Across America, Sardine-Style

“Okay, you guys!” Walter shouted to the 12 of us who had gathered behind the back end of the bus. “One…two…THREE!”

Digging our shoulders in and bracing our feet against the ground, we pushed. For a moment I thought I heard a creaking noise, and felt a slight rocking motion under my hands, but that was it. The bus hadn’t budged from where it sat, stuck two-wheels deep in mud at the side of a Tennessee dirt road.

“One mo’ time!” Walter yelled gleefully, rubbing his grimy palms together. “Use the force!” I looked over at him with growing annoyance. It was his fault we were in this mess in the first place; while driving the bus, he’d pulled over to let a car pass us on the narrow road, and there we’d stayed. We pushed again. The bus refused to move. I could feel sweat starting to trickle down the back of my t-shirt, and a cloud of mosquitoes had settled down over us. I slapped my neck as I felt one bite.

“Can we have some more people helping over here, please?” Walter called amiably to the rest of the group, who stood across the road watching our efforts. Slowly, six or seven of them ambled over and took up positions at the back of the bus.

“This is it, you guys! I can feel it!” yelled Walter. “Ready…GO!” Grunting and clenching my teeth, I pushed with all my might. This time the bus gave a gigantic groan and began to roll slowly. As we maneuvered it out onto the dry road, I felt the backs of my sneakers sink into the mud.

“I can’t believe this is my vacation,” I muttered, shuffling back over to the bus, which sat like a fat green caterpillar in the middle of the road. “I can’t believe I paid for this.”

As if in mockery, the bus tour company slogan glared down at me from where it was painted on the flaking, bright green side of the bus:


* * * * *

It was the second day of my two-week Green Tortoise tour across America. So far, I hated it.

I’d found out about the Green Tortoise while flipping through the travel section of the Sunday New York Times one weekend. A small article at the back of the section had told about the cross-country tours, one of which, called the “Sunny Southern Route,” took passengers through the states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

I had always wanted to see the American Southwest, and for months had been trying to think of a way to take a summer trip there. I’d run into several problems during the planning stage, though. First of all, how was I going to get my 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit, which already had 96,000 miles on it, across the country? How would I know which roads to take, or where the scenic spots were, or the campgrounds? Who could I get to go along with me? And how on earth was I going to pay for such a trip?

The Green Tortoise seemed to be the answer to all my questions. The bus drivers would know the best places to go, and how to get there. There would be other people on the bus, new friends to meet. And best of all, the price for a two-week tour—$480, including two meals a day—well, it was almost cheaper than staying home. I called the phone number printed in the Times and made my reservation for a Sunny Southern tour that very day.

On the evening of May 31 I arrived at the 178th Street bus station in New York City–our point of departure. The pamphlet that the bus company had sent me in the mail had advised me to pack “about half what you think you need,” and so I carried with me just one large duffel bag, a small day pack for hikes, and shockingly red, new polyester sleeping bag I’d found on sale for $13.99. I felt quite nervous as I approached the group of people who were milling around on the sidewalk outside the bus, but once I had spoken to a few, I realized that almost all of them were traveling alone, too. Most also seemed to be about my age, mid-20s or so, and many had strange, foreign-sounding accents.

We got under way as night was beginning to fall. A count-off revealed that there were 33 of us on the bus; only ten, including our drivers Walter and Ray, were Americans.

I spent the first few hours getting to know the people sitting closest to me on the huge mattress-covered platform which took up the back part of the bus. There was Heike, a German girl who’d been studying literature at Yale for the past year; Kimberly, who had left her home in Melbourne, Australia to work at a Canadian ski resort over the winter; Paddy and Julie, from England and New Zealand, who set to work mending their clothes with pieces of brightly colored fabric as soon as we started driving; and Kennedy, a Protestant minister from Long Island. We all seemed to get along remarkably well, and bantered happily together as the Tortoise rumbled on into the night. Secretly, though, I wondered if any of us would even want to speak to each other after two weeks of being jammed together like sardines in a big green tin.

* * * * *

According to Ray, the Green Tortoise buses had been built in 1954, “when they still knew how to make buses right.” Our particular Tortoise had logged over 7,000,000 miles, he said.

There were only two times during the entire week that we camped out and slept outside; the rest of our nights were spent in the bus, while either Ray or Walter drove through the night to our morning destination. I don’t know who the person was who had designed the interior arrangement of the bus—which Ray said could accommodate 38 people, with their baggage, at a time—but whoever it was was a master of space management.

The platform in back, when covered with mattresses, could sleep about 20 tightly-packed people; if the mattresses were moved aside, trapdoors built into the wooden platform allowed access to our large suitcases, which were stored underneath. Narrow shelves, about head-high, lined the sides of the bus from stem to rear; in “day mode,” these were used for stowing day packs and rolled-up sleeping bags, but at night could be cleared to fit four people sleeping head-to-foot along each side of the bus. The front seats folded down to make another, smaller sleeping platform, under which packs and shoes were tossed during the night. Hanging bars and mini-clotheslines stretched along the front walls for drying wet towels and clothes, and netting suspended beneath the bunks held daily essentials such as water bottles, suntan lotion, bananas and boxes of crackers, and extra socks.

The claustrophobic conditions made me acutely uncomfortable at first. While many of the people on the bus were free-spirited, adventurous types, who had spent months traveling and saw nothing wrong with sharing a 40-by-8-foot space with 32 other people and their clutter, I was used to a cushy existence of clean sheets, neatly folded clothes, and daily showers. I learned some harsh lessons about Tortoise life during the first two or three days.

One of the first things I found out was that it was impossible to keep anything organized on the bus. Cameras, books, shoes, and articles of clothing were always disappearing amid the piles and piles of stuff. To those of us who tended to freak out when our possessions had been mislaid, Ray simply said, “Relax. It’ll turn up at some point.”

I also discovered quite quickly that the attitude toward personal hygiene on the Tortoise was, at best, laid back. Though we were to spend most of our days hiking canyons and cliffs in the hot sun, and most of our nights crammed sweatily together on the sleeping platforms, there were only two or three times during the trip when we had the opportunity to take showers. Understandably, the bus began to take on a rather distinctive smell after a while. On the days when we found rivers or streams to swim and wash off in, this odor was enhanced by the added aroma of mildewy swim trunks and towels.

Having no toilet on the bus was not usually a problem, since Walter and Ray made frequent stops at gas stations and truck stops. There were times, however, when some unlucky person would hear the call of nature while driving on a desolate, empty stretch of highway. For that person, the only alternative to waiting was “the funnel,” a rusted metal cone that could be pulled out of a small compartment next to the driver’s seat. One end of a rubber tube was attached to the narrow end of the funnel; the other end snaked through a hole in the floor of the bus and emptied out onto the road. During the whole first week of the trip, the only person any of us saw using the funnel was Walter.

* * * * *

We spent the better part of the first two weeks driving, so that we could get down to Florida and the water as quickly as possible. We killed time by playing poker and backgammon, reading, writing letters, and listening to the music of Bob Marley and Hot Tuna on the bus stereo system. By the time we passed the Mason-Dixon line, I had spoken to almost every one of my fellow travelers, and could name the countries they came from: South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Vietnam. I eventually became quite good at imitating some of their accents, and got everybody laughing a few times by mimicking Brian’s Scottish brogue or the short, clipped phrases of Rajneesh, who was from India.

I think the trip really began for all of us once we hit Florida, and could finally spend some time outside the bus. Our first day there, we rented canoes for an eight-mile paddle down a shallow, pretty river at a park called the Blackwater River Forest. Most of us had never been in canoes before, and spent more time splashing each other with oars and capsizing each other’s boats than we did actually paddling. We beached our canoes late in the afternoon near a deep, wide pool where a rope swing hung from a tree branch out over the river. Lazing in the sun on a sandy bank, we watched as Kennedy, Rob, a philosophy student from Delaware, and Morten, a ballet dancer from Denmark, swung out on the rope and did zany jumps into the water.

Most of our next day was spent at Pensacola Beach, playing in the waves and building sand castles. A few of us took the opportunity to drag some of the mattresses off the bus, which had gotten damp and sandy from the day before, and Kimberley and Julie strung clotheslines around the picnic table area for our wet swimsuits, jeans and towels. By the time we had set up our kerosene stoves in the evening and started to cook dinner, the whole setup looked like a refugee camp.

The meals on the Tortoise were amazingly good. Cooking and preparation were group efforts; almost everybody helped with doing something, whether it was chopping vegetables for salad or stir-fry, sauteing or stirring sauce at the cookstoves, or washing plates and cups in buckets of soapy water once the meal was finished. The dishes we made were filling and hearty, though no meat or poultry were used: there were Western-style scrambled eggs, hash browns, and French toast with real maple syrup for breakfast; and chili, shrimp creole, and curried rice with veggies for our evening meals. My favorite part of meal preparation came when Ray would climb up to the top of the bus where our food was stored, and toss things down to those of us waiting below. We held up our hands and bounced up and down like anxious children, hoping to catch melons, bags of onions and potatoes, cans of juice, and bunches of leeks as they came hurtling down. Once, Ray threw a pineapple a little too vigorously, and hit a Vietnamese photographer named Kwan in the head.

* * * * *

Our group had its first brush with the long arm of the law during an afternoon stop at Palmetto state Park in Texas. We had left New Orleans early that morning, after a night of crazy drunkenness and terrific blues music, and were on our way to Big Bend National Park. A lot of us, who had woken up miserably hung over and stinking of sweat and beer, had been begging Ray to let us stop for a swim.

We parked in a corner of the park grounds, near a path that led down to a muddy-brown river. A dozen or so people jumped off the bus and scrambled to get into the water right away; since it took me about ten minutes to find my bathing suit, I could already hear them whooping and splashing by the time I made my way down the path.

What I saw when I came out onto the riverbank made me stop dead in my tracks. Walter, Ray, Paddy, Julie, Kimberley, and about six others were all stark naked, throwing huge handfuls of mud at each other. They had mud smeared over their faces, mud in their hair, on their arms and stomachs. they looked like something out of Quest for Fire.

I didn’t know what to do. I felt prudish and silly standing there in my purple bathing suit, but I was also embarrassed to take my clothes off in front of people I barely knew. So for a few seconds I just stood there, dangling my towel into the mud.

“Whoo-hoo!” yelled Kennedy, pushing past me and smashing fleshily into the water. As he charged by, I lost my balance, fell on my butt, and slid down the muddy bank into the river.

“Oh, gross!” I wailed. I could feel the big load of mud that had wedged up into my bathing suit as I’d slid down. Swishing my suit around in the water didn’t help, and after a few minutes I simply sat back in the mud again. Just then I heard somebody creeping up behind me.

“Spa treatment!” yelled Walter, dumping a huge mound of sticky mud onto my head. I didn’t know whether I was going to throw mud back or just sit there and start blubbering.

Luckily, I didn’t have to decide. Suddenly everyone who had been splashing and laughing in the water went silent. Looking up toward the path, we saw that a large brown pickup truck had parked next to our bus. A man in a tan ranger’s uniform and mirrored sunglasses was standing next to it with a megaphone.

“Remove yourselves from the water and put some clothes on,” he said, into the megaphone. “Right now.”

We did as we were told, and trudged back up to the bus where the ranger was waiting for us.

The gist of it was, he said, that we’d violated park rules by indecently exposing ourselves. We had a choice: we could either leave the park immediately, or he would call in the state police to deal with us.

“What is we agree to put on our bathing suits?” Ray asked. “We didn’t know we were breaking any rules. Can’t we just have a warning?”

“No, sir, you cannot,” barked the ranger. “I would suggest you leave these premises pronto.”

We didn’t want to go, but we didn’t want to make trouble either. So, with much grumbling all around about “the land of the free,” we loaded, mud and all, back onto the bus.

* * * * *

Of course we hit the big tourist spots once we got into the second half of our trip: the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the neon nightmare of Las Vegas. Those were the things that most of us had come to see, after all. They were the places we’d all heard about.

For myself, though, I found these headline attractions to be pretty disappointing. The Grand Canyon and the caverns were visually spectacular, it’s true, and I’m glad I got the chance to see them—but there was something about all the frozen yogurt carts and souvenir stands, the throngs of noisy, camera-toting people, that took something away from the natural beauty there.

I much preferred the days we spent at lesser-known spots, far from the reaches of what we Tortoise travelers called “the Winnebago crowd.” Big Bend National park, where we spent two wonderful days, was one of my favorites. The landscapes of Big Bend were ruggedly, brutally gorgeous, with red rock formations looming over scrub flats choked with thorny mesquite, sage, prickly pear, and tiny pink and yellow wildflowers. The sun was hot enough to evaporate the sweat right off our skins; although we spent the first day hiking miles of difficult trails, and the second river-rafting on the Rio Grande, not once did any of us feel the slightest dampness on our upper lips.

Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah were by far the most beautiful places I had even seen. At Bryce, towering crayon-orange rocks wound up into the sky, in the shapes of giant ice-cream cones, chess pieces, castles, squatting Buddhas. And at Zion, where we spent our last day of the tour before heading for our drop-off point in San Francisco, a punishingly steep hiking trail called Angel’s Landing (where we had to haul ourselves up by chain-link handrails sunk in the rock face) took us up to a narrow cliff, from which we got a panoramic view of the entire canyon basin down below.

After we’d cleaned up the dishes from our last evening meal, packed everything back onto the bus, and headed away from Zion on the highway again, I lay on the back sleeping platform and watched all of my new friends around me, talking, singing to the music on the stereo, braiding each other’s dirty hair. A sudden feeling of love for all of them washed over me. I was filthy; there was grit lodged under my fingernails, my clothes were stained and stinky, but who cared? Who cared if I had no idea where my jacket and wallet had disappeared to? Or that my new red sleeping bag now stunk so strongly that I’d probably have to throw it away when I got home? Everything was…groovy.

At some point during that last night, we had to stop dead on the highway because of some sort of roadblock. Full of energy (and more than a little marijuana), we turned the reggae up loud on the stereo, threw open the door to the bus, and started to dance around the cars waiting in the traffic jam. “We…love…sweet…reggae music,” we sang, holding hand, kicking and gyrating, as other drivers locked their doors and rolled their windows up tight. I wished in that moment that our trip could just go on and on, that I could continue traveling with these people forever.

Finally, though, the traffic began to move again, and we hustled back onto the bus. One we were on our way, I realized all the exertion had made me have to go to the bathroom pretty badly. So, swaggering up to the front with a big grin on my face, I looked Ray right in the eye.

“So, Ray,” I called out, loud enough so the whole bus could hear, “where’s that funnel?”

* * * * *



The Green Tortoise touring company has been shuttling adventurous travelers across America for almost three decades. Gardner Kent, owner and founder of the company, started doing the tours out of San Francisco in 1972, with the help of his family and just one rusty old school bus. The price for a cross-county tour on the bus during its first year: $75.

According to Kent’s son, Lyle, the 1970s were a period during which cheap, funky travel companies flourished. For the first six or seven years that the Tortoise was in operation, several other, similar bus tour companies with fanciful animal names cropped up in the States: the Grey Rabbit, the Blue Whale, the Pink Flamingo. By the mid-80s, however, the Green Tortoise was the only one of its kind left.

The company now owns a fleet of buses, and runs tours through Alaska, the Baja peninsula, and Costa Rica as well as across the country. While the Green Tortoise does operate more modern, air-conditioned coaches for its shorter two- and three-day trips, the sturdy 1954 buses are still used for the longer tours.

Word of mouth accounts for about 95 percent of Tortoise advertising, Lyle Kent said. Although the company does have a website, and sends printed catalogs out upon request, most people find out about the company from fellow travelers, ex-bus drivers, and scraps of paper pinned to youth hostel bulletin boards. The tours attract “all kinds of folks,” Lyle said—”anybody who needs a change, a challenge, or a charge.”

* * *