Watch pink grapefruit sunrises, play the slot machines in Las Vegas and camp out under a sky filled with a thousand stars. It's all part of a rough and ready but unforgettable Green Tortoise road trip
What happens when 40 people spend 11 days travelling from New York to San Francisco, on a bus? The answer is fun. “It’s like a mobile hippy commune,” someone had told me. I wasn't around in the swinging sixties, so I thought I’d give the Green Tortoise coast-to-coast adventure a try.
The vehicle was a dead ringer for the Scooby Doo bus: it was vast, green and had a papier-mâché dog strapped to the roof. The drivers were young, outdoorsy, and liberal with stories to share about every pit stop we made. With their help, everyone on the trip knew one another by name – and their background – in less than 48 hours.
Our company was a far cry from the young and restless crowd I had expected. Anna and Gideon were from Queens, spoke Hebrew and had been raised on a kibbutz; Cassandra was an art school drop-out about to join US Army boot camp to train to be a nuclear physicist. There was a Swedish student, a husband and wife celebrating their wedding anniversary, and a hard core of cash-strapped tourists who wanted to see as much of the US as they could for as little money as possible.
The trip was a lesson in keeping it simple and learning to rough it. No hot water, no toilet, no privacy. Instead of taking a shower, I paddled in the Colorado River in the Rocky Mountains, had a strip wash in a highway service station toilet and wore more deodorant. The spacious bus, with long sofas and tables to sit at, converted in just 20 minutes to a giant sleeping area, using sofa cushions for mattresses with individual sleeping bags as bedding.
Every morning guaranteed a different spectacular sunrise. The start of our ‘out West’ experience began when we watched the sun come up over the seemingly bottomless craggy caverns in the Badlands, South Dakota. Woken by people trampling over me to leave the bus, I followed them. We sat on the edge of a precipice and focused on the horizon. As the grey turned to pink, red and then orange, the light got better and you could see the canyons for miles into the distance. Once the sun was up, we hiked through this dry and arid landscape with its crystal-clear air and patches of bright coloured wild flowers.
We got a glimpse of Native American life when we visited Scenic, a settlement on the edge of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. This cowboy town, with its saloon, wide dirt road and abandoned shells of houses, was a sorry sight.
Pulling into small sleepy towns in middle America always got us noticed. Barefoot and unwashed we queued to use the only phone box. It’s the quiet and out-of-the-way places that the Green Tortoise bus took me to that I remember most fondly. Like the hot springs that ate the elastic in my swimsuit during a sulphuric soak in the hot salty pools adjacent to a wild and thrashing branch of the Colorado river.
In a day that would have made Huckleberry Finn very proud, we hiked through Arches National Park, Utah, with its dry, sandy and very red craters. That night ended with us camping in the Valley of the Gods, toasting marshmallows and avoiding ant hills.
During another just-because-we-can stop, we all dared each other to jump into a reservoir and its cool blue water 40ft below. In Zion National Park, Utah, we walked with 90ft-high canyon walls closing in on either side of us. Our drivers pointed out birds of prey overhead and rare flora and fauna as we hiked.
As the days slipped by and we adjusted our watches from time zone to time zone, the group gelled, with friendships formed, fierce debates sparked and dancing to Billie Holiday around a campfire. We developed in-jokes, teased each other about national stereotypes and didn’t really want the trip to end. Our final destination of San Francisco saw everyone go their separate ways - but not without fond farewells, warm hugs and a pat for the papier-mâché dog.