Author: Howard S. Freedlander, C’67
Ever drive into a fast-food restaurant or any other highway restaurant, see a tour bus, express disgust to yourself or a passenger and simply choose another place to eat quickly?
Ever visit a sightseeing spot, see a tour bus or buses and, again, shrug and express a word or two of pique and impatience and then endure the ensuing onslaught of camera-carrying, earnest and chattering masses?
My guess is that your answers to these mostly rhetorical questions are “yes” and “yes.”
Well, folks, for 10 days on a Penn-sponsored tour of the southwest national parks, my wife Liz and I, along with 22 other people, were “bus people.” Never thought I would claim that distinction. It was okay, and fitting.
On an incredibly fascinating tour of the parks, joined by alumni of Smith College, Case Western, Temple and the University of North Carolina, my wife and I became certified tourists, carrying cameras and intense desire to grasp the geological marvels facing us every day of our trip.
As we stopped for lunch and potty breaks (nearly all of us in our 60s and 70s) in places such as Mt. Carmel Junction, UT, St. George’s, UT and Richfield, UT, we crowded (sort of) fast-food emporiums and gift shops (also known as trading posts). In nearly all cases, the proprietors and their employees were very pleased, naturally, and other customers seemed mildly disinterested. I was particularly amused when we stopped at Mt. Carmel Junction on our way from Bryce National Park to Zion National Park, and three tour buses, including ours, arrived at the same time.
I recall on a visit to the Scottish Highlands in 1998 with our British friends, my friend Richard used an unfavorable expression when we saw a tour bus arrive at the same scenic location as we did. We laughed and derided these bus-borne tourists. In Utah and Arizona, my wife and I fit my friend’s description, happily so.
When we arrived at Arches National Park in southeast Utah, I must have seen three tour buses and heard voices representing France, China and perhaps others. Bus people. And so were we all as we crowded paths and walkways to see, touch and photograph the arches and then exclaim and chatter, incessantly.
Who were the otherwise faceless tourists in our group? Two were Penn grads, a medical doctor in Philadelphia and the other an attorney in Cleveland. One was a military psychiatrist. One was a public relations executive in Connecticut. One was a neurological radiologist in California. One was a longtime staffer to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. One has run thrift shops in Philadelphia. One was a plumber in Philadelphia. One was a mentor to Penn students in the Graduate School of Education as they interned in area schools. One was a development director at a marine science lab in Maryland. One was a retired deputy treasurer in Maryland.
So, maybe, my tolerance for “bus people” has taken a turn for the better. Maybe, just maybe, they are like my wife and me. They chose a form of tourist travel that allows you to see many unbelievable and awesome sights in the comfort of a bus, allowing all decisions and logistical decisions made by others. I didn’t even have to carry my own luggage during the trip, except from my room to the front door of the room for a “bag pull”—that is, transfer of our luggage to the bus. On the morning we left Las Vegas to go to the airport to return home, I insisted, over the objections of the private car carrier’s driver, to carry my own luggage just to reenter the real world.
Ever heard of “scatter lunches?’
The phrase was new to me. Periodically, our group—smaller than most—would stop at a shopping center (yes, we had to travel between natural wonders), a man-made, utilitarian creation, for lunch. We could choose among several ubiquitous fast-food restaurants, spending an hour before reporting promptly to the bus. Remember we “bus people” had schedules—and dare you not to abide by instructions from a very competent, cheerful and well-meaning tour director. Our schedule of stops—Grand Canyon, Navajo Reservation, Glen Canyon Dam, Antelope Slot Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Bryce National Park and Zion National Park—was full and fulfilling.
What did it feel like being a “bus person,” touring the southwest national parks in an organized, structured way?
It was an extraordinary experience. For many of us on the East Coast, we have looked to the east, to Europe, the Mediterranean and Africa for vacation and education. Perhaps we have overlooked our own natural wonders. That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment among our well-traveled group members. It was time to see our own country—by way of a bus.
We went from the awful (Las Vegas), our starting and ending point, to the awesome (Grand Canyon) in rather short order. Just like that, we transcended the glitter and gloss for geological formations that strained your imagination. We immersed ourselves in Navajo culture and history, paying due reverence to movie icon John Wayne, who starred in many John Ford-directed movies shot in the Navajo desert. We visited Monument Valley, finding it haunting and mystical; we visited Arches National Park, marveling at the geological creations formed over millions of years; we visited Bryce National Park with its beautiful, fractured cliffs, finding a different viewpoint every time you shot a digital photo; and then, finally we visited Zion National Park, serene and accessible to park visitors, who could touch wet cliffs with hanging plants and walk along the calm Virgin River.
So, we were certifiable “bus people” who ate “scatter lunches,” talked about children and grandchildren, discussed past and current jobs—and shared rather personal information. I found that people, away from familiar surroundings, shared intimate details about family matters. A close bond materialized, albeit briefly. What is said on the bus, stays on the bus, I guess.
Would my wife and I join another organized tour again, transforming ourselves into obedient “bus people,” for whom all decisions are made and rarely, if ever, do you carry your own luggage? Yes, we would do it again, gladly so, possibly in a foreign locale. We have experienced the joy of not worrying about logistical details, of not negotiating with hotels and car rental agencies, not having to figure out itineraries—and not carrying our own luggage, until we go home and return to reality.
We no longer will sneer at tour buses, as they pour lots of people into a local fast-foot restaurant. We will welcome visitors and tourists who may at time look unsure of their surroundings. We will appreciate the different voices and accents. After all, we “bus people” are brethren.