Logistically, the bus ride went off without a hitch. I even arrived in downtown Denver slightly early. No mechanical problems, no break-downs, smooth driver changes and bus transfers. From a mental perspective, however, the ride was entirely another story, filled with sadness, frustration, exhaustion, and a little humility.
The first leg left the depot in Great Falls after 3pm, only slightly behind schedule, with half a dozen passengers, en route to Butte. There were two girls probably a little younger than myself and two men probably ten years older than me. Perhaps there were one or two other passengers, but I don’t remember. I overheard one man saying to another that he was just released from prison. Freedom and a bus ticket. His term had only been three years, so it must not have been too violent of a crime. I was curious, but the man never asked.
Our first stop was in Helena, a quick pickup of a few more passengers. I think one person got off as well. We had about ten minutes break, and most people got off to smoke. I decided to use the pisser, get some fresh air, and at least take a peek down the street and get a limited view of the town. As I walked to the sidewalk, out of the tiny depot, I had the intention of just looking both ways down the street, but before I reached the edge of the parking lot, I spotted a dog across the street. It was a black and white mutt, probably some kind of cocker spaniel mix, with floppy ears and a friendly demeanor. It was sniffing around behind some buildings, heading toward the street. Watching the dog, I thought to myself, wouldn’t that be great if the mutt came over here across the street and gave me company on my short wait here in Helena, if I could have a little friend for a few moments. Then I thought about how dangerous crossing that street could be. We appeared to be downtown, and this road probably was a relatively major thoroughfare. No sooner had I finished this thought about the dog crossing the street did I see the intention in its movements. Raising its head and quickening its pace, the dog was heading straight for the roadway. Oh shit. The road was clear directly ahead, but when I looked to the right, a fresh line of traffic was progressing from the next block. In a whir of three seconds, the dog darted out into the street just as a pickup truck was speeding by. The dog noticed the truck at the last moment and attemted to change course, but it was already too late. The truck also tried to avoid the collision, but the driver’s potential sight of the dog had been blocked by a parked car, so there was not enough time to react. The dog avoided the front right wheel of the truck, but could not stop himself from sliding under the double tires of the dualie rear axle. With a thud and a yelp, the rear end of the truck raised slightly as it passed over the dog. I could do nothing the entire time but look on, stunned. The driver of the truck and the woman driving the minivan behind him both pulled over the side. The rest of the traffic line veered slowly to the left around the animal. At first the dog was completely still, laying on its side in the middle of the lane. I thought at least it had a swift end. After a few seconds, however, its legs started twitching, then moving more desperately. It looked as if it was attempting to right itself with its legs, but the head was not coming up, the body was not shifting in the necessary manner to perform such an act. Meanwhile the driver of the truck was out and moving toward the dog. He picked up the dog by its legs. At first I found that method a bit humane, treating the dog as if it were the trophy of a hunt. Why couldn’t he pick up the dog like a pet, cradle the animal. As he carried the dog to the other side of the road, I could see that it was bleeding heavily, leaving a thick trail of blood through the street and up on the sidewalk. It was fair of the man to pick the dog up by the legs. When he set it down in the parking lot on the other side, just past the sidewalk, I could see that the dog was moving no longer. It was definitely dead. Who knows, maybe it was dead before, just having post-mortem convulsions. I remember that when my mom accidentally ran over our cat in the garage, even though the kitty’s head was smashed and the she was definitely already dead, one of her rear legs continued to twitch for almost a minute.
I stood motionless on the opposing sidewalk for minutes as all this passed. The truck driver and minivan driver were both over there. The police arrived. I had desperately wanted to run out into the middle of the road just after the incident, to lay a warm and sympathetic hand on the dog, to possibly offer some comfort to the dying animal. I wanted to walk across and kneel next to it after the man had set it in the parking lot, but I knew I was better off staying on my side of the road, in my parking lot. In a matter of minutes the bus would be resuming traveling, and I needed to be on that bus. I didn’t need to be caught up in witness questioning or having to stay with the animal until the proper authorities arrived. Luckily the man and woman had both stopped to take care of all that. Still, my heart sank for that dog. As I turned around to get back on the bus, I saw that the ex-inmate and the other man were standing twenty yards behind me. They had witnessed the event as well. I think the death struck me a bit more than them, but we were all speechless.
On the remaining ride to Butte I tried to write a little, in spite of the bumpy ride. After a while I gave up and stared out the window. Beautiful country, passing through the mountains, past rivers and farms, rocky cliffs, untouched lands. Snow flurries.
In Butte I had to change buses. The drivers load and unload the checked bags, but passengers are responsible for transporting the luggage from one bus to another. With my backpack on, I lugged my two big duffel bags 100 yards to the next bus, then came back for my bike, which I had to box up for the bus ride. I’ll admit that I had some reservations about leaving my two bags to go back and grab my bike, but I figured no one could get very far in that short amount of time. All these people were waiting for the bus themselves, anyway; why would they try to run off with my bags. Still, logic always comes second to fear.
The second leg had more people, more noise. One guy behind me was fairly vocal at first. He and his friend had also recently been released from prison. A middle-aged guy got on toting a guitar. This led to much joking from the guys behind me. The man also had a tool belt and slammed it heavily against the side of the upper luggage racks as he tried to stuff all his belongings into the compartment at once. One of the guys behind me commented that he was the kind of guy that gives white people a bad name. A ridiculous comment. Once we started moving, nearly everyone became quiet. The man with the guitar tried to make small talk with a young girl sitting right in front of me. She obviously wasn’t into it, and I could tell that this man was probably going to be obnoxious.
As night swallowed the daylight, the bus was hushed and dark, save one light- the one above the guitar-playing handyman. I wasn’t ready for sleep yet, so I put my headphones on and listened to music. We stopped a few times at depots to pick up a passenger or two. A few times we had the opportunity to get food at gas station convenience stores. Not the best, but it fills the belly. The night was cold, windy, and snowy. Despite the freezing temperatures, I enjoyed the time outside and took advantage of every minute we had of stoppage. A nice break from sitting in a bus seat. At one point we stopped in Bozeman for ten minutes. It was disappointing to think that I was in a town where my cousin resides, but I would not have to opportunity to visit her. Sorry, Cindy. I’ll make it back up soon, hopefully, and visit.
I tried to sleep throughout the rest of the ride to Billings, but it was tough. Handyman pulled out his laptop several times, and the glow of the screen was enough to light up the entire bus. He was sitting diagonally in front of me, and I found it difficult to avoid the direct light. It was annoying, especially since all it looked like he was doing was changing his desktop picture and adjusting some settings. I never saw him doing any actual work, just moving things around, wasting time. At one point he took down his guitar and started strumming. Although he was fairly quiet, I thought it was pretty inconsiderate to the people around him. And he wasn’t good. He wasn’t even playing songs, just wasting time again. As we approached Billings, the collective anxious energy of the entire bus could be felt. I guess most people were nearing their final destination. I still had twelve more hours to Denver. The guitar player started talking to the girl in front of me again. She now seemed more receptive and conversational. I couldn’t help but listen in. He started expounding what sounded like recycled lines about third eyes and cosmic energy and levitating. He told the girl he knew how to levitate, that he would show her when we stopped. I was curious, but not terribly so.
At the depot in Billings I had about an hour layover before connecting to the bus to Denver. I called my dad. While I was talking on the phone, levitator brought the girl and a friend of hers, the guy picking her up, over to the corner by where I was sitting. He said he was going to levitate for them. He wanted to do it in the corner to avoid drawing a crowd. Before he could perform the feat, however, the young guy laughed and said, ‘oh, is this the trick where you…’ and he explained the trick. I couldn’t hear exactly what he said and didn’t look up in time to see his movements, but the guitar player knew he had nothing and laughed it off. About five minutes later he brought another girl over to the corner to impress her. This time he performed the trick. I was stil on the phone and didn’t get to see it in full view. The girl fell for it.
The bus to Denver was much nicer than the first two. It had seats with full backs, unlike the others, which made sleep attempts a bit easier. There were TVs in the ceiling, but the driver said he would not be turning them on. The ride was almost completely silent, everyone no doubt trying to sleep. I was able to catch some z’s off and on for a few hours. Often it was difficult to differentiate between actual sleep and the dreamy daze of half-consciousness. I think all-in-all, I was able to sleep for about five hours total, with interruptions for depot stops here and there, to eat or use the restroom. I awoke for good around 8am. I had managed to sleep through a bit of daylight. With still another five hours until scheduled arrival in Denver, I decided to occupy my time with a book I picked up at a thrift store in Great Falls, Night by Elie Wiesel.
Night is a first-hand account of the German concentration camps of the second world war. Wiesel was just a teenager when he and his family and the entire village were round up into the death camps. The first day at camps would be the last time he saw his mother and two sisters. The book recounts his experience in the camps, witnessing thousands of people sent to their deaths in gas chambers and fire pits, the cruel and inhumane treatment, and the mental and physical toll of those unfotunate souls. The power of his descriptions lie in his lack of over-indulgence. He is completely straight-forward and honest. At one point he tells of a young boy, with the face of a sad angel, being hung in front of the entire camp, every prisoner not only made to watch, but to look the boy and two other hanged men in the eyes as they are forced to march by the victims on the gallows. It’s a heart-wrenching account. So much senseless death.
Throughout the book, as I read about this boy and those around him, enduring these unspeakable horrors of inhumanity- starving, beaten- I thought about the fact that some of them survived. Some of them managed to hold on to what little bit of lifeforce remained, and to cling to some morsel of hope(?). They didn’t give in. That really says a lot about what the human spirit can endure. The sights this young man witnessed, the devastation, yet he never resorted to taking his own life. And so what about the people who did, and what about the people who take their own life under different circumstances? What does that say? Could the suffering of depression of some possibly be worse than what was endured at those concentration camps? Personally, I don’t think that’s a point even worth discussing. There is no answer to that question. But I’ll admit that as I read these pages, taking in the devastating circumstances of the lives of those people, I couldn’t help but think of my brother. How were these prisoners able to withstand such brutality, yet my brother was unable to endure the circumstances of his depression? How? I don’t know. I can’t imagine I could ever know. Our emotions and experiences are personal, never to be fully understood by anyone else as we understand them. I can read Elie Wiesel’s entire account of his life, but I will never fully comprehend the reality of his years in those death camps, and I will never completely understand how my brother felt in the last months of his life. That’s just something I have to accept.
After finishing the book, I found myself lost in a trance of thought. I wanted so desperately to cry, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to do that. The tears were welling up just behind my eyes, but that is where they remained. I’ve found that, like most guys, I have the ability to completely negate the impulse to cry. That displeases me. I don’t like that I feel the need to hold back, and I don’t like that I have enough control to effectively block the flow. I wish I had cried on that bus, if only a little. At the last stop before Denver, I got off the bus and walked away from everyone else. As I stared blankly at the run-down little town surrounding, I was completely involved in thought about that book. It had consumed my whole being. I felt as though I had been dealt an overwhelming hand of humility.
As everyone began boarding the bus again, a woman came out of the station on an electric mobility device. She had braces on her legs. I walked up to see what was going to happen. As she pulled up to the door of the bus, it became obvious that she was not going to be able to get herself up the big steps up to the seats and that the small female bus driver was not going to be able to provide enough assistance. A man was there, perhaps someone she knew, maybe a worker at the depot. He was there to help. Still, I figured they might need an extra hand, so I stepped up and offered my assistance. I ended up being the main assistance, offering her support, standing behind her on the stairs. She couldn’t put much weight down on her legs, so I was supporting much of her weight and partly lifting her up each step. Getting her up the five big steps up to the first seat probably took more than five minutes. It left me exhausted, but the woman was ever so kind and helpful in directing the best method to provide her assistance. She was patient and friendly. As I walked back to my seat on the bus, I felt proud of myself that I stepped up and offered my help. I’ve always been the guy that wanted to help, but was too shy and never stepped up unless directly addressed. After reading that book, however, I wasn’t about to sit by and watch someone struggle pointlessly when I had the ability to do something about it.
When we arrived in Denver, I let everyone else get off before me, and as I walked to the front of the bus, I asked the woman if she needed help getting off. She did, of course, so I told her I would stick around to lend a hand. She couldn’t get off until her scooter was retrieved from the bottom of the bus, so I got off to collect my luggage and set it aside, make sure everything was accounted for, as the luggage transfer was handled for us in Billings. We were not allowed to touch our bags and never saw them while in the depot. One would have arrived in Denver before finding out something hadn’t made the transfer.
Coming down the steps was a bit easier than going up, but still exhausting work. The help this time was just the driver and myself, with me doing most of the supporting. Those buses are not terribly well-equipped for handicapped people, lacking adequate railings for support. But we got her down and on to her scooter. She was ever so friendly and gracious, and we talked for a bit while I waited for my aunt Karen to arrive. She was in town for a wedding and to visit friends. She had a wonderful spirit, and I am so glad that I talked to her. My aunt arrived, and I left the station feeling humble. That feeling was soon overwhelmed by the excitement of being in Denver, a place where I used to live, and where I have been considering moving back to recently, but after we loaded my life into Karen’s car, hunger overtook all other thoughts, and we set off toward a delicious lunch.