At just after 10 Monday morning, I hiked up the steep steps of a Megabus coach outside the downtown Burbank Metrolink station.
The company, which has most of its routes on the East Coast, recently opened up service between Burbank and the Bay Area. Not being one to pass up an opportunity to travel on the company dime, I did an overnight in San Francisco to check it out.
Muggy air greeted me on the upper deck, belying the tips I had read online about how cold it could get onboard. I found a seat near the middle of the packed bus and sat down heavily.
As the half-dozen people who got on in Burbank filled the remaining seats, our fellow passengers looked on impatiently, waiting for us to sit so the driver could start the engine and crank up the increasingly needed air conditioning.
It came on with a blast, inducing a shiver from my seatmate. Kim Johnson, originally from the San Fernando Valley, recently moved with her husband to the Bay Area suburb of Pittsburg. Down in Los Angeles for a baby shower, she said she prefers riding the bus to flying.
"Especially with all of the security you have to go through at the airport," she said. "It's all necessary, but it's just so much easier to take the bus."
Johnson, a gregarious and cheerful African American woman, said she loves the conversations she has on the bus. People are just so friendly, she said, and you never know who you're going to meet.
That goes, of course, both ways. Her extended family is connected with the famed Roscoe's Chicken and Waffle chain. There appears to have been a falling out, though, as Roscoe's website only lists Herb Hudson as the founder, with no mention of the Johnson clan.
Johnson parenthetically acknowledged this, noting her family is now running two restaurants — one in Oakland and the other in nearby Walnut Creek — under the name "Home of Chicken and Waffles."
"We can't use the name," she said simply.
Johnson said she still gets tickled about how people react when they enjoy the food. Some tap their feet, she said, others shake their head, and still others lick their fingers.
"And I especially get a kick out of watching white people eat it," she said with a laugh. "What is it? Chicken and waffles? An omelet?"
As we talked, the bus crested the Grapevine, heading north into Central California. At night, the road can feel like an extended tunnel with two of California's largest cities at either end. During the day, it's not much better, unless of course you're not driving.
After entering the vast nothingness that is the I-5, the bus became library-quiet. I fell asleep, waking up as we pulled into Oakland and, shortly after that, San Francisco.
There, I met up with a college friend, Joe Eskenazi, a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly. About two years ago, Joe traveled the opposite direction by bus — though he only took city and local routes. After 16 trains and buses and 32 hours, he fragrantly showed up at Union Station in Los Angeles — and promptly ran into former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Some guys get all the luck.
My trip was considerably easier and involved no politicians. Other than minor hunger pangs from forgetting to eat before I got aboard, I had no complaints.
The ride took seven hours each way, essentially the same amount of time it takes to drive. After 14 hours of bus travel in two days, here's the review:
• The bottom level is the only one that has tables. Show up early if you want one.
• The bathroom is spotless. I know, I was surprised too.
• Every seat has electrical outlets.
• The highly advertised Wi-Fi is pretty much useless.
• Bring a sweater, as it can get cold once they turn on the air conditioning.
• It's not clear if you are allowed eat on board, but the drivers don't seem to care if you do. On the way up, our driver said that if anyone from Megabus corporate ever asked the name of the person who said we could eat or drink, that we should give the name "Steve." Our driver's name was not Steve.
• The bus north makes a stop for food a few hours into the ride; going south, it was about five hours in. The stop is 25 minutes sharp.
• Megabus pushes its $1 fares but this is clearly a gimmick, as that price is so rare as to be functionally nonexistent.
• However, even at full price — which seems to top out at $42 — the fare is equivalent to the cost of the gas you'd buy to drive yourself.
It's a good deal, safe, convenient and comfortable. I suspect I'll be traveling again, and soon.
DAN EVANS is the editor. He can be reached at (818) 637-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org