So I've been riding the buses of the Rogue Valley Transportation District for about a year now, largely in secret.

So I've been riding the buses of the Rogue Valley Transportation District for about a year now, largely in secret.

I coyly gave away my parking space and invested in more rubber-soled shoes to see what I could gain from the experiences of walking to and from bus stops and taking time to look out the window and watch the world go by each morning and evening.

It's working out pretty well now that I've gotten past the elephant in the middle of the aisle by the middle exit: the stigma of being a bus rider.

When I told a few people about my new status as a passenger they stared at me deeply and looked disappointed. Apparently I was making a weird decision, which they've been used to from me, but this one, they told me, seemed like suffering for no reason. I've often heard that "Americans are in love with their cars," so going away from the mainstream and toward the bus stop is an odd choice if you have a choice.

Most people who ride the bus don't have a choice. I have not done a formal or even informal poll of bus riders, but I'm clear the regulars are there by necessity. The seats in the back are crowded as people talk in animated detail about getting licenses pulled for various infractions and no longer being able to drive as a condition of parole.

The talk of trying to save up for a car on disability or TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and then watching the bare reality of people in wheelchairs who rely on the bus to get to the store or the doctor convinces me choice is a rare occasion for many on the bus. I am glad there is a bus for them and for me.

It doesn't really matter why anyone is on the bus; the fact is we are there coming and going and through the ride we are learning more about what it is to be in a community. I have not had an unpleasant encounter, no one has threatened me in any way and the protocol is to yell "thank you" to the bus driver when leaving. The regulars know that we are on the same bus and share a culture. We are generally good to each other. It's nice.

I have my favorite small riders who I look forward to seeing, such as the little girl with big eyes like a watercolor sky explaining to me that she will be one kind of big one time and then she will be another kind of big on another birthday. I haven't seen her in months and I think about her and when I do I smile. I feel more than I think about the teen mom who, holding her baby, cried in my arms about how hard it is. It still looks hard when I see her but we don't talk anymore because she sits far away from me now and avoids my glance.

There are plenty of people on the bus who look like they have stories to tell. At first I judged these people as tellers of sad stories but later thought better of it. I don't have the right to decide what their lives are like. I'm sure some days they are sad and other days happy like the evening ride home when a small crowd gathered around a picture of a baby shower cake a mother and daughter planned to make. It was a five-layer dream with baby blocks and elephants and every rider who saw it became a friend that night. The bus was crowded with smiles. It has its good days and bad days. The bus can be a moody experience, a lot like life.

Still, sitting among people shoulder to shoulder in tidy small seats I share something that cannot be experienced sitting alone in my car. Sometimes we talk and sometimes we stare straight ahead, but we are there in a common place.

At first I thought I was riding the bus to save money — it's only $56 for a monthly pass from Ashland to Medford — or shrinking my carbon footprint or just getting a bit of exercise. Those things are true, but I'm really riding the bus to learn more about being a person with a lot of other people with whom I don't live or work and don't know but who I could know, even it's only for the 40 minutes I see them on the bus.

Julie Akins, who lives in Ashland, is news director for KOBI TV Channel 5.