The Long Trek to School on Public Transportation

Coachella Unincorporated Student Reporter Tony Aguilar rides the public bus from his rural community of Thermal to College of the Desert in Palm Desert. Check out some of the obstacles he faces in his journey!

Video By Jesus Vargas; Edited by Raymond Bondad

The Long Trek to School on Public Transportation

By Tony Aguilar
Coachella Unincorporated

Thermal, Calif.— My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday morning and my first thought was, “Wait, I just closed my eyes. Did the power go off and reset my alarm?” I looked at my phone and was reassured the time was indeed right. My journey on the public transportation system in the Coachella Valley known as the SunLine Transit Agency was about to start. I was determined to find out how long it would take somebody living in the Eastern Coachella Valley to get to the West Valley to attend college on the “Sun Bus.”

Despite being a life-long desert resident, this would be my first experience on the Sun Bus. Sun Bus… Why does everything in this valley need to have the letters “sun” or “desert” included in them? Anyhow, the closest I have ever been to a Sun Bus is driving by one practically every day on my 45-minute drive to College of the Desert in Palm Desert. Whenever I was stuck behind a Sun Bus at a red light or whenever one pulled out in front of me and held up traffic, I would often begin to wonder, after my ill temper had calmed, what it was like to ride on one. Quickly my experiences on elementary school buses and the L.A. metro system flashed before my eyes and I vowed to never ride one.

When I drive into COD off Fred Waring Drive for an 8 a.m. class, I see groups of students walking from the Sun Bus stop on the corner intersection. Like a child with a magnifying glass standing over an ant mound, I would watch as these students walked over the grassy mounds in front of the McCallum Theatre. They walked through the scorching asphalt parking lots you could scramble eggs on in the hot summer months, and then into the comforts of the buildings with air conditioner. My mind was flurried with emotions—How could someone do this every day? The only words I could think of were, “That’s dedication.”

My curiosity into what someone from the Eastern Coachella Valley experiences as they travel all the way to COD in Palm Desert on the Sun Bus prompted this little experiment that many of my friends thought was a bad joke. But little did they know… the joke would turn out to be on them.

My day started when my alarm went off at 4:30. I had to hurry and get dressed, pack my things and make it to the bus stop down the street from my house in the dark before 5:30 a.m. Living in an unincorporated community of Riverside County, this became a problem really fast. Thermal has no sidewalks and wild dogs are rampant. Thermal is pretty much isolated from the rest of the world; it is a bowl surrounded by date palm trees and never-ending agricultural fields.

Considering it just rained the night before, my journey down the street was extra messy. Upon arrival to the bus stop, my shoes were covered with mud and my clothes were drenched from the jet stream of water that passing cars doused me with. To add insult to injury, the bench at the bus stop had no awning so naturally it was also soaking wet. In no time, the Sun Bus pulled up, and I pulled out the roll of quarters I had prepared for the trek. After paying the driver my one dollar toll, I found a seat on the empty bus and made myself comfortable. I quickly dozed off but would suddenly awaken when the bus made a stop to pick up more riders.

After a few stops, the bus began to fill up with young familiar faces… faces I had seen in the dining hall at COD and the faces of people I had seen at Desert Mirage High School. One of the young girls I went to high school with who is also a COD student took out a French textbook and began reciting words to her friend. If this was going to be a long ride then they had it right… what better way to spend your time on a bus?

When we made it into the city of Indio, I was dropped off at the interchange station where I would have to wait to get on a different bus that would take me to my final destination. As I waited for the other bus, I approached the two young girls I had seen on the bus and introduced myself. To my advantage they both recognized me from high school and COD. I began to ask Sandra Juan, 19, and Rosa Ceja, 21, about their experiences on the Sun Bus. Their responses shocked me. Sandra and Rosa take the Sun Bus four times a week every day from the East Valley to Palm Desert.

Sandra lives in Oasis and Rosa in Mecca. They both have to wake up at 4:30 a.m. daily to make it to the bus stop on time. If they miss the bus, they either have to ask for a ride to Palm Desert or quickly find a way to make it to the next bus stop. I will never forget what Sandra told me when I asked her how she manages this gruesome schedule every day. She said, “I have to do it… for my education.” It was in that very moment I realized they are more than customers to the SunLine Transit Agency. They are more than bodies in chairs in COD classrooms. Sandra and Rosa are two students dedicated to their education so they can have a better life. Both Sandra and Rosa attend COD and plan to transfer to a four-year university. Sandra and Rosa’s parents work in the agricultural fields of the East Valley. The only vehicle in the household is used for their parents to get to and from work.

We shared a few more words and I asked a few more questions and within no time, the next bus I had to catch had arrived.

The “111” line was filled with more people, students on their way to school, parents and children, working-class individuals. As the Sun Bus made stops down Highway 111, hotel service workers and office staffers got off and walked to their work places. The more stops we made, the more people I began to recognize. I exchanged waves and smiles at those familiar faces I recognized seeing at school. Secretly, I was embarrassed this was my first time on the Sun Bus and I didn’t want to ask how much longer it would be until we arrived at the college. Time seemed to fly and by 7:30 a.m., we had arrived at COD. I exited the bus and walked the short distance to the café building with Sandra and Rosa. As we made our way to campus, I told Sandra and Rosa that I expected the ride to be much longer and drawn out. They said, “You’ll get used to it, just not the waking up so early part.”

My journey was complete and I now had a different perspective on the public transit system. My perception of public transit before this experience was that only the needy rode the bus. My perception now, after seeing the many faces and people representing different walks of life on the bus, was that those who use public transportation extend far beyond the unfortunate. I am a college student with the means to drive to school every day, yet I was now considering abandoning my car and hoping on the bus every day.
The economic impacts of riding the bus are the main attraction to making the switch to public transit. Sandra and Rosa, or any customer for that matter, pay only thirty dollars a month for a bus pass they can use an unlimited number of times in a month. The eye opener here is that thirty dollars is what I pay every week for gas.

Even though the economic benefits of riding the bus outweigh the perks of having a vehicle to drive to school every day, the “barriers of the East” are keeping me from making the switch to public transportation. Having to wake up so early in the morning is just one of the many barriers to making the switch. The fact that there are no public sidewalks in Thermal make the journey uncomfortable. The fact that many, if not all, of the Sun Bus stops in the East Valley have no adequate shade when waiting for the bus make for a very unpleasant wait.

Even though I was able to make it to the West Valley with time to spare before my 8 a.m. class, the same cannot be said for those taking night courses. The last bus to my home in the East Valley from the interchange station in Indio leaves at a time when many night courses are still in session.

Astronomy is just one of the many courses offered at night and the completion of Astronomy is required in order to transfer to a four-year university. Community colleges serve the community. They are a chance for a better life for many residents of the community. How are working parents from the East Valley who are determined to provide a better life for their families supposed to make it to school in the West Valley if the public transportation system does not cater to their real-life needs? Maybe their journey home from night school would end at the same time mine started… 4:30 a.m.

* Requests for comment from the SunLine Transit Agency were not returned. Tony Aguilar is a College of the Desert student living in Thermal.

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