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Around the Kitchen Table

Maureen Weber

 

of loneliness and lifelines

07/05/2017

A little over a month ago the Saskatchewan government shut down the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, or STC, after its more than 70-year run. As the reality of the decision set in, radio programs featured outraged, disappointed, and depressed callers who told stories of what the bus system meant to riders from all corners of the province. Caller after caller said it was an essential service for the elderly, for those who needed medical attention and had no means of transportation, for First Nations people travelling from remote locations, for those with special needs who have few opportunities for rides to visit family. It was, they said, a lifeline.

I wouldn’t have guessed STC would be, once upon a time, a lifeline for me too.

My earliest memory of “the bus” was when I was four and we lived across the highway from the Shell service station where the STC stop was located. The bus that made its way from Saskatoon to points east has always read “Norquay,” a place I thought existed only on the strip of a sign across the top of the bus. As it turns out, Norquay, with fewer than 500 people, is not far from the Manitoba border, kind of in the middle of nowhere. STC really did serve remote locations.

I have an early memory of standing with my parents to see my grandmother off on a rare trip to Saskatoon to visit her sisters. The memory is like a faded filmstrip that whirrs and flickers. It seemed a momentous occasion.

Fifteen years later I was moving to Saskatoon for my second year of university, having stayed at home for my first year at St. Peter’s College. I shared an apartment with my best friend, but was not able to tame the demons inside that prevented me from socializing with peers. I was shy, insecure, and lonely. I needed to go home.

Since I had no car, and none of my acquaintances ever went home for the weekend, I was either stuck — inconceivable — or . . . there was STC.

Because I rarely had a class on Fridays, I would catch the early bus to Humboldt for the weekend. It was $6.75.

My most anticipated moment of the week was hauling the soft-sided red Samsonite, a high school graduation gift, up the apartment stairs at 7 a.m. to walk over to Central Ave. and wait for the city bus to rumble up the street and take me downtown. My parents meant for that suitcase to take me away, not lead me home, but they always welcomed me, if not with understanding, then at least with patience.

I loved getting on the bus in the dark of early morning to settle into the cocoon of my own seat and wait for the lurch as the bus left the station. The city passed by through rain-soaked September windows, yellow leaves clinging until we reached the outskirts and headed down the long straight stretch of highway toward Humboldt.

In the dark, heads and shoulders of passengers would be shadowed behind the dusting of light that fell from above the seat onto the books in their laps. Alone with everybody, it felt comforting to pull out my book too, and then doze off because Castle Rackrent was just too boring (who said it was a good idea to take English fiction to 1800?).

Seasons of rides: December when Christmas-card snow played in the headlight beam; sinking into my down-filled jacket in bitter blue January, the window opaque with frost; February white-out and confidence in the driver; Holy Thursday evening bus in the midst of bumper to bumper traffic — from my high vantage point watching passing cars play chicken with unsuspecting oncomers.

By the time I got to third year my loneliness had diminished and the STC bus trips dropped to a few, but I have never lost my love of riding on the bus. Even this year I continued once in awhile to ride to Saskatoon on the STC lifeline. Only a few things have changed over the years — plush seats, a little more legroom. And free wifi means less need for reading lights; faces are illuminated like moons from the devices in their laps.

What has never changed is the thrill of departure, and the anticipation of arrival, my foot pressing an imaginary accelerator to hurry the bus to its station dock.

On my frequent trips to Saskatoon I’ve often met the green STC bus coming down the highway, and waves of memories roll by along with it. But I know that bus is mostly almost empty, and in recent years I’ve wondered how long a cavernous space could continue to trundle over prairie miles, eating up subsidies along with fuel. We have an attachment to institutions long past their prime. But buses don’t run on nostalgia.

Now that the end has come, people are upset, they are scrambling to find much-needed transportation, and confusion reigns. The government is wrong to pull a service on which many depend, without other modes of transportation in place to fill the void left by STC’s closure. There’s no time to waste: it’s time for prairie ingenuity to hit the road.