The last passenger on the C1

marketplace for the mind

Odysseus: What will happen now, and what in the long outcome will befall me? For if I wait out the uncomfortable night by the river, I fear that the female dew and the evil frost together will be too much for my damaged strength-

In order to complete his quest, the legendary Greek hero Odysseus must travel to the Underworld to meet the wise prophet Tiresias. So it goes. Meant for the damned souls of the dead, the Underworld is a miserable, hellish place. Odysseus, a man still living, dreads going. To get to the Underworld, Odysseus must traverse the River Styx, a murky body of water that literally translates into the “river of hate.” It really isn’t the best place to swim. 

The only way for Odysseus to get across the River Styx is to take a ferry (eternal damnation aside, a boat service to Hell sounds pretty cool) operated by Charon, the ferryman of the dead. For the right price, Charon would take dead souls to the Underworld on a one-way trip. Oh, and if he didn’t like someone, Charon could fling them off his boat at any time. 

Understandably, Odysseus was afraid. 

Thus, it must have been quite perplexing, when it was time to make my own voyage to the Underworld, that I was strangely… excited? Waiting on the shorelines of the East Campus bus stop, I anticipated my trip to the Underworld, or as most people call it: Duke University West Campus. 

Stepping on to the C1 bus, the driver didn’t even expect payment. This must be a good sign. The C1 soon departed the world of the living—East Campus. I was well on my way, and I wasn’t the only one. I was surrounded by other first-years on their pilgrimage to West, ostensibly to study in the nightmarish building called Perkins Library. We were going to Hell together. Not only that, we were all coming back, alive. 

Leaving the C1 bus once it arrived on West Campus, I felt brazenly confident. Maybe the Greek myths were wrong. Odysseus had nothing to be scared of. It’ll only be for a few hours, I reassured myself. I’ll make it back to East Campus. 

I failed to understand, however, that Odysseus wasn’t afraid of the journey to the Underworld. He was afraid of the journey back

Shivering at the West Campus bus stop, after hours had passed in the Underworld, I finally felt that fear. It was the first time I had stayed past midnight on West Campus. If that’s supposed to be a rite of passage, I didn’t think about it. I was worried about my passage home.  The people I had arrived with were nowhere to be seen. What will happen now, and what in the long outcome will befall me? The real Hell was not knowing. 

Thankfully, after what felt like an eternity, I heard the familiar sound of a C1. Alas, I was not forgotten! The bus halted to a stop and its doors opened. My ordeal was over; I could finally go home to East Campus. But still, a foreboding uncertainty lingered. Was it Charon who had arrived to laugh at my demise? Would the ferry leave the Underworld as empty as it had arrived? 

As it turns out, I didn’t have to worry. Charon is an uncommon name. My bus driver’s name was Deborah, and I was her final passenger. 

“What are you doing out so late?” Deborah inquired, starting the bus engine. I could not offer her a proper answer. As the C1 motored through the drear of midnight, crossing the length of the Styx, I could only express my gratitude.

My experiences are not singular. At some point in our Duke careers, we will encounter what the ancient Greeks called katabasis, or a descent downward that leaves us alone and afraid. But aside from thanking the bus drivers in our lives—the people who work tirelessly for the sake of our physical and spiritual transportation from the underworlds we find ourselves in—I offer another word from my limited Greek vocabulary. 

The next time we are confronted by a downwards spiral of Odyssean proportions, remember anabasis: the march upwards that will always follow. 

Michael Cao is a Trinity first-year. His column, marketplace for the mind, runs on alternate Fridays.


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