Lessons in bus travel

Less than two weeks into the tour and two facts about bus travel has come to our attention.

Fact 1: The bus is not fast.

Last February when we planned a day for the drive from San Francisco to Boulder, it never occurred to us this might not be possible. An hour after our loss to Revolver we sat in an In-N-Out Burger putting downing a couple 2x2s animal style and wondering whether we might have made a mistake.

Google Maps says the drive from San Francisco to Boulder is something like 20 hours. This is for a car travelling the speed limit. The bus is not a car, nor does it travel the speed limit.

The bus is mechanically governed to go no faster than roughly 57.5 mph, so even if it were capable of going the speed limit (and we’re pretty sure it’s not), it straight up can’t.

George Stubbs claims to have gotten it up to 75 mph during one of his five-hour shifts at the wheel. The supposed record occurred on a long straight downhill section of highway sometime between the hours of 6 and 7 am while everyone else slept.

Sleeping on the bus means using every surface available to find whatever comfort we can. The five bunks are occupied pretty much 24-hours a day during our long drives and by the time the early morning hours arrive sleeping bags and pads litter the aisle and we’re curled up and hoping not to fall of bus seats made to seat small children, not adult athletes.

When we’re not riding the governor at 57.5 mph, it’s because we’re going up a hill at a respectable 40 mph. The 1169 miles stretch we drove on I-80 from San Francisco to Boulder gains more than 5,000 feet in elevation.

It’s 5 am and Jimmy Mickle is at the wheel for the first time. “I just drove through hell,” he says.

He and co-pilot Phil Murray just finished navigating hours of construction-riddled, 6-10% graded, uphill highway squeezed between endless lines of bright orange traffic cones and shoulderless concrete barriers.

They don’t realize how lucky they are as the road from then onward opens up onto the endless expanses of the American Midwest.

“I honestly thought about just taking out a few hundred cones for variety,” Stubbs recalled of his drive through Utah’s beautiful but enduring plains.

Total time from San Francisco to Boulder: 31 hours.

Fact 2: The bus gets hot.

We’re in the middle of driving the ever so slightly longer stretch of highway from Boulder to Atlanta and while it’s flatter, it’s much, much hotter. It’s nearly 11 pm and the outside temperature is still breaking 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This isn’t a problem if you’re sitting pretty in two luxury, air-conditioned coaches like the Christian youth group we just encountered at a truck stop Wendy’s in Salinas, Kansas.

Heat is a bit more of a problem when you’re on The Spirit of Aaron Bell. Inside the NexGen bus, air temperatures exceeds ambient levels and our only relief comes from the hot air swirling in through open windows and evaporating the sweat that’s sticking to our bodies.

 

Sleeping is more difficult than ever now and we’ve shed not only our sleeping bags and blankets but also our shirts in an effort to stave off the sweltering heat. None of it works however and only after we resign ourselves to the situation and the night gets late and cool enough do people start to fall asleep.

In addition to disturbing our comfort, the heat has started to tax the limits of The Spirit of Aaron Bell. It’s midday and just after crossing the border from Colorado into Kansas the red Engine Alert button on the dashboard begins to light up and buzz in alarm.

We stop the bus on the side of the highway, hop out and go around back to look at the engine. Looking at the engine is about all we’re qualified to do, as we still don’t know what we’re doing. We check the engine oil and it’s bone dry. We have a gallon of extra oil on the bus, but we’re not quite sure how to add it to the engine. After some discussion we pull a cap and decide it’s the right one.

We’ve successfully topped off the engine oil, but it doesn’t do anything to solve the problem of our dangerously high engine temperatures. We’re good on coolant, so without any further ideas we board the bus and are back on the road.

The engine warning goes off several more times and an equal number of stops later we finally decide that we’re going to have to drive slower than we already are — 50 mph seems to be doing the trick.

With the bus under control it’s only another 24 hours until we reach Atlanta. Nothing like a little shared misery to bring people together.