we were off again.
Within half an hour, the forests of Vermont felt like a distant memory as we ploughed along sedate single-carriageway roads surrounded by cornfields, with vineyards close by. The cheery “Bonjour!” welcoming us to Quebec was a gentle introduction to the fresh culture shock of being in Francophone territory.
Finally, after traffic jams and another splash of rain, we arrived in Montreal. I’m staying 11 floors above the city, and I’ve a day and a half to explore. I’d best get out and do it…