In May 2018, Tim Albert was in the midst of a routine teeth cleaning, sitting in a chair at his dentist’s office in London. With his eyes closed, mouth open, and not much else to do, his mind started wandering.
Albert reminisced that it had been nearly 50 years since he had toured the U.S. by Greyhound bus as a young student in 1969. For three memorable summer months, he traveled 12,000 miles—from coast to coast with detours along the way.
“Why not celebrate the jubilee by doing it again?,” he thought. Once the idea crossed his mind, he couldn’t shake it: Let’s say, it took “root” in the dental chair.
“But I knew my 72-year-old body was ill-equipped to do what my 22-year-old self had happily done,” says the retired journalist and author.
Embarking on a bus trip as an aging boomer requires considerably more planning and preparation than traveling as a free-spirited youth. Albert wasn’t in the best of shape physically either. During the six months leading up to this jubilee journey, he had experienced excruciating back and shoulder pain, nausea, persistent itching, loss of appetite, and “shed a stone” (14 pounds)—although medical tests proved inconclusive. The symptoms didn’t abate but he decided the idea of the second bus trip was too good to pass up.
“I decided to ‘revisit’ the trip but not follow it slavishly,” he says. “For a start, I vowed not to sleep overnight on the buses (as he had done before) but to find myself a bed. Every night.”
Albert’s recently released book, Two Summers: Nixon and Trump by Greyhound (July 2020) details the boomer’s 22 state, 6,000-mile, 64-day journey in 2019 and compares it to his bus trip in 1969.
The journalist and author had no compunction about talking to strangers (then or now) at bus stations, hotels, restaurants and museums. In the book, he shares his reflections on how bus travel has evolved over a half century and, with the keen perspective of an outside observer and the gifts of a talented writer, offers astute insights on the dramatic cultural and political shifts that have taken place in the U.S. over that time.
Forbes.com spoke to Tim Albert about his Greyhound bus trip:
You covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. How much and what type of planning was involved in developing your itinerary?
Tim Albert: I devised a gentler schedule than last time. First, I spent 25 days travelling from New York down to Florida and across to Texas; then I took a three-week break back home in Leatherhead, Surrey; and then for the second lap, I traveled across the U.S. for another 39 days from Pasadena to Boston and back to New York.
I based the route loosely on the one I had followed before, stopping at places that held fond memories or the promise of a free bed. I then inserted stops in smaller places I had never visited before, which is how I found myself in two towns called Unadilla, one in Georgia and one in New York, both fighting—with very different demographics—the consequences of falling populations.
How did you prepare for the trip?
TA: I enrolled in weekly gym sessions with a personal trainer and weekly Pilates classes. I taught myself to meditate. I engaged the services of a computer expert to upgrade my equipment and skills (the latter proved to be the toughest task of them all). On a more practical level, I invested in a couple of blow up cushions for the journey, but I am pleased to say I never had to use them.
Did you have any apprehension about taking the trip on Greyhound buses?
TA: I held on to a wonderfully rosy picture of bus travel in 1969. But when I googled Greyhound Buses half a century later, I started to get a bit nervous. Across my screen poured a succession of incidents, strikes, complaints and accidents (including a horrendous one on a bridge in Tampa that it looked like I might be crossing).
Turns out my bus journeys were fine: the buses are generally comfortable, on-time and well-regulated by calm and competent drivers. This left me able to sit back and enjoy the magnificent sights of America passing by my window in 2019. As in 1969, they provided some of the highlights of my trip.
Since you’re married and usually travel with your wife, what inspired you to travel solo?
TA: My wife, Barbara, being American by origin, does not have the romantic attachment to Greyhound buses that many of us Brits of a certain age still have. She did agree to spend time with me at the start and end of the trip, particularly since the route took us near where her relatives lived. She survived three 4-hour bus trips, one in the company of a horrendous thunderstorm. Doing most of the trip alone was the right decision: it was much more fun to travel with Barbara, but it was a different experience and would have made for a duller book.
Throughout the trip, you seem to feel pretty comfortable (and more comfortable than most Americans) talking to strangers. Is this just your personality?
TA: I have a habit of chatting up strangers, which Barbara finds incredibly embarrassing. I suspect this uncharacteristic boldness stems from my years as a journalist. On this trip, however, it was particularly easy: People were happy to talk back as soon as I had introduced myself and explained what I was doing. Sometimes they got so interested in the project that they called over their colleagues to join in as well.
I still had several boxes of 35 mm transparencies and my 30,000 word diary from my first trip. (I later rediscovered a long-forgotten cache of letters home as well.) I managed to track down a few people who were mentioned in the diary and was able to include visits with two of them on my route. In Pasadena I spent time with the friend whose father had got me an internship on the local newspaper, and in Cleveland, I met up with the niece of the couple (sadly no longer with us) who were the official sponsors for my first trip.
What was your reaction to the deep political divisions you saw in the U.S.? Were they more or less than what you expected?
TA: I had read about the divisions, but that did not prepare me for the shock of talking to a succession of charming people who seemed to inhabit different worlds. My 1969 diary mentions differences, but not polarisation.
What evidence did you see of a cultural divide in the U.S. during your travels?
TA: One thing that struck me was the number of homeless people I encounter when travelling by bus rather than plane or car. When I mentioned my observation to one friendly bus station employee he said: “First of all you are older. Second, there are more people who are homeless now.”
What changes from 1969 affected you most?
TA: The mobile phone, which turned out to be a two-edged sword. On the plus side, it gave me a stack of information at my fingertips (most of which was accurate). On the minus side, my phone tended to drop its signal, lose my bus tickets, and start “talking out loud” at inappropriate times.
More important is how mobile phones have affected bus travel. My 1969 diary was full of cheery encounters with farmers, teachers, architects, fellow students, soldiers going to and from the Vietnam war. Now fellow passengers instantly wrap themselves up with their phones and I rarely spoke to any of them.
What were a few of the highlights of your trip?
TA: In 1969, I wrote that my abiding memory was the generosity of Americans. I am delighted to say that it is still there. One day in Orlando, for example, I witnessed a young woman reach into her purse to buy lunch for a homeless person. The following day, seeking an outlet where I could buy a sandwich for my next trip, I asked two women where I could find something to eat; they, too, reached for their purses to give me alms. (I thanked them and declined).
Other highlights included: wandering along Fifth Avenue in NYC with a 1968 guidebook; riding a police car in Pasadena (again); strolling along a restored towpath in the Cuyahoga National Park; visiting the Hurricane Katrina exhibit in New Orleans and the museum at Kent State University; and sharing the exuberance and optimism of young Americans at the Boston Climate Strike.
Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, a trip like this would have been impossible in 2020. Any thoughts?
TA: Looking at the events unfolding in the communities I visited last year, I fear that the America I visited and enjoyed over half a century is slipping away. The summer of 2019 may well prove to be the last summer of a golden era, and one quote in particular keeps popping up in my mind: ‘We want to make sure we’re not living through the last days of the Roman Republic.” It came from a police chief I spoke to on my travels.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
About the author:
After a career in journalism, Tim Albert taught writing and editing skills to health professionals. He has written four books on medical writing (one in its fourth edition) and a memoir. He retired from training in 2007 and lives in Surrey, England with his wife, Barbara, and a needy garden.