A few weeks ago, I visited Edmonton, Alberta—wait, don’t stop reading yet, I swear this story gets better.
I had arrived there from Vancouver, where I lived for the last year, to visit my little sister on her birthday. Edmonton is a city that Canadians tend to shit on, but I enjoyed my time there. It’s not a bad place. Its downtown is bustling. Whyte Ave is charming. There are plenty of good places to drink. The purpose of this article, though, is not to shine light on the merits of the Albertan capital. Instead, it will chronicle my 60-hour Greyhound ride from there to Ottawa.
I can just hear the gasps.
“Why would anybody choose to travel such a massive distance (some 3,500 kilometers, according to Google Maps) by bus?”
“Why not fly or take the train?”
“Who the hell goes to Ottawa?”
Well, Ottawa is my hometown, and the other two questions are certainly just. You have to be fairly crazy to willingly spend any more than a few hours on a Greyhound. Crazy, or broke. At the time of my trip, I was a bit of both. I was eager to see my country, and crazy enough to believe that taking a Greyhound was the way to do it. More importantly, I was strapped for cash, and coach travel, despite its shortcomings, is seriously cheap. My cross-country trip cost me less than $200. Yes, I know you can fly for not much more if you’re vigilant for deals and you book in advance, but I have never been one for planning ahead. So, one fateful morning at 7:00 am, I hobbled up the steps of a Greyhound bus. With that, my odyssey of diesel fumes and discomfort had officially begun.
The first leg of the journey took me south, through Red Deer and into Calgary. It was not so bad, because I spent most of my time sleeping. I was, thankfully, awake long enough for a bleary-eyed look at Calgary. From my scant glimpses of it, I’m convinced that is a pretty beautiful city—it’s modern, it seemed relatively clean, and I didn’t see a single cowboy.
After a short stop in Calgary, I switched buses and headed on to Regina. It was on this leg of the journey that the discomfort began to set in. For a full day, my fellow passengers and I—all irritable, sweaty strangers to each other—blasted east across the country, stopping in no-name town after no-name town, picking up people and parcels, sparring for arm space, and doing our best to stay nourished on a diet of Slim Jims, waxy gas station apples, and stale coffee. It was a long first day on the bus, and though I did my best to stay positive by harnessing my inner Kerouac, I’ll confess that by the time the first sunset of the trip rolled around, I was ready to walk the rest of the way. It was around that time that we arrived in Regina.
Ah, Regina, the majestic capital of Saskatchewan. It rises up from the prairies like the hand of an eager kid during classroom attendance, reminding the world that people do, in fact, inhabit the tabletop-flat Canadian heartland. I saw the city by night, but I can say that it does have one of the nicer Greyhound stations I’ve encountered.
The stop in Regina lasted an hour and a half. During that time, I linked up with some fellow riders. They were on the hunt for booze, which they believed would make the ride more enjoyable. Having been drunk—and hungover—on Greyhounds in the past (neither is remotely enjoyable), I assured them that I would opt out of the drinking, but would come along for the mission. After a short walk, they found their holy grail: a liquor store, signage glowing in the Saskatchewan night. They pounded back a 26 oz. bottle of vodka in just a few minutes, and we made our way back to the station. Soon thereafter it was time to embark.
Though it was no Shawshank Prison, the first night of my diesel-fueled adventure really was the toughest. On a Greyhound, you don’t really sleep. REM is a far-off concept: you know it’s out there, but achieving it is impossible. Instead, you merely nod off until a stranger wakes you up by dumping their bag into the seat beside you, or you smash your head against the window when the bus hits a pothole.
By the time the sun came up, I felt truly haggard. My eyes were sticky with sleep. My skin was oily. I could smell my own morning breath. But because coaches have no running water, I was at the mercy of our itinerary and could not freshen up until we arrived in Winnipeg at 9:30am. So, I polished off the rest of my water bottle, ate a pepperoni stick that I’d purchased somewhere in Saskatchewan, and did my best to be patient.
By the time we arrived at the Winnipeg bus terminal, which clings to the outside edge of the city’s airport, all I could think about was splashing some water on my face and brushing my teeth. Once that was accomplished, I had an hour and a half to kill in the capital city of Manitoba. I used that time to hunt down a real breakfast: a toothsome, shrink-wrapped, day-old sandwich from a nearby 7-Eleven. Deee-licious. With my most important meal of the day acquired, I waited in the Winnipeg station, browsing the Internet for killer, last-minute flight deals from Winnipeg to Ottawa. There were none. I was back on the bus.
I spent most of that morning chatting with my compatriots, who all seemed to regret getting drunk the night before. My hangovers are miserable, all-day affairs and so I was proud to have resisted the urge to join their party. I celebrated this small victory by stretching out into the empty seat beside me. Then that seat was taken by a woman with no teeth. We veered on through the prairies. Rolling-pin-flat and endless, their sprawl is rivaled only by the sky above.
As they day progressed, most of the people who had been on the bus overnight became outwardly miserable. Complaints about the coach’s temperature, and the driver’s inability to do much about it, were common. Travelers in neighboring seats became mortal enemies for talking too much, for eating stinky food, for listening to their music too loudly. Patience was fading and morale was low. By the time we crossed into Ontario that night, I had come to the conclusion that, on long Greyhound rides, you can only feign comfort, gazing at barns and tractors and little towns whipping by the window for so long. Eventually, you just want the trip to end.
But alas, we had finally arrived in Ontario, my home province. All was not lost. Of course, anyone who has driven across Ontario knows that it’s an absolute slog. It takes like 30 fucking hours to traverse, and so the journey was far from over. I spent another day killing time and getting off to stretch where I could. I touched my toes in Kenora. I reached for the sky in Dryden. I rolled my shoulders in Thunder Bay.
Late on that final night I enjoyed some sorely-needed comic relief. Over the previous day, I had listened as two passengers a few seats behind me developed a clear connection. They flirted through Terrace Bay, Marathon, White River, and Sault Ste. Marie, until every other passenger on the bus could feel the sparks flying between them. At one point, it sounded like the boy was making his move.
“I wonder when we’ll stop next,” he said. “There’s something I want to do.”
“What do you want to do?” the girl asked, probably twinkly-eyed.
“You know what I want to do.”
The stage was set for a sneaky and romantic kiss beneath the stars of god-knows-where, Ontario. I could all but hear their young hearts pounding.
When we finally did stop, the boy charged off the bus. Moments later, I entered the washroom to catch a glimpse of him careening into a stall. I saw his pants fall to the floor, belt buckle clacking on the tile. What followed was the loudest bowel movement I have ever heard in my life; a dank and thunderous cacophony, hard on the nose and ears. A kiss hadn’t crossed his mind; he just needed to take a shit. I felt sorry for the poor girl, but the hilarity of it all broke up the monotony of things.
Later that morning (the last morning of the trip) we stopped in Sudbury, where I freshened up in the station’s rather decrepit bathroom. The man at the sink beside me had a fairly serious-looking neck wound, but didn’t seem remotely concerned. When we left Sudbury, the bus was packed to the edges with new faces, many of which belonged to just the kind of characters you’d expect to hop onto a Greyhound in Ontario’s northern reaches.
Sometime on that last day, we passed through North Bay, a place I’ve driven through a few times. It was the first familiar scene since I’d left Vancouver: the Dionne Quintuplets’ house, the Tim Horton’s across the street from the strip club… yes, finally, I felt like I was closing in on my destination. And indeed, some six hours later, we were driving into Ottawa. By the time I got home, I was Dorothy in the poppy field. I hit the sack without unpacking, and didn’t wake up for 14 hours.
Without sounding melodramatic, it did take a few days to settle back into stationary life. A long haul on a Greyhound hammers your internal clock. Once I’d returned to a normal mental state, however, I began to feel an immense sense of pride in having completed such a journey, shoehorned into an uncomfortable seat, breathing spoiled oxygen.
Greyhound travel is cheap for a reason. You get what you pay for: a trip from here to there throughout which 90% of the comforts you’ve come to take for granted are crushed under the tire of the coach. You’ll meet cool people. You’ll meet assholes. You’ll have good drivers and bad drivers. You’ll see your country in its glory, its destitution and its bizarre middle grounds. Would I recommend crossing Canada by bus? Fuck no. But I wouldn’t not recommend it either. All I can say about the experience in hindsight is that red-eyed, under-slept and poorly nourished, I survived it. You can too.
This article first appeared on WildLives.co on 21/5/2017.