After college, my friends and I might as well have crawled into a cannon that shot us out at varied trajectories and scattered us across the country from Minnesota all the way to east Michigan. Admittedly, many of us didn’t make it out of the Midwest, but it isn’t called flyover country for nothing – the Midwest is a formidable stretch of countryside to traverse, especially if you don’t have a reliable car. Like many people in my age bracket, I’m broke, I place almost no value on my time and health, and I miss my friends, so the allure of the long-distance overnight coach bus as an alternative to air travel is strong. I’ve traveled the inverted parabola from Minneapolis to Madison to Chicago to Ann Arbor (and all permutations therein) on the night bus so many times that I’ve become something of an expert.
The night bus can be a beautiful thing. I’ve cried, been reborn, eaten things no one would believe, and seen things I can’t explain while trundling down I-94 at three in the morning. I’ve listened to the soundtrack to Annie Get Your Gun while watching the sun rise over the Hormel Chili silo in Beloit, a coalescence of experiences that brings about something akin to ego death. My best friend received a marriage proposal from her seatmate early one morning in Chicagoland, which may seem like an odd move on his part, but is really more or less de rigueur for the particular brand of delirium everyone sinks into over the course of the journey. That’s just the way of the night bus – bizarre experiences are birthed and nurtured under the unearthly green light of discount travel, and then, like a tropical houseplant suddenly exposed to a Midwestern winter, these experiences wither away and fade to wisps as daylight arrives.
Looking back on my first night bus experience, I remember feeling terrified, mainly because one of my fellow travelers had flown into a rage, punched a policeman in the head, and been hauled away in handcuffs all before the bus left the terminal. I never fully understood what triggered his anger, though in-bus chatter speculated that he forgot to smoke that joint before boarding. I vaguely felt like I too could be arrested at any moment and I didn’t sleep at all, arriving in St. Paul shattered, manic and unable to interpret the public transit system.
To prevent this from happening to anyone else, I have since perfected a routine that is nearly foolproof and guarantees you will have a pleasant journey with as few uncomfortable human interactions as you desire. You require only five ingredients, which I present here with comment:
Will it be a FireBus or an IceBus? There’s no way to know ahead of time, but you can be sure that the thermostat will never be calibrated with human survival in mind. Hot or cold, dryness is a constant, so you’ll need something to wrap around your face. Use a lightweight scarf to create a greenhouse powered by your own hot, humid breath that will protect your mucus membranes from any harsh sirocco-like internal winds of the night bus. A scarf will also block the overhead lights, which are often impossible to turn off, while hiding your beauty from the dreaded Trans-Aisle Bus Leer. It is absolutely the most crucial item in your armory.
If you live in Minnesota, like me, you’ll have one of these with you anyway. Just tent your parka over your seat back and crawl inside like a hibernating bat. If it’s the summer you can gamble without one, but unless you’re willing to unpack your backpack and drape individual socks and underwear over your exposed body parts, I don’t recommend it.
These are mainly for show; a music-playing device is a nice bonus.
4. WATER BOTTLE
See #1 – maintaining liquid homeostasis is important just so your body doesn’t become an old cicada husk that the bus driver has to scrape off the seat with a credit card, but don’t go crazy. Ideally you want your body’s metabolism to shut down for the next six to twelve hours.
5. DRUGS (optional)
Your night bus experience will be roughly 900 times more pleasant if you can get ahold of some sort of sleepy-time medicine. I’m pretty cavalier about mild abuse of drugstore antihistamines, so I usually roll with the side effects of Benadryl, but if you’re uncomfortable with this it’s not required. I did once score a Valium from someone’s mom before a ride and it was HEAVENLY, but again, not strictly necessary.
Stay POSITIVE, yet WARY.
The first thing to remember is that despite my oddly violent initiation into the world of the night bus, 95% of your fellow travelers are regular people who, like you, just want to get through the evening. Sure, they’ve made a few mistakes, and they’re definitely not great at planning (why would you think you could fly out of O’Hare at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday if your cousin’s graduation party in Michigan ends at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday?), but ultimately they mean no harm. That said, since you no doubt compulsively read lurid Wikipedia articles late at night, this story will not have escaped your notice, and you know that every long-distance bus journey may end with your decapitated head flying out of an open window into the dark Canadian night. This is the price you pay for saving on airfare, and you willingly accept it – nevertheless, you can still take steps to minimize your risk of cephalic defenestration.
Locate your SAFETY ZONE.
Ensure that you get in line early, as the first few minutes after boarding begins will be crucial to securing your SAFETY ZONE for the rest of the night. It doesn’t hurt to have your headphones in already – this could save you precious seconds when it counts. On double-decker buses, head directly for the top floor. The underbelly is home to restless children and all-night, high-stakes mahjong games, so stay away. Once you crest the top of stairs, you’ll need to do a quick tactical scan for two empty neighboring seats near the back of the bus (but AT LEAST four rows in front of the toilet, if applicable). That’s your El Dorado. Power back there and stake your claim.
Establish and secure the SAFETY ZONE.
Once you sit down, you’ll need to perform a minor act of deception by pretending to suffer from a sleep disorder that has caused you to become unconscious mere moments after alighting the bus. From the window seat, place your backpack on the aisle seat and drape your legs over it any which way – it doesn’t have to be comfortable, it just has to make other passengers hesitate before sitting next to you. Close your eyes. You may feel guilty for taking up two seats, but you just have to remember that nobody else in the world wants this as much as you do. As people continue boarding, you may sense someone hovering near your feet, contemplating where to sit – resist the urge to look at them, even through a squint. In the night bus world, eye contact is tantamount to an invitation, and they will try to sit with you.
Consume drugs, if applicable.
Once the bus is in motion, it is now safe to pop that Benny. Do NOT do this until you are well on your way – there’s nothing worse than nodding off on Nyquil while you wait on the curb for the relief driver from Gary to arrive.
Go to the bathroom.
The toilet will get ruined within the first hour. Pee NOW.
Engage scarf; enter parka.
Crawl so deep inside your own clothes that you can forget where you are. Whisper to yourself, “I am a baby mouse and this is my nest.” Is everyone else on the bus scared of you? Yes. From the outside you look like an abandoned pile of scrap fabrics behind Joanne’s. You are safe.
Go to sleep.
It’s easy, just relax. Sleep now.
Yes, you are almost about to sleep. You can shift your legs one more time, but after that you will definitely sleep. You do not have to pee again. You are feeling drowsy and comfortable. Anyway, dogs sleep like this all the time. That man will stop watching Call of Duty videos at full volume soon and then you will sleep. You’ve done everything right, you followed the routine, there’s no reason you shouldn’t easily fall asleep. No pressure, but if you don’t sleep tonight you’ll be all weird tomorrow and you won’t make a good first impression with your boyfriend’s parents. Shhh, relax. Your tailbone has receded into your spine, but it’s okay. Breathe and fall asleep. Wait, were you asleep just then? No, you weren’t, and you still aren’t.
Sleep. Oh my god. PLEASE SLEEP. WHY CAN’T – FUCK. JUST. SLEEEEEEEEEEEE-
Listen to music and look out the window for a few hours, even though you can’t see anything. What’s the fucking point.
On the bright side, soon you can eat a chicken sandwich.
If the bus ride is more than four hours long, the company is legally obligated to pause for about 30 minutes at a rest stop. This is your chance to explore the nightlife in such thrumming metropolises as Tomah, Wisconsin; Mauston, Wisconsin; or even Milwaukee (Wisconsin). At this point everyone will file off the bus and dutifully purchase a hot chicken sandwich from a fast-food restaurant, as if it is a normal part of their daily routine to purchase and eat a hot chicken sandwich at 4:oo a.m. I’m usually either too asleep or too angry that I’m not asleep to contemplate eating, but it’s a good idea to get off the bus just to take the edge off any simmering bedsores. By the end of the 30 minutes, you may almost feel normal again.
Get back on the bus.
Oh, hmm. No thanks.
They will leave without you – you have to get back on the bus.
That’s okay, you like it here. You can just stay in Tomah.
You’ll miss your friend’s improv show tomorrow.
You hate improv now. Anyway, you’ll never laugh again, so…pass.
That guy across the aisle will sell your socks on Craigslist if you don’t get back on the bus.
Once you’re back, try to rediscover that comfortable sleeping position from before.
You’ll never find it.
Honestly, I don’t know what happens on the night bus between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. Once I momentarily awoke to a newborn baby propped up in the seat next to me. We nodded at each other, and when I woke up again it was gone. Was it mine? Who was the father? This is the time for you to watch several Korean dramas on someone’s iPad through the crack in the seats between you. Take a moment to cry about some stuff you’ve been meaning to cry about – you’ll find that your emotions are very close to the surface. You may lose track of your water bottle. Later you will see that a woman several rows ahead is using it to carefully reconstitute a dose of insulin. Let it go. In the depths of despair, remind yourself that everything you experience in this window of time will be forgotten almost instantly upon arriving at your destination, if that ever happens.
Get off the bus. You’re there.
You made it. You’re free.
Oh my god. Oh my god, thank you. Thank you. The air. Even the AIR.
Like a long-ignored Sim, you will find that once you emerge from the night bus fog all your basic needs are screaming for attention. Prioritize these and fulfill them quickly, yet methodically. Any Dunkin’ Donuts will have all the tools you need to accomplish this. Don’t forget to wash your armpits. At this point they’re just…God, they’re inhuman.
Enjoy your freedom, and vow to just suck it up and buy a plane ticket next time.
Many of you won’t, though. I’m no scientist, but I’m positive that the same hormones that make women forget the pain of childbirth exist in the blood of the newly freed night bus patron. Eventually you’ll start questioning your own experience — was it really that terrible? But wasn’t it worth it, in the end? Wouldn’t it be nice to see that new exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago next month…?
And the cycle repeats forever, or until you feel like you’re finally responsible enough to start renting cars.