People who say travel is broadening usually mean places like Paris. And many of them might find traversing the United States by Greyhound bus more, well, flattening. But not Irma Kurtz, who rode the Iron Dog from New York all the way around the Lower 48.
Ms. Kurtz, an American expatriate who lives in London when she isn't on the road, began her journey by waving goodbye to her mother in Jersey City, N.J., and boarding a transit bus for the Port Authority of New York. Her story begins there, and ends there three months, 10 days, four hours and thousands of miles )) later.
The bus was a deliberate choice for Ms. Kurtz, who introduces herself and explains her peculiar love of the uncomfortable, cumbersome alternative where you leave the driving to someone else:
"The truth is, I am a hussy of low appetites who always yearns shamelessly for rough travel, and I grab the chance whenever I can to arrive at my destination exhausted, knowing I've earned ++ my goal the hard way. Greyhound and I were made for each other. 'It had to be you,' I whispered as I watched a great big Americruiser zip past us effortlessly, homing in on the Port Authority after what vast and thrilling distances?"
By Maine, it's clear this journey is an emotional pilgrimage for the author. But where the book falls really short is in her unexplained reluctance to put her travels in any kind of personal context until midway through, and then only briefly.
Instead, she is a moving camera, and the book is largely a collection of snapshots in a sea-to-shining-sea album. Many of her snapshots have no people at all; some are pictures of strangers to whom she talks briefly, and in a few, she herself is visible. It's in the latter that the book becomes compelling, rather than merely entertaining.
Fortunately, there are other things along the way that make this an interesting read. Having made a cross-country trip by car this year -- and sharing her lust for the open road, if not for Greyhound -- I liked best her views of the places I'd been too, particularly the West and the Southwest.
In some instances, her description called up memories; in others, her judgment showed me things I hadn't seen or provided understanding I hadn't found alone.
Perhaps because she is an urban dweller, her view of cities is particularly clear. She understands how they can occupy a geographic and emotional landscape in an individual way. For example:
"Los Angeles is not my favorite city. . . . I don't believe Los Angeles is a real city at all. The last of the opportunists out of the great land of opportunity were in such a tearing hurry to stake their claims that they threw the place together any which way, and it lacks all fidelity to venerable urban design. It is a chunk of climate on a short lease, humorless and self-important. . . . Among Europeans, the main group to think L.A. is the cat's pajamas and come back raving about the place are Parisians, who also maintain a label-based society."
She also didn't like Las Vegas: ". . . I had never before been to Vegas, where advanced technology combined with an American kind of exuberant laziness has done away with any element whatsoever of skill in the game, or intelligence. All you gotta do is push the button and wham-bam! No sweat. No strain. No
dithering of conscience. Gambling in Vegas was as easy to fall into as a coma, and as hard to get out of."
For anyone who has ever stood in speechless wonder as the setting sun paints the New Mexico sky, or reveled in the ruthless vast spaces of Wyoming, the spiky red craters of Arizona or Colorado's cold, sharp mountains and skies so big and blue
they stab your eyes -- Ms. Kurtz can make you want to go back.
Less evocative are the portraits of the people who occupy the landscape.
Part of this is not her fault; these are people met in bus depots and known only for a few hours, maybe a day or two. There are some interesting characters in there, and it's amazing how many times she heard or participated in a conversation that ended with someone observing that anyone can be here today and gone tomorrow.
But generally her encounters with people are emotional postcards -- interesting to read but not much there beyond first sight. And it's difficult for her, and therefore for the reader, to make much out of a four-hour piece of someone's life -- particularly when so many of the people she met seemed to have so many troubles! Bus depots are not known as bastions of well-adjusted living, and Ms. Kurtz saw plenty of sadness as well as scenery.
But outside the depots, ours is a richly textured land, and Ms. Kurtz brings it to life in "The Great American Bus Ride." Her nicely crafted prose hasn't convinced me that Greyhound is the best way to see America, but I found myself liking her sense of adventure and her intrepid, thorough observation. Toward the end of the book, she muses that one Indian tribe used to send its young out into the wild alone for a while before accepting them into the tribe -- and she makes a cogent case for doing something similar for every American boy and girl:
". . . On their eighteenth birthdays each of them would be given an open ticket to go out alone and take a good look at their astounding legacy. And yes, you bet, they would have to go by bus. . . . the country itself, the extreme westerliness of its place on the globe, and most of all its incredible beauty -- an inheritance so stirring that to see it from the window of a bus was enough to make me wonder if perhaps I had a soul after all."
Not everyone is capable of such a remarkable journey -- but all of us should be.
Title: "The Great American Bus Ride: An Intrepid Woman's Cross-Country Adventure"
Author: Irma Kurtz
Publisher: Poseidon Press
(Length, price: 317 pages, $21