The Bus Back: Remembering to Connect With People and Eat Good Food

A beautiful, high-ceiling castle constructed of glass and metal, the Jewel Box houses luscious, exotic plants ranging in color from fiery orange to deep burgundy to the most sumptuous greens.

The flooring was tile and the air conditioning was on full blast, so I sat on the ground in the middle of that magical urban forest and cooled off. There is a one dollar admittance fee, but I only had a $20 bill or 75 cents; the guy on staff was kind and took my three quarters. I had been wandering around Forest Park in St. Louis, Missouri, when sweating a red-faced, I had found that beautiful oasis. Being a west coast girl, the humidity is not something I am used to contending with, so the dry cool of the Jewel Box was heavenly.

This is a story about my summer travels across the mid-west and southern United States by Greyhound bus. It’s a story about how I, having just graduated college and with just about $2,000 to my name, managed to travel across a big chunk of the country alone and make it home with cash to spare. But I can’t make it all about me though, because while I may have been the one that booked a non-refundable flight from Oregon to Missouri and I rode a Greyhound bus 2,435 miles by myself and I slept in hostels and I visited graduate schools and I ate alligator and the best catfish of my life and I did it all for $1734.29 my trip would be nothing if not for the people that I met and the food that I ate. So let’s go all the way from the Jewel Box in St. Louis, Missouri to the New Orleans French Quarter to a house party in Houston, Texas. I’ll leave out the boring stuff like land marks and museums and only tell you the interesting parts. I’ll only tell you about the people and their food.

There was the kind gentleman in St. Louis who let me into the Jewel Box for 24 cents less than the admittance fee. There was the lady at the St. Louis Zoo that gave me a free hot dog. There was the bus driver that nearly threw another passenger off the bus for sneaking a smoke. People didn’t get really interesting until Nashville, Tennessee though. I had booked a bed in Nashville Downtown Hostel and had been assigned to a room with four beds which was – thank heavens – right across the hall from the bathroom. By the time my bus rolled in at 3:30 in the afternoon, one of the room residents was already there. Her name was Katherine and she was a late 20s early 30s something lady from England. Brogue, England, is what I think she said, though I’m not really sure now because I realized that can refer to a type of shoe or a particular dialect of an Irish accent as well. Anyway, Katherine and I hit it off right away and after changing into something a little more fashionable that didn’t have bus after smell on it (she had come in on a Greyhound earlier too), we both walked down to the famous Hard Rock Café. I ordered a beet salad and chicken tenders with honey mustard; it was good, but not over the moon fantastic.

After dinner, we wandered around downtown Nashville a bit more taking in the sights – and smells – before landing on the rooftop of this little dive on the fringes of downtown called Losers Bar and Grill. After Katherine and I ordered a hard cider and a water, respectively, we perched ourselves on the roof to observe the milieu that is downtown Nashville. The bachelorette and 21st birthday party girls riding around in private party buses and shaking what they had while dropping it like it was hot were quite amusing to Katherine, so we sat on the roof and I pointed out the most outrageously decorated buses (everything from firetrucks to cows to army trucks to this bubble gum pink limo truck) and Katherine started a picture log.

There was also a younger guy playing his guitar and singing covers of all the good, old country (Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, George Strait) behind us inside the bar. It’s not an uncommon sight in the country music capital of the world; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a bar without some hopeful up-and-coming artist playing requests for tips. But this particular guy had a pretty good voice and he played the guitar pretty well and he had a soft southern drawl and he was super cute so I tipped him a dollar. He shot me a really handsome grin and said: “Thank ya’. Take a card.” Even though I’m obviously not a music producer or recorder or anything like that, I wrestled a “LUKE LANDER. Musician. Singer. Songwriter.” card out of the clip anyway. The next day, I thought very seriously about texting Luke Lander to ask if he was playing anywhere that night (because I enjoyed his voice and the music he was playing!) but eventually decided against it. The day after arriving in Nashville, I went to visit a graduate school I was interested in. The Uber driver that took me from my hostel to the university had moved to Nashville two years prior, his name was Dan and he flirted his butt off with me the entire drive. I’m not really one for flirting, mostly because I don’t know how, but I must’ve said something right because he picked me up the following morning and took me to the bus station free of charge. He also gave me his number (In case you get in a bind or need anything while you’re in Nashville), but I never ended up using it; he wasn’t as cute as the singer at Losers.

…Three months later and 3000 miles away, I sometimes find myself craving that particular dish of catfish and candied yams from Mama J’s.

It’s a lovely 15-ish hour bus ride from Nashville, Tennessee to Richmond, Virginia. The bus was entirely full and I sat beside a very nice Latina woman who didn’t understand nor speak English very well (I don’t speak nor understand Spanish at all). Despite this, we formed a partnership where, whenever the bus would stop and we would have to get off for a bit, we would watch each other’s bags while one or the other went to the bathroom or bought something from the bus station vending machines or simply stood up to walk around. Richmond, I thought, was beautiful, and I could go on and on about the history and splendor of the capital building (built before colonial independence, survivor of two wars and the model for our nation’s capital building in Washington DC). I could spit out facts about the life sized statue of President George Washington that stands sentinel in the “presidential rotunda” of Virginia’s capital building and tell you that the statue is accurate down to the shoe size. (Richmond, Virginia is a history buffs dream come true!) But that’s all the boring stuff I promised to avoid, so instead I’ll tell you about Mama J’s. After an afternoon of exploring, and a quick Google search of southern style restaurants near me I ended up a five minute walk from my hostel at this hopping little hole-in-the-wall called Mama J’s. The people who run this little gem are the nicest, most hospitable people I met on my entire trip. But the food! I ended up with an entire fillet of fried catfish that had to be at least three inches wide and a foot long! I also enjoyed the best candied yams on the face of the planet and some sweet tea. Seriously, I’m not making this up. It was so delicious that still, three months later and 3000 miles away, I sometimes find myself craving that particular dish of catfish and candied yams from Mama J’s.

After Richmond, I headed farther south to Atlanta, Georgia. My goal was to make it to New Orleans, Louisiana, but it takes longer than 24 hours to make it from Richmond to New Orleans in a strait shot by bus, so I decided to crash in Atlanta for a day. Out of all the places I visited, Atlanta was definitely my least favorite. Maybe it was the area in which I stayed (though, after some map searching, I never could pinpoint exactly where I was at in the city), but, at least where I was, it was super sketchy. The best part about my brief stint in Atlanta was definitely the host of the Airbnb that I stayed in. It wasn’t any of the conversations that we had, because there were none. It was the mini fridge in my room that was outfitted with a bowl of Frosted Flakes cereal, a small carton of skim milk, a plastic spoon and two paper towels; maybe it was the lack of sleep, but I thought that it was a hilarious, non-invasive and efficient way to feed his guests.

Happily leaving Atlanta behind, I curled up in my window seat on the bus and settled in for an 11 hour ride to New Orleans! Riding the bus is interesting. You see and experience a lot of things you normally wouldn’t as a tourist. You get to meet people that actually live in the places you are visiting and you sometimes catch a glimpse of things that tourists aren’t always supposed to be privy to. Despite the long hours, I really enjoyed all my bus rides and the off-beat things I saw, experienced and heard. I am now convinced that you haven’t seen the true heart of a place until you’ve seen the bus station. That said, the bus ride from Atlanta to New Orleans was by far the most eventful. To begin with, I almost missed my bus and was nearly stuck in Atlanta for another day because my Uber driver was 15 minutes late; but that’s not the interesting part. As we were travelling along, the passenger in front of me turned around and asked if I could please text his girlfriend and tell her to pick up Baby D at 12:30 at the Mobile, Alabama bus station. He would, of course, text her himself, but his phone was dead, or some such thing like that. So as I’m conversing with his girlfriend via text, I overhear this conversation:

Passenger 1: “What you in the pen for?”

Passenger 2: “Robbing banks. Lots of ‘em too. Shit! It’s easy! You just put a beard on and go in with a gun and they give you the money!”

Passenger 1: “You still got some of that money?”

Passenger 2: “Yeah man! Gotta house. Gotta car. Gotta lady. My pops holding it all. I’m gonna go get it right now!”

Passenger 2: the bank robber, then went on to explain that he, being the tricky devil that he is, put all of the money that he had stolen immediately into assets, and being as all these assets were paid for in cash, there was no paper trail. As such, he went to prison for only one bank robbery he had committed and was subsequently arrested for. He was not found guilty of any of the other bank robberies as there was no longer any evidence. Now, free as a bird, he was headed back to wherever he had come from to live off his ill-gotten riches. After marveling at the evil genius of the fella (and thinking that he could give Danny Ocean a run for his money), it slowly dawned on me that the other passenger for whom I was texting was none other than the bank robber himself! To both of the bank robber’s and his girlfriend’s credit, they were incredibly nice and polite and I now have a contact in my phone called Bank Robber’s Girlfriend. (People have asked me why, if the bank robber had so much money, he was riding the bus. I never asked him, but I hypothesized that he had just recently been released from prison and the bus is a really good way to travel if you want to stay under the radar because you can pay cash and you don’t have to show ID.)

Remember the thing I mentioned earlier about the bus station revealing the true heart of a place? Well when I finally arrived at the New Orleans bus station, I knew I was going to love that city. A quick Uber ride later, I was checking into my hostel, dumping my bags and switching out my wrinkled travel clothes for my blue cornflower summer dress and Converse sneakers. All the locals I talked to had warned me against making my night on the infamous Bourbon St. So, armed with Google maps pointing the way, it was a 15 minute walk and one left turn to a hopping little place on Frenchman St. by the name of Maison. Seated at a little table in the back, I enjoyed a lively rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In” by the bouncy jazz band that plays on Thursday nights while I waited for my Jambalaya and alligator and crawfish bites. I don’t know which was the alligator and which was the crawfish, but both were equally scrumptious! After my delightful dinner, I wandered up and down Frenchman St., breathing in all the spicy aromas of food mixed with the pungent odor of humidity and sweat. My heart danced along as I listened to the vibrant beats and whoops of jazz and melancholy waves of blues as their notes drifted out of bars and the open windows of cafes, mingling with the warm night air and rising up to kiss the sky.

The next day, I grabbed my Polaroid camera and headed out to explore the Big Easy. Street vendors hawking their brightly colored creations peppered the streets, sitting side-by-side soothsayers and palm readers (all of which were the proper and original ones of their future telling craft). As I made my way down the sidewalk, I somehow wound up down a side alley where I received my own private saxophone concert from a lone musician. He was a ways into his solo, his bluesy riff battling with the rambunctious bouncing sounds of the jazz band right around the corner, when he stopped suddenly and shook his head. “They ain’t doing it right.” then he laughed sadly to himself and proceeded to explain to me that the other band kept playing a critical jazz note at a bouncing, high octave when it should have actually been played in a low, flat note. However they were playing it, it apparently wasn’t keeping the beat correctly and he couldn’t jump on the rhythm with his sax.

“They ain’t got the right note.” He said, “So they ain’t got no rhythm.” I nodded, “Okay.” (I don’t know anything about music, so all I could do was smile and nod.) “Well, you have a good day now. I’m gonna go back to my original spot.” Then picking up his backpack and sax case, he sauntered away, humming. I ate lunch at a local’s dive called Coop’s. Seafood gumbo and bread; a spectacular fusion of flavor and spice! That afternoon found me wandering around the open air French Market bazaar. The place was a conglomeration of vendors sitting in front of oscillating fans and watching as sweating tourists milled about and inspected their odds and ends. Some people displayed some very neat, original things, though most of it was repeat trinkets. Through the montage, I wound up finding some beautiful photographs that had been pressed onto metal sheets. The photographer was there and I chatted with him for a bit; then he ended up giving me two pictures for the price of one. I also found an alligator head – real, stuffed, mean looking as you please – I bought it for my little brother. Following my dinner (shopping takes a while as any deal hunter can tell you), I continued my wonderfully aimless wander. As the sun began to set over the spires of an old Catholic church built in 1718, I happened upon a chess game. The match was set on an outside table in the light of a café window. The guys playing – and the gathered crowed – noticed me watching (hard to miss the only little Caucasian girl) and offered me the next game. My opponent was the winner of the previous game and probably the winner of all the previous games since he had begun playing there. Needless to say, he beat me in about 12 moves (I think he was going easy on me).

“Don’t feel bad.” Someone grinned, “He beats everybody.”

“Thanks for the game!” I quipped, smiling sunnily and helping him reset the pieces for the next match.

“No problem. What’s your name baby?” he asked, placing the pawns deliberately in their squares.

“Kate. And you?”

“Nice to meet you, Kate. I’m Ali.” He shook my hand. I finished resetting my side, thanked him again, stood to leave and he said: “No problem. What’s your name baby?”

“Kate.” I reiterated. The folks around shook their heads as if the say ‘don’t mind him’.

“Nice to meet you, Kate. I’m Ali.” I shook his hand again, then walked back to my hostel on a cloud. As sad as I was to leave New Orleans, I was excited to arrive at my next stop Houston, Texas, where I would spend the weekend with my cousin, Reid, who is going to school in Houston. Reid picked me up at the bus station, helping me throw my backpack into her trunk, then wrapping me in an exuberant hug.

“So what do you wanna do?” she asked, darting in and out of traffic.

“I don’t care. Just as long as there’s food involved.” My stomach grumbled in agreement.

“Yes!” she crowed happily, while simultaneously shooting another driver a dirty look.

“I’m starving! So where do you wanna go?” Then she proceeded to rattle off a dizzying list of food options. In the end, we wound up at the Black Walnut Café, where I had a ginormous turkey burger and she had a mountain of pasta. Everything is bigger in Texas.

In the end, we wound up at the Black Walnut Café, where I had a ginormous turkey burger and she had a mountain of pasta. Everything is bigger in Texas.

That night, I accompanied Reid to a party, ironically my first college party ever. (Remember, I had just graduated several months prior to the trip.) It was a baseball party, I was informed. All the student athletes were invited (Reid plays soccer). Except for football, because they ruin everything and they’re good at stealing baseball’s thunder, so they couldn’t come. And softball was having their own party and golf was over there. Anyway, it wasn’t exactly what I’d call fun, but it certainly was an amusing experience. I met all of Reid’s friends – some more than once because they didn’t remember the first three or four times – and basically followed Reid around all night as she said hi to everyone; I swear, she knows every single student athlete and they all love her. The following day we stayed in bed and watched TV and napped intermittently (though neither of us drink, we did have to recover a bit from staying out until 5 in the morning). I said goodbye to my cousin and hopped on the bus for the last time, arriving in Austin, Texas shortly before noon. Another Uber ride and another hostel later, I had the entire day to explore Austin. First order of business though: food! A quick Google search of restaurants near me yielded an array of enticing eats and I was soon strolling down the sidewalk towards the Cheesecake Factory! Except… there was no Cheesecake Factory at the spot where Google maps had taken me, only a Dairy Queen and a coffee house/bar. Baffled, I did the prudent thing and walked into the coffee house/bar, yelling for directions over the whirl of the coffee grinder.

The barista shouted that it was out back “in the fence with the American flags. Can’t miss it.” Thanking him kindly, I made my way out back to the fenced area and there, in all its glory: The Cheesesteak Factory! Did you catch that? I didn’t the first time either. The CheeseSTEAK Factory, as in the meat, not the dessert. Laughing, I made my way to the window of the cleverly disguised food truck and ordered a Lucy Knox sandwich. It was over a foot long and stuffed with grilled chicken, caramelized onions, melted provolone cheese, some sort of garlic and onion sauce and ranch dressing. I ate over half. Everything really is bigger in Texas.

I flew home from Austin the next morning. The goal of the trip had been to visit graduate schools, and while that was certainly accomplished, the high ceilings and polished halls of some of the best universities in the country aren’t even what cross my mind when I think about that trip. It’s the long bus rides and the interesting people and the exquisite foods. It’s the smiles and the smells and sounds. It’s the things that make leaving the comfort of your own home worth it. That trip was my bus back to the things that matter: connecting with people and eating amazing food.

// Feature photography by Drew Hays.

The Bus Back: Remembering to Connect With People and Eat Good Food
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