The Magic Bus

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In western Kansas, where the land is finally overwhelmed by the prairie sky, the roads are clearly outmatched. Even interstates are intimidated. When God created this place, he must have had air travel in mind. Out here, you understand why Dorothy flew her house to Oz. n Riding in a bus, you have time to think of stuff like that. Plenty of time. All sorts of time. In a bus, nothing happens quickly. Time becomes a commodity that's less valuable than dirt. This I realized less than an hour into the drive. We were hardly out of Wichita, en route to Summit County, Colo., when it struck me. I was in a bus driving almost one-fifth of the way across America for a weekend of skiing. A full 584 miles-each way. In a bus. Full of strangers. What was I thinking?

Wichita, Kansas, 0 hours
What irony to start a bus trip in Wichita. It's the capital of fly-over country. No offense Kansans, it's the truth. Wichita earned its nickname, "The Air Capital," back in the Twenties because even then the place had produced more light planes than any city in the world. When Charles Lindbergh buzzed into town dreaming of a plane that could fly to Paris, he might have flown to fame aboard the Spirit of Wichita if the city's plants weren't all back-ordered. Today, Wichita is home to Boeing, Cessna, Beech, Learjet and a dozen other aviation companies. There are five major airports. And there we were, loading ski bags into a stupid bus.

School kids ride buses. Southern Baptists ride buses. Blue-haired grandmothers on casino tours ride buses. So do convicts, felons and politicians. But destination skiers fly-everyone knows that. Yet there we were, 31 skiers loading gear into the belly of an MCI Sleeper Coach for a 12-hour pavement-fest through America's heartland. And there wasn't a politician among us.

Our well-scrubbed group was solidly professional and old enough to know better. We had among us five private pilots, two aircraft engineers, a Boeing plant manager and two U.S. Air Force trauma specialists. We could have flown ourselves, taken our own vehicles, hired sherpas-done anything. Hell, some of us could have built our own planes. But no, we were taking a bus. Worse yet, 10 of the 31 had made this trip before.

That was no surprise to Carol Deardorf, co-owner of The Slope, the Wichita ski shop that organized our trip. "We get a lot of repeat customers," she says. Deardorf's store is famous for its bus trips. It organizes 80-plus Rocky Mountain bus trips per year, carrying 2,500 to 3,000 people to the slopes annually. "We get school groups, companies, family groups-all kinds," she says. "On this trip, all the people are unrelated, there are no group ties, but it's a typical adult group."

Certainly the price and convenience keeps people coming back. Our three-day trip to Colorado's Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain cost $211 per person. It included round-trip transportation and two nights' lodging. Lift tickets were separate but our group status qualified us for a 30 percent discount. The trip departed downtown Wichita after work Thursday and returned before work Monday. The 12-hour commutes were mitigated by the promise of sleep on the bus. Its 24 bench seats unfolded into a double row of Spartan bunkbeds. In theory it sounded practical, maybe even intriguing. But on boarding, the reality was sobering. Do the math: 31 people in a 45-foot bus for more than three days. It was like steerage on the Titanic, only with bigger windows.

Salina, Kansas, 1:34:05 hours
Steering wheels should be optional on I-70 through western Kansas. The road is singularly devoid of turns. The only indication of distance and time are the mileposts that sweep by every 55 seconds. In the headlights they look like shooting stars, which is entertaining for about two minutes. After an hour or so, you begin to realize that staring at mileposts doesn't make them pass any faster. Fellow passengers generally realize this at about the same time. Th's when you see faces turn inward from the windows. The bus suddenly becomes an interstate conversation pit. It was a visible transformation, but not an unexpected one to Terry Neismith. He was our group leader and a veteran bus skier. He knew what to expect.

Neismith handled the lift tickets, rooming lists and all the little questions that come up during a weekend on the road. He was also our unofficial social director. He leads two trips per year, on average, giving him a nice break from his day job as a manager at Boeing. Group leader is an unpaid position, but it does earn him a weekend of free skiing.

"Sometimes I get back and say 'I'm never going to do that again.' Then, a few months later, I'm back. I don't know what it is, but something keeps me coming back," he says.

Across the aisle, Candace chimes in. She is career Air Force and a repeat bus-skier, too. "The first time, you do it for experimentation. The second time, you're getting into it. Then you're hooked," she says. "We already have another trip scheduled to Crested Butte after this one. The skiing is great, but that's not what keeps me coming back. It's the people."

"Yeah," concurs Terry. "Believe it or not, everyone is going to know each other by the end of the trip."

As darkness settled outside, and everyone grew more comfortable inside, you could see what they meant. People who were perfect strangers an hour earlier were now partners at cards or chatting over Cokes, Budweisers and chips.

"It's fun when people start wandering up and down the aisle," Terry says. "On a bus, you get to know people; in a plane that doesn't happen. Here, people start visiting."

"Visiting." I almost laugh at the archaic word. Visiting is what Grammaw and Grampaw did when they were settin' a spell on the porch. It's what old farmers did while the corn ripened. It's something our parents might have taught us if we hadn't grown up to be in such a damn hurry. But in a bus, you're never in a hurry, that's for sure.

Russell, Kansas, 2:39:05 hours
The first sign says "The Home of Bob Dole." The second says "McDonald's." That's where we stop for dinner and where we meet Phyllycia, the teenage pride of Russell, Kan. She is a McDonald's manager-in-training and proud of it. Her sweatshirt reads "Official McDonald's Athletic Wear." Her perky ponytail is tied in a matching Golden Arches kerchief. Behind the counter she commands the fry cooks with a tidy headset and barks instructions with the authority of a state trooper. When someone veers from burgers to order a salad, she handles the curve like Mario Andretti. "RoquefortThousandIslandRanchItalian," she says. One word. Thirty-one customers and she doesn't drop a fry. Orders in, food out, she is the image of food-service efficiency. Then, as our last Happy Meal crosses the counter, she looks up and pauses in horror. "Oh God," she says, voice failing. "Another bus. Hey...hey everyone! Another bus just pulled in. Oh, shit." We drive on.

Hays, Kansas, 3:54:29 hours
We were still two hours from Colorado when we met W.L. Weller. Weller was a stowaway of sorts, having boarded the bus in Brian's Igloo cooler. Brian is a Wichita firefighter and one of Terry's long-time skiing buddies. Weller is a fine bourbon whiskey. Brian suspected that the bottle of Weller, some Coke and a few cups filled with ice might help pass the night. He was right. Brian poured, we relaxed. One of the great pleasures of bus travel is that you leave the driving to someone else.

"I swore three years ago I would never go on another bus trip again and here I am," Brian says. "If there were decent group leaders, I might do it more often."

"You know Brian, we are allowed to leave people at the bus stop," Terry retorts. "We can eject unruly passengers."

"I remember some unruly passengers," Candace recalls. "There was this one trip with a couple, and they were, how should I put it, very affectionate."

"Affectionate?" someone asks.

"Yeah, when the beds were unfolded and the lights were all out for the night, they just started...well...you know."

"You mean they did it on the bus?"

"Right there on the bunk. They must have had some sort of fetish," she says.

That caught Larry's attention. He'd been taking bus trips every year since 1976 and had more than his share of bus stories.

"One time we had this driver named Jim who really liked to drive, I mean he really liked to put the pedal down," Larry says. "Well a cop finally pulled us over and asked Jim why he was speeding. He told the cop he had a church choir on board and we were late for a concert."

"So what did you do?" someone asked.

"Well, we all started singing," he says, and then in his best Gospel baritone he crooned, "Jesus loves me, this I know..." Everyone laughs.

"Anyway, we must have sounded pretty good because the cop said OK and waved us on. We got Jim out of the ticket."

Location Unknown, Time Unknown
You never know precisely when you lose track of time, but for us it happened somewhere between Mingo and WaKeeney after the second or third Weller & Coke. There was still another 100 miles of western Kansas ahead of us and hours to go before sunrise and skiing in Colorado. But time and mileposts didn't seem that important anymore. We were visiting.

From sex on the bus and skiers masquerading as choirboys, the conversation wandered. We learned that Candace's partner Jason had just retired from the Air Force and was reading "Die Broke," a retirement book based on the premise that the final check you write, to the undertaker, should bounce. We learned that Larry's partner Janine was formerly a long-haul truck driver. We learned that Jeff, a college-aged snowboarder, had been a skier until he was changed forever by a school exchange trip to Switzerland. Turns out several on board had skied the Alps. General consensus? Fine terrain, great buses.

A green interstate sign loomed out of the darkness. It was the Goodland exit. "We got stuck here one time," Larry remembered. "Blizzard closed the road. Spent the night. What a trip.

"The driver kept playing this country tape over and over. It was horrible, the one where the guy goes, 'Daddy, where is God?' and then he answers in this Ward Cleaver voice, 'God is everywhere.' After a few hours we were just gnawing at the seats. Finally, a few of us went up, popped the tape out and threw it out the window. The driver hated us, but we got a round of applause.

"Next morning, they still hadn't opened the road so we put on our gear and skied the exit ramp. What a trip," he says.For us the weather was fine and we motored past Goodland without incident. The bus was quiet and cozy, the company good. And the mileposts swept by like mileposts.

Somewhere between Kanorado and Bovina, where shooting stars outnumber people, we finally called it a night and fell asleep to the beat of steel belts on concrete seams. In the dark, the steady metronome of distance and time became a dream. We could have been Pullman passengers aboard the Zephyr, riding silky tracks to the coast. Our droning diesel was the brawny tug of a steam locomotive and voices up front were the quiet conversation of gentler times; our grandparents sharing Manhattans and Chesterfields in the club car. Then, WHAM, a pothole, and we're jarred awake. The dream is lost. We are once again children of asphalt.

Dillon, Colorado 10:00.05 hours
For the record, you can sleep on a sleeper bus. Not well, but well enough. It helps to be flexible, even a contortionist. The bunks measure exactly six feet by four feet, adequate for a 5'11'' adult like myself, unless someone's sharing the bunk with you, or a pair of vintage Salomon SX450s are wedged in next to your head. Ski boots to the skull make for challenging sleeping and encourage early rising.

This was good because we arrived early in Dillon, in time to see the sun dawn over the Divide and the breakfast staff arrive at the h, when the beds were unfolded and the lights were all out for the night, they just started...well...you know."

"You mean they did it on the bus?"

"Right there on the bunk. They must have had some sort of fetish," she says.

That caught Larry's attention. He'd been taking bus trips every year since 1976 and had more than his share of bus stories.

"One time we had this driver named Jim who really liked to drive, I mean he really liked to put the pedal down," Larry says. "Well a cop finally pulled us over and asked Jim why he was speeding. He told the cop he had a church choir on board and we were late for a concert."

"So what did you do?" someone asked.

"Well, we all started singing," he says, and then in his best Gospel baritone he crooned, "Jesus loves me, this I know..." Everyone laughs.

"Anyway, we must have sounded pretty good because the cop said OK and waved us on. We got Jim out of the ticket."

Location Unknown, Time Unknown
You never know precisely when you lose track of time, but for us it happened somewhere between Mingo and WaKeeney after the second or third Weller & Coke. There was still another 100 miles of western Kansas ahead of us and hours to go before sunrise and skiing in Colorado. But time and mileposts didn't seem that important anymore. We were visiting.

From sex on the bus and skiers masquerading as choirboys, the conversation wandered. We learned that Candace's partner Jason had just retired from the Air Force and was reading "Die Broke," a retirement book based on the premise that the final check you write, to the undertaker, should bounce. We learned that Larry's partner Janine was formerly a long-haul truck driver. We learned that Jeff, a college-aged snowboarder, had been a skier until he was changed forever by a school exchange trip to Switzerland. Turns out several on board had skied the Alps. General consensus? Fine terrain, great buses.

A green interstate sign loomed out of the darkness. It was the Goodland exit. "We got stuck here one time," Larry remembered. "Blizzard closed the road. Spent the night. What a trip.

"The driver kept playing this country tape over and over. It was horrible, the one where the guy goes, 'Daddy, where is God?' and then he answers in this Ward Cleaver voice, 'God is everywhere.' After a few hours we were just gnawing at the seats. Finally, a few of us went up, popped the tape out and threw it out the window. The driver hated us, but we got a round of applause.

"Next morning, they still hadn't opened the road so we put on our gear and skied the exit ramp. What a trip," he says.For us the weather was fine and we motored past Goodland without incident. The bus was quiet and cozy, the company good. And the mileposts swept by like mileposts.

Somewhere between Kanorado and Bovina, where shooting stars outnumber people, we finally called it a night and fell asleep to the beat of steel belts on concrete seams. In the dark, the steady metronome of distance and time became a dream. We could have been Pullman passengers aboard the Zephyr, riding silky tracks to the coast. Our droning diesel was the brawny tug of a steam locomotive and voices up front were the quiet conversation of gentler times; our grandparents sharing Manhattans and Chesterfields in the club car. Then, WHAM, a pothole, and we're jarred awake. The dream is lost. We are once again children of asphalt.

Dillon, Colorado 10:00.05 hours
For the record, you can sleep on a sleeper bus. Not well, but well enough. It helps to be flexible, even a contortionist. The bunks measure exactly six feet by four feet, adequate for a 5'11'' adult like myself, unless someone's sharing the bunk with you, or a pair of vintage Salomon SX450s are wedged in next to your head. Ski boots to the skull make for challenging sleeping and encourage early rising.

This was good because we arrived early in Dillon, in time to see the sun dawn over the Divide and the breakfast staff arrive at the Sunshine Café. After coffee things felt better and after continental breakfast at the Dillon Inn things began looking downright rosy. The Dillon Inn was our home for the weekend. Though there are more opulent accommodations in Summit County, these felt palatial after a night in an MCI Sleeper Coach. At the Inn, we unloaded our bags, stretched our stiffened backs, and freshened up for what had all the makings of a remarkable ski day ahead.

Keystone, Colorado 13:22.15 hours
There are two kinds of skiers, those who are boring elitist snobs and those who aren't. On a bus, you find precious few of the former and a whole lot of the latter. Bus skiers, as a rule, are as fun as they are flexible.

As we geared up at Keystone, this became readily apparent. Though we had some expert skiers on board who could have split for more challenging terrain, we decided as a group to spend our first day on Keystone's fine groomers. We could have gone separate ways, but after you spend the night with some guy's feet in your face, it's hard not to ski with him. Bus skiers form a bond. Besides, this just felt like more fun.

We hit the lifts before 9 am. Larry, Janine, Jeff, his girlfriend Melissa and a half-dozen others went to Checkerboard to practice beginner turns and laugh at each other's first-day foibles. Terry, Brian and the rest jammed into a bunch of River Run gondola cars and headed up with good-natured boasts of the speed and turns to come. Candace and Jason were all smiles looking at their sporty new K2s. Even Jim, who at age 70 was our most experienced skier, got into the fun. He donned a vintage parka that looked...well it stretched the fashion senses to be sure. There were promises all around to meet later at the top of Paymaster, and later still for lunch at Outpost Lodge. With a sudden gust of powder falling off the pines, the sky sparkled rich as sapphire.

Keystone, 20:14.20 hours
At the end of a good ski day, you're not thinking about where you spent the previous night or how SX450s make lousy pillows. You're tired regardless. Shouldering our gear, we felt like every other destination visitor. We were tired and invigorated and thrilled by a perfect day in the mountains. And parked right up front, our private bus was ready to whisk us back to the hotel. We clambered onboard, but not just for the chauffeured service. We needed to know if Larry succeeded in teaching Janine to ski, if Candace and Jason liked their new K2s, if Jim felt like an old fool for wearing that ridiculous jacket. We hurried back inside the bus. We had visiting to do.

The Magic Bus: Photo Essay

The Magic Bus: You Drive, I'll Drinkthe Sunshine Café. After coffee things felt better and after continental breakfast at the Dillon Inn things began looking downright rosy. The Dillon Inn was our home for the weekend. Though there are more opulent accommodations in Summit County, these felt palatial after a night in an MCI Sleeper Coach. At the Inn, we unloaded our bags, stretched our stiffened backs, and freshened up for what had all the makings of a remarkable ski day ahead.Keystone, Colorado 13:22.15 hours
There are two kinds of skiers, those who are boring elitist snobs and those who aren't. On a bus, you find precious few of the former and a whole lot of the latter. Bus skiers, as a rule, are as fun as they are flexible.As we geared up at Keystone, this became readily apparent. Though we had some expert skiers on board who could have split for more challenging terrain, we decided as a group to spend our first day on Keystone's fine groomers. We could have gone separate ways, but after you spend the night with some guy's feet in your face, it's hard not to ski with him. Bus skiers form a bond. Besides, this just felt like more fun.We hit the lifts before 9 am. Larry, Janine, Jeff, his girlfriend Melissa and a half-ddozen others went to Checkerboard to practice beginner turns and laugh at each other's first-day foibles. Terry, Brian and the rest jammed into a bunch of River Run gondola cars and headed up with good-natured boasts of the speed and turns to come. Candace and Jason were all smiles looking at their sporty new K2s. Even Jim, who at age 70 was our most experienced skier, got into the fun. He donned a vintage parka that looked...well it stretched the fashion senses to be sure. There were promises all around to meet later at the top of Paymaster, and later still for lunch at Outpost Lodge. With a sudden gust of powder falling off the pines, the sky sparkled rich as sapphire.Keystone, 20:14.20 hours
At the end of a good ski day, you're not thinking about where you spent the previous night or how SX450s make lousy pillows. You're tired regardless. Shouldering our gear, we felt like every other destination visitor. We were tired and invigorated and thrilled by a perfect day in the mountains. And parked right up front, our private bus was ready to whisk us back to the hotel. We clambered onboard, but not just for the chauffeured service. We needed to know if Larry succeeded in teaching Janine to ski, if Candace and Jason liked their new K2s, if Jim felt like an old fool for wearing that ridiculous jacket. We hurried back inside the bus. We had visiting to do.

The Magic Bus: Photo Essay

The Magic Bus: You Drive, I'll Drink

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