I had left Cheyenne at 6 pm on the Greyhound bus. We were in a mountain state on a midnight trip through the Rockies. The destination was Salt Lake City, Utah. The bus was quiet, everyone was reading or asleep. These were the days before cellphones when all you heard were whispers and magazine pages turning. No one could find you because you were in a bus in the dark somewhere in the west, out of time and out of reach.
I was dozing quietly when a young man came up the aisle and crouched beside me. He said, we heard you were from Canada, do you speak French? Yes, I said. Good, because there is a guy from France at the back who would like to know if you could join him so he has someone to talk to. Sure, I said, send him up. Shortly a backpacker traveller who was my age came up and sat in the seat beside me. It turned out he had always dreamed about seeing America and taking the bus across the United States. He was impressed with the amazing and awesome landscapes, wide open spaces, and liked Americans. He found them to be frank, sincere and outspoken.
His problem – the food! How can they eat the food here? he asked incredulously. They have so much food, but why is the food so terrible, so bad? he asked. The salads, he grimaced, the meals, all bad, awful. Why? He could not figure it out. Of course he couldn’t, he was French, where the food in his country is an experience difficult to duplicate anywhere else. We stopped at midnight and the driver loudly announced “Rock Springs, Wyoming.” Then we rambled on and I have often wondered what Rock Springs was like ever since, because we missed it in the darkness.
Some time later the bus stopped again. The driver announced “We are now entering Utah. No smoking allowed” and he listed Utah rules and the state laws. At dawn the bus passed the Mormon Temple and we got off to change buses. I was travelling to Idaho, Montana and north to Calgary, and my French friend was off to San Francisco going westbound. We decided together to find a diner for breakfast beside the Mormon Temple. To our surprise, the breakfast was good. I remember licking the strawberry jam off my fingers and putting the little honey packages into my pockets. In the bus station we went into our separate bus lines and separate lives, and we waved goodbye.
My northbound bus broke down in a severe thunderstorm in Idaho Falls. I sat by myself beside the Snake River waiting for another bus. I passed through Great Falls where people rode horses on the main street, and across the border to Canada at Cut Bank, Montana. I found my friend Sue on the steps of the Art Gallery of Edmonton and we drove north to the border of the Northwest Territories near Hay River to do some canoeing. I had gone on a journey of thousands of miles by myself through a northwest route, on trains and buses, through prairies and mountains, and had met a young Frenchman impressed with the landscapes but unimpressed with the awful American food. Hopefully he found San Francisco more to his liking, gastronomically.
As for me, a salade I had once in France was the best I had ever tasted, so I understood what he meant. There did seem to be a disconnect in America where quantity appeared to trump quality. The huge and wide open spaces gave a false sense of eternal abundance, which has led to exploitation of land and resources. Efficiency trumped quality of life, speed and wealth trumped compassion and caring. Time is something to race through and trample on. The young traveller was right. I have thought about our meeting in the mountains talking through the night about food. But America was an untamed land and the difficulties of living there at the mercy of the elements, landslides, floods, harsh winters, you would probably be hard-pressed to find finesse and delicacy.
I have always wondered if the Frenchman went home or stayed in California. He would be 60 now. Apparently Chirac spent some time in his youthful vagabond days travelling through America. He said years later, when he was President of France, that it had left a strong impact and impression on him and had affected his thinking. I found Americans to be very open minded about some things and not in others. If you said you saw a UFO one night in the middle of the Dakotas, they would likely say, “My sister saw one too, and we believe her.” Whatever weird thing you have seen or heard, they’ll come up with something weirder. If you say a tavern is haunted, they’ll say, “Shore is, I heard that.”
Henry Miller used to say he liked America but not Americans. During World War 2 he was forced to leave France and was sent back to America, where he didn’t want to go. He settled in Big Sur, California, which reminded him of Greece. He spent the rest of his life in southern California after a decade in France in the 1930s. Most of his writing contrasted the old world and the new, and his distaste for so-called progress and air-conditioned banality and modernity. He wrote many books after the war that compared his life in Europe to his life in America. He thought there was a cultural deficit in the United States with puritan attitudes that denied him his readership. In his later years he travelled to France on a regular basis, and his love of good food and fine wine never left him. His books and Anais Nin’s diaries were in my backpack on my trip through Wyoming and the western mountain states way back then, on the Greyhound bus. Along with the young French traveller on the bus, they had been my companions on that trip.