The big ride

I’m a bench-calloused, diesel-gritty veteran of public transportation. Been riding buses — trains, when I can get ’em — since I was big enough to reach the fare box. I grew up in car-crazy California, see, and the only way I could find to be a rebel in that paved-over paradise was to refuse to own anything with wheels. Since then, I’ve traveled transit in every corner of these United States. I’ve pumped adrenaline running to catch the MUNI in San Fran, the MARTA in Atlanta, the MTA in NYC, the … well, I couldn’t find any buses in LA, so that corner don’t count.

When I met my true love and moved here to share the mountains with her, I finally had to get me a car. These Asheville buses shut down and leave you stranded after 6 p.m. — budget cuts, you know — and until those cone-heads over at the state Department of Transportation figure out how to paint a crosswalk or a bike lane, I won’t risk walking or biking from my job downtown to my home out there in West Asheville.

That’s where you’re headed, too? Well sir, the bus you want is the No. 1. Goes down Haywood Road and Smokey Park Highway to the DMV, and — just in case you can’t manage to pass that ridiculously picky driver’s-license test they give — it turns around and takes you back again to the Transit Center. Makes a loop through Pisgah View Apartments on the way back, but not on the way out from town. Don’t ask me why. Maybe the Transit Authority can afford to carry folks away from there, but not to bring them back.

Did you know that this asphalt-addled state of ours spends less than 3 percent of its transportation budget on public transit and rail? I read where the Brookings Institution said that from 1992 to ’98, out of $808 million North Carolina could have shifted from highways to public transit, we shifted only $10 million. That’s a little over 1 percent. Did you hear me? This state spent 1 percent of what it could have on public transit! And now we’re choking in smog, and they’re trying to blame it on the TVA instead of our SUVs, just so they can keep laying down more of that oily pavement.

All the same, I rode this route every day for over a year while my car was up on blocks, and as a veteran seat-warmer, I can tell you that it’s one of the best bus routes I ever traveled in any state, bar none. Talk about diversity: Out the windows, you can rest your eyes on all the changes of the seasons, from the trees along Clingman budding out their spring leaves to the shopowners along Haywood stringing up their holiday lights. You look around inside the No. 1 at rush hour, you’ll see all kinds of different folks — you got your hippie, redneck, corporate, Anglo, Latino, black, young, old, indeterminate whatnot — all sitting together peaceably, just like a little sample of what us locals like to call “Best Asheville.”

You take the earliest bus from downtown — before the sun comes up, even before the workers and students have chugged their coffee and raced to their stop — and you’ll share it with the young parents taking their babes and toddlers to the day care on the corner of Haywood. The kids are all real quiet and well-behaved, the youngest ones napping in their daddy or mommy’s lap, the older ones sitting up straight and holding onto the safety bar like real pros (except when the bus stops next to a billboard with a picture of a doggie on it — then they’ll chatter and point excitedly till the bus pulls away).

Usually, I would ride from West Asheville to downtown around midday — and that’s one relaxing way to get to work, I’ll tell you what. You can read or just sit quietly and let your mind run without forfeiting the right to claim you’re doing something useful.

Sure, there are a few characters that ride the bus. You might have to hold your nose sometimes when the guys that’ve had their driver’s license taken away for a much better reason than flunking the written test stagger on board. And then there’s the obsessive church lady who trundles up and down the aisle shutting every single open window, every single time she gets on. I’ve literally gotten into a tug-of-war with her when I wanted to enjoy the warm summer breeze at my own seat instead of the bus’s way-too-chilly a/c.

But I’ve never once felt anything but safe on that bus, even when the teenagers crowd on board all rowdy and randy after their typical American high-school day. They don’t pester us elders, because all they really care about is bragging and flirting with their chums, but it does all get a little deafening. You might want to use your ear plugs — did I tell you that’s one thing a transit vet always packs? That and something interesting to bury your nose in (like that Mountain Xpress you were pretending to read when I sat down next to you), for those days when you’re not in the mood for getting your ear bent by a one-sided conversationalist like me.

That’s one thing you should know — seems like there’s some gabby guy sitting by you on practically every bus in this great loquacious nation of ours. Maybe folks are more open to talking with strangers on a bus because there’s no walls of steel and glass between us, and we’re all traveling together at the same rate of speed instead of trying to pass each other or cut each other off. Hey, just be glad I’m not a gum-snapper — now that’s a habit that really gets on your fellow passengers’ nerves. There’s one of them on every bus, too, I’m sorry to say.

OK, here comes a bus, and if they’d just stop flashing that annoying “God Bless America” propaganda on the front, I might could tell which bus it is. Ah, the No. 1, right on time as usual. I got to hand it to the Transit Authority, even though they may not have the Goddess-given sense to publish a systemwide map here like every other bus agency in the U.S.A. does, so you can figure out what-all lines will get you where you need to go — well, still, these are the most reliable buses this old depot dog has ever waited in the cold, rain and snow for.

Say, do any of you good folks have change for a dollar bill?

Route 1 – Haywood Road

Monday through Friday, the first bus leaves Malvern Hills at 5:30 a.m. It reaches Haywood/Vermont at 5:35; Pisgah View Apts. at 5:40; Asheville Transportation Center at 5:56, and departs the ATC at 6:00; Haywood/Brevard at 6:10 and Haywood/Patton at 6:15; NC DMV office on Patton at 6:25. Then it’s back to Malvern Hills at 6:30.The pattern repeats every hour, with the last ride of the afternoon pulling into the Transit Center at 6:56 p.m. (The schedule is the same on Saturday, minus the initial stop at Malvern Hills.)

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