Backpacking California. In my mind it was a beach-hopping haze of hippy trails and hot summer sun. When planning the trip we took a long hard look at the map of the state and decided to crawl up the coast using California’s seemingly above average public transport system.
Through the power of Google we’d discovered that for a fraction of the price of hiring a car for the six weeks of our trip we could hop on and off local buses and see the Pacific Coast Highway in all of its glory, without the responsibility of driving.
There’s no denying that taking the bus was a lot cheaper. There were no fuel costs, no sneaky mileage additions, and no insurance. Some of the fares in California cost as little as $1.25, with a day pass costing around $5 in most areas.
Our previous experience of taking public transportation in the US had been on the one hand in the major city of New York, no contest there, and on the other hand the hit-or-miss experiences we had in Orlando, Florida, where you would find yourself on the bus for hours winding through neighbourhoods or worse waiting for the bus for hours with no indication of when it would arrive.
Why is this worth writing about? Well, long-term backpackers, student backpackers, or any kind of backpacker, in fact, is always looking for the cheapest travel option available, public transport has been the backpackers best friend in so many countries. In India with their cheap and efficient train network: A glorious trail of fast and exciting railways, the best way to travel the country. Or in Prague with their impeccable trams, part sight-seeing and part getting where you need to be. And while we had already mastered the quintessentially American road trip in an RV in the southern states earlier this year, my partner and I wanted to try the cheapest, most environmentally form of travel in one of the most cutting edge states in America, California.
Anyone that has already backpacked America will probably already know two things about it. It’s expensive and it’s huge. Walking is almost impossible in most places, and sometimes driving is your only option. Intrigued and broke, taking the bus in California was a must. But what we did not expect to find was the sub-culture that exists on the public transportation there, in one of the most progressive and forward-thinking states in the country, and the 8th largest economy in the world.
There is a truth to the life-changing, unexpected experience of riding a bus in Orange County, California, a harsh truth. From Newport Beach to Huntingdon, in order to navigate every giant location we visited on the coast, we had to take at least four local buses a day, and every day there was at least one person on the bus that made the bus ride a really truthful journey.
Every time we rode a local bus in the OC something would always happen. You would sense it as soon as you boarded the bus. The atmosphere was heavy and people were already looking a little uncomfortable. Usually one person would be talking or shouting much louder than everyone else, the angry young, or old, man, let’s call him and the whole bus would be involved in a verbal “scene” or “drama” of some kind. As in every public transportation situation, most passengers prefer to keep themselves to themselves, read a book or chat quietly for fear of annoying other passengers. But on every bus there was always at least one person who did not subscribe to this theory…
Most of the riders in the OC were travelling alone, on a bus that was never full, even in rush hour, almost all of the passengers were men, and a large proportion were of the poorest social strata, which often included at least one homeless person.
A small number of people on the bus seemed to be going to the beach like us, going shopping, or going to work, there were maybe one to two other people who also “seemed” to be going somewhere. But most of the people just seemed to be riding the bus. At least one person would be homeless or lost, carrying their worldly possessions in a pushcart, like us with our backpacks I guess. They would struggle onto the bus and accidentally obstruct someone, which would usually cause an awkward confrontation between the two passengers.
While I hate to generalise, we got a lot of buses for those four weeks and these were our experiences.
Our first bus experience in Orange County was the day we arrived in Laguna Niguel. The very angry bus driver who hated his job had to repeatedly ask a very disorderly young man to stop playing the music on his phone out loud. Ordinarily this is one of the unspoken rules of public transportation, and in the OC this rule is actually also clearly signposted.
The music man, obviously, very bluntly and loudly refused to turn down his music and instead added to his ensemble of one by proceeding to play a harmonica.
Of course, it was funny. But the bus driver was steadily becoming more and more angry, both about the music, and now of course about the instrument, and so it was difficult to overtly laugh. Plus, another unspoken rule of public transportation is that you don’t laugh at people when you are in a confined space with them. I think most people tend to observe that one.
The driver became so infuriated that he offered the young gentleman, who couldn’t have been much older than 30, an ultimatum, either leave the bus or he would call the Sheriff. We couldn’t contain ourselves and had to regain some composure in order not to splutter into a fit of giggles. Of all of the places we had been, our first bus ride in one of the richest parts of the US had resulted in this.
He point-blank refused and instead labelled the driver a “sad, lonely man” whose “wife must have left him,” and as he continued to flesh out the fictional story about the driver’s awful life the angry driver pulled the bus over to the next stop (the one before we were due to get off) and spoke his final offering again. To our amazement he still wouldn’t leave and instead tried to beg and plead with the driver, who said that the Sheriff was now on his way and the bus wasn’t going to move until the Sheriff arrived.
We sat there for about 15 minutes, during which time the guy threatened to hi-jack the bus as soon as the driver left the steering wheel, which was a little frightening I have to admit. This was also where the sadness of the situation revealed itself, the young white guy was absolutely drunk, with a bottle of “coke” in his hand, unable to control his words and his body. He wasn’t going anywhere but was trying to reason with the driver that it wasn’t his fault, and that the driver was to blame for holding up the bus. He claimed that everyone had somewhere to be, and he had made them late. I wasn’t so sure. I just felt kind of sad.
Why didn’t he have anywhere to be on a Tuesday at around 2pm? What had happened to him to make him rely on that coke bottle? The only thing that never left his hands despite often throwing down his cell phone, headphones and even wallet as he stormed up and down the bus.
When he finally got off the bus, just before the Sheriff arrived, the driver quickly saw the opportunity to finish this farce and shut the doors on him, at which point he proceeded to sit in front of the bus. With the threatening character safely outside of the bus, all of the other passengers broke into laughter and concurring sounds of disbelief. He did eventually move.
The significance of this first ride through the OC didn’t really hit me until a few days later when we had taken more buses and started to see a pattern emerge. We would joke about who it was going to be today, not thinking that it could really happen on every ride, but sure enough our comedy turned into a reality. As it so often does.
Not every scene was this extreme, but these characters: most often men, usually highly confrontational, alone, often drunk and most definitely lost, were becoming regular occurrences right before our eyes. We were backpacking the richest state, even richest county in America and we were surrounded by its poorest inhabitants on a daily basis. What had happened to these people?
Towards the end of our trip in the OC, on the way back from Huntingdon Beach, we encountered another interesting character, a young black man, who drew attention to himself first by shouting at an old Chinese man who was unsure about which stop he needed to get off at. He shouted loudly at him, calling him stupid and telling him he was a ‘refuge’ (he meant refugee we think) and that ‘he should go back to his own country’.
Again, in profound disbelief we listened and avoided eye contact with the drama breaking out in the small space around us. The poor guy scurried off the bus, but today’s angry young man continued. He then incited an older Latino man into the conversation, who at first was so confrontational that we thought it was going to break out into a physical fight.
Strangely, what actually ended up happening was that they agreed this country needed a race war. A war between the minority races and white people. They both agreed that on man number one’s statement, and I quote: ‘If I was white I would be so rich that I wouldn’t need to ride the bus. I would be a billionaire.’
And I guess that line summed it all up for us. We looked at each other, at ourselves, and there we were with no money, our lives in our backpacks, riding the bus, sure I am white but my partner is half-Latino and really the only differences we actually had was that were weren’t alone and do not have a dependency on alcohol.
Those two stories touched on some of the largest issues we have felt in the US, and in a deep and interesting way that we hadn’t seen played out in such detail anywhere else. The rest of the county, with its giant houses, and their rich inhabitants with their sprinklers on during the worst drought in history, live outlandishly alongside a majority of underprivileged service people and needy homeless people, who are unable to thrive, afford and sometimes even cope there.
The racial stereotypes were also sadly played out, as if nothing had changed. A young white man with no job, with an iphone, booze and an aimless existence that meant he felt like he could threaten someone who is working and trying, and do whatever he wanted. An angry young black man and experienced older Latino man, both struggling to fit into what they perceive to be a very unequal America.
That is the great thing about public transport too. It puts you on a level with people. Real people. People you may never see experience these struggles up close. These aren’t the people who are publishing their daily thoughts on Twitter, Instagramming their day through a beautiful filter; these are a lost people, a forgotten people that most Americans do not care about.
Many people avoid taking the bus in California, and throughout the United States, not only because most of them have ridiculously leisurely and glamorous cars, but also because they know exactly what they will find on the bus and they don’t want to find it. They don’t be faced with that reality, not even for the duration of one ride. As a tourist, it’s easy enough to watch the California-based reality shows, Laguna Beach, The Hills, and even fictional ones like The OC and assume that California is a fairyland where everyone gets what they want, all of the above. When in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth.