Revisiting the American road trip: It's the bus. What did you expect?

A traveler encounters record numbers of bus riders in rural areas, many choosing to take the bus instead of paying high gas prices. For others, public transportation is a good way to get around, even if an errand takes all day. Part 2
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Tillamook County transit wins for most organized transfer. (Julie Van Pelt)

A traveler encounters record numbers of bus riders in rural areas, many choosing to take the bus instead of paying high gas prices. For others, public transportation is a good way to get around, even if an errand takes all day. Part 2

Second of two parts

"You're taking local buses to California? How cool!" When people weren't appalled by the idea, they found it intriguing. But once on the bus, it takes about five minutes to realize that most regular riders don't think it's cool. It's not a novelty, fun, or eco-hip. It's just the bus, a way to get from here to there. They've been riding for a long time.

"I guess we're all here for the same reason," a man, mid-40s, announced at a South Bend bus shelter in southwest Washington. "No license?" He smiled. "I need to get out of here; the cops know who I am; I can't catch a break."

It was eight in the morning, cold, raining. The oyster-packing plant across the street on the Willapa River was already in full swing, rubber-boot-clad workers on a smoke break out front and a conveyor belt chucking oyster shells into bins. Two other people at the stop were bound for another packing plant, judging by their scant conversation and the logos on their sweatshirts.

Just the four of us, waiting. Which is what you do when you take the bus.

The budget vise

Sometimes you wait in the rain; sometimes there's a shelter. Sometimes the view is of river otters and eagles; most times the view is of a parking lot. Sometimes you're alone; other times a few people wait with you. There's never a crowd.

On the buses from Washington to California, in only two situations were they close to full. Spidering out from urban areas, the buses carried more people, as from Olympia, Wash., to towns like Cosmopolis, Raymond, Ilwaco. In the other instance, 30 sixth-graders packed a California bus, all very awake at 7:30 in the morning on their way to school.

The rural transit systems are small, but essential: Curry Public Transit's Coastal Express linking Coos Bay, Ore., to Smith River, Calif., carries little more than 7,000 riders a year, but there is no other bus service along the southern Oregon coast.

Even with limited ridership, rural systems are experiencing an increase in passengers in many of the areas I passed through. "Are you kidding?" Kathy Cook of Washington's Mason County Transportation Authority said when asked about ridership trends. "They're skyrocketing" — from 32,400 boardings in April 2007 to 40,800 in the same month this year.

Just when use is increasing, so are costs, mostly for fuel: Lincoln County Transit in Oregon has seen fuel costs rise 35 percent in the last 18 months. In Mason County in Washington, the transit agency paid $30,475 for fuel in May 2007 and $51,438 in May 2008 — a nearly 70 percent increase.

In Washington, revenue from state sales and use tax, historically a reliable source of funding, is drying up for the first time in years. "What we're seeing now is flatlining," said Kathy Cook of Mason County's transit agency. Flatlining. That doesn't sound good.

Bus? What bus?

"You don't take 'special buses,' do you?" asked a friend of my trips from the Olympic Peninsula to Seattle. I told her the buses looked like city buses, full sized, if old. But on this road trip to California, short buses were the rule — like senior-citizen buses, special-needs buses, tourist buses.

Only close to cities were the buses what city folk, or country folk for that matter, would recognize as public transit. "That's a public bus?" a woman in Florence, Ore., asked me. "I thought it went to the casino."

People who don't ride the bus, well, sometimes they don't know what the bus is.

Howard, from Rockaway Beach, Ore., rides the bus all the time. As a young man, he was hit in the head in a bar fight, leaving him with a seizure disorder, which means he can't drive. Now, in addition to using the bus for general getting around, he bird-watches along the coastal estuaries. The buses' large windows and slow speeds provide good viewing.

"Howard has seen eagles swim," the driver, Chuck, told me on the way from Manzanita to Tillamook, Ore. I looked at Howard. "No way."

"It's true," Chuck said. Howard had seen an eagle submerged in the water, its wings moving in a breast stroke until the large bird reached dry land with a huge salmon too heavy to lift. Chuck, Howard, and I craned our heads to look at a river we were passing, as if having mentioned the eagle's accomplishment we might see it repeated.

Aside from two other backpackers, the riders I met on the bus were locals: A mother and daughter both looking for housekeeping work in hotels lining the northern Oregon coast. A woman making the day-long round trip from Fort Bragg, Calif., to Ukiah to buy medicine for her mother.

Not all people I met ride out of necessity — because they don't have a license or money for a car. Jake, a 54-year-old nurse from Ilwaco, Wash., was on his way home from his four-day shift in Hoquiam. When the timing chain blew on his Pontiac last year, he decided the repair was worth more than the car. Now the car sits in his yard, and he's on the bus, paying $2.75 a week for his commute. "It's crazy that we're so dependent on cars," he told me.

Dustin, 26, sports tattoos of his daughters' names, one on each forearm. He lives in Cosi, in the house he grew up in that he bought from his mom. "What's Cosi?" I asked him. "Oh, that's Cosmopolis," he said, a town of about 1,600, just south of Aberdeen, Wash. He was riding buses home from visiting family in Seattle, having parked his car when gas reached $3 a gallon.

People ride rural buses for work trips, to get to school, to run errands, just like in the city — though if there's only one daily bus each way, an errand can last all day.

What will it take?

Travel along the Northwest coast was possible and enjoyable for me — and may be more so for others if the transit systems in Tillamook, Lincoln, and Lane counties successfully seek collaborative grants to close the gaps in Oregon.

Getting around in one spot can be more of a challenge, though doable with a only a little planning. In Tillamook, bus route No. 1 leaves the courthouse every hour and covers a lot of ground on its 45-minute loop, stopping near the post office, the hospital, the library, grocery stores, even the cheese factory on the outskirts of town.

But in most rural areas there's no Sunday service, sometimes no service all weekend, and the last trip of the day can be in the early evening. Getting inland from coastal towns can be inconvenient, if not impossible.

"The buses suck," Nena from Green Acres, Ore., told me over a campfire at Oregon's Washburne Memorial State Park. She and her husband Greg were vacationing in their 35-foot fifth wheel towed by a Ford F-250, with a beetle VW on the side.

Would she take a bus if it were available? "Yes! With gas prices ... but I don't want to wait three hours. Where we are there's nothing, no way to get to town [Coos Bay, 10 miles away]. When our kids turned 16, got jobs, we had to buy them cars." American driving is "ruining the universe," she commented. I tried not to look over at their rig.

I'd find out later that a bus does pass Green Acres on the way to Coos Bay, though likely not when Nena would want it — just once in the morning and once on the way back, midafternoon.

Another group of RVers in their 50s and 60s — three couples, each with their own trailer — were flexible, philosophical even, about their mode of travel. "If this trip hadn't been planned, we wouldn't have gone," Larry told me. He and his wife Bridget had the only diesel RV of the bunch. John, from Modesto, Calif., chimed in. "If gas keeps going up, we'll just drive less." This would be a good thing, he said. People will walk more, ride bikes, take the bus. The air will be cleaner.

Perhaps. Driving habits seem to be changing, and one hopes that rural transit systems can handle increased ridership as their budgets are squeezed by the same fuel prices that have people opting for the bus.

"I've been [with this agency] for 20 years," Cynda Bruce of Oregon's Lincoln County Transit told me. "We started out as a little, senior and disabled program." Now the system provides 250,000 rides a year in a county of only 44,500 residents.

And though the Coastal Express segment linking Brookings, Ore., to Smith River, Calif., is not widely used, Kathy Bernhardt of Curry Public Transit said the agency is committed to maintaining the coast link. "That's great!" she said of my Washington to California trip. "We're hoping to attract more [people] traveling through."

The buses are there, for now. So are the sights and the people. Anyone up for a road trip?

Part 1: You can (almost) get there from here.


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