I spent most of last week on a bus trip to Yosemite National Park. This was not your grandmother’s guided coach tour to see the fall colors, Grand Canyon, or Atlantic City casinos. There were no sing-alongs and we did not receive a ‘find-a-word’ puzzle book upon boarding. We didn’t crown a champion in “Name That Tune: Big Band Edition” or play “I Spy With My Little Eye”, as they do on some bus tours.
With San Francisco-based Green Tortoise Adventure Travel the passengers set up camp each night, help to prepare meals, do dishes, light bonfires, and convert the bus from day to night mode. There is no assigned seating and passengers pass their phones forward to the driver to share playlists over the stereo. Bringing food and drink onboard is actually encouraged.
The Green Tortoise business plan is pretty simple. They run customized motor coaches up and down the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Alaska, as well as shorter trips to several National Parks festivals, and fairs. They’re “Hostel Hopper” shuttles are an economical way to get between San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. They also offer regular trips between San Francisco and New York by way of either New Orleans or Chicago.
By day the Green Tortoise passengers lounge on benches or sit at one of four banquettes. In the evening the bus is converted to night mode and passengers sleep on multiple levels while rolling along the highway. You wake up every morning in a new location, ready to seize the day.
One of the sleeping levels is an “upper berth.” Think of the overhead storage bins on a plane, minus the folding door, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what the upper berth is like on a bus. I claimed one for my own and went unchallenged for four nights. I slept like a log.
The four-day, three-night adventure took us to Obsidian Flats in the Inyo National Forest, near June Lake, California. We hiked and rode mountain bikes in Yosemite National Park, saw El Capitan and Half Dome, swam in Mono Lake (similar to the Dead Sea), walked among giant tufa spires, and came face to face with a 6-point deer (who was lounging about 10’ off the trail). I fed grass to a small deer from the palm of my hand, and waded into the Merced River. We drove over the 9,945’ Tioga pass to Tuolumne Meadows, the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierras.
Some of the group hiked to Lambert Dome for panoramic views of Yosemite’s high country while I stayed a little closer to sea level and walked to Soda Springs and Parson’s Lodge – home of the Sierra Club.
On the final day we stopped at Olmstead Point for group photos on glacier scarred rock before moving on to Tuolumne Grove and a long, downhill trek to marvel at the 2,000 year-old giant Sequoia trees. Of course a long trek downhill is generally followed by a long trek uphill and this proved to be a good pre-dinner workout.
Later that evening we parked on the Main Street of Groveland, CA. Coach strongly suggested that we ‘close’ the Iron Door Saloon while she got some sleep on the bus. The Iron Door is the oldest licensed establishment in the Golden State and their Thursday night karaoke sessions are legendary. Locals know that a Green Tortoise bus rolls into town every Thursday (this being the last bus of the summer), and they show up en masse to welcome international backpackers to their little corner of the world.
Out of respect to several musically challenged members of the GT group, I will refrain from posting video links.
After reading this account you might assume the highlight was the amazing scenery, ancient trees, wildlife, stalactite-like tufa towers, glacial landmarks, or waterfalls three times as high as Niagara. But for me the real highlight was the people I met.
Our driver was the amazing Tess Alben-Smith, or ‘Coach’ as she’s known to GT travelers and hundreds of female soccer players. This amazing woman recently retired as a Forest Ranger. In fact she was the first female Forest Ranger in the State of California.
You won’t find many women of Coach’s age who actually choose to spend their ‘retirement’ with a new group of backpackers every week, let alone guiding a bus through mountain passes and hiking countless mountain trails by day and sleeping under the stars or in a cramped berth by night. It takes a special person to put up with porta-potties, lack of showers, and camp food, but Coach clearly thrives on it.
She easily commanded the respect of an international group of mostly 20-30 year-olds. While the four of us who were in our 50s were in the minority, age doesn’t seem to be an issue in hostels or on down n’ dirty bus tours.
Standing in a circle in the middle of a forest, beside the Merced river, in the shadow of El Capitan, we introduced ourselves as ‘Coach’ (Green Tortoise Driver), Sasha (Green Tortoise Guide), Zofia (Poland), Armin (Germany), brothers Ian & Richard (Scotland), Kelly & Justin (Australia), Nick (California), Peter (UK), Marck and Myrthe (Netherlands), Charlotte (US), Vincent & Lino (Germany), Lottie (UK), Ute (Germany), Allan & Christine (Ireland), Kim (Australia), Naomi, Niamh and Emma (Ireland), Kelvin (Brazil), Boglarka (Hungary), Elizabeth (Australia), and Vera (Brazil). Forgive me if I’ve left anyone out.
The above photo shows Sasha ‘The Wonder Guide’ in action at the first pre-breakfast meeting. Here she explains how we’ll wash our hands (it’s complicated), cook breakfast, prepare that day’s bagged lunches, wash dishes, sanitize equipment, and pack everything back under the bus. Sasha was in charge of the camp and did an amazing job of getting food on the table three times a day. Much of the prep work and cleanup was delegated to us travellers but Sasha oversaw the whole operation. The act of ‘herding cats’ came to mind more than once.
I had camped with Elizabeth at Burning Man but it wasn’t until I perused her website, OvarianTemple.com, that I realized she has been a thinker, artist and teacher. She now travels the world presenting workshops, classes and retreats that provide a non-sexual way for women to develop a “friendly, functional and respectful relationship with their reproductive organs.”
With their two kids off to university, Dublin residents Alan and Christine were taking their first vacation without kids. I’ll be seeing more of these two as we’re both doing another Green Tortoise trip next week.
A trio of Irish lasses, Naomi, Niamh and Emma were barely out of their teens yet obviously very worldly girls. They regularly lapsed into convincing “Valley Girl” accents.
Australians Justin and Kelly had put careers on hold to travel for six months. Kelly will practice corporate law when she returns to the land down under.
Boglarka was from Hungary but her employer was allowing her to work from a Texas office for one year. She was using her annual vacation to explore America.
Brothers Ian and Andrew were from Scotland, graduates of a private school, and currently studying in England. Ian, the older brother, will has another year before embarking on a career as a structural engineer. I was always amazed at how these young people were so quick to do whatever it took to get the bus unpacked, camp set up, meals prepared, dishes washed, fires started, etc.
Nick was a California resident, home schooled, and worldly beyond his 18 years. He played the flute, spoke English and Spanish, and had just returned from a trip to South America where he learned to Tango. He could do magic tricks, was an accomplished photographer, and could talk on any subject with the maturity of someone twice his age.
Australian born Kim had spent the summer as a councilor at a New England camp where she was in charge of a cabin full of 8, 9 and 10 year-olds.
Marck and Myrthe (pronounced Meer-ta) were students from The Netherlands. Myrthe has completed three years of medical school.
Armin was about my age and a Forest Ranger in Germany. He and Coach talked a lot of shop. Despite bad knees and already suffering one heart attack, Armin was happy to travel the USA in a sleeper bus.
Zofia was a Java script programmer from Poland but hopes to move to the UK for better job prospects. There’s little doubt she’ll make it anywhere she choses.
Lottie works in the student housing department of a London university and will return to England one day before the students return to school. That’s cutting it close.
It’s amazing how much you get to know about a small group of people when you spend every waking (and sleeping) hour with them over the course of three days and four nights. In this case our time together was all too short.
That’s not to say that I won’t appreciate a larger bed and hot shower when back to the hostel on Friday, because I will, but I also look forward to doing it all over again next week. Come Monday I’m back on a Green Tortoise bus to Santa Monica, Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Joshua Tree National Parks, and finally back to Hollywood. I’ll have about 24 hours in Tinsel Town before flying to Peru on September 22.