COLUMN ONE : Hip Trips on the Magic Bus : Cheap and freewheeling, the Green Tortoise is a survivor of another era. Think of it as a rolling encounter group. And bring your sleeping bag.


The simplest story on the three-day bus trip from Southern California to downtown Seattle belonged to Will Thysell, too hip to be 12.

His mother, a poet, saw him off in Eugene, Ore. His father, a botanist, picked him up in Tumwater, Wash. Basic travel for a child of the 1990s whose turquoise and navy braces match the threads in his hair wrap.

First prize for the most complicated tale, least ordinary life or strangest itinerary could have gone to nearly anyone else on the big green bus in the middle of nowhere. These passengers were not, after all, going Greyhound.

Jonathan Laws, 26, and Charmain Mistry, 24, had just flown from Rangoon to Los Angeles for the last leg of a trip around the world that began in London seven months earlier. Zemeira Singer, 19, and Elias Seidel, 24, sort of from New Mexico, were eventually headed to Montana to help old friends build a new house.

"An earthship," Singer said. "Out of old tires."

Lauren Tillmans, 17, kind of from Laguna Beach, was en route to Grants Pass, Ore., to visit a friend: "My mother told me to either live with my father or live on my own. I decided to go on my own. Actually, with my aunt. Actually, she's my father's ex-girlfriend. . . . But she loves me."

These are not your average passengers. And Green Tortoise Inc. is not your average bus company. It is the transport of choice through a parallel universe, a world populated largely by the adventurous and empty-handed--men, women and children of wide horizons but narrow means.

Founded 22 years ago in San Francisco, Green Tortoise is the sole survivor of a fleet of underground bus lines with names like Gray Rabbit, Iron Pony and American Gypsy that flourished in the freewheeling 1960s and '70s and died in the pin-striped 1980s. At $30 for a one-way ticket--$10 more for a cat, dog or bicycle--it is the cheapest way, save hitchhiking, to ride from Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

And as the national network of planes, trains and buses continues to fray, Green Tortoise is also one of the few--and friendliest--ways to go from, say, Huntington Beach to Ashland or Brooks, Ore., to Tumwater.

Although this summer's air fare war in the Pacific Northwest has cut into its Southern California-to-Seattle business, the Tortoise has seen a sharp jump in the number of flag-stop trips like 21-year-old David Ferguson's recent jaunt from San Luis Obispo to tiny Kelso, Wash. Green Tortoise doesn't even go to Kelso, a problem quickly remedied with $10 extra, a map book and a small measure of driver disbelief: "You're actually gonna go to Kelso? "

This is a trip that can't be done on a plane, says Eric Gerrick, Green Tortoise general manager, who likes to needle the competition: "You can't get near it on the trains, and on Greyhound, you'd get there after a nightmare trip."

Nightmares are frowned upon aboard the Green Tortoise, particularly loud ones. Space is at a premium in these wood-paneled buses, where 40 passengers--OK, sometimes 42--crowd the facing bench seats that line the walls. Drivers, explains one, "feel more compassionate about getting someone on than for people being squeezed like sardines."

Travel is largely after dark. Air-conditioning is cheap and automatic, compliments of the night. There is often talk, and always music, sometimes loud. And at 11 p.m., without fail, there is The Miracle, when the bench seats in the aging buses are transformed into one large sleeping platform. Strangers breathe each others' nighttime exhaust, shrouded in sleeping bags or jackets and wedged together head to toe.

"I've seen a report of these bus, one or two years ago in German television," said Hans-Peter Frank, 30, who started his current trip last September in Stuttgart. "They say it's the slowest way to go up to Seattle, the most fun way, the most different way to travel." A pause. "It truly is the most different way."

How different is it?

While the San Francisco-to-Seattle run takes two hours longer than Greyhound, that extra time is spent in a forested compound in Cow Creek, Ore., for a sauna and a clothing-optional dip in a tributary of the Umpqua River. An extra $3 buys an all-you-can-eat organic breakfast. So what if you have to pitch in on preparation; the blackberries you pick go into the whole wheat pancakes.

The Tortoise is not without rules: No feet on the cushions. No smoking anything. Exchange names and destinations with three other riders so no one gets left in the dark on the highway. But this bus is not for the punctilious. "Remember," warns the company brochure, "this is only an outline of how your trip may go. Flexibility is a key ingredient of all Tortoise trips."

This particular trip, the Tortoise's northbound "alternative commuter," is a weekly run starting every Sunday night in Huntington Beach and ending Tuesday night in Seattle: 1,000 miles of interstate with 30 stops at fast-food joints in three states over 48 hours--for many, time spent in a single set of clothing.

In Santa Monica, a mountain bike, guitar, football, nose ring and three ankle bracelets got on the bus. In Hollywood, a tie-dyed head wrap with Birkenstocks boarded. San Luis Obispo added dreadlocks; Ventura brought a drum.

But not just any drum, said its fog-chilled owner, he of the eyebrow ring and tie-dyed Donald Duck T-shirt who boarded just moments before the Sunday night Miracle. "It's a doumbek ," he said sleepily in the darkened parking lot of a Denny's, "you know, a cousin of the djembe ."

The old bus thumps and rattles on its slow way north. Santa Monica to San Luis Obispo to Santa Cruz to Vacaville. Denny's to Wienerschnitzel to Jack in the Box to McDonald's. Pit stop, smoke stop, fuel stop.

"The first night on the bus is always the hardest," warns Gardner Kent, 49, the pigtailed Green Tortoise founder. Tired of selling floor covering in small-town Massachusetts, Kent and his family bought a bus in the early 1970s and headed for Guatemala. The marriage ended along with the trip, and Kent ended up with his children on a commune in Bodega Bay on the Sonoma County coast.

He eventually began driving for an alternative bus line that specialized in fast treks across the United States--trips that often ended in disarray. And a niche was born: Take a little longer, throw in a few sights, add a vegetarian cookout and you have a business.

At 6:30 a.m. Monday, Santa Cruz is socked in with fog. The Monday morning shift at Safeway is stocking shelves as a ragged line of passengers, stunned with sleep, shuffles into the grocery's tiny restroom.

"It's too early," Thaddeus Moore, 18, groans as he climbs back on the bus for the final leg. "It's way too early."

California 1, Devil's Slide, Half Moon Bay, San Francisco. The fog burns off, the sun appears, passengers in sleeping bags begin to stir, and driver Lynette Yetter, 36, narrates the morning: "I rode [Green Tortoise] as a passenger from San Francisco to Guatemala. It changed my life. I rode it to Baja in '91 for the total eclipse of the sun."

But before her epiphany on a Baja beach, this bus driver with the hands of an artist and the soul of a camp counselor rode the Green Tortoise as basic transportation. "I live in San Francisco," Yetter said. "My family's in L.A. I'd come down and visit them on the Tortoise."

For a company that operates 12 buses on two-week swings through the national parks, monthlong treks to Alaska and runs a language school on wheels in Costa Rica, Green Tortoise's financial foundation has long been the more mundane West Coast run.

More than 10,000 travelers--the youngest age 6, the oldest, so far, 72--board the Tortoise each year for a trip that starts and ends somewhere between the Southland and Seattle. That number has dropped some since 1992, when air fares plunged, and continued to decrease this summer, as the airlines battled for the Northwest.

"In 1991, when the airlines were still charging $300 one-way to Seattle, we were running four buses a week," said Tortoise general manager Gerrick. Today, with a round-trip Tortoise ticket from Los Angeles to Seattle costing $158 and air fare for the same journey just $20 more, the company has cut back to two weekly round trips. Gerrick admits: " I'd fly at these fares."

Green Tortoise no longer makes the "real money" it raked in during 1991, but "we're always just barely in the black" says founder Kent. "I wouldn't call it a healthy profit margin compared to the time and energy we put into it."

Increased competition from trains and planes has caused the bus industry's share of the intercity market to drop drastically. Between 1982 and 1991, the locations served by buses nationwide decreased nearly 50%, from 11,820 to just under 6,000.

"The limited evidence available," according to a 1992 report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, "suggests that the riders who have been losing service are those least able to afford and least likely to have access to alternative modes of transportation."

Throughout the country, "what you're finding is that rural service is in bad shape and getting worse," said Warren J. Smith, executive director of the American Public Transit Assn. "Regional carriers are trying to keep it alive, [but] it's been very difficult."

Green Tortoise would never even pretend to be the cure for the nation's transportation ills, but it is benefiting from the tears in the transit network.

In 1993 and 1994, for example, Green Tortoise rarely picked up a single traveler in Redding on its weekly trip between San Francisco and Seattle. Now, the 1:30 a.m. stop brings in more than 100 passengers a year.

Business in Yreka, where the Tortoise stops at a local Denny's at 4:30 a.m., "really, really was lame," Gerrick said. But it has increased by 20% each year since 1993.

Although some of those passengers are European tourists on months-long jaunts around America and the world, most are more like job-hunting Joe, "age 47 and please don't use my name." "Price is not the issue," he said. "On Southwest, I could have gone for $49 one-way and I wouldn't have had to sleep in a luggage rack. But it's be a traveler or be a tourist. I'd rather be a traveler. That kind of sums it up."

Wanderlust is alive and well on the Tortoise; so is rootlessness, its far less joyful cousin. But at least the ratios are good: for every troubled youth of uncertain residence, there are several savvy travelers with full passports and empty wallets.

For every Alexis ("I decided I wanted him to be my boyfriend again after I saw him again and we had sex") there are Joe and Berk, arguing over whether to use the formal or informal method of address when telling beggars in India to scram.

There is also the occasional undercover agent, like the one sneaked on board by the California Public Utilities Commission in 1993 in a futile search for LSD. The investigation, which was spurred by complaints, found no drugs, a couple of naked passengers at Cow Creek and a minor licensing violation that has been resolved.

"I don't think the state PUC is concerned that people want to go together in the nude into a pond beside the highway," said Larry McNeely, chief of special investigations for the PUC. "If the public wants this kind of service, more power to 'em."

At least some of the public does. Colin Martin, 17, got on the bus in Huntington Beach with a guitar, a well-thumbed copy of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and a very basic transportation need: to visit his mother in Ashland, Ore.

He also packed an attitude, perhaps the most common piece of luggage ever dragged aboard the Tortoise.

"It was the least expensive way to travel," said the soft-spoken senior at Laguna High. "But if I just wanted to get there, I'd have taken Greyhound."

Money--or the lack thereof--is just part of the reason one climbs aboard a bathroom-less bus emblazoned "The Only Trip of its Kind" and sleeps side by side with strangers who, thankfully, become a little less strange as the days and nights and trees and mountains and conversations roll by:

Does anyone know what thanatocracy means . . . ?

I know how to make tofu better than the stuff I get in the store, but I just can't make soy milk. . . .

You can hitchhike fine in Ireland if you're a woman, but don't even try it in France. . . .

"I love the spirit of community," says Thackary Grossman, 35, as the bus trundles over the Bay Bridge at sunset, heading north. San Francisco blinks on and Seattle beckons. "This epitomizes the dream that will never be, Ecotopia, a collective community, that sense of connectedness that especially you don't get driving in your own vehicle."

The self-employed carpenter pauses, reflects, continues: "I like driving, but you never know when the VW's gonna break down."

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