(This 809th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 1, 2006.)
A death in my wife's family drew us south to Alabama and for a variety of reasons we went by bus. It was an especially difficult trip for Doris as it was her younger sister, her closest friend, who died. Gayle had fought her way through cancer chemotherapy but was unable to face a subsequent blood infection.
I don't mind bus riding. The layovers are not so pleasant, but today the preflight rigors of flying are about as bad. Unfortunately, we were in no condition to drive. We adapted to the old ad: "Leave the driving to us." But I haven't done so very often. As a youngster I hitchhiked, in the service I more often took the train and, of course, in recent years I usually flew.
On the bus you are largely limited to four activities: talking, reading, thinking and sleeping. As these were overnight rides - 18 hours going and, due to a missed connection, 24 hours returning - sleeping played an important role. Doris was exhausted both physically and mentally so she dozed fitfully most of the way, leaving me plenty of time to think and read and simply to watch passing scenery.
As a birder, of course I kept count of the number of species observed. I didn't expect to see many and indeed didn't. Years ago I rode with a non-birding friend on a long trip by car and made the mistake of betting him that I would see more bird species than he would state license plates. Needless to say, he overwhelmed me.
All I saw on this trip were the usual pigeons and starlings on electric cables, house sparrows around the stations and an occasional robin and blue jay. Two raptors have adapted to our interstates. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures patrol these highways for carrion. Crows join them.
That was about it for birds. Even in Alabama I saw few more. My brother-in-law told me that this was the hottest and driest summer he had ever experienced and we could see the results. Even with watering he had lost many shrubs and his pines were shedding half their needles. Nearby cotton fields were far less white than usual and we were told that they were deeply underproductive this year. But a half-dozen feisty hummingbirds chased each other around his feeders and butterfly bushes. The only other birds I saw near this country home were single meadowlarks and brown thrashers. Absent this year were even the mockingbirds and bluebirds that in the past have made this yard so pleasant.
With so few birds to watch, my thoughts turned to another trip. My most memorable bus ride was in 1947 when I rode up over the Lebanese Mountains from Beirut to Damascus. It was one of the scariest rides I have ever taken. The bus was old and rickety. It was filled with what appeared to be very poor families, several of them carrying slotted wooden boxes containing clucking chickens. Thank goodness there was very little traffic because the road was narrow and clung to the side of the steep slopes. In several places I could look down a thousand foot drop-off.
As we climbed that twisting highway higher and higher, I noticed that many of the small roadside houses had haystack-sized piles of dirt in their front yards. Using mostly sign language, I asked my Lebanese seat partner what those dirt piles were. He pointed down at the bus and then swooped one hand down into the other. The message was clear: evidently buses sometimes had brake problems and those piles were to stop runaways.
Moments later he pointed to a car accordioned into one of those mounds.
If the trip out was frightening, the trip back was worse. After dark, flickering headlights, constantly squealing breaks: it was a nail biter.
But at least those were peaceful times. World War II had just ended. We were hardly stopped at the Syrian border and the people in both countries were especially hospitable to a sailor. Since those days Lebanon has been torn to shreds several times. I found myself thinking how fortunate we still are to feel so little threatened here.-- Gerry Rising