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Odyssey by bus an eye-opener

In six years, Jacquie Hepfer hadn't missed an Inverness council meeting. But she did for the first time Tuesday, leaving her agenda and council duties behind for a cross-country, hippie-esque trip to California. By Greyhound bus.

Call her Jacquie Kerouac.

Call her crazy.

Call her a flower child making her way to the West Coast, just 30 years late.

Call her what you will, even Mrs. Greyhound. Hepfer says it was an adventure. An eye-opener. A real odyssey. A cool journey. And one that should be mandatory.

Hepfer, 51, has lived in Inverness since she was a little girl. She doesn't travel much. She hates to fly and is afraid of heights.

The only other time she had been this far from home was when she went to California with a couple of girlfriends two years ago.

"I've never really been anywhere but here," she said.

Her husband, Kevin, knew this. He has wanted her to come with him to California, a trip he makes every year by car to the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, one of the nuclear plants in the country where he works as a supervisor.

But, Hepfer said, "I've always been afraid."

This time, she was convinced.

The council can function without her, Hepfer remembers contemplating. Inverness won't fall apart. The Hepfer kids are grown now.

Hepfer said she thought, "it was just something I had to do."

The plan was for Hepfer to meet her husband in California as he was finishing up his job, and the two of them would drive back together in their Chevrolet pickup.

"The bus was 99 bucks, 2{ days," Hepfer discovered. "And I said, "all right.'

"Well, that's when it began."

At 8:25 a.m. Feb. 25, a Tuesday, the bus left Crystal River, making, as Hepfer calls them, "Dew Drop Inn stops" along the way until she reached her final destination, Arroyo Grande, Calif., a few days later.

There was Chiefland. Then Tallahassee. Mobile, Ala. A long stretch and a little town in Louisiana. Then San Antonio, El Paso and Houston. Tucson and Phoenix. Santa Barbara.

The lights would come on, the stop would be announced. It would happen just as she would start to get a good sleep. That, or a kid would scream.

Hepfer would get out, stretch, go to the bathroom, get some coffee, have a cigarette.

Her last memory of riding a bus was during her college days at the University of South Florida. On weekends, she would ride one to Inverness because freshmen and sophomores weren't allowed to have cars on campus.

This time around, Hepfer found herself riding among a mix of folks she calls "the bus people." They were the elderly who don't drive, college kids taking advantage of student deals or middle-age like her.

On the bus, no one uses last names, just their first ones, Hepfer said.

There was Ellie, who was in Florida taking care of her mom. She was going to Las Vegas, where her husband works as a cook in one of the casinos. She took a bus because he needed the car.

There was Don, the construction worker, who had just been in a tough-man competition in Gainesville. He was going to Phoenix to meet his brother. They were going fishing.

The three of them became "the three amigos." They looked out for each other.

There were the two "skate boys," who carried skateboards and played around on them at rest stops. Hepfer called them "young ones," and gave them advice.

There was a baker. The smelly man behind her. The woman who took a sleeping pill and wouldn't wake up, then finally did, laughing, after an ambulance was called.

There was the well-dressed, polite man Hepfer sat next to and who she believes stole her watch while she slept against the window, with her bag on her lap and her arm through the strap. He had a seizure and ended up going to a hospital in Phoenix.

At bus stations, there were homeless people who panhandled and scrounged around for food and cigarette butts. Hepfer rode with Mexicans who carried vegetable boxes tied with rope as their luggage.

In Texas, there was a snowstorm that closed roads and delayed Hepfer's trip a few hours. And there was heavy security: border control, SWAT teams and dogs.

Over and over again, Hepfer was patted down, arms out, her luggage searched and her ticket stamped. She said it was weird and scary. She didn't feel free, almost not like an American, and she saw how some seemed used to being treated this way and accepted it.

She arrived in Arroyo Grande 7:25 a.m. Friday, Feb. 28. Hepfer hadn't bathed. She said her clothes could walk away by themselves. At the rest stops, she would try to freshen up with cold water, but it didn't help much.

Her luggage wasn't on the bus. It was put on another one by mistake when they stopped in Houston. She got her luggage later that afternoon.

"Was I glad to get off that bus? Oh, you don't know," Hepfer said. "But I'm glad I did it. I'm so glad I did it."

The trip taught her how privileged she is. "We are so blessed," she repeated.

After a company dinner and a good night's rest, Hepfer and her husband began their trip back.

Hepfer's pictures show a sunset at Pismo Beach in California, a sunrise behind mountains, cows, cactuses and red rocks. They show long stretches of road surrounded by nothing but desert.

Hepfer experienced many firsts on the trip home, seeing no moss in the trees and no bugs of the kind Florida knows. She used a lot of lotion on her cracking hands. It was cold and windy. Hepfer shivered in 52-degree weather; people told her it wasn't cold, then understood when she said she was from Florida.

For the first time, in the California mountains, Hepfer saw snow. She walked in it, felt it blow against her face and made a snowball.

In Arizona and New Mexico, she saw rows of mobile homes with broken windows and no doors and abandoned-looking cars near them. She saw that people were living there.

She saw the Grand Canyon and a meteor crater and said she realized, "I am so minute, so insignificant."

She went to her first casino in Laughlin, Nev., and won 442 nickels from a slot machine.

The Hepfers drove on Route 66, stopping at the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants.

During the two-day drive through Texas, she picked up tumbleweed, and a bunch of cotton with sticks and seeds that had blown on the road from a ranch.

Two miles after crossing the state line, rain started to pour. "Well, we're home," Hepfer said. She got home at 3 a.m. Friday. "It's good to be home," she said.

The trip showed Hepfer the "real America."

"I'd go again in a heartbeat," Hepfer said. "It does you good."

Today, she's going to see a chiropractor. Soon, she'll get back to council business.

Hepfer said she's glad she took this hippie trip 30 years late.

"It showed me a cross section of America most of us don't know exists because you're preoccupied with your own situation," she said. "It bursts your bubble and you're able to see."

_ Suzannah Gonzales can be reached at 860-7312 or sgonzalessptimes.com.

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