* Editor’s note: this column contains graphic language
The last time I rode on a charter bus was 17 years ago, when my eighth grade class took a graduation trip to Florida. I don’t have any specific memories of the ride so it must have gone smoothly. I had no reason to hesitate when a few days after the election I was presented with the opportunity to help organize a charter bus trip from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington. What do they say about the “best laid plans?”
My friend and co-organizer Helen and I worked tirelessly for two months organizing the trip for a group of 55 women, men and children. The departure day finally arrived and the group of us gathered at the Shrewsbury metro station where the bus was going to pick us up at 4 p.m.
People arrive with their bags, pillows, snacks and protest signs. Family members dropping off those riding the bus, hug and wish well and wave goodbye. We are excited. We are ready.
The designated pick-up time of 4 p.m. comes and goes. So does 5 p.m. Helen and I frantically tag-team calling the bus company, growing more and more frustrated and anxious as 53 sets of eyes stare at us from the curb as it gets darker and colder.
More than an hour late, the bus finally arrives and cheers erupt. We begin loading people onto the bus and as the final passenger climbs the steps onto the bus I casually mention to the driver that we will have a full bus. Fifty-five passengers. Fifty-five seats. The driver chuckles and looks at the ground. He tells me this bus only has 54 seats.
After some triage phone calls on his part, and the team spirit of the bus riders, three women agree to sit together in a two-seater for the four-hour drive to Indianapolis where another bus, with 55 seats, will take us the rest of the way. We pull out of the Shrewsbury metro station at approximately 5:30 p.m. into rush-hour traffic with cheers and applause. After a rough start, we were off! D.C. or bust!
I don’t remember exactly when the real trouble started because I did manage to fall asleep somewhere in Ohio. I awoke when we came to a full stop on the same two-lane highway and I could hear an alarm sounding from the front of the bus. The kind of Apollo-13-style alarm that signals something is terribly wrong. Helen is at the front of the bus talking to the driver.
She returns to tell me that the bus is low on coolant and has overheated. The driver needs to turn it off to let it cool down. Someone mentions that according to her phone, there is a gas station less than two miles up the road. If we can just make it there, we can further assess the situation. The driver agrees to try. We lurch into the gas station parking lot around 6:30 a.m. with smoke billowing from the bus.
The driver starts making phone calls while we all unload from the bus and shuffle bleary-eyed into the gas station. We ask the attendant what town we were in. “Accident,” he says. Excuse me? We were broken down about 2.5 hours outside of D.C. in Accident, Maryland. Population: 325.
Everyone uses the restroom and mills around the gas station while Helen, the bus driver, and myself triage and discuss the situation. Whatever happens, we know it is not going to happen quickly, so we settle into this gas station/rest stop. I suspected, based on my own upbringing and I knew from the election results, that we were deep in Trump Country. A quick Google search revealed that Business Insider once reported Accident as “the most conservative town in Maryland.” And here we roll in with our pussy hats and feminist buttons.
We brush our teeth in the bathroom decorated with racist and Pro-Trump graffiti and take pictures of the beautiful sunset as it rose over the hills we had just traversed. Thankfully, this station has an attached diner that was open despite the early hour and, by all estimations, was not prepared to serve 55 customers at the same time ever, let alone early on a Saturday morning. I am in no mood for conversation so I grab a stool at the bar and ask the waitress for chocolate milk. Stat.
The waitress, whom appeared to be in her mid-60s, soothed frustration and sadness with each “honey” or “dear” she uttered as she took orders and delivered food and drink. She asked where we were going and what happened to our bus. She seemed to genuinely feel sorry for us.
As the hours ticked by and the march in D.C. began, someone asked the waitress if she could try and find the march on TV so we could at least watch. Two of the waitresses searched every channel looking for coverage only to figure out it was not covered on any national news station. They let the TV rest on CNN, which was airing Trump’s Inaugural Prayer Service. The irony paired well with my biscuits and gravy and home fries.
I will spare you the technical details of the bus repairs but after hours and hours at the gas station we ultimately learned our best move was to wait a couple hours more, causing us to miss the entire march in D.C., for a new bus and driver (ours was sleep-deprived at this point) to take us back home.
Now, I can’t tell you whose idea it was because I was still in organizing/triaging-mode with Helen and the bus driver. Just as all great social movements are born out of frustration and ingenuity, someone decided that if we couldn’t march in D.C. we would march right there in Accident.
So we unloaded our signs from the bus displaying messages about women’s rights, black lives matter, and love trumping hate and marched through the parking lot along that two-lane highway. There were 55 of us in a town with a population of 325 so I am willing to bet we had the largest per-capita march anywhere in the world that day.
An RV full of young-ish men had been stopped at the gas station during our pop-up protest and as they pulled out of the parking lot yelled at us, “It’s a man’s world!” Not for long, I thought. Not for long.