The Big Ride

Buses … I know buses. I’ve ridden in deluxe, air-conditioned motor coaches up and down the East Coast — but hey, who hasn’t? I’ve also experienced the joys of bus travel in several Third World countries where even the hardiest travelers have been pushed to the brink of sanity by the kilnlike temperatures, noxious fumes and bone-rattling “roads.” Some of these elongated jalopies were seemingly held together by nothing more than their brightly colored, multihued exterior paint, a little duct tape and the sheer determination of the toothless driver. Let’s just say you know you’re in for a memorable bus trip when the passenger next to you is a goat in heat. After 16 hours, my tethered seatmate and I reached an uneasy truce when I convinced her that we were star-crossed: I could tell just by looking at her that she was a Capricorn (and thus wholly incompatible with my Aries).

Yeah, I know buses.

So when my editor asked me to report on one of Asheville’s bus routes, I hesitated, my mind quickly filling with tortured memories of amorous livestock.

“You can cover an express bus — you’ll be back in no time,” he promised.

I agreed. After all, it was Route 20 — the mall loop down Tunnel Road — and it seemed unlikely that anyone would bring a goat on board. So I strolled to the downtown terminal on one of the last warm days of early autumn. Once there, it soon became apparent why the Transit System folks have made new signage a top priority: The remodeled facility boasts a climate-controlled waiting area, but it sorely lacks anything resembling an easy-to-read, comprehensive schedule/route map.

As an independent traveler, I cringed at the notion of asking for assistance — but I did. The woman behind the glass, pleasant and helpful, informed me that the No. 20 bus would be arriving shortly and would park under the “13” and “2” signs at the far end of the terminal. This wasn’t making much mathematical sense. Nonetheless, I heeded her advice and the bus soon appeared, stopping precisely where she’d said it would.

Once on board, I instantly felt the brisk air-conditioning beat back the heat from the pavement. The tinted windows cut the glare, and the driver smiled a reassuringly toothy grin. Yup, this was going to be a first-class ride.

I sat next to a charming septuagenarian who advised me that the 20 is the key to stress-free shopping. Her tip made sense: I avoid driving Tunnel Road at all costs, its wacky lane changes and logic-defying configuration having earned my contempt years before. And here we were flying through the tunnel into the very heart of the beast — chatting, laughing, cool as cucumbers.

Within minutes, we had reached our destination. Well, not exactly: City buses are not allowed to enter the property because of a disagreement between the city and mall management over who will pay for a new bus shelter. So we’re dumped off at the far end of the parking lot and must walk (without even a sidewalk, thank you very much) while dodging the impatient drivers battling for prime parking spots. Between near misses, my companion wondered aloud why the mall wouldn’t let her be dropped off at an entrance: “I guess they think the bus will bring the wrong type of customer.”

When asked about the vehicular gauntlet bus riders must run, Asheville Mall spokesperson Happy Horne commented, “We welcome the buses to come on the property, but the Transit System has to make improvements to the property to do so.” Asheville Transit Director Bruce Black acknowledged that the city is in negotiations with the mall on the issue.

Bus passengers are welcome to debark at any stop along Tunnel Road, mind you (K mart shoppers will be pleased to know that the bus stops right at their front door.) And if a trip down the strip is in your future, the No. 20 bus is indeed a quick and convenient alternative to driving yourself. Just be prepared to do some hoofing if the mall is your destination. Oh, and leave your goat at home: Livestock are prohibited on city buses.

Thank God.

Route No. 20 – Asheville Mall Express

Monday through Friday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 5:45 a.m. It reaches the Tunnel Road Wal-Mart at 5:55 and the Asheville Mall at 6:00, returning to Wal-Mart at 6:10 and to the Transit Center at 6:15. The pattern repeats every 15 minutes, with the last ride of the afternoon pulling into the Transit Center at 6:10 p.m.

For Asheville bus schedules, go to Ashevilletransit.com. For information about local transportation options, visit www.gettingaround-wnc.com.

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