Natural Bridge is nestled in the mountains and rests within a gorge in Rockbridge County, Va. It’s midway between Lexington and Roanoke, and hard by Cedar Creek, a small tributary of the James River.
Natural Bridge gets its name from a geological formation comprised of a 215-foot high stone arch through which the Cedar Creek once flowed. Thomas Jefferson at one time owned the bridge. He had purchased the bridge from King George III, and according to legend, George Washington surveyed the land in 1750.
In 2002, four days before Thanksgiving, my wife Brenda and I traveled to Natural Bridge to attend a reunion of the Retired Greyhound Bus Drivers Association. At the time, I was a legislative aide to a congressman who represented the area. The Congressman had requested me to attend in his place, offer a few remarks, and present a resolution to the retired bus drivers.
As we entered the ballroom, a man in a classic Greyhound bus driver’s uniform, circa 1955, greeted us and led us to our table, occupied by five or six former bus drivers all dressed in vintage outfits. Their wives were dressed in handsome dresses popular in the 1950s. There was a place card on the table imprinted with the words, “The Hounds of the Road.”
The drivers and their wives were friendly and engaged us in animated and easy conversation. The men shared numerous stories about their experiences behind the wheel of the big buses.
One driver told how Greyhound buses had the largest and softest seats, with great amounts of leg room, which allowed passengers to stretch out and sleep away the miles. One of the wives laughed and told how the drivers used to sell tiny pillows to help the traveler enjoy the full experience of the road trip.
“I was driving down Lee Highway, old Route 11, just outside this hotel one winter night. Most of the passengers on the bus were asleep, it was snowing extremely hard, icy, and it was so cold,” the jovial bus driver said.
“How cold was it?” the table asked in unison.
“It was so cold another Greyhound bus passed me and the dog was riding on the inside,” the table roared at the old, cold dog joke.
“There is nothing like steering a 48-man bobsled,” he said, to another round of laughter.
As the hours passed and the Jack Daniels flowed, the bus driving stories swelled, too.
“The old Greyhound station in Corbin, Ky. was right on Main Street across from the shoe store,” another driver chimed in.
“Do you remember Colonel Harlan Sanders?” the driver asked. “He lived in Corbin and opened his restaurant there. He loved to ride the Greyhound and would bring baskets of chicken for the drivers when he traveled to Knoxville.”
“Ferlin Husky and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra used to ride the Greyhound,” the driver sitting next to me said. “Not at the same time,” he laughed, “but the band would often ride through Virginia when they were on tour.”
One of the older drivers cleared his throat. “My story is a bit more melancholy. I had a passenger on Thanksgiving Day whose story about broke my heart,” the driver said. “He was sitting in the second seat behind me and would sporadically chat. He was about 20 years old, and excited because his former girlfriend had called and asked him to meet her. According to the young man, she wanted to reconcile.”
The people around the table leaned in and were hanging onto every word the elderly driver spoke.
The bus driver said the young man, who lived in Des Moines, told him his girlfriend had called and asked him to get on a bus and meet her in Chattanooga. The young man said he immediately bought a ticket, willing to endure the 791 miles from Iowa to Tennessee to meet her. “She is worth the trip,” the young passenger told the driver. “I think about her every day.”
“After three days on the road, we pulled into the station at Chattanooga. It was late, as a look of unease came over the young man’s face. The station was empty. He closed his eyes as he drew a deep breath,” the driver said.
“Maybe she forgot,” the young man sighed.
He knew instinctively she wasn’t going to show up.
“That night made me thankful for my friends, like you here tonight, who never forget and do show up,” the bus driver said, as the folks at the table raised their glasses of Jack Daniels to toast the old days.
“May God bless you always, my friends of Virginia, you Hounds of the Road,” he said.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.