This past weekend, I traveled to Selma, Ala. to attend the 50th anniversary events of the Selma to Montgomery march and do some independent reporting. To get there and back, I spent a whopping total of about 64 hours on buses and in bus stations, or about 2.5 days.
I chose to use buses for two main reasons: they are cheaper than flying, and they have a lower carbon footprint than flying.
But, isn’t it worth spending a little extra money to get to the destination faster, with less hassle? Is sacrificing time and comfort really worth minimizing abstract environmental impacts? This week-long adventure to Alabama and back, full of surprises and uncertainty around every corner, taught me that a positive, open state of mind makes all the difference.
Ron. After traversing New York State, my bus arrived in Cleveland at around 2 a.m. Here, I would have a two-hour layover before continuing to Nashville. My stomach growling, I went to the Greyhound “restaurant” and ordered the only vegan thing on the menu: French fries. I didn’t know it yet, but for the duration of my time in the South I would be subsisting mostly off bananas, oranges and fries.
I found myself a nice piece of bus station floor and spread out my sleeping bag. I sat down and ate my fries quickly, hoping to catch a nap before my next bus. A man with his own basket of fries, smothered in cheese sauce, approached me.
“That’s a nice set up you got there, mind if I join you?”
Despite my desire for a nap, I patted a spot on the sleeping bag next to me, and he sat down. His name was Ron. He was clean, funny, well spoken and one of Cleveland’s many homeless. We talked to each other about our families. Ron has a daughter named Lyric who lives with her mother, Sonya, while he does everything he can to scrounge up enough money to bring them food. He boasted he could make $20 last for a week. He told me how hard it is to find a job, and how when he has a little extra money he likes to give back by refilling parking meters that are about to expire.
As our conversation came to a close after nearly an hour, he left me with two bits of intertwined advice: “Be a good judge of character,” and “Upon, Into and Beyond.” He explained further: Upon meeting someone, you have only first impressions to judge them on. Then, you must look into their situation to better understand them and see what is really happening beneath the surface. Lastly, you look beyond the present moment — what path are they on, and what can you do to have a positive impact on their journey?
I sent Ron off with an extra sweatshirt and a water bottle, wishing him well and telling him to stay warm and hydrated. Shortly after, I learned the weather was bad in Nashville and my next bus was delayed — until 2 p.m. I found a more secluded area between the phone booths and the vending machines and crawled into my sleeping bag for a full night’s sleep. This long delay would give me the opportunity to reunite with and go to lunch with my fellow Climate Marcher Paul Sherlock, who lives in Cleveland.
The penny man. At one point in the morning I briefly woke up to see a man dressed in several layers of ragged clothing shuffling around the vending machines, searching the floor for change. He found a penny and bent down to pick it up. As he straightened up again, he noticed me peering at him from my sleeping bag. He lifted the penny up to show me.
“Wherever there’s a penny, there’s an angel,” he announced, and went back to searching the floor. He found two more pennies.
“Lots of angels today,” he laughed, and then shuffled away.
I snuggled back into my sleeping bag, hiding from the bright fluorescent lights. I thought about all the pennies I had found in my life and how many must be on floors and sidewalks, right now, waiting to be picked up.
That is a lot of angels, I thought, and fell back to sleep with a smile.
I’m writing this post on the last leg of my journey home: a Greyhound bus to Ithaca after spending the night in the Big Apple with Jane Kendall, another Climate Marcher. Ron and the penny man were just a couple of many interesting characters I came across on my way to Selma. I was lucky to discover just as many wonderful people in my wanderings back to the Finger Lakes.
Nick. After an eventful weekend in Alabama, I departed from Montgomery on a Megabus to Atlanta, Ga., where I would connect with another to Washington, D.C. Upon arriving in Atlanta, I found myself in an outdoor bus station in a strange city without a clue of where to go during the four hours between the next bus. I had cracked my phone screen back in Selma, and was having a hard time navigating Google maps to find anything.
There was someone else fresh off the bus who seemed equally disoriented. Like me, he had a large hiking backpack on. He seemed to be in his late twenties, and he had a fluffy red beard and a head of greasy hair, looking like he was just returning from a few months of wilderness adventuring. He was squinting at the metro map, trying to figure out what to do next. I approached him and pretended to look at the map.
“Are you backpacking?” He asked after I had stood there for a few moments. I told him I was traveling back home from Alabama, and wasn’t sure what to do in my four hour layover. He said it definitely wouldn’t be safe to sleep outside, and we tried in vain for about 20 minutes to get any useful information out of my phone. Eventually, he flagged down a cab. The driver gave us directions to a 24-hour Waffle House about a mile away. We were off.
His name was Nick, and he was an outdoor educator, working half the year and disappearing on his own adventures for the other half. He seemed like a character right out of the textbook from my Foundations of Outdoor Adventure Pursuits class. After losing his wallet and cancelling his credit card, he was trying to get home to North Carolina with just $7 in his pocket. He was in Atlanta to pick up his car where he had left it, hoping seven bucks would buy just enough gas. I insisted on buying him breakfast, but he would only accept a small donation of a glass of Coke. He felt guilty accepting much of anything from me because his predicament was a result of a drunken night with friends and his “own stupidity.”
He was intrigued to hear about the Climate March, and how it influenced me to change my minor to Outdoor Adventure Pursuits. He told me how strange it was to see all his friends getting married and having kids while he bounced from job to job, earning just enough money for his next adventure. And yet, he was happy with his situation.
“My favorite part of working at summer camps — it’s not the kids with drug problems or who come from abusive homes,” he explained to me over his soda glass. “It’s the kids who are just plain sad, and they come to camp and they start eating good food, they get on a regular sleeping schedule and they get away from the digital screens, and all of a sudden they’re confident and happy for the first time.”
I’m glad Nick and I ran into each other. We accompanied each other through a strange city in the middle of the night, and he gave me further assurance that I had made the right choice in switching minors. Buying him a glass of Coke was not enough of a repayment. He gave me a couple of Mardi Gras beads to remember him by.
The student. After arriving at Union Station in D.C., I was in a subway station waiting for a metro train to the home of Chris Ververis, another Climate Marcher, where I would stay the night before continuing to NYC. I was also looking forward to meeting up with a second D.C.-based Climate Marcher, Lee Stewart. I had smiled at the young man sitting on the bench next to me before sitting down, but that seemed to be the extent of our interaction. Suddenly, he turned to me, gestured at my pack and asked, “Are you really a backpacker?” I laughed and told him that this time, I was just traveling home, but I had just recently finished a cross-country march.
We got on the metro train and sat next to each other, and he bombarded me with questions about the Climate March, outdoor gear and my camping experiences. My mouth went dry from answering all his questions.
He revealed to me he was going to school in D.C. while working full time, and he didn’t really know what he wanted to do career-wise. He had recently bought a bunch of outdoor gear — a backpack, a camp stove, propane, a hammock, boots and a handful of other things — but had no idea where to start. In addition, he didn’t know anyone in D.C. who was also interested in exploring the great outdoors, and felt very alone in his new interest.
“It’s no good unless you have someone to share it with,” he said. I agreed wholeheartedly.
I gave him the best advice I could. I encouraged him to start a club at school or seek fellow students out — there may be others in the exact same predicament. I told him about the “Meet Up” function of Couchsurfing.com, where you can find people in your area seeking a companion to go exploring with. And I also encouraged him to do exactly what he just did with me; use good judgment and reach out to someone who otherwise would have remained a total stranger, a friend undiscovered.
The train came to a stop at the Van-Ness Station, and I got up and handed him a business card for my blog with my email.
“Get in touch with me if you’re ever in New York and want to go hiking.”
As I climbed up the stairs to the mezzanine, I looked back down through the train window and saw him sitting there, staring at my card and smiling. I hope he finds what he’s looking for.
When we’re in transit we don’t talk to each other. We don’t seek out companionship when we feel rushed to get to the next place on our itinerary. If I had been in a transit mindset — focused on nothing but getting to Selma — 80 percent of this trip would have been like nails on a chalkboard.
But when we slow down and travel, a whole new world opens up. When we’re traveling, rather than in transit, I think it’s easier to find beauty and intrigue in much more than just the eventual destination. We can lower our impact on the environment and reconnect with our fellow humans. We can brush up on our storytelling — the very skill I believe makes us human.
I was traveling by myself to Selma and back, but I was never really alone.
I have decided that plane travel, from now on, will be by necessity only. Convenience is great, but meaningful human connections and falling in love with the world around us is even better. If we love the planet and those we share it with, it will become second nature to take care of it.