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Greyhound's ups and downs

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It's now been a few weeks since Greyhound all but pulled out of Western Canada (a Vancouver-Seattle run is all that remains).

I'm sure for most Canadians, the company weaved into their lives in one way or another, whether it was for cheap and (relatively) reliable travel, or out of necessity as the lone connection between smaller centres and medical appointments in bigger places, or even as an alternative to the post office for shipping items (my aunt would annually send Christmas parcels via Greyhound from Calgary).

Out here, I took Greyhound to and from Vancouver a couple times when my car was acting up, but it was about a decade ago when I leaned on it fairly heavily. At that time, the company still offered a Discovery Pass—30 days of unlimited riding for $450. I'd been lucky enough to land a well-paying internship with the Winnipeg Free Press, was living at home and had minimal expenses, and figured I would take a few weeks to explore our continent before hunkering down and starting a career that didn't appear to promise the vacation time or financial resources to travel significantly.

Apart from a brief layover at Toronto's airport when I was seven, the furthest east I'd been in Canada was Kenora, Ont., two hours from home.

Naturally, I ordered a Discovery Pass online, booked flights to St. John's and then a week later, to Halifax, and began plotting a month-long course from the Nova Scotia capital through the Maritimes to Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa and then down to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and back up to Toronto before heading back to the prairies.

I'd also heard about the couchsurfing.com website, where locals opened their homes to travellers at no charge (I can't see it flying very well here), so I made connections in most places. New York was, unsurprisingly, impossible, but the $15-per-night hostel I found offered free powdered Donettes for breakfast and I didn't get robbed, so I'll call it a win.

Of course, it didn't entirely go smoothly: my Discovery Pass never came in the mail (it seems like the transaction was never processed), and I couldn't buy one in Halifax, as even though the partner busline honoured the pass, it didn't sell it. But a cheap flight to Montreal later—which unfortunately forced me to bypass Fredericton, Saint John and Quebec City—and my bus adventures were set to begin.

There wasn't too much exciting that happened on the Greyhounds themselves, though I'm someone who enjoys seeing as much of a city as possible, and riding a bus certainly helped. My wistfulness has more to do with what bus travel, and especially the Discovery Pass, represented. It was a chance to see a number of cities and, by virtue of how I was staying, to meet locals in each stop. The people I stayed with were eager to show me around town when they were free to join me and happy to point out hot spots to visit when they weren't.

That trip provided some new experiences, like celebrating Thanksgiving with a bunch of early-20s college students like myself, getting screeched in (a ceremony that involves taking a shot of Newfoundland rum and kissing a cod) at the house of a couple I met at a party in St. John's, and appearing as the first-ever guest on my Philadelphia hosts' podcast.

And despite only spending a few days with these people, we kept in contact, keeping an eye on what one another is doing through Facebook. One of my hosts from St. John's and a couple from Philly later stayed with my housemates and I in Winnipeg. The latter came on what I thought was a lark—they were travelling across the States and polled Facebook for suggestions of where to lay their heads. I half-jokingly suggested they come to Winnipeg in the grey of November, assuming that they'd bypass it for larger, hipper, warmer places, but they earnestly went out of their way to visit for a couple days and learn about the city.

If I were paying for flights, or even for a-la-carte bus rides, I probably would have had to pick and choose a little more, passing up most or all of those American stops.

I know it's nothing like backpacking through Thailand or going on a European tour, but having only ever lived at home, it was one of those necessary steps towards independence. (Sure enough, less than a month after I returned home, I was off to my first full-time newspaper job in the hinterlands of Fort Frances, Ont., where a handful of couchsurfers took up my offer to host.)

There was nothing glitzy or glamourous about riding the Greyhound line, especially in the midst of a 36-hour, two-night longhaul from Toronto to Winnipeg, but it certainly led to some unforgettable experiences.

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