Story and photos by Liam Gallagher
Inland ocean. Mono Lake, at 760,000 years old, is among the nations oldest lakes. It is a terminal lake, that is water entering the lake from streams leaves only through evaporation. In turn chemicals like chlorides, carbonates, and sulfates abound and the lake is almost three times saltier than the ocean, hence the buoyant bodies.
It’s just after midnight and I’m sandwiched between two Irish gals. It’s hot and there’s a lot of heavy breathing, squirming and giggling going on. But hedonistic our arrangement isn’t. We’re all fully dressed, situated head to toe and tucked snugly inside our own sleeping bags, as are 27 other passengers aboard this retrofitted bus.
I say goodnight to the fair-skinned girls from Donegal, pre-apologize for any inadvertent kicks to the head, and try to find a comfortable position for my six-and-a-half foot frame. It’s a tall order, quite literally. A lot of tossing and turning ensues. And if the incessant whispers and occasional grunts of discomfort are any indication, I’m not alone.
Welcome aboard the Green Tortoise, fabled communal commuter bus turned adventure travel company. For 30 years now the Tortoise has been chauffeuring shoestring travelers around North and Central America on slow-paced adventure via routes less-traveled.
Our bus, “The good ship Starship,” as our drivers Ariel and Brian lovingly and frequently (and almost always in unison) refer to it, is bound for Yosemite, where we’re slated for a four-day romp in the mountains, lakes, and rivers of the Sierra.
As our bus crawls into the night at a steady 55 mph, with our itinerary largely unknown and little idea about what’s to come, the Grateful Dead lyrics “what a long, strange trip it’s been” play in our heads. With two sets of feet inches from my face and barely enough room to breath, I can’t help but wonder just how long and strange this trip will be.
As I lay awake listening to the other passengers, I can hear a half-dozen different languages and accents. There are Germans, Scots, Aussies, Irish, English, French, East Coasters and Californians. Americans are the minority, and although I can still see the lights of the Bay Area, I feel like I’m on foreign territory.
Entombed in this veritable hostel on wheels, I’m beginning to think my preconceived notions of the Green Tortoise might be a little off base.
Growing up in Oregon, I’d occasionally see vintage Green Tortoise buses crawling along I-5, loaded to the hilt with hippies. Years after these fleeting encounters, my notion of the Green Tortoise took on more imaginary baggage after reading Tom Wolfe’s epic journalistic account of Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However over the top it may have been to associate the Green Tortoise with the Prankstrers’ LSD-fueled explorations of mind and country aboard the Further bus, I couldn’t help but feel that it gave me a better understanding of the vagabond spirit that fueled the Tortoise and its counter-culture denizens.
Now on the bus, sardined between a bunch of foreign kids, I’m surprised. I’d anticipated a different crowd, more of a hippie contingent, less attention to hygiene, at least a little patchouli and far fewer countries of origin. But most of the passengers are in their early to mid-20s, sensibly dressed and recently showered. They’re more cultured than counter culture. Free-spirited, sure, but Woodstock on wheels it isn’t. And I’m guessing there won’t be any electric kool-aid to test.
In fact, the only two donning any tie-dye are two older guys from San Francisco. I quickly learn that they’ve been on the bus before, and as I try and fall asleep I can hear them recounting adventures of Green Tortoise past, waxing nostalgic about wilder times.
From the sound of it, they’ve been on quite a few Tortoise trips. They’ve done the “North-South commute,” the now-extinct red-eye run along I-5 between Seattle and Los Angeles, been across the country and back a couple of times and have even been on the bus for the menagerie that is the Tortoise trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
They clearly know what the bus used to be like, and while they still like what it has become, both are quick to acknowledge that the experience has evolved. Gone are features such as the in-bus bathtub, the pee-funnel for high-speed bladder evacuation, and the “Fourth Gear Rule,” which allowed for the use of certain illicit substances once the bus was at top speed with windows wide open.
But those were the ’70s and early ’80s, when the Green Tortoise still rolled under the radar: unlicensed, uninsured, and like the times, a little less inhibited. It was then still a rolling, fuming vestige of the ’60s.
The Tortoise first took to the road in 1974, when founder Gardner Kent, who was living at a Sonoma County commune at the time, headed home for the holidays. He loaded up his family and a bunch of strangers in a converted school bus and set out across the country. He was in no real hurry, happy to move a little slower than many of the other, more hare-brained forms of transportation. The itinerary was spontaneous, the pace relaxed, and there were plenty of stops to soak in hot springs along the way. On the way back they did the same, and thus a new species of truly-alternative transportation was born.
The Green Tortoise thrived in the late 1980s, operating with more than 50 employees and 14 busses. Today, the adventure travel company employs two dozen drivers, some seasonally and others full-time, to pilot its 11 land yachts. And then there are the two hostels, one in San Francisco and another in Seattle, which, if our trip was any indication, funnel a steady stream of foreigners on any one of the Tortoise’s 20 different trips.
Like all Tortoise travelers, prior to departure I received a catalog that details all the adventures the company offers. While flipping through the 40-page catalog I was surprised by the breadth of trips — from three-day jaunts around California to month-long expeditions to Alaska or Guatemala. There are also cross-country trips following both northern and southern routes, beach adventures to Baja, and a Mardi Gras gallivant to New Orleans.
While Green Tortoise still caters to the granola-fueled peace, love and music crowd (special trips are offered to Burning Man, the Oregon Country Fair, and the High Sierra Music Festival) — and please excuse the blanket stereotyping — it seems most Green Tortoise adventures aim to expand minds through organic slow-paced exploration, rather than the mind-altering substances people rightly or wrongly associate with the bus.
Supper’s on. Well-fed campers make for happy campers and while traveling with the Green Tortoise there’s never a shortage of food.
Time changes everything.
I wake up the next morning to the fresh smell of pine permeating mountain air. I crawl, bleary-eyed, over my fellow travelers tucked away in so many multi-colored cocoons. We’re in the midst of Yosemite’s monoliths, as if we had been in a time warp and transplanted here. To top it off, I smell a pot of rich cowboy coffee brewing.
Our drivers, Ariel and Brian, are already outside. Although it’s early, the two are all energy and orders, pulling cooking supplies and food from under the bus, and directing everyone toward a clearing where we’ll eat our first meal. In no time, tables are erected, veggies are chopped, water’s boiled, and breakfast is served.
While one might expect feeding 30 hungry travelers to be a bit of a feat, it comes off quite efficiently. Almost all meals are vegetarian. Breakfast was usually bagels and cream cheese, oatmeal and fruit or cereal. Lunches consisted of build-your-own sandwiches, apples, oranges and granola bars. For dinner, we dished up stir-fry and tofu, curry and rice, or the old favorite, a burrito bar. Most people don’t eat this well on their own.
Meals are one of the many minor miracles of Green Tortoise travel. With so many hands helping prep, cook, and clean, the process is the picture of communal efficiency.
The food was great and made only more enjoyable by the equally hearty portions of fresh air and good company we enjoyed it in. Thanks to the keen shopping sense of our two drivers, there was always more than enough for second and third helpings. Fatter and happier campers we couldn’t have been.
Each night unfolded in similar fashion.
After dinner, whether out of strict adherence to time-honored camping traditions or simply as an attempt to fend off the cool cloak of night, everyone migrated toward a well-stoked fire and indulged in some campfire chitchat. We’d share bad jokes, good stories, and cheap wine. It was campfire protocol at its best, a perfect balance between light-hearted banter and contemplative conversation.
With representatives from most of the continents of this shrinking planet, practically each new story transported us to other parts of the world. As the night passed, we drank beer in German brew houses, were held up at gun point by Georgian thugs in Armenia, stood in the stands at a football match between Australia and England, and traveled on the Tortoise to Alaska. Although strangers just a few days prior, we were all friends now and acting a lot like family.
The fires eventually burned out and we’d all sleep hard under an infinite canopy of stars framed by pine boughs. We’d wake early, eat breakfast, drink coffee and tea, load up the bus, learn of our destination for the day, settle into our respective nooks and crannies, sit back, enjoy the ride and each other’s company.
The bus provided just the right amount of respite. The good ship Starship and the other buses in the fleet are built for comfort, with bench seats that convert to sleeping quarters up front, two diner-style booths in the middle, and an enormous bed in the back. Inside it’s all cushions, very cozy, and conducive to conversation.
On any given stretch of the trip, you might hear the Germans talking loudly about beer with the Scottish kid, while a girl from Indonesia, one from Japan and another from LA sit cross-legged and talk softly of their travels. Meanwhile, the Aussies chat with the Brits about soccer and cricket, and eventually both argue with the Irish girls about the way Cadbury chocolate should taste, agreeing only on their common hatred of Hershey’s and how Americans just don’t know what a “proper cup” of tea tastes like. Pretty soon we’ve all got bigger vocabularies, a better idea about our buddies, where they’re from and where they’ve been.
The Green Tortoise on Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park.
The world shrinks a little. I feel I’ve traveled a lot farther than the odometer would indicate.
When we’d arrive at our destination, be it Yosemite Valley, Mono Lake, Mammoth, or the Tuolumne Grove, Ariel or Brian would brief us about our hiking, swimming and other recreational opportunities. We’d all head out, sometimes in groups, other times with everyone going in their own directions. In time, but not necessarily on time, we’d all return to the bus, some with sore legs, others with sunburned backs and all with some story to share.
Such is the beauty of life aboard the Green Tortoise. With each day essentially offering a choose-your-own-adventure itinerary, passengers are allowed to tailor the trip to best fit their desires. The Tortoise offers an ideal mix of opportunities for both shared experiences and solo wanderings.
Good road trips are often defined more astutely by time in the car than out, and on the final night of our expedition, as our bus trundled back toward civilization it became clear that this was indeed the case. In anticipation of impending separation, digital cameras flashed like strobe lights, illuminating the dog-pile of passengers posing in the back of the bus. It felt a lot like the end of summer camp. Emails were exchanged and everyone talked about what came next, where they were headed, and when future meetings might occur. It was bittersweet, as everyone was just now really getting to know each other and it didn’t seem right for it to end so abruptly.
As we roll out sleeping bags for the last night on the bus, it seems we all fit together more comfortably now. Morning comes before most are ready. We’re back in the city at 5 a.m. and it all of a sudden ends right where it began. Hugs are exchanged as everyone says their goodbyes.
I head toward Market Street to catch a Muni bus. I get on and watch as the city begins to wake. But the Tortoise has uncovered my vagabond spirit and I don’t want to head home yet. I grab my pack, get off somewhere along the line and wander around the city, hoping the adventure can last a little longer.