All through the pandemic, I dreamed of just taking off and traveling Jack Kerouac-style on the road, randomly stopping where I felt like quitting, starting when I felt like starting, making easy friendships at truck stop cafes – sharing a smoke (I didn’t smoke but maybe I could share a packet of chips …), seeing the landscape roll by, grifting and drifting as far north as I could go, thinking big thoughts as I stared out the window and saw the flames of the canefields burning under a warm Queensland sky.
As I dreamed these dreams as a non-smoking learner driver with a job, my fantasy road trip had to, by necessity, be taken by public transport in a compressed space of time – ideally two weeks and with wifi so that I could work.
So I bought a ticket on the Greyhound bus. For $324.42, I had two weeks to get to Cairns (3,500km from Sydney via the coastal road, or 47 hours and 25 minutes straight on the bus), but with this ticket, I could hop on and off as I chose. This was as close as I could get to the beatnik ideal.
It had been February 2020 since I had properly traveled, and I was feeling excited – but also a bit nervous and out of practice.
The ominous feeling was amplified a hundred times when I caught up with my friend Ben Law, who told me a terrible story about a man stabbed and beheaded by his seatmate on an overnight bus.
The bus left Central at 9 pm on a Saturday. The city was dark and cold, and as I stood on Eddy Avenue, I felt glad to be leaving Sydney and the chill winds, even though I was now scared of being murdered in the night somewhere on the Pacific Highway.
But all going well, I would stay on the bus until 7 am the next morning, when I would get off and spend a couple of days in the town of Yamba on the New South Wales north coast before getting back on the bus and heading further up the coast: Byron Bay, Brisbane, Noosa, Miriam Vale, 1770, Bundaberg, Airlie Beach, Mission Beach and finally – Cairns.
In Sydney, the bus was half full, with most of my fellow passenger’s European backpackers, judging by their accents, holding tickets as far as Brisbane or Byron Bay. The vibe was businesslike, not boho. Get in. Get out the neck pillow. Put in earphones. Put on an eye mask (although curiously, no one was wearing face masks). Pretend this isn’t happening, and wake up the next day like it never did.
The driver’s name was Geoff, and he rattled off the itinerary for the next 12 hours, which someone without circadian rhythms obviously designed. For example, we stopped at Nambucca Heads at 4.25 am, “where you’ll have a chance to get up, stretch your legs, get some food, and use the restroom”.
Who wants to have a meal and a postprandial walk at 4.25 am? But the restroom was important because the bus had no operational toilet.
I tried to sleep by taking half a Valium, putting my face mask over my eyes to block out the street lights, and draping myself over my luggage on the next seat. In this pose, I imagined I resembled a weary farm worker, resting between harvest by propping against a hay bale. This position became uncomfortable after three minutes, so I switched to mashing my face against the bus window, using the jacket sleeve as insulation between me and the cold glass.
The Nambucca Heads service station. NSW. Australia Photograph: Brigid Delaney/The Guardian
I must have got to sleep somehow because I woke up disoriented and cold when we got into the servo at Nambucca Heads at 4:25 am,
The service station – empty, desolate, neon, and concrete – was like something from a JG Ballard novel. Even the KFC was closed.
Now was not the time for new. The man behind me, on the bus who had a bad hacking cough, sat on the cold ground by the bus and smoked. I did not join him.
There was a lone figure serving behind the counter of the BP, and, confused, half asleep, and profoundly disoriented, I bought some items at random: a can of cold brew coffee and a red Gatorade.
Back on the bus, I felt safe, warm, uncomfortable, and bored.
I took a big gulp of Gatorade and, lulled by the rhythms of the engine, drifted off back to sleep as we headed toward Grafton.
When I woke up (passing golden lakes and creeks and rivers, the morning mist sitting on top of the water like a bridal veil), I opened the can of cold brew. Yeah! This is living! I noticed that my Gatorade was empty. Maybe I drank it when I was asleep?
Then it dawned on me with horror. The Gatorade – the red Gatorade – had leaked everywhere. It was all over my expensive leather handbag; it had seeped into my winter coat, iy scarf, and it over my diary and Ki,ndle an,d keys … I bent in my seat to try to mop some of it up. Still, I only succeeded in spilling the cold brew over the clothes I was wearing because I was trying to balance the can on my lap.
Just as I clocked this horror, the bus stopped. It me! I’m in Yamba! It was just after 7 am, and everything I owned was soaked with black coffee and red Gatorade.
Out on the street, I took measures for the people of Yamba—obscenely healthy early risers with their surfboards, dogs, and babies. In contrast, I looked deranged. I had probably slept three hours–sitting on a bus – and was covered in bright, sticky fluids.
I dragged my stained luggage along the street, looking for a cafe to spend the next five hours in before I could check into my hotel. Maybe this is what it meant to be truly beatnik. Truly free.