A long-time school bus driver in Petersburg is retiring after 37 years on the job. Hoopie Davidson has not only driven thousands of kids to school safely, she’s taught thousands in Southeast Alaska how to drive themselves.
It’s 6:00 a.m. at the bus barn and it’s dark except for a dim light above two yellow buses. The streets are quiet but Hoopie Davidson’s been awake for two hours. Her energy is bright, like her short red hair and ice-blue eyes.
“All this baggage that you’re thinking about, try to leave it outside your vehicle before you drive,” Davidson said.
Davidson is doing what she calls the “pre-trip”, which starts with pre-tripping your mind. It’s a personal check-in.
“Are you feeling good? Are you cranky? Are you ill? Do you have a cold, do you have a flu, are you irritated or did you just win the lottery?” she said, laughing. “You know, you have a lot on your mind, so pre-trip your mind first.”
Now, we focus on the bus. We walk around it three times with a flashlight, checking everything. Although Davidson is 67-years-old she drops to a knee in flash to peer under the bus. Then back up to check the tires. She uses a rubber mallet to thunk each one.
“It should sound like that,” she said, hitting the tire. “It should bounce.”
Next she checks the fluids under the hood. She samples the dipstick, rubbing some oil between her thumb and forefinger.
“To make sure it’s not gritty. You want it nice and slick,” she said.
After the pre-trip is over it’s time to start the route. Davidson’s route covers up to 150 miles daily. This week is the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. So, as the lights of town disappear, the forest is obscured on both sides of the highway.
“And now we’re getting into deer country,” Davidson said.
Davidson keeps an active lookout for deer like she does all possible road hazards. Just a few weeks ago, she had to stop for a buck in the road.
“He stops, he looks at me, he stomps his front hooves on the pavement and he started to run toward the bus with his ears flat and his head down,” said Davidson.
It was a bluff charge and the deer eventually went on his way. For Davidson, it’s just another example of why it’s important to stay alert.
“I’m constantly doing mirror checks every three to five seconds,” she said.
It’s no wonder Davidson is also a driving instructor. She’s taught commercial drivers all over Southeast Alaska as well as drivers’ ed to over 2,000 Petersburg residents. Rikki McKay was one of them.
“I thought of her every single time I parallel parked my car in Portland after I moved,” McKay said.
McKay rode Davidson’s bus to school as a kid in the afternoons and another driver’s bus in the morning. Well, most mornings. McKay will never forget when she purposefully missed the bus thinking her mom would take her to school instead.
“And she did not,” said McKay. “She told me to put on my coat and get walking.”
It was winter and two and a half miles to school.
“I made it to about Kings Row and Hoopie pulled over in her bus and picked me up and gave me a ride the rest of the way to school,” said McKay. “That was when she became my absolute favorite bus driver.”
Now, after moving back to town, McKay’s kids ride Davidson’s bus.
“We’re sad that she’s leaving,” McKay said. “I tried desperately to talk her into staying until our newborn is 18 but it was a no go (laughs).”
Back on the bus, we pull to the side of the road about 10-miles south of town. We’re waiting for the exact minute to start picking up the kids. This is when Davidson takes time to call in her daily road-report to the local radio station about road conditions and the weather.
Davidson didn’t jump at the chance to learn to drive a bus. She flat-out refused the first offer.
“I said oh, absolutely not. No way, I don’t want the responsibility of those kids. What if something was to happen?” she said.
She finally agreed to get her commercial license just to drive for tourists. It didn’t take long before she started transporting dozens of children every day.
We pick up kids for another hour until the bus is full and then drop them off at the schools. This has been Davidson’s routine for decades. However, her dedication to the job goes beyond her weekday schedule.
“When I first started I used to snow machine and I quit snow machining because I thought what if I get into an accident? Who’s going to drive my bus for all those kids?” Davidson said. “So, it was a whole new lifestyle for me.”
Next summer, Davidson will start another new lifestyle. It will include traveling with her husband, gardening, arts and crafts, and publishing a picture book of Petersburg. And when she gets behind the wheel she’ll still be one of the safest drivers on the road.