Road Trip: Professor's Book on Bus Travel Reveals Portrait of America

September 15, 2008

September 15, 2008 — When is a bus trip not just a way to get from point A to point B?

Before she joined the University of Virginia faculty this fall, Kath Weston spent more than five years crisscrossing the nation on buses — not just to reach a destination, but also to chronicle the lives of Americans who travel via the cheapest transportation option. Many of the riders would fit anyone's economic definition of poverty, but Weston's new book, "Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor," says her journey was full of unexpected richness.

Along the way, Weston describes her fellow passengers' colorful humanity and tackles issues of class, race and dubious access to America's opportunities. The riders with whom she traveled hours and days might be struggling, hungry or penniless, but they were also helpful, creative and philosophical.

Weston will read selections from "Traveling Light" and sign books at New Dominion Bookshop Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m. on the Downtown Mall.

"The history of writing on poverty makes it sound like an affliction," Weston said, "and it's usually scholars who've had more privilege, even if they're well-intentioned."

Instead of writing the kind of voyeuristic exposé she often came across, she said she wanted her social commentary to reveal "the artistry of living poor" — the ingenuity of getting by in a system that often fails to reckon with the widening material gap between rich and poor.

"By riding the buses, I hoped to get at aspects of living poor that have eluded community studies of poverty," Weston writes in the introduction to this, her fifth book. "The road trip has become its own American art form, yet few have bothered to chronicle what happens when people without money take to the road."

Take T. J., for example. In Flagstaff, Ariz., he was almost arrested because a white woman, who was probably insane, thought he was a witch and started screaming at him in a bus terminal snack bar, bringing the police. They were about to haul off T.J., who was black, but a white trucker from the bus talked them out of it.

The trucker loved the road, he said, but he had to give up his rig to have surgery — that's why he was riding the bus.

When everyone got back on the bus, a Hispanic man walked back to T.J., handing him a foil-wrapped package of burritos his wife had made. It turned out T.J. had no money to buy food as he rode to Oklahoma, en route to a new job in a meat-processing plant.

Weston found passengers taking the bus for all kinds of reasons.

A once-middle-class woman, who fell onto harder times when her now-deceased husband was laid off, told Weston she hated taking the bus, and even though it was obvious why, the woman stood up for a non-English-speaking passenger when the bus driver started yelling at him. She also changed seats so a young woman and her toddler could sit next to each other.

A middle-aged man with a ponytail, divorced, had custody of his daughter in the summer, so he took her on the bus for the only kind of vacation he could afford and to show her another side of America, he said.

A teenage girl was traveling from one city to another looking for her younger brother. Her mother had taken off with him and then left him someplace; the sister didn't know much more than that.

Weston took her first bus trip alone when she was 16, traveling from her native Chicago to an archaeology camp in New Mexico. That unforgettable trip, she said, showed her that traveling on the bus was much more than just a way to get somewhere.

Weston grew up in a working-class family and attended college with the help of financial aid. She earned a B.A. from the University of Chicago and Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford University. She has taught at Arizona State University, Wellesley College, Brandeis University, Tokyo University and most recently at Harvard University, where she directed the Women, Gender and Sexuality program.

Here at U.Va., she has an appointment in the anthropology department and directs the Studies in Women and Gender program, in which she is teaching a course on politics of the body. She plans to cultivate the program's interdisciplinary and transnational strengths, she said.

Her research interests range from economic topics to gender studies to the history of science. Her other books include "Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age," "Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship," "Render Me, Gender Me" and "Long Slow Burn: Sexuality and Social Science."

— Anne Bromley