Round the World

The Green Tortoise : The Journey

The bus starts in Boston but I was due to join it, along with most others, on its first evening in New York. Although we were asked to be there at 7pm, because the drive that night was so short we were not setting off until 10:30. When we finally did set off we were introduced to the name of our bus, Pawnee, but it was a subdued affair and most people bedded down for an early night. I have to confess to having been fairly concerned by this having hoped for a livelier crowd.

Washington DC – 25th Sept

I woke up as we visited every gas station in the Washington area looking for the tyre centre that had a new spare for the bus. Eventually find the place just before 6am, when the guy is due to turn up to serve us. He must have had a shock when 22 passengers from all over the world climb off to use his toilet and brush their teeth. Having sorted out a new spare we head into Washington’s Central Station. The Air & Space museum has a fantastic collection but the Holocaust Museum that is most memorable, being superbly done and extremely haunting. It almost needs tackling over a couple of visits because it is so intense and its worth planning something lighter to do after to raise your spirits. Also saw White House, Congress, etc but town itself boring with few people on the streets and little other sign of life.

The White House, Washington, USA

Food today is bought from the outlets in the station, in particular the enormous food court running under the station. As we have a long drive down south we set off at 8:30 pm.

Savannah Beach, Georgia- 26th Sept

Passing through one of the squares in Savannah I notice that the bus is not getting a lot of friendly looks from the group of locals hanging round its centre. My paranoia is heightened when I notice the local sheriff is following the bus through several corners so when the bus is asked whether we want to stop and see the town the reply is almost unanimously “no”. We drove out of town to a nearby beach, setting up the bus kitchen for the first time to make breakfast.

1st kitchen cook up, Green Tortoise, Savannah Beach, Georgia, USA

After clearing up we headed for the Atlantic Ocean. Leslie asked for help in getting a photograph of her on a beach on the west coast, so she could have an equivalent in the west. As I’m lining up the shot I get shat on by a seagull, so take the picture before heading to the shower to clean up. Wash most of it off but then rip the t-shirt pulling it over my head. Chuck it in the nearest bin and add one item to my shopping list. Back to the ocean for a swim and then my 1st chance at a shower since joining the bus. After lunch we headed off to the Okefenoke swamps, unfortunately arriving after the tours had ended so we move on to a campground in a nearby national park to make dinner and build a campfire. JT plays his didgeridoo which is both impressive and a useful guide back to the bus from the toilets in the dark. We set off around 10ish to drive west.

Pensicola Beach, Florida – 27th Sept

We arrive early at Navarra Beach, around 18 miles from Pensicola at the western tip of Florida’s panhandle. The weather is great, we have fantastic white sands, fish swimming round our ankles and the waters of the gulf of Mexico to play in. The location we had was close to perfect, but around 14 people hired bikes to ride into Pensicola. Once a few others had hired kayaks our group was very friendly with the owner of the hire place, Mike, who supplied us with some free kit and use of his internet setup. Spent the day chilling out on the beach, staying sheltered through the hottest part of the day. This wasn’t an option for those on the bikes with several coming back a little red, Cam in particular glowing lobster red.

After dinner we headed of to a nearby beach bar for a few drinks. It had a live band, but before long most of us were on the volleyball courts undoing all the benefit of the days showers and change of clothes. Although we had license to stay out until 2am, all of the bus apart from Kylie, Jenna, Katia and I were crashed out by 11. At this point I was becoming really concerned by the groups willingness to party.

New Orleans – 28th Sept

Arriving in the morning we parked up near the French quarter of town and with the whole day to ourselves. There was a great local cafe, Zotts, for breakfast and a laundry next door so took the opportunity to do both at once. Zotts quickly establishes itself as the bus hangout for the day. Janna and I explored the French market before hooking up with Verena, Olaf and Thomas at the paddle steamer terminal. The plan was to pick up lunch at a recommended deli in the French Quarter and then catch the tram out to see the more expensive areas of town. The deli was marvellous, being busy, cramped and doling out amazing food (my lunch was Creole Chicken with broccoli in cheese sauce and jambalaya). With what we had it was going to be impossible to eat on the tram so we sat down on the kerbside on a street full of buskers and enjoyed the music with lunch.

We finally caught the tram out through the richer areas of town and back again. Strangely we all found the tram ride incredibly soporific, almost unable to stay awake and it was a relief to get off and start walking again. The World Trade Centre in town has a revolving bar at the top so a couple of expensive drinks were in order to get the view. In the early evening we got back together again to head out as a group in Bourbon St, where there is a string of bars and clubs. A fun time was had despite the crappy nature of the clubs which reminded me of Magaluf. I am sure if we had spent a few days in town we could have tracked down a few decent places. In order to get everyone into the bars various forms of ID were shared around the younger members of the trip which nearly ended awkwardly when Kylie dropped here wallet on the way back to the bus with Janna’s ID in it. Luckily the next group along was also from the bus. The contrast with the night before couldn’t have been stronger, the group did party.

I like New Orleans and could happily have spent a couple of days there but we had to push on and get through Texas, a section of the trip the drivers were not looking forward to. It was also here that we picked up Parun, the 23rd traveller on the bus.

Austin, Texas – 29th Sept

We arrived this morning at Barton Springs in Austin, Texas. My last trip to the US was to this town to visit my mate Al Murray. Unfortunately Al was out of town this morning so couldn’t join us. After a quick breakfast in the car park we headed for the fresh spring waters. Despite being at a constant 70 deg F or so, after the Gulf of Mexico and in the warm air of Texas they felt cool. Still it was good to get refreshed and a long shower afterwards was welcome. Less welcome was the way my razor kept getting clogged on my 4 day old stubble so I should look for something else as regular shaves won’t always be easy on my journey.

Feeling cleaner and better we set off south towards San Antonio but after driving for almost an hour I realise that Marie is missing. We double check, but unfortunately I right and we have to turn around and head back to the springs. We find her immediately but it costs us a couple of hours on a day when we were already running late.

San Antonio, Texas

We arrive just after the Alamo has closed for tours so there is only time for a quick drink on the Riverwalk. The Riverwalk is the most amazing setting for a vibrant nightlife I have come across, however as Al & I discovered a year ago, this doesn’t mean the locals know it. Despite all the bars and restaurants only one was busy by 10pm on a Friday night, in the UK it would have been mobbed.

To save time dinner was grabbed at a rest stop but it had been a tiring day with nerves starting to fray a little.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico – 30 Sept

Woke up just as we crossed the border from Texas to New Mexico and saw a stunning sunrise across the desert. Unfortunately the photo didn’t come out. The Carlsbad Caverns are the largest natural caverns in the Western Hemisphere and are set in some stunning desert landscape. There are two options for entering the caverns, an elevator down to the main room or a descent through the natural entrance on a winding trail that had been built. Having descended the trail I understood the need for the elevator; that was the way out. The caverns themselves are vast, with a stunning variety of features and a pleasant cool atmosphere. The parks service had built an excellent series of trails through the caverns along with lighting. Walking the trails at a fair pace it still took 1.5 hours to complete the tour and by the end people had largely split up into individuals to enjoy the caves alone. At the end of the trail, by the elevator there is a largish underground cafe, but it had no atmosphere so we headed back to the surface. Amazingly the cafe is featured prominently in a collection of photos of the caves available in the gift shop! The packed lunches made with breakfast were had outside in the desert sunshine.

Roswell, New Mexico

A quick stop at the UFO museum in Roswell for a laugh and a toilet break. The museum itself is a nicely laid out low budget affair detailing in particular the events supposed to have happened nearby. It was interesting & frustrating in equal measure in that it is clear the military changed its story several times but investigations such as an archaeological survey remain uncompleted with the last report over a year old. Bought some cards in the gift shop as both packs on the bus had at least one card missing.

Bottomless Lake, New Mexico

We stopped here for dinner and a swim but after the strains of Texas the decision was made to camp out by the lake for the night instead. The mats were hauled off the bus to where ever you fancied sleeping under the stars. It was great to sleep on something not moving and alone, but a few raindrops early in the night had me worried I might have to head back on the bus. It quickly cleared and wasn’t a problem.

1st Oct

On waking up next morning I was glad I had used the DEET when I saw a small cloud of mozzies orbiting my face. Only one or two small bites, but not too comforting when the toilet doors carried prominent notices about the West Nile Virus. No one reports seeing any aliens in the night.

Its a grey day which stops us heading for an early morning swim, but Ted has bought a treat for breakfast : Bacon. I’m quickly assigned head bacon chef cooking up enough for around 25 people. After breakfast is cleared we have a bus toss where everything on the bus is thrown off onto a couple of tarps. You then pick up you assorted bits of kit and repack them properly before heading back to the bus. Its needed to keep order in a small space where 25 people are living.

We are half way though the journey and finding this hard to believe; time seems to have flown by and it doesn’t seem real that in a week we will be heading in our separate directions.

It should be noted that from this point I got lax in updating my written notes. The rest of this trip is being written up from Brook’s notes and my fuzzy memory.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

We only have a couple of hours in this very picturesque town. The architecture is very distinctive in the colours used and the shapes of the roofs and gutters. Most of us tour the Museum of Indian American art which is interesting, though some exhibits show a very downbeat side to life. Its a very pleasant place to stroll around aimlessly which I do until its time to go.

Jemez Springs, New Mexico

After dark we pull up into a little lay-by at the side of the road in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Apparently its the start of a trail that leads up to a series of clothing optional hot springs. Fortunately a couple of locals who were heading there anyway offer to guide us as we have one torch between 3 of us and no idea what we are doing. Its quite an adventure hiking down and up the sides of a valley, across log bridges and through the trees in the dark. Just as I am starting to wonder where on earth we are being lead to we come to a series of smallish pools. The water is beautifully hot, to the extent it is difficult to stay fully immersed for any great length of time. It makes a wonderful place to receive a neck massage from Carmen, years of piano playing giving her a strong pair of hands. Just as we are getting relaxed we can see a set of flashing red and white lights in the direction of the lay-by. Its then we hear the tannoy announcing the springs are shut for the day and if we don’t move our vehicles in 35 minutes they are going to be towed. Good luck finding a tow truck for Pawnee at short notice pal…… Its chaotic as we all find our clothes from amongst the rocks and get dressed in the dark as there is no real moon to help light things up, before heading back on our exciting trek through the hills to the bus. We cook up dinner somewhere late (I can’t remember where, anyone care to fill me in) before driving through the night.

Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona – 2nd Oct

The plan today is for some hiking and horse riding. Most of the group will hike down into the canyon and then ride out along it or vice versa. The group hiking into the valley have a little time before we need to start so head for a scenic overlook nearby. As you can see it was stunning.

Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona, USA

It was then a fairly easy descent into the canyon where we met up with the group who rode in and had lunch. This was beside a series of ruins that were built by the Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning the Ancient Ones. They are called the “White House Ruins” because of the remains of whitewash that can bee seen on some of the walls but there was little other information available. There were also several American Indian jewellery makers selling their goods here, customising them to suit people if needed.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

We then got on our horses for the ride out along the canyon. My horse, called “Blackie” or “Coco” depending on what guide you asked, seemed awfully hungry and spent the time before we set off munching the bushes. Once we got going things were fine until the 3rd time we broke into a canter, I found my saddle slipping round the horse. As quickly as possible I brought my horse to a halt, but by then there was little hope of staying on and I landed in an undignified heap. The good news was it had rained recently so the ground was soft, the bad news being that that meant muddy. Having sorted out the saddle we headed off but the fact it had shifted again whilst mounting did my confidence no good. It wasn’t long before the heavens opened and whilst most people sheltered under a rocky outcrop I battled with a horse that would rather be wet and eating rather than dry and hungry. As the rain stopped we headed off again only to stop when we heard some cries from the cliff above. Fearing someone needed help we dismounted with some of us running forward to talk to them whilst the rest of us looked to flag down the next vehicle passing by. It turned out the women we had heard was drunk, wondering if her husband was with us and in no immediate danger. Remounting the horses ended up with me in a muddy heap again and by this point the gloss was starting to come off the day. We finished the ride with me in one piece and got onto the bus. Before we could set off one of the locals climbed on board selling dream catchers. The group bought his entire stock and with them hung up around the bus gave the place a subtle new look.

The rain continued as we drove through the desert and it would be several days before we had clear skies again.

Miele Point, Arizona

I am not sure of the spelling of this place, any corrections welcome.

We pulled up with it already being dark, the plan being to make dinner and then camp out for the night. It lends a place a certain wild atmosphere when you told that a short distance off to the left of the bus is and 800 foot drop and that the toilet is a spade with a couple of rolls of paper placed over the shaft. With a campfire lit a small group of us stayed up until 3 – 4 am having a great night telling stories, swapping jokes and singing songs. At around 2am went to look over the edge of the cliff; a focused Maglight can see a long way but over the edge the beam didn’t reflect off anything. I thought about sleeping outside but a few spots of rain convinced me otherwise.

3rd Oct

Woke up to the most amazing views, the pictures speak for themselves :

I wondered if I could make it to a proper rest stop that morning but decided that things had to be done the way of the wild. I grabbed the spade and headed off up the hill to find somewhere out of sight of the bus. Having found a suitable spot I dug my pit only realising too late, a couple of minutes later that I was within easy sight of the main track leading up from the bus. Fortunately (for both parties) no one came up the path to disturb my privacy.

As we pack up to leave we find the bus won’t start because we had the lights on for so long the night before. Fortunately there is a petrol generator and a couple of 12V car battery chargers in one of the cargo bays. Once they are wired up correctly we just need to wait for half an hour or so for the batteries to get enough charge to get us going.

Jump starting Pawnee

It was then a drive to a quick stop at Lake Powell, Arizona which is mainly a toilet break. There isn’t a lot of water in the lake, mainly silt and the local piers and buoys have been pulled up. We then drive onto Capital Reef National park in Utah, with evidence of recent flooding all along the road. When we get to the visitor centre we find the flooding has cut off the water supply and its time to looking for a handy bush again. Its a short hike to reach the and natural stone formation the “Hickman bridge” but Kylie and I manage to extend it a little by missing a point where the trail curves back on itself.

Picture from Wikipedia Commons

It has been a long day of driving and for entertainment JT has been teaching the bus to tie balloon sculptures. Some of our creations are OK but JT’s are truly amazing.

Balloon sculptures making by JT, Green Tortoise, Utah, USA

Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah

Eventually at 11pm we reach Kodachrome Basin State Park where we are camping for the night. The camp sight warden warns us not to make any noise and that its past curfew. As we had spent the last part of the journey playing stupid card games and drinking it is a sobering welcome. A quick meal is made up from leftovers and we crash out for the night. I’m woken by rain landing on my sleeping bag and move back on the bus whilst those with a spare tarp pull it over themselves.

4th Oct

Make use of the campsites excellent showers and have breakfast before setting off.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

It isn’t far to where we set off on a 6 to 8 mile hike through Bryce Canton. The scenery is stunning with a huge number of colours to the earth. Around half way we read Tower Bridge where we have lunch. The sun is mainly shielded by some cloud cover that stops it being stupidly hot, nonetheless I get through a couple of litres of water.

Its a pleasant hike through dramatic country but isn’t too tough. Its another night of camping out nearby and this night the rain holds off.

5th Oct

The facilities at this campsite are basic so there was no chance of a shower after the hike.

Zion National Park, Utah

Its only a short drive to Zion and we are dropped off at the east entrance. From here it’s an 11 mile hike along the east rim trail to Weeping Rock. At first the trail is a long gentle climb before levelling out and it looks as if we can hold our height to make an attempt at Observation Point, however we drop steeply before the trail splits and its clear that the climb is now too much. What is amazing is how different the geology here is, such a short distance from Bryce Canyon.

Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Its hotter today as the sky is clear and I get through most of the 3 litres of water I bring with me. The final part of the hike is a dramatic drop through a long series of switchbacks down into the canyon. From there we catch a shuttle bus to the main visitors centre where our bus is now parked. By the time we get there, there isn’t time to head off for a shower before we have to leave so we do the best we can with the sinks in the restrooms. Tonight we head to Las Vegas and as our family of 3 will be leaving us there it is the last chance for a group photo.

Green Tortoise group picture, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

To pass the journey we start another of our card games that involve a lot of stupidity and a series of forfeits, this time things getting even sillier. It was almost a disappointment when we reach Las Vegas.

Card game forfeit

Las Vegas, Nevada

As you approach this town over the desert you can see the glow in the sky all its lights make. Nowhere else is there such a brightly lit series of buildings. We park up just off the strip and head into town. Several of us look for something to eat but most of the buffets are shut so we head to the Harley Davidson Cafe. After that everyone meets up by the Bellajio to see its amazing fountain run in sync with music. We retire inside to a bar with a live band but just as everyone gets dancing the band finishes and the bar closes. Its not long before we have to be back on the bus so we start heading off.

The thing is amongst all the glitz there is a very tacky side to Vegas : the streets are filled with rubbish, huge numbers of people handout the business cards for hookers, the newspaper stands are filled with ad papers for hookers and everything else is trying to get you to blow money through gambling. Its not a nice place to be but its also clear that a huge number of people must come here and spend a vast amount of money.

Its a drive through the night to California.

Deep Creek Hot Springs, California – 6th Oct

We arrive in the morning at the Bowen Ranch, a couple of miles from the springs. Apparently the ranch offers the best access to the springs for a small fee. After a late breakfast we set off down to the springs which are meant to be an easy 45 min hike away. Our lead scouts head off the wrong way taking us dune hopping though the sparse vegetation instead of down a nice easy track. After an hour and a half of hiking we still appear to be some distance away and both my little toes have been turned into full surface blisters by trapped sand in my Tevas. Leslie is also struggling and doesn’t think she would easily make it back up from the creek so we head back to the bus. Its now really hot and extremely tiring. Having got to the bus I change my trousers and put on my hiking boots for the second attempt. I head back down with Ted and using the correct trail at the start and keeping up a good pace in the right shoes it takes around 45 mins as promised. The springs are excellent, though climbing around the slippery rocks in my bare feet took some care.

We set off late back to the bus for dinner and for most of the way Parun, Verena & I are navigating my moonlight. It’s quite a trek and the lighting adds a lot to the atmosphere. Dinner is good and we have a campfire, however I’m so tired I can hardly think straight and crash out as soon as possible.

Santa Cruz – 7th Oct

We decide to skip breakfast and keep driving to Santa Cruz, where one of it residents Devin, has booked a table for us all for brunch at Zacharys. Friendly service and excellent food. After this there is only a little time to wander down to the boardwalk and photocopy the address lists. The boardwalk appears to have changed little since my brother and I visited 6 years ago. We set off without Devin, Faye and Kayte who would drive up in Devin’s car later.

We then drive a little further up the coast to a beach for our final bus toss and a swim. The coastline is amazing but the apparent undertow stops anyone from actually having a swim. Its nice to mess around on the beach after driving for so long and also realise we have made it by land from the Atlantic in New York to the Pacific in California.

The Pacific, California, USA

It was then time to take the final drive into San Francisco, the bus now feeling amazingly empty with 6 less people and the realisation we were coming to the end of a fantastic trip. Particularly poignant was when we dropped Marie off. She was the only person on the bus not staying at the Green Tortoise and it was sad waving goodbye to this solo figure at the side of the road. She promised to come to the party later, which she did.

We arrived at the hostel an hour or so later than intended so it was a rush to check in, get showered and down to the party laid on for us and the rest of the hostels residents. There was free food & beer and a madcap band all laid on. Everyone apart from those we dropped off in Vegas made it and we danced till the band quit and the beer ran out. There was a huge cheer when Ted & JT made it from dropping off the bus and MC Devin lead the presentation of cards and tips to them. A few of us headed to a bar across the street but most then decided they were tired and headed back. It was a good gig.

Party at the Green Tortoise Hostel, San Francisco, USA

Thanks very much to Ted & JT for being such wonderful drivers, thanks to the Green Tortoise hostel for the wonderful party and thanks to everyone on the bus for being such an amazing group of friends.

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