By Paige Sullivan
As a graduate student I don’t often have the time or funds to travel, so when I get a chance it’s on strict budget. When a friend invited me to visit him in Richmond before we both got sucked back into the grind of the fall semester, I figured this would be a good opportunity to try something new: traveling by bus.
I had heard of Megabus and its ridiculously cheap tickets before, so there was no question of which type of bus I would take. I bought the tickets two weeks before my departure date and thought nothing of it. A red-eye trip to and from Richmond with reserved seats at the front corner of the bus, both ways, for only $60? Great.
It wasn’t until my departure date that I started to recall some weird Megabus stories — how “bus stops” were often unmarked parking lots, how my own bus stop was in the heart of Atlanta, where I would be alone, at night (my mother almost fainted when I told her), how the buses were commonly late. As in, up to four hours late.
I Googled the bus company and felt my heart sink and my anxiety kick into high gear after spending 30 minutes reading irate reviews. I jumped on Twitter and found the Megabus and Megabus Help accounts, and then the angry, customer-created “Megabus Fail” account. Oh, God—what had I done?
I texted my dad: “If I break down in the middle of nowhere, will you wire me home?”
I posted a status to Facebook: “Any of my Atlanta friends used Megabus before? Any tips?”
I received deluge of comments, most of which noted that “you get what you pay for” and “it’s not too bad” and “FOR GOD’S SAKE, BRING A BLANKET.”
The Journey Begins
My bus was scheduled to leave at 11:00pm from Atlanta at a stop shared by the city’s public transit subway. A friend dropped me and my weekend suitcase off, and I shuffled over to what I assumed to be the line of fellow bus travelers. A yellow “Mega Snacks” food truck sat cheerfully at the curb, its owner hawking eats and bottled water. I checked the bus app on my phone. I checked it again. Please don’t let me be stuck here until 4:00am, please don’t, please don’t…
At 11:20, the bus pulled up to the curb. “Hallelujah!” I texted my parents and friend.
My ticket was barely glanced at, my suitcase tossed in with the rest, and my reserved seat was taken by a fellow passenger’s suitcase, but he kindly shifted it to the floor when asked. We were off.
Over the course of the next few hours, as our double decker bus traveled east across Georgia and South Carolina, I experimented with various, failed attempts at sleep:
- The Window Lean: that position in which you are seated with your head resting against the window to your right or left, which invariably rattles with the movement of the bus, making even peacefully shutting your eyes and listening to music impossible.
- The Compressed Window Lean: see above, only rest your feet on the railing in front of you, so your knees are bent. Slightly more helpful, as you can scrunch into the corner where the seat meets the window a little more easily. Still an ultimate failure.
- The Office Chair: seated with your back aligned with the back of your seat, your feet on the floor, your arms rested in a comfortable position, as if you are sitting at a desk. How do people sleep like this? Are they faking? I got none.
- The Toddler Bed: after we dropped off passengers in Columbia, I suddenly had an empty seat next to me. Until we reached Durham after sunrise, I attempted to treat my two seats (and the seatbelt holster in between them) as a small toddler day bed. Scrunched and slightly embarrassing, but easily the most effective – finally, a fitful nap!
By this point in the trip, I had learned that the “FOR GOD’S SAKE, BRING A BLANKET” comment was no joke. The bus was “climate controlled,” and the bus driver bluntly announced, “If you are cold, there is nothing I can do about it.” She also said this about the patchy WiFi signal, the cleanliness of the bathroom, and the state of the electrical outlets at each seat. I’m assuming she’s the customer service manager for Megabus (not).
“Climate controlled” simply meant that the AC was running on Arctic temperatures blowing ice crystals at passengers, or at least this is what it felt like. Even while wearing jeans, socks, a tank top, a button-up blouse, and a college sweatshirt, while wrapped in a fleece blanket—in July—I still couldn’t shake the feeling I was in Antarctica instead of the south. Most people had covered their whole bodies in blankets, so the sea of passengers behind me looked like rows of faceless lumps.
We did what we had to. Call it the survival instinct.
In the middle of my “toddler bed” nap, we took a 30-minute rest stop (at 5:00am) at a Love’s gas station somewhere between Columbia and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Those who did not know about the temperature situation bought the $10 blankets shelved in the back corner of the store. A few people bought bags of food from Arby’s. Most of us took the chance to use a normal bathroom, not the terrifying closet one in the back of the bus.
I watched my glasses lenses fog up the minute they hit the humid morning air. I just want to be warm, I thought, stumbling into the Arby’s, blinking at the menu while the employee blinked at me.
“Do you, uh…do you have coffee here?”
The employee nodded, and I swapped two dollars for an empty cup. She pointed to the gas station, which was connected to the restaurant. “Over there,” she said.
I sat outside on the curb. The coffee was the worst I’d had, maybe ever, but it made for a great temporary hand-warmer before the bus took off again.
A Wrench In The Plans
My internal clock is no joke, so by 8:00am I was wide awake in spite of my sleep struggles. It was a beautiful morning in Durham. A hoard of passengers joined us, since our bus was ultimately bound for Washington, D.C. We pulled off the interstate to switch drivers. We sat in the driveway of a value motel.
We sat longer. We waited, wondering where the driver was. Were they taking a shower? Grabbing a snack? What was this?
The driver opened the door. “The bus is currently experiencing a malfunction. It’ll be at least an hour delay.”
We groaned. We sat some more. I texted my mom. The driver got back on the bus to move it to a neighboring parking lot—a Cracker Barrel parking lot, no less. We were allowed to get off the bus to stretch our legs. I posted a Facebook status about it, then texted my friend waiting for me in Richmond.
“I’m gonna be a little late…” I said.
An hour later, we mumbled a few cheers as the bus cranked up and steered toward the highway, the mystery malfunction a mystery that was at least fixed. The bus suddenly pulled over. We held our breath. “I swear to God…” my seatmate muttered. The driver hopped out of the bus. She adjusted her side mirror. We exhaled. The bus puttered along the interstate, scheduled to reach Richmond by 1:00pm.
Somehow, after talking to my neighbor about Atlanta and Baltimore and farmer’s markets, I fell asleep sitting straight up (the Office Chair position). I woke up with my mouth hanging open. My neighbor was swathed in his own blanket shroud.
Bus riders are tough people.
After we parked at the Richmond bus station, I stumbled down the narrow back staircase, snatched my suitcase off the curb where it sat waiting for me, and collapsed into the front seat of my friend’s Camry, peeling off a few of my climate controlled layers, triumphant, a MegaBus survivor.
About The Author
Paige Sullivan is currently an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at Georgia State University, where she also works as a composition instructor and an assistant editor at Five Points, a literary journal. Her poetry appears in Lines + Stars, Naugatuck River Review, The Red Clay Review, and others. In her spare time, she loves to write about foodways, ethics, creativity, and personal narratives. You can find her on Twitter @BPaigeSullivan, her own website and on Epicure & Culture.