For about 25 years, since I first saw a big green bus at a Whole Earth Festival in Davis as an undergrad, I have been curious about the Green Tortoise Adventure Travel bus trips. When I was young, I was too shy to sign up for a trip on a bus with 25-30 people I didn’t know. As I got older, I got in the habit of not taking vacations, since I usually had jobs that made it hard to get away.
Last year, when my son was turning 5 and could not stop talking about wanting to go see the desert, I finally decided to take the plunge. I booked us a seven day trip to start the weekend after Alex graduated from Kindergarten.
It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Our trip was called The Western Trail. It started from San Francisco (where we spent the night before in the Green Tortoise Hostel – a wonderful place to stay if you are in San Francisco on a budget). It took us down the coast – Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Simeon, LA – then across the desert to Joshua Tree, Las Vegas, and Zion before closing the loop back at San Francisco.
Most of the time when I have taken vacation, I am very glad to get home again. This time, I wanted to just keep going. I didn’t even care where – just any Green Tortoise bus going anywhere.
The places we went were wonderful (well, except for our brief stop in Hollywood and our night in Las Vegas – two places I could do without ever seeing again). Playing on the beaches, watching the elephant seals, climbing rocks and hiking in Joshua Tree, swimming in the Colorado River, and exploring Zion were all great times. But the old saying of “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” has never been made so real to me.
I’m not going to say that traveling on a Green Tortoise bus is for everyone. It means very close quarters, little privacy, room for only a few personal belongings, helping out with meal preparation and clean-up (but they are damned good meals), early mornings (but with ample napping opportunities later), and the hassle of finding your shoes in the pile every time you leave the bus. If you want meals magically appearing on a set table and fresh sheets every night, are creeped out by the thought of touching strangers, don’t like vegetables, are uncomfortable with using pit toilets, need a shower every morning, or are easily offended by, well, anything – this would not be a vacation for you.
So there are my warnings. Now for what made it so wonderful for myself and my son.
First, the simplicity of the mode of travel. For me, true relaxation means not having to drive myself, not having to worry about a schedule, not really even having to know exactly where I am. Just lounging on the swaying bus, listening to the wonderfully varied music coming through the adjustable speakers, watching the beautiful scenery gliding by, napping off and on, not knowing or caring exactly where we were or where/when we would be next – all of that allowed me to be truly “in the moment” much of the day, just appreciating the Zen of it all, trusting that our driver had everything under control and wherever the bus stopped next would be good.
The communal spirit that quickly developed was a blessing. All through the day and night, there were acts of good will up and down the bus and around the campfire. Bags of chips, fresh strawberries and blueberries, jerky, dried fruit, or candy were passed around the bus on a regular basis, and of course the alcohol flowed in the evenings. The way the bus and the supplies were organized, set up of the outdoor kitchen, preparation of food, and cleanup after meals was amazingly quick, efficient, and even fun. Packing up camp in the morning and changing the bus from sleeping mode to day arrangement was accomplished with surprisingly little hassle. I have always enjoyed working on projects with people more than just sitting around making small talk, so having work to do together made me feel right at home and helped me bond with people. I was very impressed by how respectful everyone was at night after the early birds went to bed – when people were partying around the campfire and I went to sleep in the bus, it was quieter and more peaceful in that bus than it ever is at my home, and when the late people came into the bus to find themselves places to sleep, they were quick and quiet about it and I barely woke up.
The pace of life on the Green Tortoise suited me perfectly. I had been concerned about long hours in transit, but in reality we were rarely on the bus for more than a two hour stretch during the day time. We would meander along for an hour or two, then stop for a break – either at a lovely beach, in a town where we could use the restrooms and purchase snacks, at a roadside stop with a good view for photographic opportunities, or occasionally just at a truck stop. I never felt cooped up on the bus. In transit, I could move about the bus as often as I liked as well – lounging on the big communal bed in the back, sitting at the tables in the middle or on the couch-like seats near the front, standing up to stretch my legs, or climbing into the upper bunks for a nap. A completely different experience than sitting in a seat with a seatbelt for hours at a time.
I found the bus and the people on it to be a wonderful environment for my outgoing five-year-old son Alex. He instantly fell in love with our driver, Sully, and his wife, Gwendoline. I could nap confident that he was safe and having fun. He spent a lot of the travel time sitting on a tool box that he pulled up next to Sully’s driver seat, chatting and telling jokes and amusing himself and those around him. At other times, he rotated from group to group around the bus, sharing fruit and jerky, posing for photos, showing off little treasures he found on our stops (like the Bubba Gump rainbow glasses he found along the bike path in Monterey), and giving high-fives. At meals, there was usually some way that he could help with food prep (cutting strawberries or melons for fruit salad, snapping green beans, or stirring something), and he took to dish washing very well. At stops, he and I usually went off on our own because the interests of the rest of the travelers generally involved longer hikes, more alcohol, and different interests than he had.
Which leads me to one of the really excellent aspects of the trip – the great opportunity for flexibility. Yes, we had to be up at a certain time, ready to go at a certain time, and at each stop we were told what time we had to be back on the bus and ready to leave again. But other than that we could go in any direction we wanted. Want to just sit on the bus and read? Hike as far and as high as you can? Hit a local pub? Go swimming? Shopping? Sleep? Totally up to you. Our hosts had a lot of knowledge of the areas to give ideas and answer questions, then turned us loose and went their own ways too. On the bus as well, people who wanted to could just sit in a corner with headphones on, staring out the window. Others would climb up in a bunk and sleep or read. Others would play cards, drink beer, chat and laugh together. As pretty much an introvert, I felt totally comfortable just chilling out and watching the scenery and listening to the music, while my son the social one partied it up.
I had a few concerns before the trip… thought it might be hard to sleep at night with other people partying, thought I would lose most of my stuff, thought people would find my son annoying, thought I would get car sick, thought I would feel socially awkward among so many strangers, thought people would try to draw me into being more social than it is my nature to be. Not a single one of my worries came to be true. By the end of the first day, when I was going to sleep peacefully to the occasional distant sound of laughter, I stopped having any worries at all.
I must dedicate one paragraph solely to the amazing Green Tortoise staff on our trip. Sully our driver, Gwendoline his wife, and Kevin the, hmm, what am I supposed to call him? – the non-driving host dude, were all wonderful. Warm and friendly, easy going, knowledgeable, organized, funny, and damned cute – I rarely feel so comfortable around people so quickly. Their attitude and gentle leadership skills created an atmosphere of warmth, companionship, and cooperation that permeated the bus. If my husband and I ever fulfill one of our dreams, having a large piece of land with multiple housing units and a semi-cooperative community lifestyle, these are exactly the kind of people I would hope to attract to live there. It was a bit sad having to say goodbye – no offense to my husband, whom I am very glad to be with again.
So here we are eight days after starting our adventure. Alex has a new career goal – Green Tortoise bus driver (also to grow his hair long and only wear a shirt when it is required). I have a new “if I won the lottery” dream (foolish since I never play the lottery) – I would travel the country on Green Tortoise buses from the day Alex gets out of school at the beginning of the summer until he has to return to school in fall. In reality, I will start saving my money right now for another trip at the beginning of next summer. If we go somewhere cooler, my husband may want to join us, and if we are really lucky his older son will come as well.
In short, I am hooked.
My photo album of the trip is at: