What I Learned Riding the Greyhound Bus Across Canada

The broke student approach to travel can have its benefits.
September 21, 2018
9 mins read

Here’s something you might not know about Canada: It’s the second-biggest country in the world. After I finished a university placement there last year, I decided to set off and see as much of it as I could. The very indirect route I eventually decided on went from London, Ontario, to Vancouver with a detour to the U.S.

The problem was that I had an extremely limited budget. Most people would tell you it’s a pretty bad idea to travel over 4,000 miles of the 5,000 mile trip, which spanned five provinces and two states, by bus. But that’s what I did.

Altogether my journey took me three weeks. Starting in London, Ontario, I took the Greyhound west to Toronto, Winnipeg and Banff, while stopping off at a lot more places, such as Sudbury, Regina, Medicine Hat and Calgary. I had a slight break at one point to take a one-hour flight south across the border to Portland, Oregon, (I found an irresistible online deal) before getting back on the bus and going up to Seattle, back into Canada, ending in Vancouver.

If you’ve never done a road trip by bus, I recommend it. Here are a few things that you learn when you embark alone on a long journey using a notoriously grim mode of transport.

1. You have to be organized

Planning and cutting my stuff down to the bare essentials was an essential step. I took one hand-luggage size suitcase with me for three weeks, because I was allocated a locker in each hostel I stayed in and had a one suitcase allowance on the Greyhound. Spending every night of a trip either on a bus or in a bunk may be a little unpleasant, but it definitely instills some good discipline by forcing you to resist the urge to pack everything but the kitchen sink.

Having said that, it’s pretty essential to take the right things with you if some of your bus journeys span multiple days, as was the case for me. A giant bottle of water, snacks, hand sanitizer, roll-on deodorant and dry shampoo came in incredibly handy.

2. There’s so much to places that you never normally see

Traveling by bus gives you an amazing sense of place as you get to actually move through cities, towns, mountain passes and forests, rather than simply flying over. It’s also much slower than driving a car, taking lots of detours and stopping for breaks at all hours, giving you access to obscure parts of towns and seeing them at more interesting times of the day and night.

This was especially awesome in Canada, which has some truly amazing scenery and is pretty empty, with a population of only 36 million, meaning for long stretches there’s nothing but nature. This was especially mind-blowing for me because I’m from England, a densely populated but tiny place where there’s not too much in the way of wilderness (driving from one side to the other takes under eight hours).

Plus, traveling solo in general is a great way to gain local knowledge. While many people I talked to were fellow foreigners — from Germany, Mexico, India and many other places — a lot that I met in hostels and bars were from the city I was visiting and keen to tell me about it. Because of that I got to see a bar where Kurt Cobain regularly played, go to the best vegetarian Japanese restaurant I’ve ever eaten at and find out, to my alarm, that where I was staying in Winnipeg was known as the second-worst place in the whole city.

3. Personal space is a gift that should be cherished

If you’ve been on the Greyhound for a fair amount of time you’ll know that everyone there, including you, will eventually become very gross (much like at a music festival). It can get a little much when you’re squashed next to a guy who hasn’t showered for 40 hours and farts in his sleep.

Whenever I stopped somewhere for a few days I stayed in a hostel, where at least I and people around me were clean. But I still couldn’t get a break from other people, as I shared dorms with snorers, partiers and, worst of all, people who insisted on turning all the lights out at 9:30 p.m. Even showers weren’t safe: Stall doors tended to be unnervingly gappy, especially for a Brit used to floor-to-ceiling cubicle coverage.

Maybe worst of all, I was woken up one night in Vancouver by a woman literally standing over me on my bed. It turned out she was plugging her phone into the one free outlet on the wall side of my bunk. But I can confirm that that’s really not a fun way to wake up.

4. Sleeping on a bus is surprisingly exciting

You would think the best part of a cross-Canada-and-a-bit-of-America trip would be watching the sunset from a beach in Vancouver, getting a ski lift up snow-topped mountains in Banff or exploring Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market.

What I thought would probably be a lot less fun was sleeping sat up in a cramped bus that smelled fairly strongly of toilets, especially on long stretches, like the 32-hour one from Toronto to Winnipeg. And sure, the buses themselves were undoubtedly grim; at one notable point the driver threatened to call the police because she found used needles in the bus bathroom.

Driving through a country as big as Canada means an entirely new landscape every time you wake up. (Image via Canadian Revitalization Fund)

However, I had an advantage in terms of sleep: I am an extremely sound sleeper, to the point where it isn’t really a talent so much as an evolutionary failure, so I passed out through a lot of the night despite the constant stops every couple of hours.

One night I fell asleep looking at lakes and green trees, underneath a slowly gathering blanket of stars, and when the sunlight woke me up early the next morning I was in the mountains, surrounded by snow and dark forests. Whenever I closed my eyes, I could be in a whole new world when I opened them, suddenly finding myself on the Great Plains, by the coast, or in the heart of a huge city.

5. Making friends with strangers is easier than you think

Being on my own for three weeks, yet constantly around other people that were also on their own, meant that it seemed much more natural than usual to just approach people.

Due to the odd nature of where I was often having conversations — in the basement bar of a log cabin hostel in the Rockies, or in front of a truck stop coffee machine at 4 a.m. — it also meant that many people I spoke to had a story, whether inspiring or tragic.

Some were in the process of backpacking around the whole continent. A few people were Mennonites, presumably using the Greyhound to travel because cars weren’t an option. Some were checking out the best online casino Canada. A lot were homeless and simply wandering. All of us were briefly thrown together; people who would usually never speak, who walked very different paths through life, were suddenly in a surprisingly intimate position, knees cramped against each other and sleeping on each other’s shoulders.

One guy struck up a conversation with me in a tiny diner in the tiny, backwater Saskatchewan town of Medicine Hat, because we were both reading books by Jeanette Winterson. He was American, traveling east, and I was English, traveling west, yet somehow there we both were in a run-down canteen in Canada, reading books by the same fairly obscure British author.

If I could recommend traveling alone on the Greyhound for one reason, it would be moments like that, when the world suddenly, paradoxically seemed both intimately small and awesomely vast. It made me never want to stop moving.

Jen Tombs, University of Warwick

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Jen Tombs

University of Warwick
English Literature

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