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On the Bus

Columbia River Gorge

If your car blows up and you have to get somewhere like the Columbia River Gorge, you’re in luck.

I’m on my way to The Dalles on a Greyhound Bus. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s pretty luxurious, air-conditioned, with nice, roomy seats and plenty of legroom unlike most passenger cars or airplanes. What’s really great, though, is the view. If you like getting an almost birds-eye view into things like car interiors, pickup beds, or Osprey nests, this trip’s for you. You easily can see how low the water level is on the Columbia River, see estuaries, boats, and shorelines that are hidden from most vehicles.

Not only am I fascinated by this new take on the scenery; I am mesmerized by the packing habits of Americans on vacation. I especially like the SUVs because there is so much revealing window space. Most of these vehicles are so jammed packed that it looks as though someone started to pack things neatly, but soon gave up and tossed the whole garage and part of the house into the back and slammed the tailgate shut. My favorite is a colorful array of partial sleeping bags, backpacks, water wings, a tricycle wheel, paper towel rolls, sweatshirts, swimsuits, and a whole tray of muffins smashed against the window.

I boarded the bus in downtown Portland and am riding with maybe fifteen others, which leaves plenty of room to have a seat by myself. I play a game of “Who Are They?” trying to discern by shape, clothes, and demeanor, who my fellow passengers are.

There’s the slender, tan, forty-something guy in leather pants, leather boots, sleeveless black t-shirt, great arms, ponytail, with a bandana, and a single earring who looks like a pirate. I guess he’s not a pirate and tag him as a biker.

The two young women in the seat across the aisle from me have long hair and wear black jeans and cowboy boots. I deem them the “Horse Sisters” because it is obvious their features resemble each other, although one is a brunette and the other is a redhead. I also have a clue: the redhead is reading A Field Guide to Horses, and her sister is reading Equestrian Magazine.

I can’t quite place the older couple, both with long stringy gray hair, who are quite animated with each other and so I think they are not married, or at least haven’t been married long. They are traveling with one small red suitcase. I spotted them earlier outside the entrance when I arrived at the bus depot. She was sitting on the red suitcase and he was squatted on his haunches next to her as they ate Vienna sausages out of can. At first I thought they might be homeless, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves too much. Perhaps they are old hippies, I muse, thinking he had come from maybe Pendleton to Portland to retrieve her from a hospital visit, but I found that too grim to imagine for them, and so decided that she was a former girlfriend that he had come to fetch from oh, Enumclaw, rendezvousing in Portland for the trip to Pendleton. Instead of old hippie, he could have been broken down cowboy. Cowboys generally have better manners than hippies, thus he came to retrieve her, not meet her at the bus station in Pendleton.

There was the middle-aged, blondish woman in a tidy navy blue pants suit going to visit her sister in Hermiston. However, I cheated, since I overheard her tell this to the chatty blonde guy in his thirties – dirty jeans, white sleeveless t-shirt, cowboy boots – on his way to Boise to quit his aluminum factory job. I don’t know why he came to Portland to quit his job in Boise but I let it be, not really believing him anyway and figuring him for a drifter chatting it up all over the west with other bus riders.

At our first stop in Hood River – a four-minute smoke break and restroom run – four of us get off: the soon to be ex-aluminum factory guy, the pirate, a young mother with a baby I hadn’t seen before, and me. The others light up cigarettes, the pirate helping the young woman who is having trouble coordinating the cigarette with juggling the baby. I find a drinking fountain. Our stop is at the Port of Hood River on the riverfront where hundreds of wind-surfers compete in the Gorge Games. The wind is great for the surfers, not so great for cigarette lighting, or trying to capture water flying sideways from the drinking fountain. I glimpse the pirate’s back and his t-shirt declares: “Biker Rodeo,” with an airbrushed portrait of a bucking bike. Hah.

When I get back on board, I am surprised that the Horse Sisters are sharing a book on the Pilipino language. O.K. I revise: They are going to college in La Grande and planning a trip to the Philippines? Not likely. I have to ask. They’re from Alaska! Their brother married a Philippine woman and so they are learning the language. But they are going to La Grande to visit their grandparents and they did grow up in La Grande and had horses. They lament that Juneau is not exactly horse heaven.

I depart at the next stop, The Dalles, where I am meeting friends. The nice thing here is that the stop is right downtown where you can walk to the wonderful Baldwin Saloon, and if you have a mind to, take the Historic Walking Tour.

The bus takes off. I wave to the Horse Sisters. I’m certain the biker will find a bike, certain the factory guy will find another job to quit, but am a bit sorry I will never know if the cowboy and his lady will have a fine life in Pendleton.

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