Caution: I Brake For History


On the first Majic Bus journey students earned six credits, the equivalent of two classes over forty-five days. They now earn twelve credits for participation in four classes over eighty days with different course offerings each year. The courses I taught for the 1994 trip were: “History of the Civil Rights Movement,” “Road Literature from Whitman to Kerouac,” “American Social History,” and “American Intellectual History.” My students came from seven schools: the University of New Orleans, Tulane University, Yale University, American University, Haskell Indian Nations University, Kenyon College, and the University of Virginia. Along the road we would stop at these universities to meet with faculty, hold discussion groups, and exchange information—and do laundry. At Haskell, in Lawrence, Kansas, for instance, we participated in Native American political forums and attended a special cedar-burning ceremony at the Medicine Wheel. The Majic Bus seemed to arouse particular interest on Indian reservations because we were powered by natural gas.


The idea of having the Majic Bus run on an almost pollution-free alternative fuel came to me in 1993 as my class was departing Jack London’s ranch in Glen Ellen, California. We were headed north on Highway 1, slowly working our way up the Pacific Coast toward Fairbanks, Alaska. Of all America’s natural wonders, the colossal old-growth redwoods of Northern California have always struck me as the most awesome. John Steinbeck called them our “great cathedrals,” “ambassadors from another time.”


As our bus groaned up the Avenue of the Giants, dwarfed by three-hundred-foot-tall trees on both sides of the two-lane road, it seemed criminal to be coughing black tailpipe exhaust into the pristine ancient forest. The sad fact is that a hundred and thirty years of logging has eliminated 95 percent of California’s giant coastal redwoods; so few thousand-year-old trees remain that park rangers in the Pacific Northwest call the survivors by name. As I got to know Sleeping Giant, Flatiron, and Sneaky Pete myself, I decided to find a way for the Majic Bus to become as close to pollution-free as possible.

After doing research on alternative fuels—electric, solar, hydrogen, soybean—I realized that natural gas was the most practical and clean-burning. The U.S. Department of Energy flooded me with information extolling its virtues: Natural gas produces up to 90 percent less carbon monoxide and 66 percent less reactive hydrocarbons than gasoline. The Columbia Gas Company of Ohio embraced the Majic Bus wholeheartedly, not only providing the technology to go “Clean Across America” but arranging free fuel for us in forty states. With the additional support of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, the Majic Bus has traveled twenty-two thousand miles down back alleys and multi-lane superslabs in search of our national heritage. Abandoning petroleum is a decision I’ve regretted only once, when we had trouble finding a pipeline to tap into in Montana.

The Majic Bus was specially painted for the 1994 voyage by a talented bunch of teenaged students who participate in a downtown New Orleans nonprofit arts and social organization called Young Artists/Young Aspirations. The mission of YA/YA is to provide career opportunities to help artistically gifted inner-city youth become professionally self-sufficient. Over the years YA/YA students have worked and exhibited in New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Milan. YA/YA murals grace New Orleans with flashy style and biting humor, often with an inyour-face message about American history or culture.

My only instruction to the YA/YA students for painting the Maiic Bus was that the theme should be “Discovering America Through Travel.” During the muggy July before our mid-August departure, the YA/YA kids would show up each day with cartoonish pop sketches tucked under their arms, ready to transform the bus’s metallic mundaneness into a mural exploding in fluorescent color. As the departure date neared, the YA/YAs went into artistic overdrive, painting in blinding blues and Day-Glo yellows epigraphs like William Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” and Bob Dylan’s “He Not Busy Being Born Is Busy Dying.” Witty visions of road life like floating pizza slices and flying hot dogs mixed with rolling ribbons of pink highway drifting over a distant horizon. Mount Rushmore was painted with African-American heroes replacing the Presidents. All across America people would circle the Majic Bus in obvious delight.

Blaine Kern, proprietor of the world’s largest float-building company, who is known locally as “Mr. Mardi Gras,” was enthusiastic about my educational program and allowed me to store the now-customized Majic Bus in his five-hundred-thousand-square-foot warehouse. There it rested among hundreds of carnival floats awaiting Mardi Gras, when tractors pull them out of hiding for Rex, Bacchus, Endymion, Zulu, and some forty other spectacular parades throughout the city.