7:13 AM: My first attempt at getting out of bed is an utter failure. My roommate gets up to shut off the cell phone alarm that could not rouse me from the warmth of my sheets. He is visibly annoyed; so am I. I will not catch the 8 AM bus as I had planned.
The idea to ride one of the campus buses for a ridiculous period of time came to me sometime last year, one of those spur-of-the-moment "über-creative" ideas that need to be jotted down immediately. Jot I did, but as with many of my other random ideas in the realm of experiential journalism and fiction writing, the planted seed did little other than sit dormant. Then along came this travel column and brainstorming sessions for what I might write about in the various posts. My somewhat absurd notion resurfaced. And so came a trail of justification: this is a travel column, right? And didn’t I state right in the beginning that "the great affair is to move"? Sitting on a bus for hours is moving, ergo it is traveling, and thus this topic is perfectly appropriate. The seed took root.
11:00 AM: After five more alarms, a hot shower, and a bowl of Frosted Flakes, I walk to CC Little through pouring rain. I climb onto the first Bursley/Baits Bus that comes around; it is sparsely populated. I make peace with the fact that I am about to spend the next six hours traversing the same bus route, back and forth, on one of my weekdays without classes.
For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the Bursley/Baits Bus' typical route, here’s a quick run-through: things get started at CC Little (or, the CCTC). From there, the driver maneuvers east on Geddes Ave, turning left onto Washtenaw for a hot second before veering right onto Zina Pitcher Place. In succession, Bursley/Baits Bus hits up Catherine Street, Glen Avenue (which then turns into Fuller Road), Bonisteel Boulevard, Murfin Avenue, and Hubbard Road, eventually coming to its far terminus in the form of a parking lot adjacent to Baits I Housing on North Campus.
From Central to North and back again, the distance traveled is 5.2 miles, or around 22 minutes without traffic. Given traffic, student pick-ups, and the driver's slight breather once reaching the Baits I Housing parking lot, a complete circuit takes, on average, half an hour. This means a particularly industrious driver could complete 16 full circuits in an eight-hour shift, traveling a total of 83.2 miles.
Back and forth. For hours on end. I had my work cut out for me.
11:09 AM: All of the other passengers get off at the stop behind Bursley Hall — my old stomping grounds from freshmen year. I am left alone with the bus driver, mano a mano. Things get tense as we sit outside Baits housing. Both of the bus doors are wide open, and I think she expects me to get off. I do not get off.
11:11 AM: A baseball-capped kid steps on the bus and breaks the standoff. A girl in a grey coat follows close behind him. The first showdown is over.
In undertaking this nonsensical endeavor, I wondered what the bus driver would do when they noticed the same kid in the same royal blue hoodie (with the same green-covered looseleaf notebook full of scribbles) was still sitting on the bus after a complete circuit, or two or three, was finished. The answer came quickly. My first Bursley/Baits Bus driver caught on during our second merry-go-round. She loudly asked what my deal was - was I riding the bus indefinitely? Like any professional, I calmly explained the situation. Her response: incredulous. "Are you serious?" Yes. I was most definitely serious. On to round three.
12:04 PM: A few minutes after the conclusion of Hour One, I move from my initial position in the leftmost seat of the back row. The guy in front of me is wearing an orange Clemson sweatshirt. I tap him on the shoulder and ask if he is from South Carolina. He says he isn't, but he considered Clemson when he was applying to colleges. I tell him I was sad that their football team lost to the University of Alabama in the national championship back in January. He seems to have no idea what I am talking about. He turns back around.
“Serious” seemed worlds apart from what I was doing. It was that very sense of absurdity, actually, that drew me to conduct the experiment in the first place. It was like the New York Times' "36 Hours in..." column, except I wasn't spending 36 hours in a city like Hong Kong, Zurich, or Aspen, Colorado; I was spending six hours seated on a bus that people typically only spend 15 minutes or less on at a time.
12:20 PM: The first bus driver kicks me off at Baits I Housing. The words "NOT IN SERVICE" flash across the digital message board. Not to fret, another Bursley/Baits Bus picks me up immediately. I share a friendly hello with the bus driver, Shelly (whose name is not really Shelly). I am Shelly's only passenger at the moment.
12:43 PM: I have to pee. One of the Hemsworth brothers — half-brother, maybe — is sitting across from me. He makes me ashamed of my facial hair's poor showing. So far I've experienced an awkward encounter (Clemson), been too shy to initiate conversation with two girls, and laughed with Shelly over her squabbles with pedestrians.
Not long into my experiment, it became apparent that this affair was more anthropology than travel. I noticed what people were wearing, what they chose to talk about, when they chose not to talk at all but to shut themselves off from the world with the music blaring through their headphones — my typical approach when commuting to class. Throughout my entire journey, I didn’t listen to music; I just observed. I spent my time jotting down notes, wondering how voyeuristic I would sound when I published these thoughts online. Why subject myself to this? What was I trying to accomplish?
1:03 PM: The laughter halts. Shelly is actually quite aggressive. She nearly got in a row with a faculty member trying to use a crosswalk. In some ways, I admire her bluntness. Coming back down to Central each time around feels like rejoining civilization. The jokes about North Campus being so far away are suddenly not jokes.
1:49 PM: Spending some precious alone time together, Shelly tells me she has been a seasonal bus driver since 1999. She drives 50 minutes to get to work in Ann Arbor each day, her shift usually beginning before 7 AM. She tells me she will have to take a summer job this year so that she can help raise her grandson. I catch a case of "the feels."
1:55 PM: Girl in a grey jacket tries to tell her friend that her three-hour lab on Fridays isn't that bad. Anyone overhearing the conversation has trouble believing her. Hour Three draws to a close.
There was a metaphor somewhere in all of this, a valuable life lesson, and I told myself I would find it. In my head, I imagined a sea of floating “life lessons.” I would simply swim over to one of them and latch on to something insightful. Instead of swimming, I was treading water. I thought about buses going 'round and 'round; the world going 'round and 'round; people needing to get places and do important things; people needing to talk about how their lives aren't "that bad" or share a word with the "fam" (as the kids say these days); people needing to explain the mundane aspects of their lives, their friends' feigned interest; bus drivers engaging in the routine drama experienced by many other professions — all of these things were part of the puzzle.
2:32 PM: I cannot tell if the guy in front of me is speaking a legitimate foreign language, or if he and his friend are communicating with gibberish. Actually, it might be English. Bursley/Baits Bus is playing head games with me.
2:48 PM: Shelly abandons me without saying goodbye. My heart breaks; I thought we had something special. Maurice (whose name is not actually Maurice) takes over without a word.
With my time on Bursley/Baits Bus winding down, I found myself in the midst of mulling over my conclusions when I pulled an unprecedented move out of the playbook: I initiated a conversation with a cute girl sitting one seat away from me. I'll call her J.
3:02 PM: Maurice and I part ways after a brief and wordless affair. I climb onto the third Bursley/Baits Bus of the day. The new driver is Dawn, and Dawn enjoys jazzy tunes. She looks like a woman who gives no fucks, but holds those she loves close to her heart. This is Psychology 101 on Bursley/Baits Bus.
3:21 PM: Dawn kicks me off the bus, but it is okay because she calls me "dear" in the process. She says she needs to stand and move around, that she can't sit like that anymore or she will never get up. I chuckle on the inside. Tom, wearing an Under Armour hoodie and a baseball cap, picks me up a few minutes later, ending the period of rapid turnover.
Shortly after J departed, I mentally patted myself on the back for having the balls to talk to her. And then I thought some more about our conversation — how I had to mentally pump myself up just to get the ball rolling, and then how easy everything had gone over once I went for it. Part of my experiment's lesson had to be hidden in J and I's brief discussion, just as the discussions around me were part of the lesson, just as Clemson and I's awkward encounter and Shelly's openness about her life with me were part of the lesson. See? Treading water.
But after I pushed aside my initial (and erroneous) conclusion that revolved around the permanence of Bursley/Baits Bus ("Bursley/Baits Bus always was and always will be"), I came up with this:
Bursley/Baits Bus is all of us. We go back and forth, doing the same thing over and over again, running life's rat race. We need Bursley/Baits Bus to remind us that 1) going in circles gets us nowhere, and 2) life is about more than just getting from place to place. Even as you ride along, you notice your surroundings, talk to strangers, make new friends, and take leaps of faith that break the routine. And while the ride won't always work out like you imagine, it's satisfying knowing you tried while you were there.
In summary: would I ride Bursley/Baits Bus for another six hours straight? Hell no, I would not. But if I was able to take all of this away from the experience, I'm sure glad I did it once.
NEXT TIME: Uruguay in the Rearview Mirror