The bus made a mid-day refueling stop somewhere in Wyoming. It was a couple days past New Year’s, the bus was half-full, and we were all going straight through to Chicago: a temporary almost-family, bound together by the driver’s friendliness and his encouragement of collective decision-making about our stops. And bound too, I guess, by the hostile weather outside, wind and snow buffeting the bus as we crossed the roof of the continent.
We smokers already had a camaraderie of our own, hurrying off the bus at every stop and huddling together near the door, helping each other get a light in the high wind. At this particular stop, a white college kid returning to Madison let it be known that he had something more than tobacco to share, so several of us followed him around to the back of the convenience store. It was strong stuff, but the wind gave cover to our coughing and quickly carried away the illicit smoke. Everything slowed. We began to talk — or shout, really — about whatever meant the most to us: music, sex, Jesus, poetry (that was me). The weak sunlight took on an epic cast.
A blast of the horn summoned us back to the bus, but we weren’t quite the last on board. In a pattern that was soon to become familiar, a 30ish African-American woman shepherded five young children back into their block of seats near the front, re-arranging their pillows and blankets, while the rest of us looked on solicitously. Plastic trash bags bulged in the overhead luggage compartments; I remember a small bedside lamp protruding from one of them. Each child clutched a small treat from the store, and solemnly began to eat. “Those are good kids, man,” someone murmured.
Then we were back on the interstate. A card game started up a few seats away, but the level of jollity receded as the miles passed, and the engine’s throb and the roar of the heaters made an auditory cocoon into which many of us withdrew. “Let me know if gets too hot for y’all back there,” the driver said. I shut my eyes, and quickly opened them again: the darkness inside was spinning like a slow whirlpool. I turned and fixed my gaze on the horizon with the devotion of a child hungry for one steady thing.