Travelogue: Duluth sans voiture

Duluth Greyhound 3

The 10:00AM Greyhound Minneapolis-bound express ready to pull out for from the Duluth station. All photos by Randy Stern

Intercity buses. Love 'em or hate 'em, they provide a key link to smaller communities for travelers who do not have access to an automobile. They also provide the cheapest form of mass transport between cities.

Until recently, Greyhound Lines held a monopoly on this kind of transport. Then a key provider of regional transport services, CoachUSA, got into the long distance intercity bus business with their Megabus. Since Greyhound offers almost no frills on their key routes, Megabus provides point-to-point bus services starting at rock bottom prices – with the only amenity being an onboard toilet.

As a rule, I try to not make going on an intercity bus an option. It’s not the fact of snobbery, but of safety and security. People generally could care less about themselves and their surroundings on a bus or at their stations. However, for the most resilient travelers on tight budgets, it’s the only way to go.

Think about it for a moment. With security tightening at airports thanks to gaps in its own protection schemes, where else can one go without the hassles of the Transportation Security Administration? Amtrak has yet to implement similar security standards at their stations, but if I was going somewhere where the railroad can take me, you bet I’d go on a train! Since trains do not go to everywhere, I’m stuck with an intercity bus – that’s if my budget cannot swing a rental car for the duration of the trip.

Since I have a couple of things to work with my friend (and web designer) Scott for both his and my business, I decided a couple of days in Duluth would do. There was a further incentive – my roommate and her father are replacing the water heater, water softener and work on some other plumbing issues at the house. Duluth it is!

Duluth by Greyhound, to be more specific.

Greyhound Museum, Hibbing 2Greyhound Museum, Hibbing 3
All photos by Randy Stern

A little bit of history for a moment: Greyhound and Duluth are synonymous with each other. In fact, the world’s largest intercity bus company had their start in the nearby town of Hibbing. For as long as the company has been around, Greyhound used Duluth as a hub. Nowadays, it’s more of a terminus than anything. The company, now owned by FirstGroup – the world’s largest provider of any form of public transport, is now headquartered in Dallas.

I must admit to being extremely nervous riding Greyhound. It’s not because I’ve never ridden it before – I have. The last two times were because I was in a push to get home quicker and figured to try them out. After my last time, a ride from Milwaukee to Madison, I figured “never again.” An old adage came to me: “Never say never.” Or, better still: “Suck it up, loser!”

My departure was from Minneapolis’ modern Hawthorne Transportation Center, attached to one of the city’s large parking ramps. It is next door to one of the various public transit stations that MetroTransit uses. It doesn’t seem like the safest place in the world with plenty of sketchy characters around. If you keep to yourself, you should be fine for the most part. It’s not the first time I used the station – I used the regional service Jefferson Lines to get to the East Central Minnesota town of Sandstone about a couple of years ago.

There were also reports on the reliability of this specific 6:45PM express run to Duluth. I had friends who took this particular run only to be late due to bus malfunctions. The bus originates from Chicago for a run to Minneapolis, but continues onward to Duluth for a rest overnight. You might say it’s a well-used bus by the time it gets to Minneapolis.

Already, I was anxious about my journey. Yet, my fears eased as I arrived at the station. There were not a lot of people there. Not to mention my bus arrived for a possible on-time departure. The crowd coming off of the incoming bus didn’t look scary. Everyone seemed to be non-threatening so far.

To make matters even more interesting, I brought two bags with me: My usual rolling carry-on and my backpack. Because I was carrying my laptop, camera, iPod and smart phone, I made sure to pack the items that would be less attractive to thieves and are easily replaceable in my checked luggage: My clothes and toiletries. My backpack was carried onboard the bus and stowed in the overhead with my laptop, camera, etc. I made sure to be discreet when checking the smart phone for messages as well as hiding the iPod as well. Flash anything “nice” and you got a potentially unwanted friend along for the ride.

Then, things got much better than expected. The bus was not full and left on time. The stop at St. Paul’s Greyhound station was brief. The ride was rather smooth going up. I did nap a bit, though. And, to drown out the voices from the back of the bus, my iPod offered up the serenity I needed to get through the two-and-a-half hour ride north.

Before we got to the Black Bear Casino in Carlton, the seats began to disappoint me. My comfort level was reached for the length of the trip. If I were driving, I’d choose something more comfortable, supportive for the two-plus hours on Interstate 35. Yet, I had to reprogram my mind to make sure I’m not the driver this time. Considering the absolute smoothness of the ride, I succumbed to the notion of being on the bus by doing the only thing necessary just minutes from our arrival: I sat back and relaxed. It was a novel idea that takes getting used to.

Not only that, we arrived just ten minutes later than scheduled. My friends met me at the station and was amazed that the bus arrived so close to schedule. That actually worked to everyone’s advantage. My friends met me at the station after a quick stop across the street at Walgreen’s. We rode the Duluth Transit Authority bus to their home, which saved money from waiting for a cab.

Michael starting his runJunebug at Home 1
(L) Michael and his DTA bus, (R) Junebug the wonder dog! All photos by Randy Stern

In fact, the entire time up in Duluth did not involve any automobile whatsoever. Since one of my closest friends, Michael, drives for Duluth Transit Authority, it was absolutely encouraged to take the local transit system around town. And, it absolutely works!

In fact, I was able to ride along with Michael on one of his runs with DTA. He worked a local bus in the city of Superior, across St. Louis Bay from Duluth. The run stretches down to the deepest part of Superior along Wisconsin Highway 35, known as Tower Avenue, and connects a series of communities to the south. Because of the twists and turns the line throws at passengers, including into a major retail stretch along Tower, Michael stated that this particular line is a “model driver’s test – the quintessential ‘everything happens’” at once route.

It was hard coming home. Not because I had to endure the daily morning express out of Duluth down to The Cities. It’s the emotions of coming home. These are not exactly anxiety-ridden feelings, either. Though the bus was on time for the trip back to Minneapolis, we did have a couple of people refused boarding by the drivers thanks to their own douchebaggery. It’s simple: act a fool on the driver (and in the station itself); take the next bus! Otherwise, I had a very nice ride home.

Obviously, I didn’t just do this as an exercise for an article. This was a way to take a trip that I normally do by car for the lowest possible cost. I had to see what the difference between my normal drive up to Duluth is compared to a trip that did not involve a car – or, a taxi. The entire trip ended up costing me a mere $48.20 in transportation. That included two Day Passes on the DTA, along with two off-peak one-way fares. The Greyhound itself was an absolute bargain. If I had taken the Skyline Shuttle from Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, the entire trip cost would increase by up to an additional $28.00. Yet, if I drove instead, the difference would be a mere dollar more in gas alone compared to my combined Greyhound/DTA cost – that’s based on a normal full-sized automobile.

The short of it is quite simple: Yes, the intercity bus gets a bad reputation for attracting the so-called “lower common denominator of American society.” But, if you can swallow your pride, suck it up, or whatever your euphemism for being humble for about the time it normally takes by car to your destination, you can find that taking an intercity bus isn’t half as bad if you plan it right. That means ensuring your security when it comes to what to pack to be checked through to your destination as well as you can carry on to be near you at all times on the bus.

As for doing this again…depends on various factors. I’d probably do an intercity bus for Duluth knowing how convenient the connections are from the station to where I need to be. Think sustainability and leave the driving to those who make it smoother than we can possibly imagine.

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