San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Tortoise in a Passing Lane

Back in the days of runic glyphs, icefields and primal instincts, which was late in December of nineteen hundred and seventy two, a pair of "damn the torpedoes" undergraduate students at the University of Victoria in British Columbia thought it would be a good idea to purchase an old 1954 Canada Brill Car bus, camperize it, fill it with thirty four festive-minded fellow alumni, and roll the entire moveable feast to the Yucatan Peninsula, where they hoped to leave Canadian footprints at the base of a Mayan pyramid in Chichen Itza. At least that was the advertised goal. The real reason these two nineteen-year-olds (lets call them Bob and Ted) organized the trip? They thought it would be a great way to meet girls.

As it turned out, the odyssey wasn't the endless party Bob and Ted had envisioned. In fact, the entire life-cycle of the adventure was barely 1/15th of an odyssey, according to the Table of Government Weights and Measures. A fifteenth of the way into its pilgrimage, the bus developed a bad case of castanets under the engine hatch and rolled to a stop on the shoulder of I5, where it settled into a gentle state of autism until the world's largest tow truck hauled it sixty miles to Eugene, Oregon.

Two years later, a young Californian named Gardner Kent used his converted 1964 yellow Chevy school bus to drive a passel of his friends from San Francisco to Boston, a journey he called his Continental Crossing. Gardner never heard of Bob or Ted. His idea was simply one of those synchronous events, a hundredth monkey phenomenon, that speckle the historical timeline of humanity. Watson and Cricks. Darwin and Wallace. Bob and Ted and Gardner.

Green Tortoise TripThe success of Gardner's first trip inspired him to organize others, and pretty soon he was the CEO of something called The Green Tortoise Adventure Company, which now operates out of Seattle and San Francisco with a fleet of eighteen buses. These "hostels on wheels" now offer travel adventures that range from a day to a month on the road, both national and international. Expeditions with names like Sunny Southern Route, Winter Migrations, Gold Coast/Baja Loop, Mardi Gras, Alaskan Expedition, and many others, entice travel-minded people from all over the globe, both young and old.

Although thirty years have passed since the trip to the Yucatan peninsula ended in ignominy, I thought it might be interesting to be a passenger aboard a Green Tortoise bus, just to see how it's supposed to be done. You see, I was one of those two "damn the torpedo" students back in 1972.

These days, I spend most of my time in Baja, Mexico. I often travel to Canada and a few months ago, after finding the Green Tortoise's Home Page on the internet ( --who woulda guessed?), I reserved a seat for a Los Angeles to Seattle trip. This was done using their 1-800 number and I was told to verify the reservation a day before departure. When I asked for the address of the depot in LA, I was told to simply, "...stand across the street from Union Station".

I arrived at Union Station a week later with an overstuffed daypack, laptop computer and a dufflebag that weighed more than a Pullman car with passengers. A glance at the clock tower told me I had three and a half hours to wait. Plenty of time to find the pickup location. But after walking up and down the street a few times under 3G's of luggage, I still had no idea where the bus was going to stop. So I found a pay phone and called the 1-800 number again. The person who answered was a little unclear.

"It just says here, 'Across from Union Station'."

"You mean at one of the city bus stops?" I asked him.

"I don't know."

"What if I'm standing at the wrong place when it arrives?"

"Just stand across from Union Station," he said. "It'll find you."

The street across from Union Station in Los Angeles is about as free-flowing as a eighteen-year-old's carotid artery. In other words, it's BUSY. I couldn't imagine a Green Tortoise bus stalling traffic while it loaded passengers and luggage so I went to the first intersecting street and sat on a low rock wall. Within a few minutes a small river of ants tried to carry my hiking boots away, with me still in them. I stamped my feet, brushed my jacket and pants and moved to a patch of grass behind a hedgerow. It was 5:30 PM. I still had three hours so I fished out a Krishnamurti book from my pack.

Two hours later a taxi pulled up and a young woman stepped out.

"You waiting for the Green Tortoise?" she asked me.

"Guilty," I replied.

She paid the driver, wrestled her backpack from the trunk and sat on the grass beside me. We chatted for a little while then noticed a few people standing across the street, packpacks at their feet.

"Isn't this where the bus stops?" my companion asked.

"No idea," I said. "Maybe we should be over there." Without another word we lugged our equipment across the street and discovered the new arrivals were seasoned Green Tortoise aficionados.

The bus arrived right on schedule and the driver, a kinetic man in his mid-thirties, stepped off and made himself comfortable on a low brick wall. He opened a folder and, after warning the passengers who were debarking that the stay would be brief and not to wander off too far, began selling tickets. Twenty minutes later, my laptop and dufflebag safely tucked into the lower luggage bins, a $5 breakfast voucher snugged into my back pocket, I climbed the stairwell and got my first look inside a Green Tortoise bus.

It was like being hurled back three decades. Apart from two 'diner booths' midway on either side of the bus, the entire surface was given over to upholstered foam cushions. Along the length of the bus, up to the yellow line behind the driver's seat, half-sheet ply bunks hung on chains a few feet below the ceiling. And at the back of the bus, full-width and six feet deep, was a large sleeping surface under which lived more storage space. Above this extra large bunk was a pine stall where the second driver slept during the first driver's shift. Clusters of overhead lamps bristled along the ceiling, companioned by several speakers for our traveling music.

I sat on a long bench behind the driver, molded myself into the corner created by the back of one of the diner booths. As I looked around, the first thing that struck me was the ages of my fellow passengers. Except for the driver, I was old enough to be the father of any of them. By the time we reached Seattle, I was thankful I was not. That trip was my first experience with what used to be called, back in the ice-age, the Generation Gap. Only in my case it was more than a gap, it seemed damn near extra-terrestrial.

The second thing I noticed was the abundance of ear, nose, tongue and navel rings, tattoos and neon hair. It was like being trapped in an elevator full of Boy George clones, each of them singing, "I gotta be me!"

The driver finally boarded, stowed his paperwork, then faced the thirty-five passengers and gave an informal speech about Green Tortoise travel ethics and logistics. Two things stand out in my memory. No washrooms. No air conditioners. Thirty five people can generate a lot of heat. And bladders are just timed geysers with unpredictable clocks. This being understood, we were told there would be several stops to refuel and pick up new passengers. And if a real emergency arose, a funnel on a hose could be vented to the outside. Probably the reason I never saw any dogs chasing our bus.

It was dark when the bus nuzzled into I5 traffic and slid away from the Los Angeles skyline. Blue-grass music reveled from the speakers. I stared out a window at the lights of endless businesses, scrolling their luminous promises.

Our first stop was triple-purposed. We picked up two new passengers, had a restroom break and performed something the driver called "The Magic", which was the conversion of bench seats and booths into sleeping areas. All packs were stashed underneath and remained out of reach until morning. Sleeping bags and blankets were expected to appear from personal gear. Anyone not aware of this was left to shiver on the cushions. My wool poncho survived the transformation and covered the situation.

One of physic's little-known laws says that thirty-seven people, unfurling the lower halves of their bodies, take up twice the surface-area as they do when seated. I was quickly enmeshed in a tangled bouquet of legs and arms. The driver lowered the speaker volume and, as if this was a signal, everyone fell silent. The road noise wasn't enough to drown out the discord of sonorous septums that gradually muddied the silence. And I became regretfully aware of another kind of geyser, the kind that silently erupts from the gaseous empty spaces below neighboring bladders.

Somewhere along the way we crossed to Hwy 101. At San Luis Obispo the bus stopped to change drivers. The air was cool and damp and within a few miles, patches of mist appeared. Near Castorville, the bus plunged into a thick bank of fog without slowing down. I must have nodded off for a while. When I opened my eyes the sky was softly glowing in the east and we were on Hwy 1. The fog had thinned, revealing Salinas Valley farms asleep under white wigs of fleece. We passed a tractor idling on a side road, waiting to enter traffic, its driver covered in layers of clothing, a gray hood hiding his face.

I looked around the bus and noticed a new face. He must have boarded while I slept. Hair graying at the temples, the man looked in his early forties. He was lying almost directly across from me in a sleeping bag surrounded by space-age, multi-zippered pouches. Hanging from a bunk chain over his head was a dacron-sheathed thermos which trailed a clear surgical tube ending in a petcock near the man's mouth.

About a half hour later some of the passengers began yawning themselves awake. I watched the eyes of the man across from me flutter open. His blank expression gradually disappeared as memory returned to the void created by sleep. Then he sat up in his sleeping bag and with tired eyes, did a mental accounting of his faithful pouches. He reached for the closest one, unzipped a pocket and removed a small Tupperware pill holder. A handful of pills shot into his mouth followed by a quick suckle on the thermos tube. Another pouch produced a row of vitamin bottles. Brewer's yeast, kelp, St. John's Wort, glucosamine, slippery elm, multi-vitamins and what looked like half a dozen naturopathic remedies. A row of small pill-cairns were erected along the edge of his sleeping bag. Then one by one the cairns disappeared into the man's mouth, followed by infusions from the thermos. This was followed by a carefully orchestrated queue of lid-popping and zipper-hefting as he returned each container to its proper pouch and pocket. Breakfast victuals out of the way, he reached for a fat blue pouch which yielded something like a pocket calculator. But the man didn't seem inclined to calculate anything. Instead, he pressed a few buttons then angled the thing carefully in front of his face. He glanced out the window then back at the instrument. I suspected it was a GPS. This was somewhat confirmed when the man produced a cell phone and quickly tapped out a number. We were only fifteen minutes out of San Francisco. When he had finished his call, he returned the phone to the pouch and produced a portable CD player. Pushing a pair of small sponge nubs into his ears, the man settled back and moved his foot to the unheard music.

The bus stopped below an overpass in downtown San Francisco where we were given the option of going to the Green Tortoise Hostel or debarking and finding our own diversions for the eleven hour layover. I followed a dozen other passengers off the bus, made a phone call and spent the day with some friends.

By eight o'clock that evening the bus pulled away from the underpass and made its way to Berkley, where it picked up a few more passengers. Added to the ones who boarded in San Francisco, the passenger compliment was now forty strong. At Vacaville we stopped at a SavMax parking lot and performed 'The Miracle' again. There was even less room for sleeping now.

Redding, Yreka, Ashland and Medford rolled by our dark windows. I slept. When I awoke just outside Grants Pass, we were stopping at a Denny's restaurant for a much-needed plumbing break. About an hour later, just north of Wolf Creek, the bus turned off the highway onto a road that penetrated the rain forest. This was Cow Creek, a stopover of two or three hours where passengers could swim in the stream, enter the buff zone of a home-built sauna, wander the sylvan footpaths, or just sit around the firepit and shoot the breeze.

Cow Creek was where the $5 breakfast voucher earned its keep. A posse of volunteers were recruited from the passengers to work in the mess bus, an old Green Tortoise vehicle rigged with an impressive assortment of commercial kitchen equipment.

Green Tortoise cuisine is largely vegetarian. The morning's fare was great heaps of pancakes and a satellite dish-sized fruit salad. Above a small embankment opposite the mess bus was a tall, truly 60's geodesic dome where a table of coffee and tea urns called to the caffeine addicts. One of the passengers noticed the marvelous Buckminster acoustics of the dome and went to fetch his banjo.

Cleanup was as communal as the food preparation. I piloted a tea towel beside a young woman who CEOed a business in Hawaii which applauded the curative powers of the noni plant.

After breakfast I toured Cow Creek on foot. The place was a scavenger's utopia. Old water pumps, motors, hand-split shakes, and a stack of unused windows and doors. A vintage International truck lay abandoned beside a wall of chopped wood. Stoically wearing its rain forest shadows, it seemed now resigned to whisper its psychotropic, communal history to the plastic lenses of Green Tortoise shutterbugs.

We were on the highway again by 10:30 am, cheered up by distended stomachs and an extended period of freedom and elbow room. Three hours later, we rolled into Eugene, Oregon and pulled up at 14th and Kincaid. The university bookstore was less than a block away and I made good use of the forty minute stop to plunder the stacks of titles. As I left the building I noticed a food stand on the sidewalk, what they call a puesta in Mexico, except this one was Greek. I ordered a vegetarian souvlaki and dripped a trail of condiments all the way back to the bus.

The last seven hours of our journey were upon us and it seemed the nostalgia of a university district had released some free-wheeling endorphins among the bus population. An atmosphere of heightened silliness, whose ground zero was three girls sitting in the booth next to me, raged like an Andromeda Strain through the bus. The music got louder and some people broke out into song, quite independent of the music, both in melody and lyrics. A girl in the back began extemporizing rhymes to a heartbeat she tapped out with a pen on the back of a seat. A few people joined her percussion with their hands. Then a baby I had no knowledge of, began crying. Except for the baby, the sound-fest lasted all the way to Portland. Unlike the others, the baby got tired.

It was dark in Seattle when the Green Tortoise pulled up to the curb on 9th Street, beside the Greyhound Bus Depot. There was the final ceremony of claiming luggage from a rogue's gallery of backpacks, dufflebags, Guatemalan tote baskets, bindles, daypacks and the odd suitcase or two. Bicycles slid down from the roof of the bus and found their owners. The bus driver exchanged good-byes with familiar faces. And the new generation of cross-current travelers, assembling in tribes on their side of the gap, looking somewhat different from their ice-age counterparts but sounding very much the same, slowly disappeared into the shadows of a cool Seattle night.