End of the Line

For decades, folks along Highway 40 left the driving to Greyhound. Now they've been left behind.


CRAIG

Jenefer Angell's friends are waiting for her at the Craig bus depot, which is not a corner of a gas station but its own tiny building, located in the alley behind the Smoker Friendly shop and surrounded by blooming hollyhocks. Angell has traveled six hours from Idaho Springs and now swaggers a bit, because the ride has been an experience. To prove it, she kept a journal:

"I headed for the back of the bus despite the dreaded outhouse smell...I noticed a cockroach had appeared on top of my bags and was waving its little tentacle thingies at me...dismayed warnings from the boys behind me as a dark pool of liquid oozed from under the toilet door. It turned out to be someone's abandoned soda...[in Granby] the big restroom decision. Wait in the ten-deep queue for a unisex stall or return to the known horrors of the bus? Ahead of me in line, a Mexican family was evidently debating the same question...At Steamboat, we changed drivers. Our new guy spent a good fifteen minutes going over the itinerary and the rules before he even sat in the driver's seat...no swearing, drinking, loud music, smoking, etc...nor sneaking off to smoke a joint (his words) during a break...he offered commentary on our surroundings, from points of interest to the shocking state of the economy. When we drove through Hayden, he explained that all the working people in Steamboat have had to move down the road to Hayden, and even that is getting too expensive...."

In the depot, station agent Harold Ratzlaff watches the bus pull out and drags on an anachronistically long cigarette. He's sitting at a small wooden desk featuring a cash drawer that is just that -- the top drawer of a desk, filled with cash. A Spanish-speaking man wearing gold chains and an Orioles hat comes in to buy a ticket to Pueblo. Ratzlaff writes it out by hand and gazes at the man until he leaves. "I find out very little," he says. "I don't get too nosy. Very rarely, someone will tell me their life story."

At times, when Ratzlaff arrives for his two hours of work -- between 8 and 9 a.m., and 2 and 3 p.m. -- he will find a once-drunk passenger waiting for the next bus. "Yeah, they get kicked off the bus, and they always complain they didn't do nothing wrong," he says. Sometimes a Craig cop arrives with whomever he's bought a bus ticket for. "You'd be amazed at how many people get caught here," says police officer Jerry DeLong. "Most of them are just trying to get from I-70 to I-80, but there's a lot of country between here and there."

There's not much to do until the eastbound bus arrives, and that's the way Ratzlaff likes it.

"Twenty-seven years ago, I was director of housing and counseling at Mesa State College," he recalls. "I had five minor heart attacks, and I thought I'd better get out. I ended up running a bus station in Lamar for three years, and I've been here for 25. I don't know about stress, but my wife and I kept it open 21 hours a day, and at one point we had three employees. That was in the glory days, when this was a Trailways run, when it was being run like a bus company. It's been years of mismanagement. Too many MBAs who have their heads where the sun don't shine, is all I'll say."

Ratzlaff's building is headed for a glamorous future as a place to store furnace equipment. Some fixtures, such as the free basket of Latter-day Saints literature, the empty pop machine that once held Vanilla Cokes (25 cents!) and a display of oil paintings done by Ratzlaff's wife, will have to go. So will the maps of the Middle East -- "I love it when the servicemen come in and explain it to me," he says -- and the Rocky Mountain West, complete with a handwritten YOU ARE HERE. The scariest toilet ever will remain in use.

"They just aren't thinking," Ratzlaff says of Greyhound management. "The freight they could carry, the possibilities. A lot of elderly people ride. They may have a car, but they have no desire to get out on the interstate. I think a bus ride beats looking down the center stripe."

While chain-smoking behind his desk, Ratzlaff considers new job options. Something with the TV station in Rifle -- "broadcast? anchor?" he says doubtfully -- or, more likely, serving as a private taxi for local ranchers, whose workers will no longer be able to take the Greyhound to their jobs. "Ninety percent of these guys come and go on the bus, from Peru, Colombia, places like that," he notes. "Now the nearest stop will be Glenwood Springs, 150 miles away."

"It's a huge burden," agrees John Raftopoulos, whose family has run sheep for three generations and has picked up workers at the Craig bus station since 1934. "They come through Denver or El Paso, and a lot of times, it takes them one or two tries to get here. They don't understand English, and they have to depend on someone to tell them when to get off the bus. It's kind of hard to call them at home in Peru and say, ŒSo what time does the bus get in?' You have to take your chances. And you know what's ironic? The last time I took one of my guys to catch the bus home, there was no room on it at all. He had to wait hours for the next one."

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