It’s a cold winter’s afternoon in Dallas. The sky is bruised with heavy grey and purple clouds. A low wind scuds through the quiet city streets, presaging the blizzard that’s predicted for tonight.
We lumber our suitcases the three hundred and fifty meters from our hotel to the bus station, the wheels rumbling on the sidewalk under the gaseous sky. Tonight’s destination, Abilene, Texas. I’m chasing the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots and my fictional characters around the United States. I’ve booked a five hour bus journey toward Sweetwater from Dallas, because I’m a left hand side of the road type of girl. I’m not game to drive for five hours in Texas on the side of the freeway that I know nothing about.
Inside the bus station, folks turn to stare at us. We are obviously not from around here, my daughter and I. An attendant comes straight over to help us. I wonder if she wonders what on earth we’re doing here, like I’m beginning to, and, once she’s checked our tickets, she directs us to another queue. We’re in a narrow corridor with a few quiet folks. Wind bustles in from the bus stop outside.
A young man appears, marches up front of the queue and starts telling us all how he’s just done four years in jail and is going all the way from New York to L.A, how he’s only nineteen years old and how meth is not a good plan you hear, how if this bus is late, he’s not gonna be responsible for what he’s about to do. Another man chats to him. Everyone else stares at the floor or pulls out their phones.
My hand curls around the handle of my suitcase, and I question my decision to take the bus. I remind myself how the WASP mostly travelled half way across the United States from who knew where to get to Sweetwater for five months solid training. During the war. In 1943.
This bus trip? It would be nothing to them.
My daughter rolls her eyes and says she survived the bus mall in Tasmania.
The bus rumbles in on time, and once we’re on it, the young man quietens. Thankfully. In fact, nearly every passenger falls asleep. I’m the only one awake, staring out the window and snapping photographs with my phone. I’m drinking in the scenery and plots and characters and stories start to dance in my mind.
In Fort Worth, the driver tells us we’ve got five minutes to stop and then this bus is leaving and if anyone is not on back on board, then that is our bad luck. My daughter implores me not to get off. She’s not doing this trip alone.
As we travel deeper into the Texan plains, the wind picks up. Sleet flecks the windscreen, snow flakes swirl around outside the windows and a couple of women in front of us stir. They start up a lilting conversation about folks they both happen to know. My ears prick up and I find myself entranced by their accents, fascinated by their intonation, the cadence of their voices, and the charming way they, two strangers, connect.
Outside, the plains are flat and endless, dotted with stunted, blackened trees. I am fascinated, and strangely settled by this. This landscape reminds me so very much of South Australia where I grew up, of the Adelaide plains where my own mother spent the war as a W.A.A.F on a training base in the driest state on the driest continent after enlisting when war broke out. I see the same wide, open skies as we have back home in Australia, the scope for airplanes to soar unbidden toward the stars.
Knowing I have to write, I burrow about in my bag for a notebook, but all I have is my phone. So I tap out some paragraphs and send them via messenger to a friend in Australia for safekeeping. Moments later, he’s emailed them back to me and he tells me he’s stored them as well so they are not lost. The passage I wrote out on that bus will end up in my book at the opening of Chapter Nine, but I don’t know that now. I’ve suddenly got a character called Eva and she’s travelled all the way here from California, and the road is endless and long and she’s passing wooden gates leading down long tracks toward ranches. I peer at those gates. They are another story. For another time.
On the highway, utility trucks swish past the bus and I watch them whip by in the rain, trying to catch a glimpse of the stickers on back. I catch my breath when we pass towns with names I’ve heard of in the news- like Waco.
Darkness falls. I go back to snapping photographs, taking videos of this strange, yet familiar seeming place.
When we pull in outside Abilene hours later, the wind has stilled and the night sky spreads above our heads. All around us, the Texan plains sit flat and silent. We’re dropped in a bus shelter on the side of the highway. A couple other passengers scuttle off.
Soon, we’re alone out here. I call the taxi company which I booked back in Australia. The owner tells me not to worry, my driver will be here in forty-five minutes. My daughter’s sense of humour has rolled away with the storm. “You’re kidding me?” she asks. “Come on. Forty-five minutes?” I look for options. The storm might have stilled but it’s freezing and we’re alone out here.
Up the road, I spot a Subway. Pick up trucks are stacked neatly outside, their noses pointing to the glass doors. We lug our suitcases up there. Inside, its light and warm and they’re playing ZZ Top. I chuckle that we’ve landed in Footloose, but my daughter begs me not to leave her in here to use the restrooms. We have coffee, the kids working here are friendly and helpful and when our taxi rolls in, an old green automobile with a lovely woman driving, she’s charming too. She dissipates tension like a breeze and is fascinated by the fact I’m a novelist. She chats easily with both of us and too soon, we’re at our hotel.
She asks me to send her links to my books. That night, we share a few text messages. I’ve heard of Southern hospitality. But nothing prepares me on this first night for the lovely people I was about to meet in the next few days, for their unexpected kindness, for the heartfelt passion I’m about to develop for those World War Two Fly Girls on this moving, inspiring trip.