Planes, Trains and er.. does that guy have a sword?

The classic American Roadtrip: roof down in the car, hair streaming as we take a right into a roadside diner. We get the meal for free because “y’all’s accents are so cute” and the owner yells “y’all come back now ya hear” when we pull out onto the freeway. Oh, this is the life. Or rather it would be had any of my three travelling companions or I managed to pass a driving test. It is certainly awkward when not one of four British travellers have a license – especially when we’ve had eight years between us to get one and I’ve heard you can do a crash course in 2 weeks. Shameful.

So, instead of the classic road trip we’ve been using America’s public transport system which has provided insight to why the average American asks “why the heck were you on a greyhound?”. The first Greyhound I took was a five-hour ride from New York to Washington D.C. It set the bar high – not only was it incredibly cheap but the AirCon, WiFi and mains plugs actually worked to a sufficient standard. Plus, there were no ex-convicts. I say this because there’s an urban myth that they hand you a free Greyhound ticket to anywhere once you get out of jail – a get out of jail card if you will. Despite their thorough and well-researched knowledge on the American prison/greyhound systems I was not completely confident in the mothers of suburban England’s advice on this one. I was tempted to ask which of their many middle-class convict friends had confirmed the “get out of jail” card myth but decided that Tilly and Apple probably had severed connections with their American pen-pals years ago.

Albeit there were no ex-convicts, there was, however, a “smoke and stretch” stop in Delaware. Before this, I’d had no idea where Delaware was and despite thinking it was first a made-up place presumed it was in the deep south and preceded to say the State’s name over and over again with a southern twang – “Daylawaare” I’d shout happily in the service station… It was my fourth day in America and I decided to go for the whole “Supersize Me” thing and get fast food for every meal (more for personal indulgence than any kind of social experiment) and got a chicken burger from Burger King. I was served by a girl called, wait for it, Brynisha. It was possibly the best moment of my life but i think she thought I was staring at her massive breasts because I was trying to work out how to pronounce her name from her nametag. So apart from Brynisha and another fast food restaurant crossed off the list, my first Greyhound was an innocent affair.

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All aboard the Greyhound

Source: Wikipedia Commons

However, things turned significantly towards the “Get out of Jail” myth on my next journey. I boarded the bus at Washington D.C. for a 16-hour, two bus, overnight journey to Nashville. I was met with the stench of dried urine and the sight of a guy about my age casually wearing a 3 foot sword from a hilt on his belt. A sword. He had a sword! I perhaps would have expected a knife, or maybe even a gun but I certainly was not expecting a sword! It took us five hours to work up the courage to ask him why he had a sword – I say that as if we approached him confidently in conversation but really he asked us to switch seats (I practically shat myself running to give him my seat) and we pounced on the chance to ask. He told us he had won the sword at a weight-lifting contest after having lifted his own weight – a casual 195lbs (that’s nearly 14 stone).

The sword issue all cleared up, we took another “smoke and stretch” stop in some sleepy town in Virginia at which point another less ostensibly scary passenger started explaining to us the varying levels of danger in New York as opposed to Washington D.C.. The latter has the second highest rate of homicide in the U.S. after Philadelphia. This was all quite normal until he took off his shirt and explained how he had been stabbed twice and shot at whilst staying in NYC. “He didn’t get me that bad”, he boasted as he pointed to a two inch scar which had healed on his lower abdomen. Needless to say I slept with one eye pretending to be closed but actually quivering with fear and one hand firmly clenching my bag for the remaining eight hours on the bus.

So, the Greyhounds were a mixed bag – I would recommend them on shorter trips and perhaps not overnight, although day buses can get too hot and crowded. They are, however, a cheaper alternative to Amtrak (the American train service) and sometimes to flights. We took the former on one trip – it was incredibly comfortable, if a bit too expensive. The seats are designed to accommodate the largest American possible so you can pretty much sprawl out as much as necessary.

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Would you like to supersize that train?  

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The coverage of Amtrak is not amazing but they are extending their routes on the East Coast in Virginia. The California rail pass costs $169 for 7 days of travel within 21 days all around the state – it even has some routes into Nevada which are covered in the cost. The only slightly bizarre moment I’ve experienced on an Amtrak train was when a woman who reminded me of Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids decided to accompany us on a trip to the local supermarket whilst we were waiting. She seemed to want to come and stay with us and kept on talking about beer as if to ingratiate herself in “youth culture” but she was nice enough if a bit weird.

Internal flights in America are sometimes cheaper than Amtrak and not much more expensive (on some routes) than the Greyhound, but they do detract from the whole “living on a shoe-string” student experience if you are that way inclined. The only difficulty with them is the ridiculous security checks. On arriving in the country your fingerprints are taken – but this is expected from America. However, after we had gone through security for an internal flight at Nashville we entered into the combined departures and arrivals lounge and instantly made for Tootsie’s which promised food and seats. We practically ran towards it in hunger only to find out that we’d left the secure part of departures. We were one metre beyond the line that separates being “in” the departures/arrivals lounge and suddenly became unchecked and dangerous civilians. We tried to walk back into the lounge but the man guarding the line had seen us innocently mistake the line for a normal panel on the floor so he started shouting “don’t take another step” practically reaching for his gun. That one metre meant we had to pass through the long security checks yet again before we could be back in that secure space. We did notice when we were back in the area that there were “No Exit” signs but that’s besides the point.