Freshman year at the University of Vermont tried to stomp on me, but I found ways to compensate for my new memory deficits. My desk was Post-It note central. I studied hard. I found tutors and tried to relearn all the stuff that I’d forgotten from the last two years of high school. Those problems I couldn’t fix, I accepted. I introduced myself to the same person five times and the guy thought I was an idiot? So what?
By May of 2000, I had fallen in love. I bought a set of Trango cams, Wild Country nuts, and the cheapest wiregates carabiners on Earth. I sent my pathetic resume ahead and bought a bus ticket to the rock climbing mecca of North America: Yosemite National Park.
Sometimes when the inner world plateaus, it’s time for a journey.
It was springtime, the perfect season to get up from my normal life, leave New England, and find the rest of myself. Sometimes when the inner world plateaus, it’s time for a journey.
The bus route from Concord, New Hampshire to Merced, California can’t be done in less than seventy-eight hours. That’s three days and six hours. On a bus. No bed. Few restaurants. For more than 3,000 miles.
In love, no distance is too great, right?
It’s an interesting crowd that rides the bus. I had ridden fifty or a hundred miles on the bus before. But this was something new. I was living on the Greyhound. It was my home. People tromped into my house drunk or weighed down with bags or newlywed or toting three kids or out of luck.
Outside of Chicago, one of my neighbors, a slouched fellow with a threadbare jacket, asked what I was reading.
“Night, by Elie Wiesel.”
“What’s it about?”
“Oh, them Jews. They’re a sad lot. Let it happen to themselves, they did.”
“No, I don’t think–”
“Yeah. Yeah, they did. They were sheep. Imagine if they’da stood up together. They could have–”
“No. They were victims of a systematic military–”
“I’d never let that happen to myself. Americans would never let that happen. The Jews were sheep. Tell me if I’m wrong: Americans aren’t sheep.”
I looked sidelong at the people around us. How could I shut this guy up? I opened my book again. Ignore the guy. That’s it. Ignore him.
“Tell me if I’m wrong.”
Don’t encourage him. Just bury my nose in this book and pretend he’s not here and I’m not here and he never said these terrible things so loudly. Oh, please don’t say anything else…
“No, I’m not. See. Them Jews, they weren’t organized. They didn’t have any spine.”
A man sitting in front of me rose up out of his seat and turned around. His eyes blazed. He hollered, “Enough! My grandparents died in the Holocaust!” He slammed his hand against the headrest, raising a ghost of dust. Everyone turned to watch. “My father lived in a concentration camp! Shut your damn mouth. I can’t stand another word. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Not another word.”
My slouched neighbor disembarked at the next stop. I hope he learned something about people standing up. I know I did, from this man’s actions and from Eli Wiesel’s book.
When I reached California, my nerves began to jangle. Soon I’d have to leave this rocking, smelly berth. No more sitting and watching a landscape pass by. My home had rolled through endless cornfields in Ohio, the huge prairies of South Dakota, the high desert of Utah, past the lights of Las Vegas. I was a spectator.
For two hours I was spectator beside an elderly man with a white cane. Robert. He liked to ride the bus, he told me. His daughter found a special disabled veteran’s pass so he could ride whenever he got a hankerin. The card hung on a string around his neck.
“If you don’t mind, how did you lose your sight?”
“Oh. This.” Robert patted his cane. “I’m not completely blind. I have some peripheral vision. It happened during the second war. The Germans had these lights on the beach. Up on the bunkers, they would flash. Blink. Blink. Blink.” He moved the arthritic fingers of one hand as if to show tiny explosions. “It didn’t happen right away. It was later that I started to go blind. But that’s what it was from. Those lights.”
“Must have been awful.”
“I don’t regret it. Somebody had to stand up to them.”
Before disembarking in Sacramento, Robert gave me his address. I scribbled it on a scrap of paper. “Send me a postcard from Yosemite. My daughter will read it to me,” he said.
At the Greyhound station in Merced, the Yosemite bus driver told me this was the first season they’d been running service from the Sacramento valley. “That’s why you’re the only one,” she said. I loaded my bags and a taped-up cardboard box for the final leg. The spotless, giant bus climbed up into the Sierras carrying me, its only passenger.
As the bus glided toward Yosemite, my heart beat faster. My legs were restless. A valley rose around me like I’d never seen. I stood up. I ran from one side of the bus to the other, gawking at rivers and mountains and old growth forests.
“Your first time?” the driver asked.
“Come up here,” she said. “Have a look out the front window.”
Yosemite is amazing. No two ways about it. But after more than three days in the dark tube of a bus, the vista of Yosemite Valley was incomprehensible. I stood next to the driver, trying to take it in.
I spent the summer there. I climbed and ran and hiked as only a college-aged body can handle. I might have rolled into Yosemite on a bus, but I was standing up when I reached my destination. That’s the only way to make a pilgrimage.