Picks and Pans Review: The Great American Bus Ride

updated 09/13/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/13/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Irma Kurtz

Irma is going to spend the next few months traveling all over the United States," the author's mother explained to an elderly neighbor.

"Well, well,' said the mauve-tinted neighbor. 'Isn't that nice.'

"Whereupon Mother, who loves to shock, added slyly. 'On Greyhound buses.'

" 'Oh, dear, oh, dear!' cried the little old lady. 'Not with all the nut cases.' "

Well, yes, with nut cases and lost souls, folks who surrendered too early to life and people on their way to something better. Kurtz, a native of Jersey-City, N.J., who has lived in Europe for the last 30 years, succumbed last year to a sharp curiosity about her homeland, and with no luggage save a small weekender holding a change of underwear, a bathing suit, a skirt, a sweater, silk socks and a toiletry kit, spent three months seeing the U.S.A. by bus.

"The truth is I am a hussy of low appetites who always yearns shamelessly for rough travel," writes Kurtz. "And I grab the chance whenever I can to arrive at my destination exhausted, knowing I've earned my goal the hard way. Greyhound and I were made for each other."

And The Great American Bus Ride was made for readers who hunger for stories told by a sharp-eyed, smart-mouthed, highly accomplished eavesdropper able to make even seedy depots inviting. "The streets around bus stations are generally sinister," she writes. "It is there influx meets outflow of bad guys—not very successful bad guys either, or why are they traveling by bus?" Kurtz hits the name-brand stops—Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Seattle—but she also makes pilgrimages to towns too insignificant to rate picture postcards, such as Melrose, Minn.; Elwood, Ind., where her mother was raised; and Fargo, N. Dak., "simply because I thought it was one of the least likely places I could ever have found myself."

But The Great American Bus Ride is less about Kurtz's itinerary than about the Greyhound experience. The author explains that bus travelers rarely exchange names even when they've spent hours exchanging intimate secrets, that passengers choose seatmates of like gender and that middle-aged riders—so insists the middle-aged Kurtz—have the toughest time falling asleep on Greyhound night trips. "We are nowhere as loose and lubricated as we used to be," she notes.

The Michelin Guide designates various spots on the map as points of interest and, more enthusiastically, as "worth a detour" or even "worth a journey." With Kurtz as guide, The Great American Bus Ride is definitely worth the journey. (Poseidon, $21)

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