by Taffy Cannon
A funny thing happened on the way to prison.
I awoke at four-thirty in the morning in Southern California’s Tejon Pass and discovered that the bus on which I was riding was no longer moving.
We seemed to be parked on the shoulder, as enormous semi-trucks whooshed by at dizzying speed, often shaking the bus as they hurtled north. The trucks passed in nearly-constant blurs of light and sound, sometimes edging left a bit but often remaining in the far-right lane. That’s the lane trucks habitually use to cross this notorious pass on Interstate 5 through the Tehachapi Mountains, known as the Grapevine. It’s the primary route between Northern and Southern California.
I sat up right away.
Eighteen-wheelers were passing what seemed like inches from my head, the head that had been sleeping peacefully on a pillow propped against the bus window. Okay, maybe not inches. They were probably passing feet away, though you wouldn’t need more than one hand to count how many. And maybe not sleeping peacefully, either. We were, after all, on a bus going to prison in the dead of night.
The other occupants of the bus were mostly the children of women incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, nearly 400 miles north of their San Diego homes. We were participating in the Get on the Bus annual Mother’s Day trip to briefly reunite these kids with their moms in prison. For many this would be their only visit of the year. I’ve written about Get on the Bus previously, and it’s a program dear to my heart. Started by nuns with a prison ministry, it focuses on the youngest and most forgotten victims of crime, children left behind when a lawbreaking mother winds up behind bars. At least one child on our bus had been born in prison.
Chowchilla is midway up the agricultural Central Valley and home to two major prisons, a company town where the product is Corrections. Chowchilla is also remembered as the site of a kidnaping of a busload of children in 1976 by three rich kids. A busload of children. Hmmm.
I’ve participated in Get on the Bus many times, but I’d been mildly queasy about this trip for several days, without any logical reason. Now I had a pretty good idea what had been bothering my subconscious. I could only hope that my earlier anxiety did not also include a next act in this drama, something like the bus exploding after being struck from behind by an eighteen-wheeler going 65 uphill.
What we were told by the bus drivers and what I could overhear was not reassuring. One of the alternators had gone out, they told us, and they hoped to get a push start from the tow truck they kept calling. The truck was taking its sweet time showing up and was based seven miles north, or maybe fifteen south. There might also be a bus that could come up from San Diego (or, ideally, someplace closer) if the push-start didn’t work, but there was no indication that alternate transportation was being arranged. It was all disturbingly vague and the semis just kept roaring by, shaking us over and over again.
Also, nobody seemed terribly sure where we were.
Three green-and-white highway signs stretched across the road too far ahead for any of us to read them, taunting with the prospect of civilization and help. My phone locator showed us just south of 138, the Lancaster Highway, and the general consensus seemed to be that we were somewhere around Gorman. Landmarks were no help, however, since it was pitch black except for the lights on the passing trucks.
It never occurred to me until much later that we might have stopped on the side of a precipice, though I found it very disconcerting when we coasted downhill a bit to edge slightly farther onto the extremely narrow shoulder. But I did spend a lot of time figuring out the best and fastest way to get everybody off the bus in a hurry should we need to. Like when some trucker drifted absentmindedly and smashed a semi into the bus’s rear end.
Once the engine was going again, the drivers told us, we would get to Chowchilla with no trouble. Absolutely. Guaranteed. Furthermore, the braking system was entirely unaffected by this problem, so going down the far side of the pass—a much steeper grade than the incline where we were now stuck—would be no problem.
Mercifully unaware of our predicament, most of the kids on the bus slept soundly through it all. The adults accompanying them—mostly caretaker grandmothers—sat upright, wide awake and calm, with the dignified resignation of people who learned a long time ago that they have very little control over their lives.
More time passed.
The sun began to rise, briefly bathing the surrounding hills in soft rosy light. Alas, that soft rosy light revealed other issues that I hadn’t noticed when we boarded the bus at 1:30 am. The rest room, for instance. Previous travelers had crammed the toilet cavity full of tissue, so the toilet was unusable, though on the plus side it didn’t smell too bad. The rest of the bus was filthy and strewn with trash. When I pulled down my tray table, a wad of garbage fell out. And the seats themselves had basketball-like protuberances in the lumbar area.
We served the now-awakening passengers brown-bag breakfasts we had brought, and after a couple hours—yes! a couple of hours—the tow truck showed up. It was a pretty good-sized vehicle, but not remotely capable of pushing a bus full of people uphill, much less fast enough to push-start its engines. I’ve owned Volkswagens, and I know about push-starting. You want to be pointing downhill with a tail wind.
Once the mechanic began performing last rites on the engine, the official call for a replacement bus went out. Around then, we also learned that we weren’t the only Get on the Bus vehicle having engine trouble. Another one was broken down seven miles ahead of us. Or maybe fifteen behind. (You know, by the home base for the tow truck.) We plotted how to cram everybody into the replacement bus.
And where, you may be wondering, were the police during the three hours that this bus full of sleeping children teetered by the side of a mountain pass as the goods of America roared past to market?
The Highway Patrol, responsible for Interstate traffic in California, showed up just as the second bus arrived. Three hours after our abrupt stop. It was never clear why they hadn’t come a whole lot sooner, or when they learned there was a broken-down bus filled with children and grandmothers in the Grapevine. That bus, come to think of it, had anonymous black windows and might well have been filled with cadres of terrorists.
When the replacement bus arrived, suddenly everything was all a-scurry. We emptied the dead bus down to the bottle of hand sanitizer we’d duct-taped to the wall of the nasty rest room, and transferred everything and everybody onto Bus #2. This bus turned out to be clean and comfortable, featured a working engine, and didn’t even need to be shared with the other broken-down bus passengers. I’m not sure what happened to them. Maybe they hitch-hiked.
Did I mention that it was raining on and off through the entire trip? At one point the wipers on Bus #2 shut themselves off during a torrential downpour, but Replacement Driver stopped for gas and made a mechanical adjustment to the wipers, which behaved for the rest of the trip.
Our prison visit was the customary fusion of heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Our group of volunteers had originally been slated to arrive first and was assigned to take informal group portraits as mementos for both inmates and family. We actually arrived last, but slid into the second shift of the photo booth operation. I shot dozens of pictures against two backdrops that tantalized with desert and garden scenes unknown here behind the miles of razor wire, and I loved every minute of it. These pictures would be all that remained at day’s end—sometimes posed seriously, sometimes clowning, always brimming with an agonizing blend of joy and loss.
And then it was time to leave, as always too soon. We boarded the bus and headed south into our own realities while the mothers we had visited were strip-searched and locked back in their cells.
We stopped for a fast-food dinner just north of the Grapevine, and I noticed that southbound traffic appeared sluggish as it began the climb. Still, it was Friday afternoon and I’d just learned that even Fresno has rush hour traffic, so I didn’t pay too much attention as I turned my phone on for the first time since sunrise.
I stopped cold at a Google News headline announcing that the Grapevine had been closed mid-day in both directions, following a flash flood and mudslide. Flash flood! Mudslide! Two more potential problems I’d never thought of in the dead of night as we waited for the tow truck and the bus and the Highway Patrol and maybe also Godot.
But by now we were back on I-5 and climbing, albeit slowly. And if we were going to be detoured off the Interstate there wasn’t much we could do about it anyway.
The northbound lanes across the median were eerily empty, with occasional maintenance vehicles pushing around rocks and debris, and stretches showing giant wet brush marks on the pavement where previous work was complete. Up ahead, we saw northbound traffic being routed off the road at Highway 138, the same Lancaster Highway exit near where we’d stopped fifteen hours earlier.
Moments after we passed the first of the stalled northbound traffic waiting to head out onto its lengthy high desert detour, the bus driver turned and pointed.
“That’s your bus over there,” he said. And by golly, it was.
It’s been almost two weeks now. I hope somebody has finally gotten around to moving it, or at least to checking it for terrorists.