Travel Issue: Busman’s holidays

Seeking vistas, camaraderie, and even romance as a Metro sightseer.

TRAVELING BY METRO BUS has its moments of sublime beauty and serendipity. This is not one of them. The photographer and I are standing outside a factory outlet mall in North Bend, watching the rain come down in sheets as we consult the bus schedule. “According to this,” Rick says, with just the slightest hint of an accusatory tone, “there was a bus about eight minutes after we were dropped off.” It’s now about 40 minutes since our disembarkation. “Maybe it came when we were looking at the kitchenware.” That had been my idea, of course. I thought we’d be better off inside a store, warm and dry and looking at colanders and spatulas, than out here in the aching cold. (Plus I saved 90 cents on a spatula and mushroom cutter, according to my receipt.) Meanwhile, our hourly chance at escape had passed.

At times like this, I hate Metro. I remember a friend saying she did too because of a “control issue”: She loathed being stuck somewhere, or forced to follow someone else’s schedule. It’s the institutional version of a wretched party that your ride doesn’t want to leave. And it’s an integral part of bus riding; you surrender some autonomy to save money, traffic hassle, and maybe even the environment.

But relinquishing control also means embracing chaos and serendipity and shaking off some of the car owner’s in-grown habits. You may get a thrill driving you know not where, but it doesn’t match the stimulation of riding a familiar bus into unfamiliar territory, following someone else’s plan with no idea of the end. It’s like kidnapping yourself.

I ride the bus out of mixed pragmatism and cussedness. You see, I’m one of those otherwise competent adults who has never learned to drive. I suppose growing up on an Alaskan island with only 18 miles of road had something to do with it, as did the 10 years I subsequently spent in England, a country that, unlike the United States, never got around to dismantling its transit system.

THAT’S NO KNOCK against King County’s Metro, though. You can cover an amazing amount of geography on Metro, all the way across King County north (Route 358 goes all the way to Aurora Village), south (the 174 and 194 to South Federal Way), east (the 215 and 209 to North Bend), and southeast (Enumclaw via the 150 from downtown and the 915 from Auburn, or the 152 direct at peak hours). My journeys, like most city dwellers’, are largely confined to commuting, but every once in a while I fantasize over the mysteries of the bus-stop maps and imagined where my bus pass might take me.

I must concede that compared to other forms of transportation, buses don’t offer much in the way of romance. Even Wayne Hom, a Metro employee who considers himself a bus fan, admits that his ilk are a small subset of transit groupies, easily overshadowed by folks who get all breathless over trains, planes, and vintage automobiles. “It’s really about the math,” he explains—referring, I guess, to the joys of sitting with a series of bus schedules figuring out just how far and how fast you can get for your buck twenty-five. “In the past the vehicles were part of the appeal. They were all distinctive. But the whole system is pretty well homogenized now.”

Even with Metro’s relative cleanliness and courtesy, comfortable bus travel entails planning and ingenuity. Assuming the bus isn’t already full, your first choice is where to sit. The politics of bus seating haven’t changed a whit since high school: The bad kids sit in the back, while the teacher’s pets and other folks who require extra attention sit right up front. While one of my colleagues recommends the seats just behind the back door (“There’s a bit of breathing room in front of you, plus you get a little fresh-air relief whenever someone gets off”), I prefer the higher seats just over the wheels.

Dress in layers. A Metro bus is like New England in the spring; there’s no telling what the temperature may be, with heat blasting or entirely absent according to the driver’s whim.

While it’s unethical (if not illegal) to take up two seats to yourself, you can dissuade seatmates with the right reading material. I find that a visible copy of an Ayn Rand novel, Dianetics, or How to Make Friends and Influence People almost always guarantees me personal space.

In the months since the Mark McLaughlin tragedy, there’s been a lot of talk about safety and day-to-day incivility on the buses. And yes, in four years as a Metro passenger I’ve seen much rudeness, an occasional fare jumper, even a fight or two, not to mention young jerks slouching across two seats on an overfull bus. But kindness and courtesy prevail much more often. The elderly and disabled are almost inevitably offered seats; other riders usually try to quiet those who argue or fight; and when Sea-Tac passengers climb aboard with a suitcase or two, there’s little grumbling about the lack of space.

BUS SIGHTSEEING is a matter of chance. Routes are designed for utility, not aesthetics, and any views arrive by accident and not design. At times this is disappointing, as on Route 57 from downtown to Alki. Instead of winding along the waterfront, the bus shoots up SW Admiralty Way, suddenly plummets to the beach, then follows the shore for a few blocks before climbing again to the unremarkable Admiralty neighborhood.

However, the 209 Issaquah-toNorth Bend route that left me momentarily stranded was immensely picturesque, with ample stunning vistas of dark green hills above Snoqualmie and, of course, the famous falls. Too bad our driver was hellbent on getting done. As Rick the photographer noted, “He’s seen the stable and he’s headin’ for that feedbag.”

Another pleasant expedition was Golden Gardens via Ballard, starting on the 7 to the U District, then onto the 44, finally arriving via the 86 on a cold but clear afternoon to watch the blue-gray sea, check out the boats at the marina, and watch mallards, geese, crows, seagulls, and sparrows all graze the same ground in an uneasy truce.

But my most spectacular sightseeing jaunt began on the 54, downtown to the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, and then via the ferry (an extra $2.40) to Vashon Island, where I caught the 117 to Burton, which looped back to the terminal. On a blustery January day, the trip across the Sound and around the island was spectacularly gray and forbidding, with whitecaps dancing and high winds punting about our warm little 18-seat van. As we traveled, I received an informal historical tour from fellow passenger P.R. Hansen, who first arrived on Vashon in 1914 and still works as a “wheelbarrow engineer and hydrologist.” (“I’d be out there chopping wood right now if it wasn’t so wet.”) He gave me the lowdown on everything from where the blacksmith’s had once been to the current real estate squabbles, and I realized that this was the delight of bus sightseeing in a nutshell: great scenery and spontaneous camaraderie.

I should mention that I almost caught pneumonia when the bus back from Fauntleroy was 35 minutes late, but that’s another story. In fact, while sightseeing by bus seemed a dandy idea in September, when I first hatched it, late winter isn’t the best time to see much of anything around here. Spring being just around the corner, however, here are some routes for warmer weather:


Route 54 to Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, and the 117, 118, or 119 on Vashon Island to Burton and Westside. During peak hours a passenger-only ferry runs from downtown, with a bus waiting at the Vashon dock.

Route 209 from Issaquah along 1-90, and backroads between Snoqualmie and North Bend. Catch the 215 from Seattle to the Issaquah Park & Ride, and, during peak hours, the 214 direct to North Bend.


Route 3 to East Queen Anne and the 4 to North Queen Anne give a great view of the city and Lake Union from Taylor Avenue.

Route 2 to Madrona, ending at Lake Washington, with a great view of Mount Rainier from the bus shelter.

Route 56 to Alki from downtown, with a viewpoint at Admiral Way and fine views of Seattle and the Duwamish industrial area along the way.

Route 921 between Bellevue, Eastgate, and Somerset. Somerset Drive affords some wonderful, little-known panoramas of Mercer Island, Seattle, and Bellevue.

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