Memoirs of a TravelerLaura Casey shares her experience on our 16-day National Parks Loop.
A wild symphony. That's what the birds sound like at sunrise on Utah's Great Salt Lake.
Foul. That best sums up the odor of the warted, mucky geothermal pools at midday in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.
Exhausting fun. This is perhaps the easiest description for the on- and off-bus experience on a 16-day Green Tortoise trip through several national and state parks.
In mid-July, I joined about 25 other folks, mostly from Europe, hiking in some of the most beautiful spots in the country. Our nights were split unevenly between camping under the stars and sleeping on the modern, relatively roomy bus as it drove us to our next new scenic spot. Aside from California, I hadn't seen much of the West. I longed to see the big skies of Montana, Arches National Park in Utah and the historic Route 66.
For two weeks, I was surrounded by teachers from France, the U.S. and Canada. I swam with a German father and his 14-year-old son -- who were on a bonding trip -- in Jackson Lake at Grand Teton National Park. I scrambled up rocks at Arches with accountants from Switzerland and took a jeep tour of Monument Valley with students and high-tech workers from England. We prepared meals together, grilled s'mores around the campfire at night and paired up for hours-long hikes during the day. The connections were almost immediate.
On the first night, I shuffled to the back of the bus, where a designated sleeping area doubled as a chill-out lounge during the day. There, I sat next to New York graphic designer Jin Jin and shared her dried mango slices as we talked about the wonderful places we were about to see. Friendship bloomed naturally and quickly. A year earlier, she had taken an epic trip to Alaska with friends. This year, with the Green Tortoise, she found herself camping out most evenings under the stars, something she never before had done. Late one night, she marveled as a family of deer quietly passed through camp in Zion National Park. "When I came back from Alaska, I said it was the best trip," she says, "but when I came back from the Green Tortoise, I felt this was the best trip ever." I couldn't agree more. Laid-back in theory but running more like clockwork, the Tortoise surprised both of us with its depth.
I saw sunrises at the Arches, Great Salt Lake and Grand Canyon. I was in the water almost every day -- I didn't skip one chance at swimming or taking a dip in a hot spring. I marveled at the slim canyon walls at The Narrows in Zion National Park, stopping at one point during the six-hour Riverside Walk hike to watch a yellow butterfly flutter in the sunlight. The advantage of being with Green Tortoise was most apparent in Yellowstone. A dozen of us decided to walk from our group campground at Grant Village through the individual camp sites to Yellowstone Lake. Our huge camp site featured space enough for 25 of us to spread out in almost quiet isolation. In contrast, Yellowstone's general camping area was cramped with buzzing generators and loud campers. Did I find a park to rival my love affair with Joshua Tree? Yes. I think I fell in love with them all.
Back in San Francisco, sadly disembarking the bus on a chilly Sunday afternoon, I realized that no matter how I saw those national parks, their beauty would have touched my heart in some way. But this unusual method of traveling the nation's greatest treasures with new friends gave me my epic, unforgettable trip -- foul odors, wild symphonies and all.
Courtesy of Laura Casey and the Contra Costa Times