feature 322 

Bus ride to the end of an era By Stephen Vogler I'm running up the steep gravel road from the Tyrol Lodge as the school bus rounds the corner to our stop on Alta Lake Road. My wet morning hair has frozen into dreadlock icicles that clatter around my ears. My sister is just ahead of me, a nylon backpack full of books thrown over her shoulder. I look back down the hill and see my brother racing out of the house with his jacket still open and a half eaten piece of toast in one hand. The bus driver, Bob Walker, slows down and watches our morning ritual with amusement. He waits at the top of the hill until, out of breath, we finally clamour on board and plunk ourselves down on the green naugahyde seats. That was a winter morning in 1978. This morning I'm riding the school bus again, both to see if anything has changed over the last 18 years, and to commemorate the end of an era. When Pemberton Secondary shuts down for the summer holidays in three weeks, the tradition of Whistler students spending an hour to and from Pemberton on the bus each day will be a thing of the past. As we drive along Alta Lake Road towards Alpine Meadows, it is mostly elementary school kids getting on the bus. In Alpine Meadows, they transfer to another bus, and the teenagers settle in for the remaining 45 minutes to Pemberton. The morning ride is typically quiet except for a few kids near the back who are talking. I remember now that the bus has its own unique society. There are the older kids, the veterans, who are comfortable, if a bit bored and restless with the whole game. They tend to congregate in the back where they can create their own scene. Then there are the younger ones who are still a bit nervous about it all, still learning the ropes — they tend to sit closer to the front. In the middle are all the gradations in between, as well as those who don't fall into this overly simplified pattern: loud, confident Grade 8s, and shy, quiet Grade 12s. I sit down by the people talking near the back and ask them what they won't miss about riding the bus to Pemberton. "Waking up early," Tonia Clark, a Grade 11 student, says emphatically. But then she ponders the question a bit longer: "I don't mind it actually... You can talk to your friends, you can do your homework in the morning, or you can sleep... And I've been riding the bus for so long, you don't notice after a while, it just becomes second nature, a part of your life." "It's too early to wake up though," adds Grade 10 student Travis Williams. As to what he won't miss next year, he says: "Not much. I can't wait (to go to the new school). It's so close to everything. If you take the bus you can't make it to the bank, because the bank closes before the bus gets there... It's just harder." Travis is enrolled in the ski racing program at Pemberton Secondary which allows athletes to integrate their academic studies with a busy training and racing schedule. Next year the program will move to the new Whistler High School. "There's 28 racers at the school right now, and for next year there's already 59 signed up," says Travis, "and they're expecting 15 more over the summer." Matt Woods is a Grade 8 student who is also on the ski racing program. He is one of the first people to get on the bus in the morning at Alpha Lake, making for a long ride to Pemberton. I ask him what he'll do next year with his extra hour in the morning: "Sleep," he says. And what will he miss about going to Pemberton every morning? "Nothing." But a quick survey around the bus reveals that there are mixed feelings about the morning ride. Kim Thompson likes riding the bus; Katie McArthur complains that it takes up two hours of her day; and Breyan Heeney likes the last minute chance to do her homework. As we pull up to the new high school in Pemberton, other buses are already unloading students from the Pemberton Valley, Mt. Currie and D'Arcy. Some of them have had as long a ride as the Whistler students. While bussing to school every morning has its drawbacks, one of its positive aspects is that it brings together people from diverse cultural backgrounds: natives from Mount Currie and D'Arcy, farmers from the Pemberton Valley, loggers from Birken, and everything from ski bums to realtors from Whistler — if you'll excuse the cliched examples. Bringing such a diverse group of young people together under one roof can have its moments of conflict, but it also broadens peoples' perspectives and ultimately makes them more tolerant. It is the one thing the new high school in Whistler will not be able match. As everyone piles off the bus for their first class, I stop to talk with our bus driver Richard LeVae. He tells me he's not concerned about a big cut in the number of bus driver positions next year. While there won't be the long run from Whistler to Pemberton, he says the buses will still be needed to get the kids to school within Whistler. He tells me that driving the bus is a split four hour shift which gives him time to pursue other work like the chiropractic practice he hopes to eventually set up. I realize that I'm on a split shift today too as I walk into town to face the formidable challenge of killing six hours in Pemberton. After deciphering my tape recorded interview from the morning, reading a number of newspapers and magazines, chatting with Pembertonians in various cafes, and drinking untold cups of coffee, I'm finally ready for the return bus ride to Whistler. Not surprisingly, everyone on the afternoon bus is noisier and livelier and eager to share their thoughts. As we pull away from the school, Kristeen Wurtele tells me what she likes best about taking the bus: "Gossiping, and talking with friends, being able to do your homework in the morning, catching up on some sleep..." As for the worst part, she says: "It's really annoying when you have a headache or something after school, and you have little kids bickering." "Or all the kids bickering, as the case may be," jokes her friend, Britt Janyk. "And if you get sick at school," someone else puts in, "you can't even go home." Kristeen also points out that the bus can be a good place to foster friendships between people of different ages: "Because Vida's in Grade 12 and I'm in Grade 10, that's how we got to know each other basically, because we both get off at the same stop." Vida Ugrenovic continues the story: "We live on the same street, and she comes and picks me up in the mornings, and we walk down to the bus stop. That's how we became friends." Vida will be one of the last Whistler students to graduate in Pemberton, and I ask her how she feels about missing the new Whistler high school by one year. "I'm actually glad to finish in Pemberton," she says, "because I grew up with all my friends there. From Grade 8 to 12 you really get to know people." A voice of dissension comes from the other side of the bus as Andria Hickey stands up to deliver her own thoughts on the bus ride: "It takes too long, 45 minutes twice a day on the bus, two hours of your whole life every single day for a whole year. I have to get up at 6:30 to get on the bus. It's dark when we get home (in winter). When you get home, the last thing you want to do is homework." There are other comments flying at me from all directions: "It's really fun waiting for the bus when it's minus 10 outside." "We always have to stop and wait for the train." "Sometimes the bus breaks down," Shawn Sadler says from the back of the bus. "One time it caught fire, over the engine back here. Then we had to stack the people from two buses onto one, and everybody was rocking back and forth." His grin betrays that the hardship has already turned into a fond memory. For the rest of the bus ride, Michelle Cordy, a Grade 12 student, takes over the tape recorder and begins interviewing everybody, including me. The volume of conversation has gone way up and I'm enjoying listening to the stories. Even the bad memories are followed by loud laughter. With the tunes of Mountain FM playing in the background, Michelle laments the fact that the tape recorder on the bus is broken. "Mountain FM is our only alternative. They have these wonderful 10 songs and they play them over and over," she jokes. "Maybe after this report in the Pique, funds will come in and we can actually buy a tape player to enjoy other music than Mountain FM." It seems like a reasonable plea, but with the school year ending on June 21, it might be too late. Everyone is clearly having a good time and I'm surprised when we're already back at Emerald Estates letting out the first riders. In three weeks, when they step off the bus again, it will mark the end of an era for Whistler students. Next year they can sleep in a little longer and get home well before dark. And with our own high school, Whistler might feel less like a place to pass through, and more like a real town. The new school won't have the same diversity of people as Pemberton Secondary, but hopefully that will change as Whistler matures. And of course there will always be extra-curricular events to bring the Whistler students back together with their corridor neighbours. Then the bus ride will seem like a special trip instead of a daily grind.

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