End of the Line
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."
Denver Outlaws / Major League Lacrosse All Star Game
TicketsSat., Dec. 29, 6:00pm
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.
So who on earth would get on, or off, a bus here?
"There actually is an answer to that," says Donna Mickley at the U.S. Forest Service. "There is a requirement to find public transportation for backpackers hiking the Continental Divide Trail, which passes right through Berthoud Pass."
She doesn't have an answer -- yet -- for how the Forest Service will replace Greyhound. But she does know that, because of the federally authorized trail, hikers will soon be greeted by "significant structures" such as permanent restrooms and an easy-to-read map that pinpoints Berthoud as a high point on the stretch between Canada and Mexico. By then, the old ski lodge will be nothing but a few splinters of plywood siding and memories.
Get your brochures -- for burro rides, tubing hills and ghost towns -- at the Winter Park Visitors Center. Skiing is over for the season, but check out those competing fests, rock and jazz! T-shirts are never more than fifty feet from your wallet, souvenirs of "Ski Naked!" Day and "Spring Break 2003!"
The visitors' center is also the Greyhound bus depot.
"The passengers are young, and they have big backpacks," says the woman behind the counter. "Sometimes they leave the pack downstairs and go hiking."
Some are American teenagers, but more are Scandinavian tourists seeing the West on a budget via Greyhound's Ameripass. After this month, though, they won't be seeing Highway 40. "One person gets on the bus here, sometimes none," the woman notes. "With the price of gas what it is, the route don't make sense at all."
Tourists aren't the only ones affected. Seasonal workers -- lift operators at the ski resort, chambermaids at the condos -- will need to find another way to escape this alpine splendor for some big-city R&R, or a doctor, or an airport, or a grocery warehouse where everything can be bought cheap.
"It's going to be difficult," says Wayne Kesterson at the YMCA's Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park. "A lot of folks who work here in the summer, more than 200 of them, come in by bus. And the train is much more expensive and difficult."
The bus's demise won't make much difference to people who pay to stay at the YMCA ranch, any more than it will to the second-home owners who ski Winter Park and Sol Vista. But that should be obvious.
Plumber Ron Anderson, who shares a building with the Amtrak station, which shares space with Greyhound, hasn't seen a bus rider in a while.
"Why would they get on here?" he asks. "To get to the next town?"
Or to get out of this one?
"It's a tough place to be homeless," says Jeanni Ducommun, a volunteer at Grand County's Samaritan Ministries. "We don't have a shelter, and we're the largest county in Colorado. The thing is, the Greyhound station in Denver is only blocks from several different shelters. If we can get them on the bus to Denver, we've done the best we can."
Ducommun has often pondered the chain of events that lead to a person ending up in Grand County with no place to sleep, no food and no backup plan. "People come here, but they don't have six months of rent under their belts," she says. "Or they come here with everything they own in a backpack on their back. Most people have no idea how we actually make a living in this county. We have at least two jobs, my husband and I included. Those jobs pay between eight and ten dollars an hour."
All it takes is a broken fuel pump or a broken relationship, a sketchy landlord or a sketchy immune system to throw off the financial balance. And beyond offering a meal and sometimes a night's lodging -- if a local hotel has room -- all a Samaritan can do is put that down-on-his-luck person on the bus.
"I was working in our thrift store less than a month ago, and a young man came in," Ducommun remembers. "He'd been fired from his job and told to get out. He had a girlfriend in Wyoming, and that's where he needed to go -- he'd been on his way from Salt Lake to Denver. I don't know why he got off here, and he couldn't explain it to me. So for 21 bucks, we got him on the bus to Denver, and I don't know what happened after that."
A few days earlier, Ducommun had financed a much longer trip, for an old woman who'd participated in the ultimate family squabble: Her relatives wanted her gone. "She was mentally incapacitated -- borderline Alzheimer's, I think," she says. "No one wanted her here, but someone back East did. We found the money."
It's hard for Ducommun to imagine the old lady hitchhiking east, dragging her suitcase down the road's shoulder, but after next week, that could happen. "I guess," she says, trying to see a lesson in this picture, "it's a way of suffering the consequences of the decisions you've made."
Even more recently, a Fraser woman happened to see a man jump off a coal train. She fed him, let him take a shower at her house and called Ducommun.
"We got him on the bus to Arkansas, because that's where he wanted to go," she says. "So how was he here? Why was he riding the freight train? I know there's people who actually like to live that way, but I was never sure about him. Did he jump off the train or fall off? Was he sick, or did he just need to eat?"
At the Granby Mini Mart, where the bus makes a half-hour stop, riders face a dazzling choice of purchases. Aged Deli Express sandwiches in their trademark triangular containers. Dole fruit cups that expired last April. Chips with orange nacho sauce, frozen burritos, Maruchan Instant Lunch. Also angel statuettes, biker bandannas, girls' fancy bobby sox, men's underwear, a vast selection of cigarettes and a dusty stuffed Alf, which may or may not be for sale.
"We're a full-service Greyhound agency for fifteen years now," says Pete Gallo, the Mini Mart's owner. "We're also a meal stop. That's 75 people, twice a day. It's an understatement to say the end of the bus will affect us."
"We won't get the sandwiches in anymore," says store manager Heather Powers, who stands behind the counter barefoot, not missing a thing that goes on. "Same with the little pillows. We'd get them in by the dozen; in a week, they'd be gone. Same with the personal items, the little toothpastes and toothbrushes."
Powers will miss the parade of people -- the kids begging their parents for candy, the retirees on cheap vacations. "We have some winners, I'll tell you," she says. "Today a guy got off the bus, asked me where was the nearest place to buy a beer. I told him, I wouldn't if I were you. He ran to the 7-Eleven, bought a beer. Then, of course, he couldn't get back on the bus. He was about 21. Last time I looked, he was outside, hitchhiking."
A guy twice his age is now standing by the side of Highway 40. Stan Mann isn't hitchhiking; he's waiting for his wife to pick him up after a complicated car shuffle. But he wouldn't look down on the practice, either.
"This is a working town," he says. "It's not Winter Park. Quite a few people up here don't have cars. One would be a guy with a DUI. One would be a guy whose car broke down and he can't afford to fix it. The Greyhound gets used a lot more than people think, even between these little towns."
True, says Powers, thinking of the elderly woman who catches the bus at the Mini Mart twice a year to visit her family in Pueblo. "And it was my safety net last year, when I was doing chemo," she adds. "The hospital in Kremmling only does one kind, and I had to go to Denver. I was terrified my car wouldn't run. I was counting on the bus."
So are the people who come into Granby for the not-uncommon reason of having found out there's a warrant for their arrest in Grand County. "They show up on the bus and turn themselves in," Powers explains. "I call the sheriff in Hot Sulphur Springs, and he comes and gets them. It's very civilized." In fact, she says, the sheriff came by just yesterday, when a passenger with diabetes needed a doctor, fast.
More often, the urgent need involves alcohol. "You can't drink on the bus, and people just won't understand that," Powers says. "People get off this bus and practically run the four blocks to the Silver Spur. Then, when they can't get back on the bus, they hang around here."
Hanging around Granby can become an art. "There was a guy who tried to get on the bus in Steamboat headed east for a week," she remembers. "Every day he was too drunk, and they wouldn't let him on. Finally he made it, but he brought a bottle of vodka, and he couldn't even walk down the stairs by the time he got here. I hear he wandered over to a church, and they called the sheriff."
"Unruliness, intoxication -- we deal with it," sighs Grand County Sheriff's Department spokesman Glen Trainor. "A lot of times, to be frank, they got on the bus inebriated in the first place. Then they get removed from the bus, and this is a problem we didn't create, but we have to deal with it."
Criminal matters -- if a passenger should happen to commit a sexual assault in transit by "grabbing a breast or a butt" -- are far more complicated. Witnesses and perpetrators tend to live out of state, he points out, and getting them back for court is no picnic. Drunks are easier. If they're a danger to others or themselves, they're taken to detox in Dillon. Otherwise, they kill time, sobering up for the next day's bus.
"Sometimes we get them a bed at the Y. Sometimes we just put them on foot -- they just have to walk around for a while. And they're not even the problem," Trainor insists. "We need the bus for the real transients, the people who are down on their luck and end up here, or people who've been in our jail for quite some time, like a Mexican national we got driving without a license. No way could he post a bond. We buy these people bus tickets.
"Now," he concludes, "you're gonna see a lot of hitchhiking."
The Shop and Hop is a whistle-stop, a blink-and-you-miss-it potty break only for drivers, and seldom then. Kim Marshall, the very young woman behind the counter, sees a lot of buses, but never meets their occupants.
"I hear it's going to be an inconvenience around here," she says. "Like if you don't have a car. Which I don't." Last winter she commuted by all-terrain vehicle to an early-morning job cleaning a bar. "It was cold," she remembers, "but if you can stand it, hitchhiking is a lot faster than the bus."
One bus regular is a little young for that. "A little girl, maybe thirteen, riding back and forth between her mother and father," Marshall says. "A custody deal. Kind of depressing."
"My kid did it by plane, and it was still depressing," comments a man at the back of the store. "It's depressing no matter how you do it."
Fletcher Stumph treats layovers in Steamboat like small vacations. During his ten hours of downtime, he watches movies, catches up on newspapers and walks by the river, which affords more opportunities for the kind of people-watching and -analyzing he enjoys on the bus.
"The contact is important to me," he says. "After all, I was a hairdresser for years."
In fact, Stumph put himself through Brigham Young University by working at his father's barber shop, then took his journalism degree to work as a newspaper editor in the small town of Patterson, California. "It didn't seem to suit me," he recalls. "I covered everything, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. So I went back to hairdressing, and I ended up doing the Osmonds, their original show. Donny and Marie and the rest of 'em. For about fourteen years. They were nice people, but I decided to be a lawyer, so I went to law school in San Diego, but I failed the bar. And I ended up driving a truck, then a bus. And I like it."
His law background comes in handy when the occasional customer complains that Stumph's edict against profanity violates freedom-of-speech guarantees. "And I'm able to say that I don't believe the court really does uphold profanity in a public place," Stumph says. "That was not the intention of the First Amendment."
With only five years of seniority, Stumph doesn't think he'll have many options when Greyhound's route cuts take effect. When they announced the impending closures in June, Greyhound managers said they were the first in a series of nationwide moves designed to make the company more profitable. Stumph would like to keep his base in Salt Lake, near the wife he married and the house he owns, but he's put in for runs out of Portland and Las Vegas, just in case. Any feeling of security would just be an illusion, he says. For a long time, things at Greyhound have seemed dicey.
"It's a major mechanical mess," Stumph opines. "Tremendous things are wrong with our buses -- the air conditioning shuts off, the alternators go out. I get the impression the mechanics barely have time to barely keep them running. When we break down, it takes hours to get another driver out there with another bus -- and it's well known on our run that we're getting junk buses. We're going over 11,000-foot passes with the Œcheck engine' light on. And it's not just eighty driving jobs we're losing; it's all the mechanics, all the people at the stops. Renee up in Wyoming, and Laura in Steamboat Springs."
Laura DeBowes, who manages the Steamboat Transportation Center, will man her station until August 18. After that, anyone arriving at the center looking for a bathroom, a map or one of the free buses that circle the town will have to find it without help from a human.
"We had a half-dozen people a day get on the Greyhound," DeBowes says. "Actually more in recent months. It stops for about thirty minutes for the facilities and the phone. The city built a little park by the river for kids to play in, and they get off the bus and play. By now I know some of them. An older lady who goes down to Denver for college once a week. It leaves people like her with absolutely nothing. The older population, especially."
"It's generally the lower economic rung that needs the bus," agrees her boss, George Krawzoff. "It's not like they can just go to Hayden and jump on a plane. And can you imagine what it costs to take Alpine Taxi to Denver?"
Krawzoff isn't objective about the bus, and even admits to a slight emotional attachment. In his late teens, he rode the Greyhound from Chicago to northern Michigan and had a "state-of-the-art subterranean experience," he remembers. "At that age, you have to ride the Greyhound. It builds character. Now what?"
Sunny Rolando is head bookkeeper at the Coop gas station, where the bus stops. But not in recent memory. "I've never had to catch it," she says. "I don't know anyone who's had to catch it, and I've been here eight years."
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."
Two dinosaurs stand across the street from the Dinosaur Loaf 'n' Jug, conveniently located on Brontosaurus Avenue. Just west is Terrace Liquors, where Greyhound passengers fear to tread.
"Unless they come in asking for water," says owner Debbie Morrill. "Otherwise, it's a no-no." Even the Loaf 'n' Jug can be something of a no-no -- Greyhound passengers are only allowed in five at a time, for fear of petty thievery. The store is almost always crowded with shift workers from the nearby Desiderata Coal Mine, and the clerks can't keep their eye on everyone, particularly not people from who knows where. Today's sale isn't hurting business, either: three cans of Skoal or Copenhagen at $3.33 each, provided you buy three.
"They're bombarded," Morrill says. "They make a lot of money off that bus. Imagine giving up on Highway 40! It will put a crimp on us all."
According to Morrill's quick and dirty summary of her home town, Dinosaur has a population of about 200, a town hall and a county building, a liquor store and two convenience stores. "A lot of people here don't have a car, which doesn't sound right, but it is," she says. "If a car breaks down around here and it's gonna cost a thousand dollars, well, some of our people wouldn't see a thousand dollars in three months. I like it because it's quiet and because a lot of neat people pass through."
Specifically, by bus. Morrill has met visitors from as far away as Japan, who've come to the town closest to the entrance to Dinosaur National Park. There's also the occasional recently released prisoner, the student from Colorado Northwest Community College in Rangely, a transient. "'Transient' may not be the right term," Morrill decides, "but someone who's working just enough to get to the next town. Odd jobs, then they catch the bus and head on. I know an older lady across the border in Utah who just loves to ride the bus."
"From Vernal all the way to Denver," confirms Stella Beacham of Jensen, Utah. "I had a tumor on my optic nerve, and I am not a candidate to drive real well. Besides," she says, with the same relish a seasoned trekker uses to describe conditions at the Everest base camp, "the road is always real bad from Dinosaur to Craig. The drivers won't let you distract them then because of that long, flat spot. It gets real icy and snowy and bad."
To pass the time, Beacham entertains other passengers. She points out wildlife and provides snippets of local history. Yet she is gracious when a driver decides to upstage her by telling "a little story or something," she says. Many of the drivers are pleasant, she says, but once in a while she gets a cranky one.
"I'm a smoker," she says, "and I got out of the bus to smoke, and I guess I wasn't far enough away. Me and that driver had a run-in. Then he got after some poor woman whose baby was crying. Another driver was giving us a little tour of Denver at Christmas time, and he told me I was looking out the wrong window! He told me I didn't know my right hand from my left! I wrote a complaint about that."
Despite such concerns, Beacham will miss her bus trips. "Especially the visiting with other passengers," she says. "I've never had any trouble, and it's all so different than here, where I was raised. I've even met people from Mississippi! I kind of enjoy talking to the black people, too, because there's none here."
Beacham will not make her annual Thanksgiving trip to Denver, not unless her optic nerve clears up or someone offers to give her a ride. She can't argue with Greyhound's economics, but she reserves the right to be disappointed.
"I'd been planning for it," she says. "I was excited. It was all so interesting and different. It's been an enjoyment to me all these years."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.