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My Waking Nightmare Aboard a Startup Company’s Sleeper Bus

There’s an awkward distance of 400 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I’ve covered it just about every way that a vagabond can. If you have a car, the drive is easy but insanely boring. With affordable prices and a short flight time, puddle-jumping planes may seem the way to go — unfortunately, planes depart and arrive at hellscapes known as “airports,” and they rarely stop at In-n-Out along the way.

If you’ve got 12 hours to kill and don’t mind having your ear talked off by retired train enthusiasts, there’s always Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, a slow and beautiful route bordered by beach and mountains—and the microwaved hot dogs aren’t bad. (A retired train enthusiast told me, however, that one Amtrak train he rode hit a pickup truck and killed the driver and was stalled for half a day without air-conditioning. So.)

Into this less-than-ideal travel market rolls Cabin, formerly SleepBus, a startup that describes itself as a “luxury moving hotel.” To translate from brandspeak: It’s a bus with sleeping pods. Running overnight trips between the Bay and LA for $115 — roughly what it costs to fly — it caters to anyone frustrated with the existing options for intra-California movement and desperate enough to try a dubious alternative.

Squarely set within the Silicon Valley theme of Maximum Human Efficiency, Cabin’s innovation is to put you down for a healthy night’s shut-eye so you can wake up refreshed and ready for work on the other side of the journey: You board at 11 p.m. and disembark at 8 in the morning. But is it really “the dreamiest way” to get from point A to B? I was brave enough to book a reservation with our company credit card to find out. And boy, did I ever regret it.

Before I get into the details, I should point out that Cabin — as a bus — works fine. It cleared the low bar set by Megabus, which lost my luggage when I took this route. It didn’t blow a tire or get stuck under an overpass or anything. It went to the appointed destination. The attendants (the “Dream Crew,” lol) were sweet and hospitable. I almost feel bad criticizing the operation, that’s how earnest it all feels. And you must know, too, that I am a miserable traveler; a whiny, tall, extremely light sleeper who has generally never known comfort, even on his own living room couch. In short: I am not their ideal customer.

This much was clear when I arrived, rather drunk on craft cocktails and already cranky about the trip, at San Francisco’s Bayside Lot. My fellow passengers were visibly excited to board, and the Cabin ambassadors — two women who had joined the team with experience as flight attendants — welcomed their questions about the business. Before we even left, three tech bros were able to mansplain to our hosts how the ride could be easily improved.

The Dream Crew (because of what happened later, I can’t remember their names, so let’s call them both Ashley) took this condescension in stride but were understandably happier to chat with the globetrotters: Someone was visiting the west coast from China, and a chipper young Australian woman proved to be the MVP as far as light conversation went. I sat in the Cabin “lounge” space, which is basically a diner-style booth adjacent to the bathroom, sullenly absorbing chatter. Ashley 1 said that in the future, she’d like to offer guests a glass of wine or some other “nightcap” before they bed down on the second floor. I could have killed for that.

Eventually, I got upstairs and picked out a lower-level bunk, which was stocked with ear plugs, a decent mattress (and nice white sheets), a reading light, and a card with the WiFi info. Also waiting for me was a bottle of “Dream Water,” which the Ashleys had touted as a marvelous sleeping aid. Hearing that it contained melatonin, I mentioned that a friend reported having way-intense dreams on the stuff, but the Ashleys said I had nothing to fear.

In any event, I would soon find out: Who takes a sleeper bus for “disruption”-era millennials and doesn’t chug the complimentary mystery drink? Plus, I knew I needed something to take the edge off in the pod. At 6-foot-2, I struggled to make myself at home in the 6-foot-5 curtained-off box, and after hitting my head a few times, I had to admit that sitting up was not a possibility. A guy taller than me told the Ashleys he had no complaints about the accommodations, so again, you can take me with a grain of salt, but I am unwavering in my opinion that Cabin is more of a hostel than a ritzy hotel.

After brushing my teeth — the bathroom is better than your typical bus bathroom but, at the end of the day, still very much a bus bathroom — I tried to read a bit from my book. Couldn’t. Tried to work on my laptop. Couldn’t. There was no natural position but to lie down and start snoozing, so I slammed the Dream Water and turned the light off as we made our way out of San Francisco. What transpired over the next eight hours will be difficult to impart to anyone who hasn’t endured a bad drug trip, but here goes: I thrashed around in my dark coffin pretty much the entire way, dipping into slumber only to have distressingly realistic nightmares about a stranger opening my curtain to stab me in the chest. In the long waking periods between my fitful rests, I was keenly aware of each bump in the road and the nauseating stops and starts of a giant vehicle in traffic.

Meanwhile, the temperature was maddening, too hot by perhaps a single degree, the minimum threshold for a film of feverish sweat. Claustrophobia claimed me; breathing was labored, and in the small blackness my eyes played tricks. I saw phantoms and, at one point, a demon straddling me. I hope it will not sound like exaggeration when I say it was like being buried alive, but in a linen closet. I wasn’t sure if I was having a panic attack, or dreaming about having one, yet I had the presence of mind to also wonder what the practical difference might be. In sum, I was losing touch with reality, as if plunged into some Lovecraftian abyss of blind agony. There is suffering in the world far worse than what encountered, yet I yearned to cry out to my loved ones: “Save me!

Who knows how I survived? All I can tell you is that when I dared to check my phone at last — I’d been afraid to do so earlier, lest I discover we’d only been on the road for 15 minutes or so — it was around 7:30 a.m. and we were trapped in rush hour coming down the 405 into Van Nuys. It had been the worst “sleep” in recent memory. I was a greasy, bleary, bedraggled disaster, and soon I would turn up to the MEL offices to meet many of my co-workers in person for the first time, looking as if I had stowed away under a bus instead of riding inside a private compartment aboard one.

The other passengers had enjoyed a splendid repose, of course; if anything, the Australian woman was even more cheerful as a few of us slurped complimentary coffee in the lounge and the Ashleys listened to additional constructive feedback from guys who were probably mad they hadn’t thought of the Cabin model themselves. Thankfully, though the skies were gray, we were soon in sight of the ocean, and the Ferris wheel of the Santa Monica boardwalk told me that this grand ordeal was finished. I met the sidewalk with great relief, turning back for a final glance at what had nearly become a mobile tomb.

Nah, just kidding. Cabin is great, I’m sure, if you’re not a gangly, high-maintenance freak like me. I’m not even mad they roofied me, really. Nevertheless, the pleasure of driving a car back north a week afterward was decadent. The stink of the cattle farms wasn’t as terrible as it can be. And we found cheap gas off the Grapevine.