TRAVEL / Driving back to hippiness: Green Tortoise bus from Colorado to Haight Ashbury

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Green Tortoise runs coast-to- coast trips between April and October, leaving from San Francisco, Boston and New York. Boarding midway is not encouraged. There are shorter expeditions based on the west coast. Prices start from dollars 375 ( pounds 250). Longer expeditions to Alaska and Central America are also available. For further information, contact Green Tortoise Adventure Travel, PO BOX 24459, 1667 Jerrold Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94124 USA.

Airlines will often allow flights into one American city and out of another, to allow a cross-country bus trip. American Airlines flies to all the Green Tortoise destinations (0345 789789).

MY LIFE rested in the hands of Brenda. She manned the telephones for a hippie bus company based in one of San Francisco's roughest neighbourhoods and was my contact with the tardy driver of a former New Jersey Transit bus, built in 1954, on a journey back 30 years to a life of peace, love and karma.

As the seventh hour of waiting for the bus in the airport terminal of Grand Junction, Colorado, passed with little peace or karma, a baby tornado whistled by outside.

Brenda had told me five hours earlier that her driver, Brian, was going to pick me up at the hot springs in Grand Junction for the journey to San Francisco. I called the local taxi company to get directions. 'No hot springs in the Junction,' the controller bellowed. I waited for Brenda's instructions. She waited for Brian's. Brian gave none. Brenda and I sat, 2,000 miles apart, waiting.

Brian eventually arrived. It was 2.30 in the morning. I was the only person left at the airport. It had closed three hours earlier. Only a security guard helped to while away the time.

The hiss of air brakes and the rattle of 40-year-old bus windows woke me from a snooze. Like a character from an old Dr Who episode, Brian stood gazing through the windscreen. He had no hair but sported a goatee, his 6ft frame swathed in a singlet and baggy shorts. 'Jeremy?' he asked, somewhat obviously.

We shook hands in a manly sort of a way. By morning I would find out that Brian and I were the only two of similar age on a bus mostly full of products of the Seventies, not the preceding decade which the Green Tortoise company lives by.

Brian slipped behind the wheel of the bus, which was to be our home for a week. This Green Tortoise, called Guan, was the oldest on the trip; it had travelled a distance equivalent to the moon and back, mostly in Newark and Jersey City, but latterly via Chicago, South Dakota and Colorado, where it was now waiting.

'I kept you a spot,' Brian shrugged, pointing into a human abyss. For 50 feet, half-naked bodies were intertwined. It looked like a snake pit. In its brochure, the bus's transformation from day to night use is called 'the Miracle'. More like a bloody miracle. Thirty-eight people, paying dollars 375 ( pounds 250) for the privilege, crammed Guan's insides on wall-to- wall mattresses. Only one gap, barely wider than this newspaper, remained. I filled it, my sweaty feet nestling between two naked backs.

We pulled into a small-town gas station sometime later. My neighbour stirred, opened an eye and screamed. Darren was, until May, a Middlesex Poly student, and was now an embryonic sales manager. An American girl eagerly offered to swap places with him. Margot turned out to be eager about everything. I was too cramped to be flattered. I clambered off the bus, followed by another Brit. 'Know the cricket score?' he asked gruffly. I didn't.

Sleeping on an Aeroflot jet is good training for a first night on the Green Tortoise. Everyone else had already been through it on their way out of New York five days earlier, and now slept serenely through petrol stops, pee stops (those caught short have to use a funnel) and beer stops. From the second night on, the bus is a sleeper's joy.

Brian entered the Land of Nod, leaving Jennifer the Bus Queen (a part-time student of video and his co-driver) to deliver her mainly European busload to yet another jawdropping piece of American landscape. Spike the Cactus, the lowmaintenance bus pet, sat on the dashboard keeping her company.

Sleep came, even to me. With the dawn came Utah. Rumours of a Mormon-imposed ban on alcohol sent a wave of terror through the funsters in search of freedom en route to America's hippie Mecca.

A milky dawn stirred the slumbering. The movement of bodies wafted an odour of sweat and sulphur around the bus - the sulphur was from an earlier mud bath and hot springs swim. Past the murky windows a panoramic marvel appeared with the new day. Towering pillars of sandstone, like those in a set from a John Wayne movie, reached from the desert floor to the pale sky. Brian put on mellow music. The sound of silence would have been a better welcome to Arches National Park. Yawns mingled with the gasps that greeted each new pillar.

At seven o'clock it was already 80F as we had breakfast. Most of the Tortoise's tasty alfresco meals are meat-free, to save money. There were only three vegetarians aboard, but sadly no hippies and as yet no wicked weed. I finished my bran flakes, wondering where the so- called second generation of hippies was and why they weren't on a hippie bus. You'd have thought the two would be inseparable. 'The image of the bus is pretty hippie,' said Darren, a neatly groomed Geordie surprised that the reality did not live up to the image.

'It did put me off a bit. I thought it would all be ageing hippies and back to the flower-power stuff.'

Germans, who made up half of the passengers, saw the bus as definitely a hippie haven. 'To me it lives up to the hippie thing,' said Sabine Froesa. 'The GT is all about free expression. No one is forced to wear clothes.' Or forced not to. 'Most bus drivers realise that the sooner you get people naked, the more comfortable they become with each other,' smirked Brian, the driver.

The truth is that there was not one hippie on the bus. Nor was there any open pot-smoking, Grateful Dead songs or flower decoration. Someone mentioned Hunter S Thompson at one point and there were plenty of tie-dye shirts. A pair of flares did appear, but not for long. The hippie of the Nineties is a reserved chameleon.

Ken, a Kiwi with flowing red hair, was as close to a hippie as the commune could boast. He had worked at one of Heathrow's hotels before hitting the road with his Finnish girlfriend, Tanya. As the bus bounced towards Las Vegas, they tied cotton hair wraps to other Tortoise travellers spread out on mattresses across its rear. Abba blasted out through the stereo. Other couples kissed. Nobody rolled a joint.

The mattresses were a haven. The rest of the bus was ankle-deep in muddy clothes, old shoes and beer cans. Then Brian ordered a clear-out and things went missing. 'I hate it when people clean the bus,' moaned Jennifer the Bus Queen.

There is no hippie pretence for the drivers, who try to play down the company's image. 'People come on these trips with stars in their eyes,' said Brian, a passenger with Green Tortoise before turning driver. 'They are quickly and rudely awakened,' he added.

Green Tortoise thrives on the hippie image, but its real advantage is that it shows passengers the American hinterland, unlike Greyhound. 'Greyhound show you the worst of America,' Brian added. 'The Greyhound terminals are always in the worst parts of a city.' Many women on the trip rejected Greyhound because they felt it was an unsafe way of crossing the country.

Half an hour in San Francisco, in the old hippie hang-out of Haight Ashbury, revealed more of the hippie breed than a week on the Tortoise. Being in the Bay city gave the young European pilgrims a feeling

of accomplishment, but it also brought home the harsh reality that

a week on a bus is not the key to a way of life.

A shower at their hostel washed off the grime of freedom and the road, but underneath were the same dreamers who had boarded in New York. At the corner of Haight and Ashbury, a passer-by filled the air with the sweet smell of pot. At last]-