Almanac Life: Buses, Trains and Automobiles




The plan had been to motor across the bottom of the USA from San Francisco in a ‘drive-away’, dropping the vehicle off in New Orleans. But the deal had fallen through. In the youth hostel, I managed to wrangle a ride with a couple of backpackers – a German and a South African – who had hired a small car and said they could deliver me to Las Vegas. But first we would be making detours through Yosemite National Park and Death Valley.


Camping in Yosemite, we were rudely awoken by the sound of someone – or something – rummaging through the remnants of the previous night’s barbecue. Tents are not the most rigid of structures, so I have rarely felt as vulnerable as I did at that moment. Peering out through the canvas flaps, I made eye contact with a large brown bear merely metres away. It appeared to be hungry and grumpy, but fortunately did not mistake the smell of our fear for its breakfast. Our panicked shouts of alarm were enough to send it on its way. Days later, as we motored across the Death Valley, I pictured Tony Rafferty shuffling across the arid landscape. I inquired of my travelling mates if they had ever heard of the great man, but I was met with blank looks all around.


My new friends were headed on to Monument Valley, but we enjoyed a night on the town. The German discussed reunification, the South African discussed the end of apartheid. I mentioned that my football club, Williamstown CYMS, was on the verge of a grand final appearance and promotion to a higher grade. After a few days and nights of ‘r and r’, I made my way out to the airport with the intention of flying to New Orleans. Again, fate was conspiring against me. Amidst an angry throng of grounded travellers, I was informed that the airport workers were on strike and, as such, there were currently no flights into or out of Vegas airport. The charming lady at the desk suggested that my best course of action might be to take a Greyhound to Phoenix, and then catch a plane from there.


The last available ticket was a seat near the back of the bus, and I was soon to discover that my fellow passengers were a microcosm of American society (the poor and downtrodden section of society, anyway). The fellow I was seated next to was possibly the craziest individual I have ever met. His entire right leg was encased in a cast, and he was armed with an over-sized knitting needle with which he continually scratched the itches beneath the plaster. He told me he was a Vietnam veteran, and was drifting around the country, catching buses as the mood took him. To look into his eyes was to see an emptiness which was truly frightening. The seating arrangement was bad, but worse was to come: the entire busload was imperilled when we broke down in the middle of some godforsaken desert. The sun was scorching, and there was no vegetation under which to take cover. Stoically, the driver crawled beneath the bus and within a couple of hours had the motor purring like a kitten. It was in the nick of time, as I was beginning to suffer from delirium.


I arrived in Phoenix sweaty and stinking, but with an earful of stories from the Vietnam War, and a new appreciation for just how tough the battlers of America were doing it. The heat was intense, but I managed to find my way to the airport and grab the next flight to the Big Easy. The captain announced that our flight would be the last to depart Phoenix, as the heat was so severe that it was feared the tarmac would start melting. When the young girl sitting next to me realized that I was Australian, she said that she had a pen-pal in Tasmania. “Do you know her?” she earnestly inquired.


Somewhere over Houston, the aircraft hit an air-pocket and we descended as suddenly and violently as if in an out-of-control elevator. I surprised myself by laughing aloud. I thought back to Yosemite, where I had already stared death in the face and defeated it. I had also survived a seven-hour bus trek seated next to a madman. So I knew that if I landed safely in New Orleans, Bourbon Street did not stand a chance.


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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Great read Smokie! The experiences gained travelling live with one forever. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

  2. Most enjoyable. Funny. I spent my late teens early 20’s jumping on and off Greyhounds (and Pioneers) around Australia. Not everyones preferred way of travel but I love it.

  3. Good stuff, Smokie, especially the differences between what was on the mind of the German (reunification), the South African (aparthied) and the Australian (footy). It kind of sums up how lucky and sheltered we white Australians are. As for the poor, crazed Vietnam vet with the plaster cast and huge knitting needle, it brought back memories of my broken leg when I was six years old. “Here,” Mum said, “try this knitting needle for when things get itchy.”

    And kudos for ‘fortunately the bear did not mistake the smell of our fear for its breakfast’.

  4. That’s a great yarn Smokie. Travel should be memorable and this trip clearly was!

    I spent a couple days in Phoenix and for a city in the desert was surprised at the smog and bears always makes me think of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and this extract- “Imagine, if you will, lying in the dark alone in a little tent, nothing but a few microns of trembling nylon between you and […] a 400-pound bear.”

  5. Thanks for your comments, all. Much appreciated.

    Who knows when the next adventure will be??

  6. roger lowrey says

    Great yarn Smokie.

    A bit of a shame you couldn’t help that young lady with her pen pal enquiry. You could have wryly suggested you would write to all 12 Tasmanian Senators and ask which one claimed her as a relative.

    Mind you, I guess the nuances of the reference to the quirks of our Constitution would have escaped her.


  7. Luke Reynolds says

    This makes Australia’s snakes, spiders, sharks, jellyfish and Queenslanders sound tame in comparison.

  8. Good morning Smokie,

    It’s an interesting story. I would get panicked if I had such experiences!

    Did you get enough water when your bus was stuck at the desert? Could the break down happen in the outback of Australia?

    I had looked forward to hearing about your train trips but I was unable to find the rail story…



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