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Personal Essays

The Year of the Grey Rabbit

In 1979, as the U.S. became embroiled in the events that would develop into the current political climate, one man set out in search of America. Today, he remembers who he—and the country—were.

Credit: Timothy Ledwith

For the counterculture of late-1970s America—including latecomers like me, who had missed out on the original wild ride of the ’60s—the Grey Rabbit was the “hippie bus” of choice.

Not to be confused with its straight-laced cousin, the Greyhound, the Grey Rabbit was the most successful of many alternative bus lines that were based in northern California and the Pacific Northwest in those days. Born of the wandering spirit of Kerouac and Kesey, the Rabbit was sustained by a generation of stoners in need of cheap, weed-friendly transportation. For a fare of $75 per passenger, the vintage bus sprinted along the full length of Interstate 80 between San Francisco and New York City. To keep white-line fever at bay, the bus’s two drivers took the wheel in alternating eight-hour shifts.

In the autumn of 1979, I rode the Grey Rabbit back home to New York after hitchhiking 3,000 miles to the West Coast. Four years earlier, my escape from a stifling childhood on Staten Island had been made possible by admission to the state university in Albany. My academic career eventually fizzled out, but I fell in with a community of kindred spirits in Albany’s inner city and began to make a life for myself there.

I spent the summer of ’79 working on a house-painting job with my friend Jay. Like most of my Albany comrades, Jay was older than me and had come of age at the height of the Vietnam War and civil rights protests. His horn-rimmed glasses were perpetually speckled with paint from the 19th-century row houses he artfully restored.

In July of that year, while Jay and I scraped and repainted old bricks baked from Hudson Valley clay, portentous events were playing out halfway around the world. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was formally taking power as head of state. In Afghanistan, tensions were building toward an impending Soviet invasion in December. In Iran, the newly victorious Islamic revolution was consolidating its grip on power. Our own country quickly became entangled in these events, and entangled it remains. If these were warnings, we didn’t heed them. And I certainly wasn’t listening—in all my naïve, 21-year-old glory, I only heard America calling.

 

Overly egalitarian as a boss, Jay paid me more than he probably should have that summer. My living expenses were absurdly low, and by the time the house-painting season wound down in September, I was feeling flush.

With three months’ cash wages to burn, I set out for California via a route mapped according to the whereabouts of any friends, relatives, or vague acquaintances with whom I might crash along the way. In this circuitous fashion, I reached San Francisco in about three weeks.

To a city kid who had only seen the West in the movies, the trip was a revelation. Even Cinemascope, I realized, crammed that vast expanse into a constricting frame. Revelatory, as well, was the openness and hospitality of virtually everyone I met.

They asked us to take our shoes off to keep the mattresses clean and the vibe mellow. We readily complied.

Admittedly, the people who gave me rides out of their way and put me up for the night were a self-selecting group of freethinkers, while a majority of clean-cut Americans surely would have had nothing to do with my scraggily kind. And yet, at that brief moment in time—just a few years after the end of a long, divisive war and the downfall of an arrogant, felonious president—it seemed possible that America had learned something about peace, justice, and even love, and would begin to act accordingly.

This was a beautiful hope.

 

By the time I left San Francisco on the Grey Rabbit, heading home, it was mid-October of 1979. I got an early start on the day of my departure, because I had heard that the Rabbit operated on a highly approximate schedule—no surprise there—and I didn’t want to miss it.

Strapping on my well-worn backpack, I checked a street map and began hiking toward the intersection where the bus began its weekly run. I paused at a traffic light after a few blocks, and a lanky blond kid ambled up to me, holding out his hand in greeting. The kid wore faded army fatigues and had an overstuffed duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

“Hey man, you lookin’ for the Grey Rabbit?” he asked. “Me too!”

I returned Duffel Boy’s bro-style handshake, though not very enthusiastically. He had the air of a shaggy dog who might knock you to the ground in his eagerness to buddy up, so I tried to keep my distance. Still, out of all the vagabonds on all the street corners in Haight-Ashbury, he had somehow profiled me as a fellow ticket holder on the hippie bus. We walked together the rest of the way.

The Rabbit wasn’t hard to spot. Parked on a nondescript side street, the bus was resplendent with psychedelic filigrees and, if memory serves, Day-Glo peace signs painted on both sides.

We mingled on the sidewalk with about 20 other assorted but uniformly disheveled passengers, then formed a ragtag line for boarding. Once inside, we saw that the coach had been stripped of everything except the driver’s seat, and mattresses were laid end-to-end along the entire length of the floor.

The flannel-shirted drivers counted out the small bills that most of us used to pay our way. I don’t remember their names, but before long we were calling them Cheech and Chong. They asked us to take our shoes off in order to keep the mattresses clean and the vibe mellow. We readily complied.

During a final engine check, the drivers made earnest incantations over the open hood but didn’t adjust a single belt or hose. And then we were off. The bus immediately filled up with a haze of incense and marijuana smoke that would persist until we pulled up outside the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan, three and a half days later.

 

Though the Grey Rabbit was known for making a straight shot from coast to coast, there were a couple of selected detours off Route 80. One of them took us to a hot spring in a remote corner of Wyoming.

Patches of snow dotted the stark foothills around the spring, which billowed steam into the afternoon sunlight. We all piled off the bus, stripped down and gingerly waded into the deliciously hot, sulfurous bath. After relaxing every muscle, we roused ourselves for the coup de grace: a bracing splash in the cold mountain stream that ran through a nearby ravine.

Cheech and Chong sat on their haunches next to the Grey Rabbit and shared a smoke, watching us with the bemused expressions of indulgent parents. Eventually they coaxed us back onto the bus—not an easy task, as we had scattered around the vicinity in various states of ecstasy and stupor.

Soon the Grey Rabbit was moving again, its atmosphere now sober and subdued (though still smoke-filled).

The Rabbit lurched into gear and we were back on the road. It was dusk when we reached the eastbound interstate. As night fell, the world outside faded into pitch blackness and the coach lights dimmed. We bundled ourselves in sleeping bags and comforters against the chill seeping in through the leaky windows. A Grateful Dead tune—“Sugar Magnolia”—played low on the driver’s cassette deck, and we began to doze off.

Then from the darkness a plaintive voice asked no one in particular, “Yo, where’s that tall guy?”

I sat up and peered around, stomach knotting when I realized it was true: Duffel Boy was gone. I still regret my snobbery in rebuffing his harmless overtures. Had we bonded, I would have noticed his absence earlier, before we left him alone at the hot spring.

The bus pulled over and the lights came on when word of our missing passenger reached the drivers. We commiserated on the best course of action and agreed that going back would be pointless—it would take another two hours, and Duffel Boy already might have hitched a ride. Instead, Cheech and Chong would steel themselves to notify the state police at the next rest stop, and the cops would have to take it from there.

Soon the Grey Rabbit was moving again, its atmosphere now sober and subdued (though still smoke-filled). We got back under our wraps, but none of us would sleep well that night. The next day would be my 22nd birthday. I decided to keep it to myself.

Out of the heavy silence, the same voice that had raised the alarm about Duffel Boy’s disappearance sent one more missive into the void:

“I hope the poor dude had his boots on.”

Two weeks later, on Nov. 4, 1979, a group of radical Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking scores of hostages and holding them for more than a year. The hostage crisis discredited Jimmy Carter, contributing directly to his 1980 election defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan’s conservative coalition—which, in turn, begat the resurgence of the hard right and all that has followed in its wake.

My fellow travelers and I didn’t know it that night in Wyoming, but the Grey Rabbit was carrying us headlong into an ominous new landscape of political and cultural backlash. It was almost morning in America, and soon enough, we, too, would be out in the cold.

Timothy Ledwith reads, writes, and occasionally looks out the window on the Staten Island Ferry. He is a fellow at the Writers’ Institute of the C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center. More by Timothy Ledwith