A traveler gives thanks

Posted Nov. 26, 2009, at 9:55 p.m.

I waited for the Chinatown bus in the rain on a forgotten corner of a Baltimore side street. When it finally came, the doors opened and the driver barked at me to get on, hardly looking at my printed-out bus ticket. It was already late in the evening and travelers slept against the windows. The driver laid on the horn all the way to Philadelphia, short, staccato bursts as frequent and steady as the minute hand on a clock.

This was the first leg of a long trek home for Thanksgiving, bus station to bus station, city to city. It would be a day and a half before I got home to Maine.

Thanksgiving is the biggest travel holiday of the year. Across the nation, people like me waited at bus stops, in airplane terminals, steered their cars onto crowded highways. These annual pilgrimages to friends, families and hometowns are a more fitting celebration of Thanksgiving than one might have guessed. As I reread the fine print on my online purchased bus ticket for the 30th time, hoping that I am in the right station at the right time, I think of those first travelers whose survival we are celebrating.

The pilgrims probably wondered if they would ever get there, too.

I, at least, am certain of my destination, giving me a big one-up on our forefathers. It’s the journey that I catch myself worrying about. I always wonder if my bus will make it, forming alternate plans for missed connections and full seats in my head. Who could I call in Boston if the northbound bus was full? I sleep fitfully on a bench in South Station, and it is a huge relief when I finally board the last bus, the one that will take me to Bangor. I have to laugh at my own anxiety. Of course it worked out just fine.

A Hispanic woman asks me to hold her baby for her while she uses the bus’s small restroom. The baby looks like it wants to cry until I start reciting the few children’s rhymes I know in Spanish to it. Then it laughs openly in my face, giggling at my strange, under-used Spanish with the tactless abandonment only found in small children. His mother gratefully gathers him up after she comes out, thanking me in English as accented as my Spanish.

Lost in New York’s Chinatown just six hours earlier, I wished that I knew some Chinese. I had been reduced to holding up my ticket and saying “Boston? Boston?” Finally, a young woman with a fanny pack full of ticket stubs spoke English.

“You’re in the right place,” she told me. “It’ll be here in a minute.”

This, too, is not that dissimilar from the first Thanksgiving. While Squanto, one of the more famous American Indians at the first Thanksgiving, spoke perfect English, the pilgrims certainly didn’t speak their tongue, and I doubt that all of the communication between them was seamless. We’re still all just trying to get by and get home with each other’s help or hindrance.

We’re supposed to be celebrating everything that we’re thankful for this Thanksgiving. I’m overjoyed to have my first Thanksgiving at home in years. But I can’t help but think of Thanksgiving as a celebration of more than just gratefulness; it’s also a celebration of living with uncertainty. The pilgrims embraced the unknown. They had no printed-out bus tickets purchased online, no backup plans or old friends to call if their Greyhound never showed. Yet they had arrived in Massachusetts and survived. Though the future was an unknown, they celebrated, thankful for what they had in the moment. They had a feast with laughter, friends and family, and during that holiday, that was enough for them.

In a world where worry for the future often plagues us, I think there’s something we could all learn from that.

Tomorrow I will begin the bus trek back down to Baltimore, my stomach full of turkey, a tinfoil-wrapped piece of pie in the pocket of my coat. The bus stops are sure to be crowded with other travelers, carting leftovers, textbooks, briefcases and small children. Though we all have our destinations in mind for the trip, few of us really know, in the big picture, where we are going or what to expect in life. But that’s something to celebrate, too. We are thankful for what we have, here and now, each of us on our own unknown journeys.

I am thankful for the road I have, thankful that it took me back home to Maine this year, thankful that I have friends and family who will help see me through, wherever my journey may bring me.

And at a bus stop in Philadelphia, as I’m waiting to board that last bus, I’m going to be very thankful for that tinfoil-wrapped piece of pie.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at meg@margaret-adams.com

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