A Summer Evergreen: the Green Tortoise Bus Line

Botched elections, tumbling stock markets, falling employment and soaring energy costs. America could use a little pick-me-up, and some of us would do well to get a taste of the wonders that made our ancestors love this land. When it comes to seeing your homeland anew, there's no better way than with the fresh eyes of a tourist.

Even better, see it cheaply, in the company of foreigners. For that, you can't get much closer to the ground than a Green Tortoise tour. A favorite of penny-pinching European backpackers, a cross-country tour on the ultra-budget GT combines long-distance transportation with whirlwind sightseeing, for one low price that includes food and lodging.The activities aren't challenging (unless you consider day hikes and boisterous mud baths challenging), but the lodging can be. When 35 to 40 international tourists squeeze onto a refitted bus, they can't help but get close. You'll leave your privacy at the first rest stop, but by the end of the trip you'll have new friends from around the world.

The buses themselves, which are painted a lurid green, are antique at best. Some must date to the Eisenhower Administration. But the interiors have been transformed into the sort of playground that your cat might enjoy: shag carpeting, lots of low benches or seats for lounging and game-playing or for snoozing on the long drives.

Most of the passengers on a tour like this are in their late 20s. Occasionally an older tourist signs 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. Meals are cooked outdoors as a group, nights are spent in transit or sleeping aboard the parked bus(unless you want to sleep under the stars), and, no surprise, you tote your own bags.

The northern summer route, conducted in June, July and August, goes through some excellent sites, including Arches National Park, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon in Utah, the Badlands of South Dakota, Chicago, the Snake River in Idaho and Yellowstone in Wyoming. The things you see depend on whether you take the trip west or east. It's 12 days, runs between Boston and San Francisco (the company's home) with a stop in New York City for pickups and 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 (when it's not as hot), is 14 days and hits New Orleans, Big Bend National Park in Texas, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Utah's Zion National Park. This one costs $499 plus $131 for food, or $630 for the two weeks. That's for transportation, entry fees, food--the works.

The Green Tortoise also makes nine-day Grand Canyon runs out of San Francisco ($460 total) that stop in Monument Valley and Zion National Park. And it conducts a 16-day national parks loop ($820) that hits Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Zion parks, among other places.

For more information, head on over to http://www.greentortoise.com, or call the tour company at (800) 867-8647.

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