The Green Tortoise is a counter-culture bus line which serves the west coast from San Diego to Seattle. They also have charter-and-custom trips throughout the Western Hemisphere. I took the bus line from Seattle to San Francisco. My brother Tom and I returned from a March, April, and May "Springtime in Alaska" stint where we took part in the fishing industry's herring season.
Oddly enough, a man from good old Palmyra, New York had gotten out of the Navy, left his car in San Francisco and arranged for my brother and I to drive it from there to here. Our perspective on things was to do as much as we could manage before being roped back into the mundane and normal, which, in those days, was school. It was quite appealing to find out about this odd travel arrangement which was a unique alternative to Greyhound.
Our plan was to take the bus to San Fran from Seattle, get the car, drive back to Seattle, load up what we could from my brother's apartment- he'd lived there for the previous Fall and Winter- and head East across the top of the country. The guy on the phone told us to meet the bus at a corner in the city, and that's how it started, with us standing on the corner one morning, waiting for the bus. When it showed, which was right on time, I had that one peculiar reaction: "Hmm, that's different." The bus, itself, was -- green go figure. It was one of those older, rounded types from, say, the fifties.
I'll speculate that this rounded look is where the "Tortoise" came from, though the notion of the tortoise in the Tortoise and the Hare fable was pointed out to me as if: "Yeah, we're taking our time, doing the slight detour now and then, in order to make the trip more colorful- much more laid back than the other bus companies, who, presumably, will run helter-skelter from any given point A to any other given point B, causing their clientele to collapse from exhaustion upon reaching their destination; we, on the other hand, get there smiling and rested, ready for more."
Add to that the reality of the luggage being on a rack on top of the thing, and visions of the Beverly Hillbillies meet the Merry Pranksters were dancing in my head. There were four or five others at the stop. We all loaded, told them where we were headed, and paid.
When we got going, the driver said, "Hi, I'm Richard, I'm one of the owners of the Green Tortoise. I've been doing this for twenty years. Feel free to get comfortable, sit anywhere, lay down if you want; we allow drinking and have, for your convenience, a funnel right up here in front for those of you who can't hold it very well. Also unique to this company, we have what has become known as The Fourth Gear Rule: as long as we're in fourth gear, we allow the passengers to smoke marijuana. Although we suffer under the dictates of a Victorian-minded government, and it's still illegal, we figure as long as we're going fifty or sixty miles an hour they're not going to catch us."
That was the introduction, and when I started focusing on my co-travelers, I was surprised at the number of internationals. The bus was laid out such that the seats were semi-normal for the first half, with the exception that the rack above the seats was converted into a series of bunks, and the fact that the seats and bunks were framed out of wood. They were fitted with comfortable enough pillows and pads; the back half of the bus was one big, padded surface, again with the bunks above. As it turns out, the front half was converted into the flat surface configuration at night, allowing the passengers to sleep, truly lying down, sardine-style- heads out, feet to the middle, just in case someone had to make that midnight funnel run. An interesting thing Richard did was to (at a point that morning, some little bit into the journey) get everyone's attention and one-by-one ask us our name, where we're from, and what we're doing. This summer-camp-like introduction was a terrific ice-breaker for conversation, not to mention we found out the secret guys' stories -- one was from Rolling Stone, doing a story on the bus line, for example.
One thing I recall as particularly west coast-like was this woman introduced herself as Spring Rain. with that semi-excitable sound in her voice. Richard, unruffled, immediately took to calling her Spring. There were, as I mentioned, some few visiting travelers from other countries: a German couple; a Swiss national who later told me he was in-country illegally (as long as we're going 60...); and Radjh (or something) with whom I had a lengthy, enlightening discussion on the difference between Eastern and Western art and music -- a new topic to me at the time.
This last discussion caused me to experiment with Eastern techniques in painting, ink painting in particular, and while I never really got the hang of the Eastern practice of music, I did from then on know how to listen to it: In Summary, though, I would say Western Art deals with working (say: suffering with care) to deliver a finished product which others might marvel at -- what did he go through to deliver this, and how well did he do? The Eastern perspective is such that the meditative moment of doing the art is the marvel -- how clear is one's perception and attention thereto when this work (or piece) was executed, and how much like that can we be?
Then there was Donna from San Diego, traveling from Portland to her home in San D., who was also enlightening -- my first... exposure... to a real California girl. She was perky, pleasant, and pretty, and had this cute little pearl-inlay instrument which did well to ensure we were mutually thoughtful and curious. The route we took was an interstate which went from Seattle, through Portland (lunch spot), and into Eugene for dinner.
The impression I have of Eugene is such that I've wanted to go back there since I left, which is unusual for me. I typically want to see new places, and I've often tried to formulate why this is. Never mind that I later learned this city to be (somehow) voted the number-one relocation destination in the country. There was some mention of a restriction on building heights, though I've since seen pictures of some tall buildings, so that restriction may have been in an historic area or something. I do recall the clean, low-key nature of the place striking me as a pure example of the character that each of the Northwestern cities I've been to have shown me. That's the subtle element that caught my attention in memory. Then there is the friendliness of the people, which, again, was similar yet subtly more<.I> than the other pleasant places I consider similar- as if these folks were there and loved it. I would say the place, too -- the buildings and flora were strikingly mild and complimentary; the traffic was light and some (my imagination?) slight bit slow. For example I recall being told that we had two and a half hours for dinner (what might Greyhound give us?), and "don't miss the bus." Then we were given the run-down on where we were in Eugene. The shops and restaurants were exactly the kind of place one wants to see and be in for the clean-friendly experience, and our price-versus-quality experience was good, too. I don't recall any strip malls or fast food places, though that may have been a function of the area we were in, as well. After dinner and some fair amount of wandering, the sun was going down, and we made our way back to the bus; I remember the thought coming out of our conversation about the place that there was no particularly striking feature. It was the whole place which left this curious impression.
So, there we were again, tooling down the road, fifty or sixty miles an hour, the first sleep victims retired to the bunks. Then there was a good two-hour-plus of talking in the semi-dark, which is when the East verses West discussion occurred: I have this vivid image of this small Sri Lankan telling me how to appreciate Ravi Shankar, who, at the time, was the most popular sitar player in India). As the lights went out, the passing traffic shown across his face, causing his gold teeth to add a mesmerizing sparkle to the philosophical subject matter. Next was the conversion of the front area into a big bed, and people began to stake out their sleeping spots, eventually one big commune of interlaced slumber. I was at the very back, and awake for some short while, a wonderfully unpretentious California-girl snuggle thing going on, some mild-mannered conversation up there where the driver was. Then I was out, no problem.
Harbin Hot Springs
Waking was no problem, either: "oh!- this is still going on!"
All the sleepy faces coming alive, including mine, this was the beginning of one of the most curious experiences I've had. We stopped briefly for morning events, and got back on the road; Richard said, "We crossed the California border a short time ago- this morning we're going to a nudist hot springs to make breakfast and walk around naked."
I did hear some mention of hot springs being a voluntary event, which did cost a little bit for the food and use of the kitchen, but I didn't remember the nudist part, and it just came out of me -- "Are we going to fry bacon in the nude?"
The sequence of events was to be: we drive a little out of the way (a half hour or so), walk into this hot springs park (actually a privately owned retreat with condos one can buy, weekend workshops for those so inclined, etc, remotely located in the Northern California hills), go to the kitchen, make omelets and coffee, take off our clothes, and walk in the sun, going from spring to spring. As novel a notion as that may sound to we East Coasters, it's at least in some measure common in the more liberal longitudes (it being mid-June or so, the latitudes didn't matter that particular trip). And there were a couple hundred permanently occupied condos, though it did seem that our paltry forty-or-so were the bulk of the people there that day. Breakfast was a do-it-yourself with cast iron skillets and more-than-we-could-eat omelet ingredients, including, yes, real meat. The coffee was "camp" coffee, in a big, enamel -- what do you call it? -- a kettle, I guess, filled with water, brought to a boil, then set to the side. The coffee got stirred in for steeping; when the coffee was ready, it was poured through a cloth filter, healthy in body and hot. Why ever it happened, no one was successful at properly folding their omelet but Donna. As Richard said, "She came here to make an omelet, and by God, she made an omelet!"
A short sit and socialize period came next, then into the locker rooms for disrobing. Those of us who've not had the experience of nudity among strangers might have a certain squeamish reaction coupled with a show of modesty. Not so our adventurous bus-travelers. The first moments are the quiet "Well, I'll just look at the landscape&quit; moments; then the rush of our personalities returning, despite each person's specific lack of character through clothes, went through the participants, and we were us again. Only we were frolicking nymphs in the sun as opposed to worldly travelers on the Adventure Bus.
The springs are a series of man-made, but naturally fed, pipe systems and waterways that feed a purposefully scattered sequence of pools, each a different temperature. The area is rich with volcanic activity, and these sulfuric waters are the source for the hot springs. I think the hot water hava a scent to it, though I don't remember it being sulfur. They are organized in a mild-hotter-hottest progression; the cool-colder-coldest pools are fed by mountain streams, the whole of the system being a high-tech mixing and filtering of the two. The pools are color-coded with concrete paths interconnecting everything.
There are a number of other buildings: a church, several banks of condo units, some larger, as is the kitchen/dining building community spaces, and a couple of more conventional swimming pools. These structures are well planned and located a little ways from the springs.
The pools are the real treat, of course, cascading across and down a slight valley, placed for the best exposure to the sun. I never thought about it at the time, but the day was perfect, absolutely clear, warm and breezy; the surrounding vegetation was low-lying trees and undergrowth, a softer green than we get on the East Coast, some of which intruded into the springs area, creating niches and paths, some had benches and trellises, that sort of thing. I've often been asked "where have you been that you'd call your favorite place?" Because of this particular day, Northern California joined Southwest Virginia and central Colorado as my favorites.
The discerning reader might, at this point, be wondering, "So, what happened to Donna? She seemed to figure in to the narrative, and then, just when everyone's walking around naked and clean in the sun she's gone. Where'd she go?" The fact of that matter is that she and I were having a spanky-butted perfectly innocent little love-glow romp like a couple of second graders. I'll not go into her beauty the way I remember her. I will say that she and this place could not have better complimented each other. Then, too, there was the "welling" incident.
The idea of these hot-and-cold dips is to exercise one's skin- open all the pores with hot water, close it with cold. The staging of warm to hot is necessary, it gets quasi-painfully hot, and the hottest and coldest are at the bottom of the cascade. The hot-hot pool is in it's own shelter, and comes with instructions and warnings.
Get in gradually. Don't put your head under for more than 3 seconds.
The latter because our heads are the cooling towers of our bodies, and without this vent, we can pass out on short order, and then, while everyone thinks we're becoming one with the heat, we drown; the former to guard against a sensitive, fearful type -- and California's full of them -- plopping himself in the hot pool and having a terrifying experience as an introduction to the Hot Springs, it could ruin his desire to enjoy the rest of them, the place, etc. There was also a list of certain medical conditions which might put one at risk.
Anyway, the first couple of hot-cold cycles, in the more minor pools, are this touchy-feely, get used to it sequence of curiosities: walk to the pool, lower yourself in, sit for a minute or so, then drip your way to the next one.
The walks between the pools are different, too. The air felt quite cool or quite warm, depending on the temperature of the last submersion. There are four degrees of heat and cooling in the central spring path, and a scattering of other pools off the path. The pools were Greek-looking white, had steps and formed seats, and were either surrounded by rich, immediate landscaping, or some other way celebrated. One of them is above the path, and there are steps up to it, for example. All are connected in the same array of paths, ramps, and steps previously mentioned.
The mood was as sunny as the day as we go about our epidermal exercise, giving a clean and bright new meaning to the term skinny dipping and then, boom, the hot one.
All warnings and red signs. And we gingerly entered.
The first foot or so is the most sensitive, and the fingers, I recall. And it is a bit of labor to get in. I'd guess I took a minute or so, and there we were, neck deep, sweating away. A funny thing occurs to some of us -- and there was no warning about this one -- I guess all the heat raises one's blood pressure, and this gives rise to a specific "welling" of, say, pride. As I came to feel proud, I also realized I would have to let this fit of passion pass before I left the pool, which is a little bit of a timing problem when hanging out with a woman who is simply doing what we'd been doing until this pointed change of circumstance:
"Do you want to get out and go to the cold one?" she said.
Pie-eyed, I innocently said, "Oh, well, no, not right now- I think I'll simmer a little more."
It might be my imagination, but the handful of other men in the pool had the same reaction: "No, no, no, we like it in here. We're going to stay in a little while."
After some moments, my pride subsided and I was able to- let's say "limp" to the cold-cold pool, which is severe anathema to any warm fuzzy feeling, by the way. I got in, contracted my skin, and went to the hot one again. I recall Richard was in the back-and-forth stage while we were there and kept saying, "I think I'm approaching noodlevana, I think I'm approaching noodlevana."
There was more. After the pools, we took a long walk through the hills. There were paths and gazebos, etc., all through the area. At one point we came across this, I think, Buddhist, who was sitting in a shady spot doing his nam meoho renge kyoh chant. He looked and -- what else? -- smiled without missing a beat. A German woman who was traveling alone decided she liked the place and she rented a cottage for a week, arranging to then catch another bus and continue her travels.
Eventually, we all got dressed and headed back to the bus.
Walking around naked for a few hours cannot be underestimated for
it's effect on the social predispositions of any given crowd. We
were a friendly bunch to begin with, after the hot springs, the ride
was a no-holds-barred rollick, everyone talking at once, it seemed,
and that lasted the couple of hours or so it took to reach San
© 2004 Timothy C. Furgeson, all rights reserved
appears here by permission