In June 1964, I boarded a Greyhound bus at the Port Authority in New York. Sixteen hours later, I arrived, none the worse for wear, in Winston-Salem, N.C. I was 22 years old and starting my first post-college teaching job.
Greyhound still makes the journey from the Port Authority to Winston-Salem. The fare is $90 one-way during the week, $99 on weekends, and the trip is faster than it was 40 years ago. This year, Greyhound will take 19 million passengers to cities across the United States. But the oldest, largest and busiest bus company in the country recently announced it would cut service this summer to more than 250 cities in more than a dozen states, from California to North Dakota, Nebraska to Oregon. For a lot of towns, it will end almost a century of service.
When I made my journey by Greyhound in 1964, I didn't own a car and couldn't afford to buy one. Traveling by bus was a practical matter. But the bus was a lot more than that -- a place strangers made friends, shared food and stories, a rolling community in close quarters.
As a newly minted master's graduate in American literature, I knew all about mythic journeys, rites of passage and male initiation rituals in novels such as "Moby Dick," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "On the Road." Setting out from the Port Authority to Winston-Salem, I envisioned myself as a hero on my own mythic journey.
The Greyhound took me overnight from the familiar world I had known to a strange, unknown world that I had only read about: the American South. On my epic trip, I met a warmhearted middle-aged African American woman who fed me and entertained me with stories about her family. When I arrived at my destination, her oldest son carried my luggage to his car and drove me to the campus of Winston-Salem State. The bus broke down all sorts of barriers for me and for millions of other young men and women.
In a way, Greyhound played a part in integrating the nation. It enabled me and my contemporaries to move about the country freely, to discover the diversity as well as the inequalities and the generosities of the nation at large.
Everyone in my family has traveled by Greyhound. My youngest brother, Adam, once woke me at 3 a.m. and recounted every leg of his grueling Greyhound ride from Los Angeles to New York.
For his wife, Adelina, Greyhound offered a way to get to places she had only dreamed about. And so it came to symbolize the American dream itself. Greyhound took her from a life as a farmworker in California's Great Central Valley to Los Angeles and San Diego and then to college in San Francisco.
For millions of Americans, Greyhound's profit-driven decision will surely lead to increased isolation in already isolated places. It may very well make those nearly forgotten men and women long for a past when Greyhound provided a way out and a way up -- an egalitarian vehicle to greater social mobility and a vital connection to humanity itself.
Jonah Raskin is the author of "American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' and the Making of the Beat Generation." He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.