America via green bus
Sunday, May 27, 2001
By ARTHUR FROMMER
Botched elections, tumbling stock markets, falling employment, and soaring
energy costs: This summer, America could use a pick-me-up, and many would
do well to rediscover the wonders that made our ancestors love this land so
Even better, see them cheaply. A favorite travel mode of European
backpackers, the ultra-budget Green Tortoise features cross-country tours
that combine long-distance transportation with whirlwind sightseeing, all
for one low price.
The activities aren't challenging (unless you consider hikes and mud baths
to be challenging), but the quarters can be. When 35 to 40 international
tourists squeeze onto a bus, they can't help but get close.
The buses, which are painted a lurid green, are antique at best. Some date
from the Eisenhower administration, but at least the uncomfortable seating
has been torn out and the interiors have been transformed: lots of shag
carpeting, low benches or seats for lounging and game-playing.
Most of the passengers are in their late 20s. From time to time, older
tourists sign up for the adventure, but these folks had better be young at
heart, because conditions are snug, showers are infrequent, and
conversation tends to be candid and soul-searching. Meals are cooked
outdoors as a group, nights are spent in transit or sleeping aboard the bus
(unless you feel like sleeping under the stars), and you tote your own bags.
The northern summer route (conducted in June, July, and August) leads you
through some of the finest sights in America's top half, including Arches
National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, the Badlands of Montana,
Chicago, the Snake River in Idaho, and Yellowstone. The things you see
depend on whether you take the trip west- or eastbound. The 12-day trip
runs between Boston and San Francisco (the company's home) in either
direction, stopping in New York City for pickups or drop-offs, and costs
$469 plus a food kitty of $121, for a total of $590.
The southern route, which runs in May, September, and October, is 14 days
and hits places like New Orleans, Big Bend National Park, Carlsbad Caverns,
and Zion National Park. That costs $499 plus $131 for food, or $630 for the
two weeks. That's for transportation, entry fees, and food.
A close acquaintance of mine experienced one of these wacky journeys about
two years ago, taking the northern tour from San Francisco to New York
City. Besides the opportunity to bond with shoestring travelers and the
chance to see so many remote national landmarks, what he loved most was the
double-take the big green bus received whenever it pulled into a new town.
It was fun pretending to be a hippie, if only for two weeks.
The Green Tortoise makes nine-day Grand Canyon runs out of San Francisco
($349 plus $111, or $460) that stop in Monument Valley and Zion National
Park. It also conducts a 16-day National Parks loop ($629 plus $191, or
$820) that hits Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce
Canyon, and Zion, among other places.
For more information, go to www.greentortoise.com or call the tour company
at (800) 867-8647.
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