Mindful that great American road trips occur in all sorts of vessels — heck, Huck rode a rickety raft — we're on a Greyhound bus heading up California's flat, slender belly.
"Why?" you ask.
That's a sensible question, but let us open our hearts and heads to this for a few seconds:
By the time we're done, we'll meet a vagabond grandma and a former prostitute, an impish computer genius and just maybe the ghost of Jack Kerouac, who looked at Greyhound and California's wide-open roads as gateways to the finest American right of all: the right to wander.
Still skeptical? Wonder if I told you that a trip to Sacramento or San Francisco could be booked for a buck, making this Greyhound trip the best bargain in all of travel. Might be the best bargain, period.
So, climb aboard. No security checkpoints, no luggage fees. No pillows or drink service either, but also no charge. A few of my fellow passengers, some more hollow-eyed than even I, have prison on their faces. A few are students, but most look like the same sorts you see on commercial airlines these days.
I don't take much comfort in that.
This isn't so much a road trip as a Paul Simon song. "Cathy I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh . . . Michigan seems like a dream to me now."
On a Thursday morning, the bus moans out of its Alameda Street barn in downtown L.A., past the glorified freshmen dorms that pass for apartments in Little Tokyo and onto the Hollywood Freeway, where I can peer down into the laps of commuting drivers, my first indication that this 380-mile jaunt from L.A. to Sacramento will be anything but just another road trip.
It's late spring and the California drylands are mostly the color of concrete. In two hours exactly, we're in Bakersfield, where we break for lunch.
Greyhound just started offering these Express tours in California, aboard sleekly painted dark-blue buses with leather seats and big windows that — unlike in a 737 — you can actually see out of.
The Express includes four quick pit stops on my eight-hour jaunt to Sacramento.
Unlike standard Greyhound buses, the Express has free Wi-Fi and outlets for your laptop, phone or, in the case of some of my neighbors, electric razors.
That's not to say that this is luxury travel; that's not the vibe. The bus stations tend to be clean but dreary. The clientele is a little shaky, me included.
But now and then there is the sense that you are doing something special. The ride is gentle, softly rocking, the pace steady and true. The bus is three-quarters full on the journey up. Legroom is plentiful.
Keep in mind that if you manage to snag one of the limited number of $1 seats (the rate is best found a few weeks in advance), you'll be traveling for about a third of a cent per mile — about what it costs to vegetate on your mother's couch.
That alone puts a shine on the face of Marie Allen, gracious and gorgeous at 86, and on her way home to Walla Walla, Wash., the town so nice they named it twice. ("It means 'many waters,'" Allen says.)
This Greyhound great-grandma travels solo by bus all the time, for trips to Miami, for trips to New York. She has a sanguine outlook; she's one of those improbably upbeat people who makes you feel like a slacker even if you're not.
"Greyhound is my favorite way to travel," she says, nodding a little as she talks. "You get to see things, you get to meet locals. On a plane, you don't have that.
"We can definitely afford to fly and the best of everything, but I go Greyhound and stay in hostels," she says. "It's an adventure."
What am I going to do, argue? Allen is one of the most amazing people ever. (Weeks later, we still chat by phone.)
Besides, I'm about to meet an ex-hooker and a computer visionary-rascal. Not the same person, but they share the same seat, within moments of each other.
Yep, this Greyhound is an adventure all right.
"I went into a chili joint and the waitress was Mexican and beautiful. I ate, and then I wrote her a little love note on the back of the bill.... She read it and laughed. It was a little poem about how I wanted her to come and see the night with me."
— Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"
Kerouac saw the days and nights of America from the open road, sometimes hitching, often catching the Greyhound. From this he explored a forgotten side of the American soul, describing California fields "the color of love and Spanish mysteries."
You don't spot that from 30,000 feet.
Trips like this are also a reminder that we hurry too much when we travel, stare too much at clouds, worry ourselves to the airport three hours before flights just so we can be hassled by security.
If airports are like big cities, buses feel more like small towns. You don't see so many faces that they become inconsequential. There is a sense of place.
And I'm speaking specifically to you, Alec Baldwin: You can play your cellphone games from start to finish aboard a Greyhound bus.
Mercifully, no one does.
On the return trip from Sacramento, the 50-passenger bus is nearly full except for the adjoining seat, and I'm wishing — please God, please — that the spot stays empty for the half-day journey back, when the cutest blue-eyed former hooker you ever saw plops down next to me.
"It's my birthday," she says.
"Lucky you," I say.
"Thanks," she says.
"Twenty-two," she says brightly.
We won't get into how she chose her former line of work, or the two weeks she once spent in an L.A. jail. The important thing is that my seatmate is turning her life around, has a steady boyfriend and a job as a receptionist, and a baby on the way.
Redemption is in the air. And probably the ghost of Kerouac himself.
The doctor said she's about three months' pregnant, but, she says, it's probably really four. Yes, she's taking her prenatal vitamins. Yes, her boyfriend needs to man up and quit playing video games and decide whether he wants to be part of this baby's life, because if not, her family is there for her and she doesn't want to spend the next 60 years with someone who doesn't really love her.
Not bad for 22.
When she de-buses in Stockton, I thank her for her candor and hand her a few bucks for baby shoes.
Most times you chase the stories; occasionally, they chase you.
In her place sits Ron Blake, a big, ponytailed Texan who raked in a lot of money in computer databases, blew a bunch of it on three marriages and is now traveling for a month on Greyhound's $461 30-day pass.
"You better be interesting, dude," I tell him as he sits down.
I tell Blake about the tough act he follows.
Up for a challenge, he begins to serenade me with stories about life on the road, the great stay he just had in Yosemite, the magnificent future of computer-based titanium manufacturing and about any other subject you could possibly name.
I won't get into specifics on Blake; that would take a book. But the 65-year-old is sold on bus travel too, on his way this evening to L.A. just for a Dodgers game, then back on the bus at midnight for a trip to San Francisco, and eventually, Portland, Ore., Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, then across to the Canadian Rockies and down into Glacier National Park in Montana.
By the time Blake takes his first breath, somewhere near Bakersfield, I have a serious case of travel envy.
And I'm not so sure that, one day, I might not try just what he's doing — soaking up 4,000 miles of North America for less than a round-trip air ticket to Philly.
Of a bus, he says, "You don't just get in touch with your own soul. You get in touch with the souls of everyone around you."
And even a few souls to come.