Some people call it the Ghost Bus of U.S. 93, and others call it the Ghost Bus of Union Pass.
Fortunately, there is only one. What they call it depends on where the silent motorcoach overtakes them, and scares the starch right out of their clothes.
Comedians who haven’t actually seen the ghost bus call it the “Grim Weeper,” mocking reports that its headlights weep tears of molten chromium.
Don’t scoff until you’ve seen the coach in your own rearview mirror. Before the Grim Weeper overtook me near Burro Creek, I was two inches taller and did not have this hypertensive tremor.
Bus 777 vanished thirteen years ago–an entire “turnaround” bus, carrying 48 feverish gamblers to Laughlin, Nevada. Each passenger expected to make a killing in the casino that day–but perhaps “killing” is an unfortunate choice of words.
No one knows what happened to the passengers. Only the driver, Joe, was found. He was wandering on the shoulder of Arizona Highway 68, looking for his bus. He was inchoherent, and suffering from a bad case of brain dandruff.
He said he last saw his bus in Union Pass, which is on Highway 68 northwest of Kingman. But that was the real bus. Most sightings of the ghost bus have been along U.S. 93 between Wickenburg and Wikieup, where the trouble began.
Highways 93 and 68, plus a stretch of Interstate 40, make up the route of “turnaround” buses from the Phoenix area to the casinos of Nevada–buses that go up in the morning and come back at night. I have the feeling there were many more of these buses before Indian casinos started popping up around Arizona.
In the morning, the buses are filled with gamblers eager to get to Nevada before the slot machines stop accepting money. When the buses return late at night, most of the passengers have been subdued by fatigue and disappointment.
Joe’s turnaround bus made its last pickup in Sun City on a very warm July morning. Bus 777 was black with trim of red and aqua and yellow, plus the usual amount of chrome. The bus was painted to get attention, not to win design awards.
Joe sized up his passengers: mostly middle-aged, a few simply aged. Several pairs of women were traveling together, off for a fun day at the casinos. One young couple snuggled and whispered. Some passengers were quiet, fantasizing privately about the jackpots waiting in Laughlin.
One group of six–three couples–chattered and jibed at each other. One ebullient member of their group, Danny, seemed determined to be the life of the party. That would be one to watch, Joe thought. There was something unsettling about Danny.
The bus stopped at a fast food place in Wickenburg so the passengers could have coffee and doughnuts, then hurried on, urged by passengers who would rather gamble than eat doughnuts.
North of Wickenburg on U.S. 93, just past the forest of Joshua trees, the airconditioning began to fail. The interior of the bus heated up quickly under the July sun.
After a few miles, Joe pulled over and explained the problem to the passengers. Should they turn around and go back to Phoenix?
“No!” the passengers yelled in chorus. Joe calmed them down and took a vote–45 to two in favor of continuing in the heat, with one aged woman abstaining because she couldn’t hear what was being said.
Joe sighed and continued driving. He needed the money, but it was going to be a long day.
The passengers were quiet now. Even Danny had piped down. Watching him in the rearview mirror, Joe saw that Danny’s eyes slid here and there, looking for some way to stir things up.
Going through the hills between Burro Creek and the Big Sandy River, Joe noticed that the bus seemed a little short of power. It was trailing blue smoke.
Around 10 a.m., Joe pulled the bus over in a parking lot in Wikieup and told the passengers the bus was losing power. He could turn around and go back to Phoenix, he said, or he could send for another bus. This one was as hot as an oven, he pointed out.
“No,” the passengers cried. Danny called out, “We’ll push the bus if we have to!”
A couple of women chimed in, “Yeah, we’ll push the bus! Our slot machines are waiting for us!”
This time the vote was 43 to four, with the same woman abstaining, but smiling in a friendly manner.
Joe pushed on, with considerable misgivings. He argued with himself: He was the captain of bus 777, was he not? Should he be risking the lives of his passengers just because they demanded it?
On the other hand, the casino was paying to have Joe bring a busload of pigeons. And secretly, Joe kind of liked slot machines.
The bus growled on, getting hotter and hotter inside. Danny did magic tricks to distract the passengers. He made one woman’s wig disappear, then couldn’t find it, and she got pretty hostile. What if she hit a big jackpot and didn’t have her wig on? He had spoiled her dream.
Danny snarled at her to stop whining. Something in his manner made her sit very quietly and stare straight ahead.
Bus 777 groaned onto I-40, rolled through Kingman, and found its way to Arizona 68, going west toward Laughlin. This was the home stretch. Impatient passengers began getting ready to exit the bus and make a break for the casinos, which were still a good 30 minutes away.
As the bus climbed the grade toward Union Pass, it really began losing power. Union Pass is a gateway through the Black Mountains, named for members of the Union Of Pioneer Pass Builders, who completed it in 1851.
Once through the pass, Arizona 68 swoops down to the Colorado River and the bridge to Laughlin. Joe was having a hard time coaxing the bus the last few hundred yards to the summit of Union Pass.
Finally, he pulled onto the shoulder and told the passengers, “This is it, folks. The bus won’t go anymore.”
The passengers mutinied. Joe remembers Danny advancing on him, a malevolent look on his face. Danny’s eyes were slits of hot coals, and his pointed ears had turned red.
Joe remembers standing dazed beside the road as passengers pushed bus 777 over Union Pass and clambered aboard as it started down the west side, out of his view. The passengers had taken his shoes.
A tourist from Iowa, driving up toward Union Pass from the river, said he saw the bus speeding down the grade toward him. It went around a curve where a small hill hid it from view–and it never emerged.
When he got to the place where he should have met the bus, there was nothing–no bus, no skid marks, no debris, nothing.
That was the last sighting of bus 777 in this world. Lawmen combed the arroyos along Arizona 68 for days, but not so much as a skid mark or piece of chrome was ever found.
The man from Iowa sold his car and took a train home. Joe retired from driving and began delivering newspapers to apartment houses on foot.
It was about three years before the ghost of bus 777 started to appear–sometimes in Union Pass, sometimes down around Morristown, but most often on U.S. 93 between Wickenburg and Wikieup.
You’re traveling the highway late at night, alone, about the time the tangible turnarounds are returning from Laughlin.
Suddenly, a bus comes up rapidly in your rearview mirror. You detect more than its headlights and clearance lights; it has just the suggestion of a silver glow to its dark profile.
You think the bus is going to rear-end you. It’s about that time that you see its headlights are dripping chromium tears.
All of this happens in a hearbeat. There is no time to react.
The bus passes swiftly over your car, enveloping it, and moving on. Your car doesn’t falter, but there’s a buzzing in your head, tingling in your limbs, terror in your gut.
As its rear bumper clears your grille, the bus melts and becomes a pool of chrome on the asphalt.
You don’t even have time to blink before the pool of chrome is gone, and it’s only you, your headlights and the asphalt ahead.
Wait…you are no longer alone. Every seat in your vehicle seems to be filled with a grim, quiet passenger who was not there before.
If you are really lucky–if you don’t panic and flip your car–you stop on the shoulder and turn to ask, “Who the hell are you?”
There’s no one there.
You said you were thinking of going to Laughlin for Halloween…Who all’s going with you?