Revisiting the American road trip: You can (almost) get there from here

It's summer, but gas prices might make you think twice about taking even the hybrid for a drive down the coast. Time for a new twist on an old American pastime. Imagine Washington to California and back, without a car: more than 2,000 miles, 28 towns, 11 public transit systems, 48 buses, and zero stops at the gas station. Part 1
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An icon for the American road trip. (Julie Van Pelt)

It's summer, but gas prices might make you think twice about taking even the hybrid for a drive down the coast. Time for a new twist on an old American pastime. Imagine Washington to California and back, without a car: more than 2,000 miles, 28 towns, 11 public transit systems, 48 buses, and zero stops at the gas station. Part 1

First of two parts

By now we're all familiar with the gas story: Prices hovering around $4 a gallon. Travel plans scaled back and aborted (who has the vacation time anyway?). Memorial Day traffic down around the country, 3 percent less than last year in Washington, according to the state's transportation department. Hundred-dollar-a-barrel oil is beginning to sound like a downright bargain when forecasts are for $150 a barrel by July 4.

Then there's the slap on the wrist from our betters across the pond: Europeans scoff at our sticker shock and gas-guzzler habit. They pay $6, $7, close to $10 a gallon! Of course some of their cars approach a fuel efficiency of 60 miles a gallon, and everyone from Swedes to Spaniards enjoy tighter urban development patterns, a high-functioning public transit infrastructure, and subsidized health care (oops, different story).

But the gas-burning question stateside imperils a favorite American pastime: Are we looking at the imminent demise of the road trip, our freewheeling, open-ended, go-where-I-want, when-I-want credo? "Let's hit the road, honey; I think we have enough cash to make it to the end of the block."

Or could we just be looking at a revision of a classic?

An idea takes hold

From classic cars to magic bus? Or buses, to be precise: Round-trip from Port Townsend, Wash., to Boonville, Calif., just inland from Mendocino, I took 11 public transit systems and 48 buses, with a little Amtrak thrown in, a Washington State Ferry, and one private bus line (not Greyhound, which abandoned most Washington and Oregon rural routes back in 2005). And no, I'm no purist — I did catch a couple rides in cars.

Enough of complaining that we don't have a web of high-speed rail connections, buses that run everywhere every few minutes. What do we have? What would Jesus, I mean, an Australian backpacker, do? Or an American sightseer, for that matter?

A few months back, on the bus from Port Townsend to Seattle (having sold my car to save money), I heard a fellow rider talking loudly, as folks sometimes do on the bus.

"You say this bus goes to Poulsbo?" I recall him asking the driver. "That other one to Brinnon? Maybe I'll take a ride to see Hood Canal." And then: "I bet you could get halfway across the state on local buses."

Light bulb.

Jackie Smith recently reported in The Seattle Times on a local romp from Kirkland to Golden Gardens on Metro Transit, and others have detailed mini bus vacations in the Northwest over the years — around the San Juan Islands, to Port Orchard and Poulsbo. Could these short jaunts be expanded? How far could I get? Where would I end up along the way? What would I see? Could I take an honest-to-God-and-apple pie road trip by local bus?

The quest began.

"That'll take forever"

"Is that even possible?" "Why don't you just rent a car?" "What about the train?" "Oooo, ick, Greyhound" — all were frequent comments, in addition to the most common skeptical remark: "God, that'll take forever."

But this was meant to be a road trip. The longer and more roundabout, the better. Would other people want to repeat the trip? Hardly. I'm on my own, no kids. I can't picture a family of four complete with diaper bags and DVDs getting on and off three buses a day just for an adventure. "Are we there yet?" Please. Where's the aspirin?

Thanks to the Internet and some old-fashioned paper maps, I quickly discovered that a trip to visit my sister in northern California wouldn't take forever. Just a week and a half (though I extended that by backpacking through the redwoods).

It took all of a few minutes' research to see that I wouldn't get stranded, say, in Shelton, Wash. A half day more of Googling county names and "transit" resulted in a route complete with bus schedules all the way to California.

Even better, the buses followed the coast! Goodbye eye-glazing I-5, hello ocean vistas. Buses linked Washington and Oregon across the four-mile bridge at the mouth of the Columbia River. There were smooth connections from Coos Bay in southern Oregon to Arcata, Calif.

I was on my way.

(A brief note: Recently launched Google Transit promises even more ease in trip planning, as soon as more service areas are included — only one of the 11 bus systems I took is currently on board.)

Mind the gap!

I was on my way, that is, and then stuck — in Pacific City, Ore., about an hour south of Tillamook. There turned out to be two significant gaps in Oregon: There are no buses from Pacific City to Lincoln City, about 22 road miles to the south. Ditto from Yachats to Florence, about 25 road miles — nada, zip, no options. Not even Greyhound. At least the 100-mile gap in California is covered by Greyhound.

What to do? Hitchhike? That idea didn't go over so well with friends, let alone my mom. Take my bike along? Too much to lug around. That left walking. I'm a hiker. Could I walk the gaps?

Well, yes. Oregon boasts a coastal trail of white-sand beaches and cliff-hugging forests, with sea lions and sea stacks offshore. "Trail," however, is a liberal interpretation of the route where it follows US 101.

Optimistically, I decided that if cyclists bike 101, surely I could walk a little bit of it. This turned out to be less appealing when actually standing on 101's microscopic shoulder with RV mirrors winging past at 60 miles an hour. I would determine pretty early on that there are worse things than hitchhiking.

Not for everyone

Undoubtedly, this kind of trip is not for everyone, and I'm not proselytizing. It's just that the puzzle of possibility was irresistible. Not to mention the question of where I'd end up, what I'd find, who I'd meet. How many people go to California with an overnight in someone's yard on the Willapa River in southwest Washington?

As a bus user in a small town, I was also curious about who rides rural buses, for what reasons. The newspapers are full of stories about increased transit ridership in metropolitan areas. In the first quarter of this year compared to last, there were 6 percent more boardings on King County Metro Transit and 2.6 percent more riders on Portland, Ore., TriMet buses and MAX trains. Even car-is-king California isn't immune: In January through March 2008 in Los Angeles, rail use increased by as much as 16 percent and bus use by 8 percent over the same period a year prior.

But what about in the sticks? Are more people riding in and around small towns? Is there even service? After all, rural buses don't usually travel commuter routes.

Most of all, though, this Washington-to-California trip promised a version of the open road without owning or renting a car, without the ka-ching ka-ching cash-register soundtrack at the gas pump. All told, transportation cost me $177, about $80 of that on local buses and the rest on Amtrak.

Let me say that again: Three weeks, more than 2,000 miles, and $177 spent on getting myself around.

(Full disclosure: Dinner conversation at a youth hostel turned into a long hitch the next day, saving me $55 because the driver wouldn't take money for gas — yes, I offered, three times. And though not strictly a part of transportation costs, accommodations were on the cheap — hikers and cyclists pay only $4 a night to camp in Oregon State Parks.)

So I spent approximately what it would take to drive the route in a Prius at $4 a gallon. But I don't have a Prius. What I did have was a road trip. Care-free adventure. Freedom. Simplicity. If you can call 48 buses simple.

Next: Revisiting the American road trip: What did you expect?


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