By Catherine Jagoe
For 70 years, Van Galder Bus Company
has been the number one transportation choice for southern Wisconsin
and northern Illinois to O’Hare and Downtown Chicago.
Here you are, again, on the Van Galder bus, listening to music and gazing out the window as the coach makes the long turn up the ramp to join I-90 and its hundreds of miles of flatland, heading south for Illinois. The prickly nap of the blue plaid upholstery. The throbbing of the engine. For the last thirty years, Van Galder has carried you between Madison, which both is and isn’t your home, and O’Hare, where you board a plane to other countries, other homes, other lives, other versions of yourself. It is the first—or the last—leg of a journey, and of an often-painful metamorphosis.
In Wisconsin, the Van Galder is a rite of passage for budget travelers of all stripes—students, retirees, the frugal, the working poor. Founded in 1947, the Van Galder company prides itself on its “deluxe motorcoaches.” The expression is a relic of a bygone age, the heyday of the mid-twentieth century, when I-90 and O’Hare were built, when the footrests and seat belts Van Galder still advertises were the latest mod cons. More well-heeled travelers take the plane from Madison to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Everyone else takes the Van Galder. It is a time capsule traveling through space, ferrying passengers to and from Abroad. If a bus can be said to be a place, this one is both liminal and limbo: a threshold, a parenthesis, a space of simultaneous stasis and transition.
The firm’s brand is “safe, reliable service.” You don’t have to wonder whether the bus is running on any given day or pore over columns of departure and arrival times—it follows the same schedule—six buses to and from the airport every single day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving and any other holidays included. Van Galder runs through road work, thunderstorms, floods, tornadoes, blizzards. Two of the company’s stock phrases: “Van Galder gets you there” and “We run unless the interstate is shut down.” Or unless there’s an act of god, like a global pandemic; the Van Galder shut down for two months this spring, a move without precedent.
Van Galder is a Dutch name. The prefix “van” means “from” a particular place of origin or residence; Galder is a village in the Netherlands. In your experience, Americans often ask where you are from; you resent the question because there is no answer to it—or the answer is too complicated. You’d lived eight places by the time you were eight, in England, Ireland and Nigeria, followed by France, Spain and the U.S. as an adult. So you often respond, “Madison.” You have, after all, lived there longer than anywhere else. “No,” the person responds. “Where are you really from?” You think about this en route to the airport. O’Hare, Chicagoans have sometimes boasted, handles more people in one year than Ellis Island in all of its existence.
Van Galder is often mispronounced Van Gelder, as if it performed a kind of symbolic castration, which, in a way, Midwestern culture does. On board you wear compression stockings, loose yoga pants and sneakers—nothing stylish or exuberant. The few passengers who converse do so in muted voices. The drivers are doughy and phlegmatic. Their movements are slow and deliberate, like their speech. In another place they might be curt and waspish, but here, frustrations are withheld. “Midwestern nice” is often disparaged in other parts of the country, but the emotional fragility you experience with transatlantic travel means you’ve often been grateful they don’t treat you like bus drivers elsewhere, with undisguised loathing. They are stolid but not unkind.
The Van Galder ride to O’Hare takes three and a half hours, proceeding with what at times feels like unbearable slowness. By car, you can make the trip in two hours. But on the Van Galder there are four stops: Dutch Mill Park ‘n Ride, followed by the Rust Belt cities of Janesville, Beloit, and Rockford. The bus lumbers off the highway at each one and waits the prescribed number of minutes, even if no one alights or descends. And the drivers never speed. They set cruise control at a steady pace: fifty-five, sixty-five, seventy, whatever’s posted. The drivers flash their lights and give slow-motion, regal, stiff-handed salutes when they pass the Van Galder bus going in the opposite direction, like semaphore between ships of the line.
In Madison, the start and endpoint of the route is downtown on Lake Mendota, at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union, with its signature colorful metal chairs—yellow, orange, red, blue—and their round backs and starburst cut-outs. In summer, the place is full of students in shorts and flip flops; there are sailboats and windsurfers on the lake. Winters, it is icebound and silent. People issue from the paneled glass double doors of the Union sipping their travel mugs of coffee, muffled to the eyeballs, lugging roller bags across the gritty, salted sidewalks.
After all the luggage is loaded and the passengers have filed on, the driver climbs aboard, stows his cooler behind his seat, tests the intercom and adjusts the height of the windshield shade. He closes the door. There’s a loud hiss as the bus inflates and levitates in preparation for departure. He greets the passengers at large with a “howdy, folks,” like a cowboy in an old Western. His “o’s” are either splayed wide—“Wisconsin” becomes “Wiscahnsin”—or closed, dark and northern, as in “folks” or “road.” He runs through a spiel about what is and isn’t permitted in this space, always ending with “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.”
The first stop is on the outskirts of Madison at the Dutch Mill Park ‘n Ride, a grim place on E. Broadway, just off the Beltline and the interstate. Amid the din of traffic, it holds the Greyhound bus stop, an Arby’s, a Phillips 66 gas station, Days Inn and Sleep Inn opposite, cans and wrappers in the parking lot, always a wind, and strange, solitary men loitering like wolves.
Forty-five minutes later you reach Janesville. The bus pulls off I-90, and passes used car dealerships, Nissan, the Olive Garden, a Mazda dealer, and an auto repair shop before reaching the terminal. In South Beloit, the first stop in Illinois, the bus passes Goodyear tire and Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary and pulls into the McDonald’s east of I-90, which has now become Fas Mart/Fas Fuel Travel Plaza, as if a native Spanish speaker accustomed to dropping the final “t” in “fast” had named it. “Fast,” you reflect, means rapid, but also unswerving, indefatigable. The last two are more pertinent to this ride than the first.
The road gets noticeably bumpier when you cross the state line into Illinois. Rockford got its name because it was already a place of transit, a much-used ford across the Rock River. In the first half of the twentieth century it had thriving furniture and agricultural machinery industries. But by the 1990s there was such severe unemployment that it was named one of the ten worst cities in the nation.
Nowadays there is only one stop in Rockford, but there used to be two. The one that was abolished—because the place itself was demolished—was the Clock Tower, which contained a Time Museum. There were clockmakers in this city. The Rockford Watch Company produced the first key-wind watch—three railroads went through Rockford and the watches were popular with railroad men. The Van Galder ride, like a pendulum, has measured out the time—yours, and others’.
Before O’Hare, you pass the glittering parking lot at the Chrysler Belvidere Assembly Plant, full of workers’ cars. Then, in Schaumberg, Illinois, a weird anachronism: the ersatz eleventh-century castle with its crenelated battlements, crests, and shields. It was built by a company called Medieval Times, which holds jousting tournaments with knights on horseback and “medieval dinners” for tourists. It’s a popular venue, which people pay a good deal of money to visit. The dinner menu, bizarrely, features sweet corn and tomato bisque, garlic bread, and coffee—ingredients unknown in eleventh-century Britain. The medieval part, apparently, is that one eats turkey drumsticks and corn cobs with one’s hands. There is something endearing in the preposterousness of this.
Staring out the window of the bus, you are suspended in an eternal, inexorable present. Van Galder, for you, means rawness and exhaustion, and often—especially on the return—a peculiar kind of brokenness. If you’re outbound, you’re worn out from scrambling to finish work and pack in time to travel. Relieved there is nothing more you can do except settle back, dry your tears and watch the fields and the flatlands pass. You dread the many sleepless hours ahead on the plane—the wretchedly uncomfortable night you will spend jammed into your upright seat, with a stranger on either side of you; or, if you’re lucky, a cold window with a gap large enough that anything you wedge on the seat arm will slip off. But for now, there is only the bus, the road, the sky.
Coming back to Wisconsin is another story: you’re raw from being wrenched from your mother country, England, or your adopted homeland, Spain. All the familiar sights of the Illinois-Wisconsin countryside are rendered suddenly strange and alien—the huge scale and flatness of the landscape, the suffocating heat and humidity, or, depending on the season, the finger-numbing cold. Grimy snow and ice, a bewildering lack of hedgerows, hilltops, variety, color, trees. You’re moving as if underwater, suspended in a no-man’s-land between time zones, exhausted from traveling for eighteen hours already. You long for sleep and a cessation of motion. When you finally disembark, after close to twenty-four hours in perpetual motion, the liquids in your inner ear take hours to settle down. The world is still unsteady. You are not yet on terra firma. And your soul is somewhere in mid-Atlantic.
The countryside the bus traverses is flat without the grandeur of the Great Plains, and the view more often than not ugly; the enormous biodiversity, beauty and fertility of the prairies and oak savannas that were here before settlement has been pitifully reduced. No doubt the Van Galder ride is colored by the lonely years you traveled this route in your Toyota Tercel, to a job in northern Illinois, consumed by a longing to be elsewhere and dread of the weather—sweating in the spring and fall and in terror of skidding during the long winters, your tiny craft buffeted by the wake of eighteen-wheelers roaring past, blinding you with their spray, trying to hold the car steady against the perilous suck of their wind tunnels.
Yet there’s often a strange gift associated with this bus ride, too: you feel peeled open, split clean of your shell, shucked from your routine, suddenly able to see with great clarity and tenderness across the broad landscape of your life, recording your surroundings silently in your brain. You observe the people around you with enormous empathy and detail, imagining their lives. You listen to music and think about the winding route your life has taken, as if from a great height.
Your love-hate for Van Galder, and the voyage across worlds that it represents, is your love-hate for America. Van Galder is the America that is sterile and soul-destroying: the monotonous acres upon acres of Roundup Ready corn and soy, commodity crops genetically engineered to not produce seed. It is the America that is dependable, that is comfort and ease and reliability, that is utter predictability. Theirs is an iron-clad guarantee that you will be delivered safely to your destination. The America that aspires to make travel to the outside world from the remote innards of this continent not only possible, but easy.
But Van Galder can also be comforting. Like the time you came back on the last bus home, made it to the Union at 2:35 a.m. and there were no taxis. You were the only person left on the bus, having dozed the whole way on the back seat next to the toilet, draped over your duffel bag, worn out from travel and pain—the pain of separation, the nauseous pounding of migraine headache—and the driver said he was done with his shift; did you need a ride part-way home? Warily, you said yes, worrying about what you might be getting yourself into, but he dropped you at the campus parking lot, and waited, lights blazing, until you got your Tercel started. Then, with a wave, he motored off into the dark. ■
Catherine Jagoe is a translator, poet and essayist who has published eight books and three chapbooks. Her poetry collection Bloodroot won the 2016 American Poetry Prize, the Council for Wisconsin Writers 2016 book award, and was named an “outstanding work of poetry” by the Wisconsin Library Association in 2017. Her nonfiction appears in the 2016 Pushcart XL anthology and received notable mention in the 2019 Best American Essays. Her most recent essays feature in Memoir Magazine, The Coachella Review and Under the Gum Tree.
Cover image by Timo Kuusela (creative commons).
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