By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Fletcher Stumph will drive a Greyhound bus between Steamboat Springs and Salt Lake City for six more days. After that, the route, along with 260 stops in thirteen northern states, will disappear. The price of gas is up and ridership is down -- that's what Greyhound management says, and Stumph would have had to be driving in his sleep not to notice.
Greyhound's new CEO and president came on board to solve the company's financial problems, Stumph says, but good luck: "You cancel runs, and before long, the connecting runs aren't doing well. My feeling is this new guy will take his three, four, five million dollars for making the company financially viable, and when he's finished, and all those people don't have bus service, and all those jobs are lost, the company will fold up and go away."
Stumph may be angry -- on behalf of himself, his fellow drivers and all of his passengers -- but he is not a profane man. His riders have always been required to take this into account. No cursing, loud or soft, English or Spanish, is allowed on his bus. This isn't a Greyhound rule, but a Stumph rule.
"It just got to me, the people who take the Lord's name in vain and say foul things," he says. "People can provoke you. I've learned over time to talk to them face to face and get things straightened out at the very beginning."
Stumph doesn't like using his loudspeaker. He prefers to stand in the aisle, facing his riders when he speaks his piece. In addition to no cursing, there will be no alcohol -- not even a beer at the dinner stop -- no drugs, and certainly no smoking. Don't even try to smoke in the bathroom, he warns, because the air vents will give you away.
He's relieved to report that once passengers know where he stands, they seldom screw up. "I generally enjoy the people very much, and I wish we had more contact," he says. "We used to. They could sit in the front seat and we could talk. But since 9/11, two drivers have had their throats cut by crazies. There's always been crazies on the bus, but not like now, and the company got paranoid. They're putting in protective plastic shields around the drivers. We have to keep people out of the front seats unless they're disabled."
As it turns out, a front seat full of disabled people is nothing to sneeze at in the conversation department.
"Last week I had Michael," Stumph recalls. "His mother put him on the bus. He's a real nice young man, but you could tell he wasn't a hundred percent, mentally. He was coming over from Salt Lake to meet his uncle and go to some car races. And I picked up a couple of American Indians in Roosevelt, the place they used to call 'the land of desolation.' One was a pretty bright guy walking with a cane -- disabled somehow, but you don't like to ask. The other guy was blind."
All three sat in front, where the talk ranged from geology to the unknown and the never-to-be-known. "We definitely joked some, and we visited a lot," Stumph remembers. "We talked about the places we were driving. We saw elk, antelope and deer. I told them the legend of Timpanogos Canyon. We talked about fishing the Provo River, and the Indian guy with the cane said you could probably catch a mermaid in there, and Michael just loved that."
Stumph picks up his westbound route in Steamboat at 12:40 p.m. By then it will have traveled just under four hours from Denver, and he'll take it on to Salt Lake, arriving at 9:30 p.m. A second bus leaves Denver at 6:15 p.m., arriving in Salt Lake City at 6:30 a.m. Two eastbound buses also travel Highway 40 each day. But all that ends on August 18.
During his layover in Steamboat, Stumph thinks about Michael and the two Native Americans and where they might be headed next. Perhaps in big economic terms, it doesn't make sense for the bus company to have a route along such a sparsely populated stretch. But Stumph doesn't care, because he knows some of that sparse population personally.
"How will these people get around?" he wonders. "How can the blind guy drive? Michael is 39, with the mentality of a ten-year-old. How will he get where he's going? Who will take him?"
Greyhound only stops here if someone flags down a bus. Maybe one of six leather-clad Christian bikers from Oklahoma, posing by the Continental Divide (elev. 11,307) sign as the wind whistles through their bones?
"Lord, it's cold here for summer."
"Oh, stop it, Roy. This is a blessed day."
Or the two serious-looking hikers, with their trekking poles and replacement fluids? One of the twenty people who've dropped by to use three very strategic porta-potties?
Very little remains of what was once a skiing landmark: Berthoud Pass Ski Resort, which debuted the first rope tow and double chair in the nation. In the '80s, the area became sacred to snowboarders simply by virtue of being one of the few places that allowed the sport. But now the word "resort" seems preposterous. The boarded-up ski lodge is covered with No Trespassing signs.