You don’t really get a sense of distance until you travel by bus. When you’re driving, you’re going a little too fast, and you’re in control; it’s not the same. Flying makes you appreciate horizontal distance even less, which, I guess, is kind of the point.
As well as the sheer distance between places, bus travel makes you honestly appreciate every other form of transportation for what they are. You might find yourself wishing for the agency to press a gas pedal or just walk because what’s the difference between driving forty miles per hour on a highway and walking three? But buses also force you to stare without really having to take in any information. There’s no danger of walking into something and no responsibility on your part to not crash into anything. You just watch the terrain change and the cars go by.
There are road signs and fruit stands and one-Subway towns you’d never know existed without traveling this way. The sense of suspended motion is the same whether you’re traveling half an hour to work, or seven hours to another city. It’s an open, solitary way to travel even if you’re never really by yourself.
An intriguing aspect of a bus ride is the social dynamic. You have a lot of time to observe, and not much else to do. If you’re on a city bus, maybe you’re facing a few people and squeezed between a few more. You’ll probably never speak to them, and they could be gone and replaced with another set of strange eyes and leg twitches in a matter of seconds. You watch them, and then look away so they can watch you. You study their incongruities; the way they exhale, the details of their luggage, or what they do with their hands if they aren’t carrying anything.
In a way, you’re getting to know each other. You might see these people more consistently than some of your family or friends. Every morning, the stop after yours, there they are, loading a bike in front, or intently reading the same book or stack of papers they always seem to be. It’s an odd intimacy. You don’t feel forced to make conversation like you would in a car, or maybe even on an airplane. There’s no sense of building a community, even if that’s exactly what you’re doing by the sheer coincidence of your daily destination.
Another oddity, mainly applicable to international or state travel, is that you’ve all chosen to take the bus in the first place. Cost is probably a factor for everyone involved. The ability to work on other things as well as physically getting somewhere also fits into the narrative, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.
The bus is anonymous in a way that cars and planes are not. In most cases, you literally don’t need to provide identification beyond your ticket. There’s nothing to say for sure that you’re aboard from the outside either. Now that hitchhiking is all but erased from popular Americana, buses are the most off the grid you can get while still getting somewhere. There’s something peaceful about that. Something comforting. If you pull off the road in a car, you can’t exactly disappear without a trace, and for all intents and purposes you literally can’t stop off on a whim when you’re flying. On a bus though, your destination can always be the next stop. Bus travel is more than a point A to point B arrangement; it can also be an escape.
Without going into details, I put myself in a situation where bus travel was a necessity for three weeks in a country I knew nothing about, boasting a language I knew only haltingly. Through more fault of my own than I was willing to admit I had been left alone, struggling to cope with not only this latest loss, but a far deeper, earlier one as well. Most of my trip was spent in shock over the former, but the latter, an actual, albeit natural tragedy, was allowed a certain amount of confrontation and, in that, a certain degree of closure.
If you’re trying to lose track of something, or even coming to terms with losing someone, getting on a bus gives you the time and solace to do so. You’re literally moving forward, beyond the catastrophe. Seven hours of suspended progress is worth at least twice as long wallowing in one place. You have the time to reflect, to write out your thoughts, to take in the world outside, and in doing so be reminded that, of course, there is one. The people around you all have problems too. They’ve lost; they’ve moved on, maybe they’re looking for an escape, for peace of mind as well. For me, the bus was sort of meditative, hermitic, but never isolated.
Traveling by bus frees you from control, gives you time to collect yourself (whether for thirty minutes before your job or fifteen hours after something traumatic), and doesn’t take you out of contact with other people entirely. You appreciate the grandeur of distance; what really goes into being one place and then another. It can be almost spiritual, just a means to an end, or even both.