“Y’all are getting a real dose of East Texas, with a capital T,” said our host Cindy partway through our stay at the Cosmic shed. Since arriving at the Cosmic Shed, Ally and I had met backwoods rednecks, experienced a bunch of the culture, had a run-in with a local Constable, eaten deep fried catfish caught that day, and I had had an extreme allergic reaction to a sting from a red wasp. What was meant to be a day or two stay had ended up being a week before we knew it. Part of it was a need to relax after a hectic couple weeks trying to prepare for the road, part of it was because we enjoyed the folks we were meeting, and part of it was The Cosmic Shed itself, and the woman who care takes it, Cindy.
Some of the salvaged sculptures.
The Cosmic Shed was built in the 1960s by a man named Fred Rogers, who shape-shifted his way through life from being a systems analyst for the Pentagon to a maker of trash art. The grounds around the Shed are scattered with salvaged art, made from old appliances, machinery, and other do-dads. “Trash Sculpture – An Art Form Appropriate for Our Time” reads one sign. The Shed itself is a large four-story pyramid, reminiscent of both a tipi and a fire lookout tower. It is clad with salvaged corrugated metal of rust tones and various colors of blue automotive paint.
The stairs up to the fourth floor.
Inside the Shed, considered both an art gallery and a museum, a guest will find artwork from many artists, along with old tools, old wasp nests, and anything else deemed museum worthy. The first floor grasps your interest with the eclectic nature of items and artwork displayed. The second floor makes you feel at home amongst the madness, and allows you to interact via the Ping-Pong table, foosball table, and balcony. The awkward stairs up to the third floor up through a hatch in the floor, make you feel like you’re entering a secret hide-away. And indeed, the third floor has few windows, and the walls of the pyramid shape start to taper in, making it feel like an old attic in which you might make a secret fort. Protruding from the center of the third floor is a system of large cross-braces, which form a nest of stairs leading up towards the light beaming down from the fourth floor. Going up these small stairs, one finds themselves in a room of glass. The trees have grown up in the past 50 years, making it feel more like a tree fort than a fire tower.
Cindy makes bubble with the kids.
When Ally and I first arrived, Cindy, who was Fred’s partner, told us she wanted for us to hear the story of Fred’s death from her. When Fred was diagnosed in the early 90s with cancer, he said that he wasn’t afraid of dying, but he didn’t want to suffer. And when the suffering started, he built a funeral pyre, lit a fuse, and took his own life with a .357, while simultaneously cremating himself in front of one of his own sculptures. When talking about it later, a local police officer said, “Yup, that was Fred.” People knew him as a person who knew himself well enough to live (and therefore die) in the confidence of his own beliefs. The power of the place that Fred built, and the profoundness of his death almost brought me to tears, and gave me complete respect, as well as a sense of connection to The Cosmic Shed and the man who built it.
The second floor.
However beautiful, inspiring, and interesting the Cosmic Shed is, because it is in the heart of conservative East Texas, it isn’t always seen as proper or socially acceptable. Over the years the place has been shot at, been the source of many un-Christian rumors, and Cindy has even been accused of being a witch by a fellow whose daughter got candy from her on Halloween. The last case was settled when the fellow’s friend who was with him recognized Cindy and they ended the confrontation with a picnic amongst the sculptures. I speak about these things, not to bring any pity, but rather to show the extremes of culture present here in east Texas.
Our Sunday tea party.
The first full day there, we had arranged to serve tea to many long-time “Shedders,” many of whom come most Sundays when the Shed is open, as well as many new-comers and folks who hadn’t been in years or decades. It was a lovely day of tea, meeting new folks, and sharing space with a whole new culture. Ally and I connected with several folks – Jonathan, who was a traveler at heart and was glad to meet some like minded folks in his neck of the woods; Jody, who was a craftsman and loved talking about building things with me; Dee, who is the mother of my friend John in west Texas and loves these kinds of things; Dee’s grandsons, John and Andrew, who I had fun beating at Ping-Pong and talking stories with; Glen, who hadn’t been to the Cosmic Shed in 40 years, but came out because the tea bus was there; and so many more.
Andrew, Guisepi’s eyebrow, and Cindy.
After the tea party slowed down, Ally and I went for a walk and discussed the culture we had entered. When some of the first folks arrived that day, immediately plastic shot “glasses” were brought out, with Fireball, cigarettes, and eventually some KFC. I was a little confused by all this, as the Shed seemed to be a somewhat liberal place with open-minded people. Even though so many of the folks there are liberal, and might be called “hippies” by east Texas standard, I realized that they were all folks who still operated within the confines of east Texas culture. Even when one wants to live better, open their mind, be healthier, and live in community, there are many things that get in the way in a cultural sense, but that overlaps into the physical reality as well. What I mean by this is that you can’t really buy much in the way of healthy food, or socialize/build community without booze, or get away from the throwaway consumer framework. There just seems to be too few options in this part of Texas. Ally and I decided that we love the people out here even more for it, as they do what they can within the framework that exists.
Having a small fire in Edna amongst the art.
Over the following week, we spent time organizing more of the bus, making and eating good food, going on walks down the road, playing with Cindy’s dogs, and just really getting to know Cindy. She is a total sweetheart, and one of the best hosts we could have asked for. She made sure we were comfortable and fed, offered us great stories, and we talked and talked. And it’s not just us that she does this for. Cindy shows this same kindness to anyone who comes down the road to the Cosmic Shed – whether it’s the usual “Shedders,” the twice-yearly motorcycle campout folks, or people like us. And for people like us, it was easy to recognize a fellow community-builder. Thank you, Cindy!
The Cosmic Commode
One day as Cindy was at work, a police car drove by the property really slow. “How much do you want to bet he’s going to come back?” I asked Ally. She thinks I think we’re going to get hassled more than we do. I just think that it’s best to be prepared. A couple hours later the police car pulled into the driveway. It was Constable Jimmy Skinner. “We got a call from one of the neighbors about a strange vehicle over here. Can I see some ID?” Hmmm, he’s on private property, with no specific crime to be concerned about, just an odd vehicle. “If I’ve done something wrong, I’d be happy to give you my ID.” Of course I hadn’t done anything wrong. I gave him Cindy’s number, but he couldn’t reach her because she was working. The whole thing felt odd. When I told a local later about the neighbor calling the cops, he said, “That’s a good neighbor.” This mindset that things shouldn’t change, that people shouldn’t make new friends, or have different people come over, that different is bad – this whole notion is what I don’t like. This is what Cindy is up against with the Cosmic Shed, why she’s been called a witch, and why Fred was said to have killed himself because he was a devil-worshipper. When people are closed to differences, closed to new things, closed to change, that’s when people do ugly things, and that’s when community is un-built.
Even Buddha gets cold sometimes.
And here’s where I tell you that it’s not all that bad. Cindy rarely faces this kind of discrimination, but over the years enough has happened for it to be commented on. I actually hesitated to write about some of this, because I don’t want a few instances of intolerance to interfere with what is otherwise a beautiful picture of a community hub for people who need it in east Texas. If you happen to be near there on a Sunday, I highly recommend a visit.
When all was said and done, Ally, Edna, and I came out of the experience recharged. We had learned how to clean a catfish, made new friends, experienced a magical gem of east Texas, and felt utterly refreshed. As we were leaving, Cindy told us that we had recharged the Cosmic Shed batteries too.
Next stop… Hot Springs, Arkansas!
The wondrous Cosmic Shed
Gathering fresh drinking water at the Frankston Spring for serving tea at The Cosmic Shed.
Serving tea near downtown Austin at the Hope Outdoor Gallery (photo: Nathan Rice)
Ahhhh, a great little break for the tea bus. Edna (the tea bus) and I had been on the road, serving tea, and working pretty hard for the previous five month, and Austin offered us a place to decompress, do some bus projects, and serve a little tea.
After an interesting first tea serving experience at the first annual Texas Tea Festival, I found myself during the depths of the winter exploring depths of my own being. I’m not one to place too much faith in astrology, but a reading from a woman in Madrid, NM last fall told me that I would find myself in a hard spot come late winter and early spring – and she was right. I was a little saddened by how difficult it was to be of service at the Texas Tea Festival, as well as feeling like I had a lot of bus projects that needed to be done, whereas I had been hoping to spend the winter writing. I was feeling like I put so much effort into being of service, helping people, offering advice and hands for other people’s projects, but also feeling over-extended, under-supported, and basically that I work super hard to be of service, but live in a world where we often don’t support people who share, probably because we don’t trust that the giving is altruistic. We are trained that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that people act out of self-interest – so, why would anyone think to share freely back with the tea bus? Sometimes I feel like I have to prove myself and the tea bus everywhere that we go, just to get a basic level of respect. Of course, there are many people who just get it, and love the tea bus from the beginning, but being in new places and having lots of bus projects to accomplish made it a little overwhelming.
Edna meets the Shady Shack.
I settled in to both the Stick Farm in deep south Austin as well as Shady Acres up in Round Rock. Both places offered a great place to park, gardens, chickens, and a good community of people to be around. I needed this. I was grateful to have such places, but moving from one to the other, with time in central Austin in between was a little too much movement, so I dug in up at Shady Acres.
Shady Acres is a small homestead run by a fellow named Shade, who is in the process of building a tiny house out of salvaged materials (The Shady Shack). Having WOOFers and HelpXers around meant he was open to work-trade, so I ended up sticking around for a couple months. When the lawn mower needed fixing, or some leaky pipes repaired, or a hand needed for pulling wood through the table saw, I was there to help. And in return, I was offered food, cement to park on to work on Edna, and most importantly, good people to be around.
Shady Acres and all the salvaged wood therein.
Shade in the Shady Shack.
Early on at Shade’s place, I was in my bus one morning, only to look out and see a familiar face. I realized this was a face that I had never seen in person, but the face of a fellow I had seen on a video from Texas Tiny Houses (an epic salvaged material tiny house business). As it turns out, Mackey was helping Shade on his tiny house. He, along with Shade, became the friends that I could geek out on tools, materials, methods, and more with. I love those guys.
The deconstruction crew in Taylor, TX.
Shade runs a house deconstruction operation, so partway through our stay in Austin, we drove out to Taylor, TX to take down an early 1900s farmhouse in order to salvage the materials. We spent a long weekend out there, with half a dozen of us camping out, sharing food, cooking on the campfire, and going to the bathroom in a bucket out on a dock in the middle of a reservoir. During the day, we were pulling out hardware, wood, and anything else of value. It was beautiful to see the way a house comes down and the materials saved for later use. This experience was crucial for me gaining a deeper understanding of salvaged materials. In the end, we used Edna to pull down the skeleton of the house. See video below:
Transmission wiring harnesses – old and new.
Projects (skip if uninterested):
Edna needed some love, with so much travel and not much down time this fall and winter. Her transmission (e4od) was acting funny and throwing codes, which led me to replace the VSS sensor, MLPS, and some wiring harnesses/plugs, as well as drop the pan and replace the fluid and filter. I was still having trouble with my 2-3 gear shift, so I went ahead and ordered a new solenoid pack, as we all a shift kit (Transgo Tugger), which I will install somewhere down the road. After I disconnected my batteries to reset my tranny codes, I haven’t had it throw any more codes, so we’ll see (it needs to have problem shifting from 2-3 gear ten times in a row before it will throw codes). While I was under the bus, I did an oil change and drained and refilled my rear differential as well, as it has had a small leak since the last time I drained it a year and a half ago.
The old filter/pump/transfer/centrifuge setup.
Hose-in-Hose (HIH) for new dirty WVO system.
I knew in spending time working on the bus this winter that I was going to rebuild my dirty waste vegetable oil (WVO) system. It was working fine, except for a couple components/methods. The main issue I was having was that I was using just a single 2 micron filter for transferring vegetable oil from dirty to the clean tank. Even though this oil had already been centrifuged, there was still enough junk in it to clog the filter rather quickly (every 15-30 gallons or so). I decided to plumb in another filter (10 micron) before this one, so that I could potentially use less filters. The new system also included putting the feed line for both the centrifuge and the filter/transfer system in a Hose-in-Hose (HIH) setup. This is basically a 1” coolant hose with the ½” OD vegetable oil line inside of it. This helps blast the WVO with heat prior to being centrifuged or transferred/filtered. The oil also gets heated by a flat plate heat exchanger, as well as an optional 12v or 110v heater inline on the way to the high-pressure centrifuge pump.
The new graduated filter setup for transferring WVO to the clean tank.
The new double/graduated filter setup for transferring oil is great. Both filter heads are coolant heated (1/2” copper tubing wrapped). I also installed a separate pump for transferring oil, as the high-pressure pump I was using previously only transferred at less than 1 GPM, so it took almost 40 minutes to fill my 30 gallon clean WVO tank. The new pump is rated at 2 GPM, but it seems to transfer closer to 1.5 GPM, which is the rated flow for my filters. This means that it fills my clean tank in about 20 minutes. Ah, way better!
New access panel for dirty WVO centrifuge system.
As part of this dirty WVO replumb, I installed a new little plastic door on the side of the bus, which acts as a control panel for the centrifuge system. In this door is the high-pressure inlet and outlet (from dirty WVO tank to centrifuge and back into the other end of the tank), a temperature sender (gauge in bus), a pressure gauge, a pressure relief valve, and a bleed-off valve for adjusting pressure to the centrifuge. This last component was super crucial. The centrifuge setup that I bought used a ball valve here, but it eventually got so easy to turn the handle that it would turn on its own from any vibration. This was no good because it would adjust the pressure being sent to the centrifuge. If it raised the pressure, then I would have WVO coming out of the pressure relief valve. After doing some research, I realized that ball valves are not supposed to be used to control pressure/flow (simply on/off), and that the proper valve to use here was a globe valve, which is what I installed instead.
Dropping the dirty WVO tank to clean.
The small amount of gunk in my dirty WVO tank.
During this whole operation I decided that it would be a good idea to drop the dirty WVO tank to give it a clean out. I’ve been running WVO for over two years, so I was expecting it to be pretty dirty – but alas, it was not. I only pulled out a large fistful of gunk, and scraped out a little chicken skin (polymerization), but for the most part, it was pretty clean. This is because I pre-filter all my WVO to 150-200 microns, and as all the oil gets centrifuged it is cycling through the tank.
Part of this process was also making it easier on my alternator to power the load required to centrifuge (the high pressure pump, occasional air pump, and optional inline 12v heater). I found a mod online for adding in a switch that would allow me to turn on the high idle solenoid at any point. Usually the solenoid is only on while the engine is cold. Once it gets up to 130 degrees F, it shuts off. This is accompanied along with a timing advance on the injection pump as well. In doing this mod, I had to install a diode (which allows electricity to flow only one way) so that I wouldn’t be turning the timing advance when I turned on the high idle solenoid. When the high idle solenoid is on, the engine’s RPMs increase from about 700 to 1100, so that I can get more juice from the alternator. It also help prevent “wet stacking” when idling for long periods of time. See the mod, and definition of wet stacking here.
Sheri works on the floor of her bus.
One of the fun non-Edna projects that I got to work on was helping to install salvaged long leaf pine flooring in my friend Sheri’s bus. The flooring was taken out of the house we deconstructed in Taylor. We planed it down to give it new life, and spent a good amount of time making sure it was installed nicely. It turned out beautiful!
Helping Trey with his van in a library parking lot.
Other projects include: Sheri helping sew mosquito nets for a couple of Edna’s windows and skylight (thank the lord, now that we’re in bug country); getting hired to help reinstall some doors in a couple shipping container cabins; helping my new friend Trey get adjusted to van living with some curtain wires, a 12v plug/inverter setup with a voltmeter, and other advice, in exchange for some help with my new Tea Map (coming soon!); a bunch of bus maintenance like an air filter change, fuel filter change, WVO filter change, brake check, etc.
We also served tea at a few events. One of them was GayBiGayGay, a queer response to SouthBySouthWest. Ever since coming to Texas, I’ve found myself around more gay and queer folks than any other part of the country I have been to. I’m not sure why that is. Regardless, I was told I would fit in at GayBiGayGay because I was “queer” – not in the gay sense, but the “different” sense. Okay, whatever you say … The event was one of those super simple ones where I just pull up, explain what I do, and they say “come on in!” as they direct me to a place I can park. I ended up in the “Sexy & Sober Zone,” which worked out pretty good since I don’t usually allow drugs and alcohol on the bus while serving tea. The tea bus was a hit, and I got more good hugs than I could imagine. There was a topless woman making friendship bracelets for hours in the bus. There were people geeking out on the tea bus’ build-out. There were kids and adults, costumes and picnics, music and fun.
At Honk!TX, a multi-location free community festival of marching/brass bands, we set up right at one of the parks they were having their event. The day was incredible, with iced tea being served left and right. My Australian friend, Dan, took it upon himself to make and serve free Vegemite sandwiches at the tea bus for much of the afternoon and evening. They were a hit! We had many, many friends – new and old – stopping in for tea.
Serving tea at the Texas Wild Rice Festival in San Marcos, TX.
In San Marcos, TX we setup the tea bus at the Texas Wild Rice Festival, along with fellow free tea servers Fritz and Sheri. Fritz just likes to make tea for people, as does Sheri. They both do it in their own way, but for the same beautiful reasons: to connect people, and share a beautiful experience. I couldn’t say no to collaborating with these folks. Sheri brought her short bus, Grace, and we set up the wagon circle right there next to the San Marcos River in the park. It was fun to have some double tea bus action happening. Inside each tea bus was their respective tea hosts, and outside Edna was her shade structure with Fritz’s tea zone. Everyone had three options for who to get tea from, and what experience to have. It was a blast! We also had a filmmaker there named Jackie who came out from New York to shoot a video about the tea bus. It was a long day, starting with an interview at 9 am and ending after 11 pm with breakdown. Whew!
Sheri serves tea in her bus, Grace, at the Texas Wild Rice Festival.
PS – I highly recommend swimming the San Marcos River, which stays around 72 degrees F year round. It was the best part of my day there!
Serving tea at the Hope Outdoor Gallery.
One event that went wrong was Eeyore’s Birthday. This yearly event has been notorious for 52 years as an event that keeps the “weird” in Keep Austin Weird. I figured that if I arrived at 5:30 am when the parking restrictions opened up, I could serve some tea. But boy was I wrong. At 6:30, I heard a rapping on my driver’s window. I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, as I had been awake for a couple hours. I think this caught the fellow off guard (I think he was waiting for some ragged hippy to come to the window). “You’re in the wrong play, boy!” he said in a Texas accent. This was the last thing I was expecting from this hippie-looking fellow in a tie-dye shirt. I tried explaining what I was hoping to do there. He was just about the least respectful, worst listener I have ever come across. “I’ve been running this event for X amount of years, and it’s a fundraiser for non-profits, and if you’re even thinking of selling anything…” No words would appease him, or get him to calm down. Basically, I was an imbecile, and he was going to have me towed. He couldn’t hear, or grasp that this was a free tea house, nor that I didn’t need a health permit according to the health department since we were in a residential neighborhood (see info on this in this blog entry). I couldn’t imagine how such a fellow was in charge of anything. He was a jerk and a terrible listener.
Two guests do watercolors of the tea bus in action at the Hope Outdoor Gallery.
Despite feeling a little upset and defeated, I moved my bus just a few blocks down the street to the Hope Outdoor Gallery – an awesome graffiti/mural park where lots of people gather every day to paint or just enjoy the art. And I can say that the day actually turned out great! Many people came, as they often do. When the tea bus opens up, it’s hard for a lot of people to pass by without at least popping their head in. My cousins popped in to say hello, local artists offered me beautiful pieces of art, and such beautiful interactions transpired that I could no longer be affected by the jerk earlier that morning.
UT film crew.
Our time in Texas happened to one of much media attention. In the course of our time here, we were the subject of five documentary film pieces, three radio/podcast pieces, and numerous written pieces. As always, the completed ones of these can be found on our In The News page. One great evening was spent in a UT professor’s backyard watching a bunch of student films, one of which was about the tea bus and myself. What fun!
Backyard film screening for some UT film students’ film about the tea bus.
Ally arrives in Austin.
A couple weeks prior to leaving, Ally (remember her?) showed up to spend the summer traveling with Edna and myself. With her help, we reorganized many of the spaces in the tea bus, getting rid of a huge box at the thrift store. She was also there to help me as I spent nearly a week under the bus trying to put the final touches on the dirty WVO system. I am so grateful to have her with me now. She brings so much to the tea bus (and everywhere we visit) in the realms of nurture, collaboration, and companionship. Thank you, Ally!
My nephew Denzel comes for a visit and blows on the train whistle.
On a side note, it was great to get to see my brother and his family, including my little nephew, who I adore so much. I am so glad that you came to Austin for a visit!!!
Huge thanks to:
Frank (and Brian, Emma, Laurie, Will, and Karen) at the Stick Farm; Shade of Shady nAcres, Neal, Rhonda, Bob Sokol, George, Katie, Jackie and her house, Jackie the filmmaker, the whole UT film crew (and professor Ellen Spiro), Travels with Benji, the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, Thora, Mackey, Jeremy for 60 gallons of clean WVO, Paul and his food trailer Flats for the dirty WVO, So Han Fan, Sheri, Fritz, Virginia, Butch and Adrienne, Tara, Cara, Nathan, Amelia, Adam, Eco-Wise for selling us so much biodiesel, Trey for help on our new tea map, and many, many more!
Almost 10 years on the road, 9 years of free tea, 7 years of Edna, 2 years of the North American Tour.
Hello, friends and family!
Two years ago on March 20th, Edna Lu (the tea bus) and I started a 2+ year North American Tour. This tour was imagined as a journey around the continent with no itinerary, allowing us to fully immerse ourselves in the places that we visit, be of service, and share conversations with the broad spectrum of people around this part of the globe. And I’d like to say, it has been a success…
…but, we’re not done yet!
And that’s exactly why we phrased this journey as a two or more year tour. In the past two years, we’ve only visited 7 states (WA, OR, CA, NV, AZ, NM, TX), so inevitably, our journey continues. And I’m happy about that!
I’ve put in many years of time and energy to create a lifestyle that’s nomadic, low-monetary input, low-environmental impact, creates positive social change, and makes me and many others happy. So, why stop now? I’m not sure how long this tour will last, but it goes on for now.
I guess the main reason that our tour has been so slow is because we really like to take the time to do things right, to dig in to communities, to allow for flexibility in our plans, and to do things that help us continue this lifestyle.
Some creative/community-building highlights:
- Working with the Shook Twins at Bear Creek Studio shooting some video and taking photos.
- Taking a WFR course with MASHH geared for herbalists, activists, and homesteaders in Orleans, CA.
- Hanging with Common Vision in Los Angeles, planting fruit trees, and making them a couple videos.
- Making videos with Earthroots Field School in Orange County, CA.
- Working on bus projects (garden/door, Gift & Take area, curtains, rebuilding the wood stove, installing the inverter, rebuilding the oil cooler, and much, much more.).
- Becoming involved with building, fixing, and creating at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, CA
- Guest lecturing at Saddleback College in Orange County, CA.
- Work-trading at El Cosmico in Marfa, TX
- Building a straw bale and salvaged material house in Terlingua, TX
- Deconstructing an old farmhouse in order to salvage the wood in Taylor, TX.
Kids at the Alpine Montessori School
Edna overlooks the Pecos River.
The little free library at La Loma Hostel in Marathon, TX.
Before coming to Austin, we spent a wonderful week traveling from Terlingua across Texas. We stayed in Alpine, where we were invited to serve tea in the heart of town in a parking lot by the Alpine mural, as well as with the kids at the Alpine Montessori School. In Marathon, we met more traveling folks who live in an amazing converted step van and travel around playing music. Also in Marathon, we friended folks at the local papercrete hostel, La Loma del Chivo. We had tea and good conversations. We stopped at the bar/barbershop/house/courthouse/etc of Roy Bean in Langtry, TX, and finally landed in Austin in time to get our health permit for the Texas Tea Festival.
The kitchen and campfire area at La Loma Hostel in Marathon, TX.
For the past month and a half, we’ve been hanging in Austin. We came here originally to have some winter time, with much writing and reading, but Edna has been a little cranky with how hard we were traveling through Fall and Winter, and most of my free time has been dedicated to bus maintenance and projects. Along with all this, we’ve been serving tea at places like the Texas Tea Festival, SXSW, GayBiGayGay, HonkTX, The Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, and more.
Some friends gather over tea on Edna’s (re)birthday
On March 20th (the day that I bought Edna 7 years ago, as well as the start date of our North American Tea Tour), we hosted a birthday tea party at some friends’ place in east Austin. It was a good blend of friends and newbies. We drank tea all afternoon, and the teabus provided some shelter for passersby from the intermittent rain that was falling.
An enormous thanks to John and Katie in Alpine, TX for hosting us several times; to Shade for having us around his place; to Frank Meyer for being an elder and host; to Lori in Alpine; to the Alpine Montessori School; to Heather for tea, friendship and a Giuseppe mug; to George for being a fellow builder and brother; to Chaz for friendship and a place to park; to So Han for having us serve free tea at his tea house; to Bob for being a friend and offering mechanical advice; to all the people who live at the Stick Farm for being a family for us; and to all our wonderful tea guests. No thanks to Border Patrol who continually want to search Edna.
Thanks for the support, community!
Oh and we hired a sign spinner. We’re giving him 10% of our profits:
Well, we made history yesterday. No, it wasn’t that we broke any tea serving records, or that we received national attention, but rather that we got a health permit – the first time in our nine years of serving free tea. To some this may not seem like a big deal, but to us it was. Read on to learn why!
Folks sip tea and wait to get into the Texas Tea Festival. (photo: Tealet)
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is full of truthful and honest reflections on recent experiences regarding our moral framework, stepping outside of our comfort zone, and being amazed with the outcome. A lot of the discussion lies in the realm of health laws, moral framework, and internal dialogue. This is a deeper-than-normal post, so read on only with that in mind.
About a month ago I saw a Facebook post by tea company, Tealet, about the first annual Texas Tea Festival to be hosted in Austin, Texas. With Austin already on our radar for one of mine and Edna’s next destinations, I wrote the festival to see if they wanted our services. They were cordial, but seemed too busy to offer any help to make it work for us to be there – and in fact threw one big roadblock in our way: by contacting the Austin Health Department about our project. This felt like an immediate break in trust and a lack of understanding for what the tea bus is about and honestly, it made me not want to work with the festival at all.
A new friend. (photo: Tealet)
Among other things, what the tea bus does is cultivate genuine human interactions by taking the idea of profit-maximization out of the situation. To this end, often times what we do goes against social norms – and sometimes the law. Throughout modern history, a huge amount of social change has come through people who do not accept norms or laws. These are people that we admire, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Mahatma Gandhi to Woody Guthrie to Julia Butterfly Hill. When we look at history, we see that these people were in the right, despite the law or social norms of the time, and see that they helped us create a better world in their own ways. In our case, if a person can’t give freely and kindly to others, especially something as harmless as tea (think: water has been boiled by humans for thousands of years in order to sterilize it), it requires us to rethink our norms and our laws.
Legal (skip if you want): Unlike many other states, the State of Texas has no exemption for private homes in their Food Establishment definition. This makes it so that you could actually be fined (or perhaps arrested) for preparing food in your own home for your own kids if you didn’t have a health permit (if someone wanted to enforce it this way). Upon speaking to Veronica at the Austin Health Department, she said there is a law that makes it okay for me to not have a permit if I had the contact info of everyone who came to the bus for tea. I likened this to the idea that you’re allowed to have friends over for food and not have a permit (still, under this supposed Austin law, you could get in trouble if a friend brought a friend to your house for a dinner and you didn’t have their contact info). Although she couldn’t quote me the law that said this, I accepted it, and thought, Hey, having to get people to jot down their name and contact info isn’t too big a price to pay for not having to get a health permit. But ten minutes later she called back and told me that her superior had said that since the Tea Festival wasn’t in a residentially zoned area, that I couldn’t do this. So, let me get this straight, my home is no longer a residence if parked in a non-residential neighborhood? At this point, I felt that I was being led on to believe things that aren’t actually law. I asked her to send me this law. Half an hour later, she sent me several laws regarding the fact that you can’t have a food establishment in a residence – which wasn’t really related to the law I was asking about, and I was curious if it was a threat to whether or not I could actually get a permit.
Some of the permit requirements (including: NO HOME PREPARED FOODS ALLOWED)
Other than the aforementioned philosophical reason for not wanting to get a health permit, I was also informed by Veronica at the Health Department, that I either had to use disposable tea cups, or gnarly chemicals to sanitize my ceramic tea cups. I always tell people that the only “catch” to the tea bus is that there are no to-go cups. This is both because genuine human interactions only happen if people stay to drink their tea, and because disposables don’t fit into my moral framework in the environmental realm. I also don’t use nasty chemicals in my bus (or life) as much as possible, because of my moral framework in regards to environment. Also, my grey-water tank is usually dumped onto living plants (lawns, gardens, trees, etc.), and the last thing I want to do is poison them. So, here I was faced with breaking my moral framework by either using disposables or by using harsh chemicals.
At this point, I had already crossed out of my comfort zone. I thought of things that I could do: not serve tea at the Texas Tea Festival, or have a Tea-Free Party in mild-protest, or actually get a health permit…
Amongst all this, Elyse Peterson, co-owner of Tealet, offered to pay the $98 for our health permit. Wow, what generosity! I accepted, and decided that I was willing to break my moral framework, both to give me the opportunity to serve tea at the Texas Tea Festival, but also to allow me the opportunity to either reaffirm or reshape my moral framework due to my experiences stepping outside of it.
Iodine for sanitizing dish ware.
After doing some research, I learned that I could use Iodine instead of bleach in my sanitize basin. I read that Iodine is naturally occurring in large quantities on earth, and you can set out left-over sanitizing water in the sun or heat it to evaporate the iodine out (don’t heat it indoors, because iodine vapor can be hazardous). Because 400 billion pounds evaporate off of the ocean every day, my 2 tsp didn’t seem like they would have a large environmental effect. I don’t know, however, if the form iodine comes in in sanitizers (Butoxy polypropoxy polyethoxy ethanol-iodine complex) is different in terms of environmental impact than the iodine that evaporates off of the ocean. I also figured I could dispose of it down a drain on the municipal sewer system. I knew for sure that I didn’t want to put it in my grey-water tank.
My three basin wash station and hand-wash setup.
After rushing to Austin from West Texas and barely getting to the Health Department before their early 3:30pm Friday closing, I made it just in time to grab my Temporary Food Service Permit, which had to be posted somewhere in the bus. I found a nice frame in a free pile, and violá, it now was not only official, but it was beautiful too. That evening and the next day I had to find Iodine, figure out my three basins for dish-washing, do mad cleaning of the bus, and more in preparation for the festival.
The day of the Texas Tea Festival came, and I showed up early to get the one parking space that would allow me to open my side door up and set up a lounge out front – a half block down from the actual event. I spent the morning cleaning, sanitizing all my cups and accouterments, setting up, and swirling thoughts around my head about whether or not I should be upset or glad that I had been (practically) forced into getting a health permit and bending my moral framework.
The line for the Tea Fest. (photo: Tealet)
The event had nearly sold out prior to the actual day of the event, so tons of folks came early to try and get in. With 700-ticketed folks, plus vendors and organizers, and all the extra people, there was a line halfway around the block, which just so happened to wrap around the tea bus. We got busy pretty quick even before the 11 am doors opened.
All day we were packed, with many folks spending hours with us. Out front, Elyse and the crew from Tealet were serving up some of their fine farmer direct teas. It was a pleasure to work with them, as they have mindfulness in their business that I can relate to. They work directly with farmers, both in the US and abroad to bring high quality tea to consumers with ultimate transparency in mind. In this way, farmers end up with higher profits, and consumers end up with lower prices. Choosing this transparency is extremely important in this day and age when people are so disconnected from the things they consume. It helps people understand the real value of the things, and just what it takes to produce them.
Rie (left) and Elyse (right) of Tealet serving tea in with the teabus at the Texas Tea Festival.
On a whim, I had posted a FREE TEA ad on the free section of Craig’s List the evening before the event. Surprisingly, several folks showed up because of this. These folks, combined with tea fest folks, combined with random passersby there in downtown Austin made for a great mix of people. I saw new friendships formed between a new gal to town and some other locals. I heard many people say that the tea bus brought a little sanity to the madhouse that was the tea festival. When all was said and done, between Tealet and the tea bus, I believe that we served about 250-300 cups of tea.
Just like many people who haven’t experienced the tea bus, I don’t think the organizers of the Texas Tea Festival really understood what the tea bus is all about and what we have to offer. This was apparent in the way they always seemed too busy to talk or problems-solve, or the fact that they didn’t promote our presence on their website nor Facebook. It wasn’t until after the festival that the organizers seemed to come around a little, first by giving us some bags of loose-leaf tea, and later by putting a couple photos on their Facebook page of the tea bus in action. I guess one of the only reasons why I like being well known is because I don’t have to prove myself and the teabus to people. Unfortunately, since I haven’t extended myself too much in the tea community (perhaps fearing snobbery – whether founded or not), and we are new to Austin, our reputation had not preceded us. I do however, fully understand the fact that people aren’t as enthralled by the free tea bus without experiencing it first.
Some Texas tea partiers
Devon, Guisepi, and James Norwood Pratt
After the event, there was a small after party at the venue. I sat around a table with great tea minds like Elyse and the Tealet folks, James Norwood Pratt, Jeffrey from Zhi Tea, and more. We discussed the power of tea, and I expressed that my favorite healing property of tea was that it cured loneliness. Tea isn’t always necessarily about the tea itself, but it’s ability to “turn strangers into friends,” as James said. He continued, and gave me one of the greatest compliments I could receive: he likened me to a modern-day Baisao. Baisao was a Zen monk who gave up on monastery life and lived in 1700s Tokyo, wandering around the streets, parks, and gardens offering people tea. He did not charge for the tea, and only had a small bamboo bucket that people could put money in if they wanted to. He became well know for his wisdom, often expressed through his calligraphy and poetry, and was sought out by people from all walks of life, and all classes for the simple moment of tea time. In fact, it was Baisao who, in his desire for a simple, less fancy tea, convinced farmers to make a very simple daily green tea that we now know of today as Sencha. He knew that it wasn’t necessarily about the tea or complex ceremony, but about the wisdom and the human interactions that it created.
Rie from Tealet pours tea. (photo: Tealet)
Overall, my experiences stepping out of my comfort zone and moral framework definitely both helped me solidify my moral framework, and also helped me reshape a bit too. Below are reasons that I would and would not get a health permit again.
Reasons I WOULD NOT get a health permit again:
- They force me to compromise my moral framework (harsh chemicals or disposables)
- They exist only within the framework where people aim to maximize profit, and therefore have the cash flow to purchase.
- It creates separateness between the tea bus and people. Whereas normally I am just a person making friends and inviting them into my house for tea, with a health permit, I am an entity that is separate from the friends I make.
- It makes me deal with the worst end of beauracracy, takes a lot of time, and rushes me around, destroying my ability to live the way I want to live (simple, slow, and productive in things I actually care about).
- It forces me to get permission in order to be kind.
Reasons I WOULD get a health permit again:
- They allow me to participate in events that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
- They provide the opportunity for me to have amazing interactions with people that I might not otherwise get to.
- They keep my on the right side of (some) laws and therefor keep me out of trouble.
My feelings on the subject are that in 99% of cases I would not get a health permit again, but there are times and places where the outcome of getting one may lead to greater things. In our case, it has led to some great relationships with people, tea events, tea companies, and more. I can say with all honesty that if I could do it over, I would do it the exact same way. Thank you to the Texas Tea Festival for providing me the opportunity to test and try myself, and to Tealet for sponsoring our health permit, and to James Norwood Pratt for whispering some of the greatest compliments I could ever receive from a tea man into my ear.
A BIG shout out to: Elyse and Tealet for sponsoring our health permit and sharing tea with people in the free tea zone; to Veronica and the Austin Health Department for putting up with my hesitancies towards getting a health permit; to the Texas Tea Festival for allowing us to set up and for giving us the opportunity to strengthen our moral framework; to Harney & Sons for sharing an abundance of left-over teas, a cup/steep combo, and a tea pot; to all the others who shared tea, time, and enthusiasm with the tea bus; and of course, to Mountain Rose Herbs for sending us yet another massive box of tea to share with people.
Edna still has ice on her windshield when I arrive back in Alpine.
Our trip out west on the train was extended by about 5 days, so we arrived back in Alpine, TX just as an abnormally bad ice storm was easing up. There were downed branches and trees everywhere, power was out many places, and ice still covered many areas. Upon inspection, Edna seemed okay from the freeze. I hadn’t expected to stay away so long, and there was no freeze in the weather forecast when I left, so I hadn’t made any precautions. Oops.
When things began to thaw, I realized that the p-trap on my sink drain had burst, and my water filter housing had exploded one of its lids off and destroyed the threads. Luckily I had met a plumber named Tony a little over a month prior at Artwalk Alpine who lived only 4 blocks from where Edna was parked. He happily let me dig through his brass/copper recycling to pull out a chromed brass p-trap. Thanks, Tony!
The straw bale house.
After fixing up my plumbing issues, and getting some resources together, Edna and I headed back south to Terlingua to spend more time working on the straw bale house we had been working on in December. It was long hard work, but it was rewarding in the fact that I was learning new skills, and able to be creative with all the recycled material we were using. I give thanks to Frank (the lead carpenter and straw bale guru), as well as David and Kay (whose house it was), for wanting and liking so much salvage material being used.
On the weekends, I served tea at the Farmers’ Market, and other places around the ghost town. In the three weeks I was there, I worked everyday without rest either building or serving tea. It was exhausting.
My old truck!
One Sunday I was sitting in Edna in the Laundromat parking lot wait for my clothes to dry. I heard a diesel truck pull into the lot. Always curious about diesel vehicles, I turned my head to see a Chevy Blazer pull up next to me. Wow! I used to have a diesel Blazer, I thought. Wow, mine was a military issue, too. And, wait, they didn’t come with wing windows (but I put them in mine)…. Wait a sec, that is my old truck! And sure enough, there was the tire rack I made on the front, the roof rack I installed, and the remnants of the San Juan County Sheriff decal on the side (it used to be a cop car in my hometown). This was the first WVO conversion I had done, and I sold it in Washington State 5 years prior.
I jumped out and said to the driver, “That’s my old truck!” “No, it’s not,” he replied, unable to fathom that I just might be the previous owner. I told him the story, and he was amazed. His wife had bought it from me, and I remembered that she told me it was the perfect vehicle for where she lived in the desert. I guess I had forgotten where that desert was! She came down to the Laundromat and we chatted for a while. After that we kept running into each other, and she came to the farmers’ market for tea, and brought me a little departing present. It was sweet and endearing.
Serving tea at The Porch.
Later that evening, I pulled into the ghost town and just had the urge to pull right up to The Porch, where there were tons of folks playing music, drinking beer, and having a blast. The parking lot was packed, but for some reason a whole slew of parking spaces were open just in front of The Porch. My friend Sharron held the spot for me, and my bus pulled right in. I opened my doors, brewed up some tea, and had the most wonderful experience with many locals and many tourists. After being driven out of the ghost town parking lot a month and a half earlier, I knew that the tea bus was now an accepted thing (even the woman who kicked me out before came aboard for a split second)… It was a blast, with music, tea, jokes, and stories. Plus I was already high from running into my old truck.
Our time in Terlingua created many friends, some of whom I will know for a long time. I’d like to send a shout out to all the folks who I became close with. You all know who you are. You all nurtured, fed, taught, and laughed with me. You shared resources, stories, and time. As I was preparing to leave in my final days there, I can’t tell you how many people said things like, “Well, you always have a home here in Terlingua,” or “You’ll be welcomed back with open arms.” Even folks I just met were saying this to me. I think that Terlingua folks are good at making it home for many. I know for sure that this place is my home in this corner of the country. Thank you, Terlingua.
Now, we sit in a park five miles south of Marathon, TX centrifuging some vegetable oil. We’re off towards Austin, where we are potentially participating in the first annual Texas Tea Festival. Keep your eyes out for us in Austin! We’ll mostly be taking some time to do some winter projects like writing, reading, bus projects, and more, but we’ll make it out a bit and serve up some tea too!
While at Artwalk Alpine, I was convinced not to be scared of Border Patrol checkpoints (think pounds and pounds of green leafy material – i.e. tea), and that Terlingua and Big Bend National Park were both places worth going. So, after a couple days of rest and recuperation, I drove southward. My only connection was a friend of a friend named Trevor Reichman. An on-the-road musician for much of the time, Trevor has been slowly building his little homestead out in the middle of the desert of Terlingua Ranch. He shared with me his cob dome, his solar electric setup, his little sheds, dogs, and beautiful desert land. He suggested I go to “the ghost town,” as the locals call downtown Terlingua for Burger Night at the Starlight Theatre.
The moon rises over the Chisos Mountains as seen from the ghost town.
Terlingua is a historic mercury-mining ghost town of stone and adobe ruins, dusty roads, old rusty cars and machinery, and an amazingly re-envisioned community of musicians, alcoholics, river rats, tourists, old school buses and trailers, off-grid living, and houses that incorporate the ruins. Property is cheap, which makes taxes cheap, which makes no room for building inspectors, which makes for incredible opportunity to build how you want. In the afternoons and evenings, locals and tourists alike gather on “The Porch” to play music, drink, and hang. The Porch is great, big, and long and spans across a couple local businesses. “Out here we watch the sunset in the east,” is a phrase that’s thrown about. My friend, Chase (who is writing his dissertation on music of Terlingua), says this is both literal in the sense that people sit on “The Porch,” face the east, and watch the awe-inspiring Chisos Mountain turn orange and pink as the sun goes down. He says it’s also symbolic in that what they’re really saying is they do things differently out here.
The day no one showed for hours in Terlingua.
On Burger Night, I met a couple folks, served a little tea, and Trevor bought me a burger. People were nice enough, and I decided to spend the whole next day serving tea right there in the heart of the ghost town. I parked in the parking lot overnight, and the next day I opened for business. I had a great parking spot that over-looked the main area of the ghost town, so I figured I would get lots of folks. The day turned out slow, so I spent time picking up recycling, clearing some rocks so I could put out a rug, and making a little stone outline of a patio. The few folks who stopped by were nice, but it was real slow. Then a woman who I had been warned about showed up. “I’m the property manager for the ghost town. It’s all private property. You can’t camp here.” She came across harsh, but not as harsh as others had made her out to be. She didn’t say anything about serving tea though. Three hours passed and not a single person showed, despite the more-than-normal amount of people in town for Thanksgiving week.
A local bartender, who I met earlier, stopped by again. “So, are you going to stick around Terlingua?” By the way he asked, I could tell that he hoped I would. “You know, some towns just suck me right in and I feel welcomed, and, well, other places don’t really seem like they want my services. And this seems like one of those towns, so…” He was a little thrown off, but said, “You know, sometimes it’s not about what you give to a place, but what a place gives to you.” At first, this felt like a direct blow to my philosophy that too many travelers are takers, and that my goal was to be a giver. But, the more I thought about it, I heard my close friends who are always telling me that I am too often too stubborn to receive, despite my philosophy that giving paves the way for receiving and vice-versa.
Trevor’s cob dome.
I had agreed to go back to Trevor’s place the next day to lend a hand at building his composting outhouse with him and his friend, Justin. I had been put off by the ghost town at my first visit, and needed this time to figure out what the purpose of my journey south to these parts was about, and if I would stay for a bit. Spending the next day and a half working on Trevor’s outhouse proved to be the perfect place to be. I happened to have some tools they needed, and the job went much faster with three people. Our interaction was wonderful – sharing food, land, work, and play – a great example of non-calculated exchange. If you’ve been keeping up with some of the tea bus’ philosophy of human interaction, this was a nice, smooth example of it.
Trevor inside his dome.
Thanksgiving tea party in the ghost town.
Thanksgiving came, and we all headed back down to the ghost town. Trevor was playing, Justin bought my Thanksgiving dinner, and I served tea outside. “Just so you folks who bought a Thanksgiving dinner know, you get a free cuppa tea outside with my buddy Guisepi in the tea bus.” Trevor’s humorous tea bus advertisement while he was performing, as well as my parking job (right in the heart of everything), brought a bunch of wonderful folks out for tea. The evening was turning out excellent. I began to feel a little less like I wanted to leave.
The straw-bale house.
The next morning I got a message from Trevor asking if I wanted to work with a fellow named Frank on a straw bale house in the heart of the ghost town. Yes! I headed over there to find a sixty-something fellow working on some structural parts of the porch roof. I think his peek into the tea bus brought an instant interest from his part. And my look at the skeleton of the soon-to-be straw-baled house sparked mine. It turns out that along with being a fine musician, Frank was a pioneer in straw-bale construction. After a day of work, he asked me to stick around a week – and I did.
Farmers’ Market folk come for tea.
On the weekends I was serving tea at the local farmers market (across the street from where I was working). I even gave in to the local drinking culture and had a few drinks at the local bars. But, to my surprise, people left and right were buying my drinks and my meals. I was invited to raft the Rio Grande with ten other folks and graciously accepted. I was brought on a hike up to Rancharia Falls in Big Bend State Park by a new friend. All of a sudden, I realized that I really was receiving gifts from Terlingua – I was learning new skills from a great teacher, working my body in the warm sunshine, given a great central place to park Edna, brought on all sort of adventures, bought food and drink (even the district attorney bought me dinner), and getting paid money. I really felt like the bartender’s words were true. And like this, I lived for three weeks in Terlingua.
Rafting on the Rio Grande.
Edna cruises by the Chisos Mountains
In the last week I spent three days backcountry camping in Edna and exploring Big Bend National Park from the hot springs to the basin to Lost Mine Trail. I awoke one morning and took a sunrise hike to Santa Elena Canyon. This spectacular canyon arises out of nothing, and it’s sheer 1,000-foot cliffs line the Rio Grande on both side. Here you have Mexico on one side and the United States on the other. I hiked as far as you can up the canyon (1/4 mile) and enjoyed the trail devoid of other humans. The echo was spectacular and the canyon incomparable to any other I have been in. I made my way back to the parking lot and opened up shop to serve tea to any visitors who might show. Several folks stopped for tea.
Santa Elena Canyon at sunrise.
At one point a couple came out of the canyon and told me there was several armed Mexican military across the river. I went for a look for myself, and sure enough, there was six or eight camouflaged men with assault rifles. I hiked a bit and watched them pose for photos at the mouth of the canyon. I discreetly took my own photo of them. They yelled across to me, “Hablas Español?” “Un poquito.” That was about the depth of our conversation. I wish I had a way to invite them over the river for tea (you could probably wade across it here). As I left and walked through the shrubbery back to the parking lot, I heard a gun shot, and then another. Other tourists became nervous; and more who showed up decided not to hike after I told them. I called the park headquarters and reported the gunshots. “Were they firing across the border?” “I dunno.” They patched me through to Border Patrol. “We’ll call our liaisons across the border and see what’s happening.” I continued to serve tea, not acting on my natural curiosity to head back through the bushes to see what was going on across the river. More folks came, but a third gunshot echoing up the canyon scared them off. It seemed to me that no matter where they were firing in that canyon, whether it was into the river, up in the air, or towards the ground, there was a high likelihood of at least one of the bullets ricocheting and reaching the US side of the border. To my surprise, Border Patrol never showed up to see what was going on, or to warn people not to hike. Eventually, some brave visitors walked to the river (with me in the rear) to discover the military gone. We loaded their canoe in, and all resumed to normal. Talking about this later with folks, many said this kind of thing is somewhat normal, while others acted surprised. Perhaps they were posturing, perhaps they were having fun, perhaps they were shooting rabbits, but I’ll never know.
Edna at the Chisos Mountains in Beg Bend National Park.
New friend Manu signs the guest book.
Throughout my stay in Texas, I’ve continued to be tricked by stereotypes, whether it’s a woman in a cowboy hat talking about taking time on solstice to put your hands on the dirt and connect with the earth, to someone with a deep Texas accent talking about rainwater catchment and solar power. I think this journey around this continent will ultimately break all stereotypes for me, and hopefully some of you reading this. Of course, many of us fall somewhat into stereotypes, but none of us do completely. I’ve found some beautiful people here in Texas, but it sure does mess with the ideas we’ve been taught about Texans, or that there’s two kinds of people in this country (liberals and conservatives).
Here’s to finding friends in new places!
Oh, and check out this 5 part interview series done by Pat O’Bryan of TerlinguaMusic.com.
Because of this video, as well as it being a small town, I began to get people saying hi to me that I had never met. The property manager apologized for coming across harsh when I ran into her again. At the store at Terlingua Ranch Rd, I walked in and the cashier said something like, “Hi, Guisepi! I really like the philosophy you live by.” I had never met her before.
Rowan and Justin.
Jim, Anna, and Shand jam at the Farmers’ Market.
Thank you so much to Trevor and Justin, Frank and Elena, David and Kay, Pat and Betsy, Cory and Evyn, Shannon, Sandi and Topher, Gary, George, Chase, Jim and Anna, Shand, Collie, Tara, Manu and Kerri, Lizette, and so many more!
The Terlingua ghost town cemetary.
Hot springs in Big Bend National Park. Yes, that’s Mexico on the other side.
Using Enda’s hitch and a large come-along to move the porch beam outwards.
Hiking in Big Bend State Park up to Rancheria Falls.
Terlingua Farmers’ Market at the Community Garden.
Coming to Alpine for a hardware store run from Marfa, I saw a banner for the annual two-day Artwalk Alpine. It seemed like the perfect time to pass through this small college town of west Texas. I arrived on Friday morning after sleeping at the Marfa Lights viewing area (still no sign of the Marfa Lights – just highway lights from highway 67 to Presidio), and got the parking spot I had scoped out a couple nights before on Google Maps/Street view with the help of Dione, a local woman who works at El Cosmico, where we just came from.
Welcome to Alpine, TX!
The parking spot was right on the main eastbound drag through town, right in front of the train station, where all the food vendors for the event were set up in the parking lot. The sidewalk was wide, and honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better parking spot. I had done some research on local ordinances, and it seemed legal to sleep in your vehicle and park it for a few days, and they followed Texas health laws, which have exemptions for health permits for private homes – PERFECT!
Rusty the rancher.
I have been a little nervous about coming to Texas. Most of the places I’ve spent time in my past have their ideas of what Texas is – a bigoted, racist, conservative, ignorant bunch of cowboys. Trying not to stick to any preconceived notions on who Texans are, one of my first interactions was with a rancher named Rusty, who came for tea. Rusty looked the part with a cowboy hat, blue jeans, rolling tobacco, and an old jeep with a rifle strapped to it. I asked him when the last time he used his rifle was. “Last week. I shot a wild pig.” “Did you eat it?” “No, but I gave it to a friend. I usually eat them, or give them to friends.” I liked Rusty. He shared knowledge with me on how to cross Border Patrol Checkpoints, the unwritten rule of never messing with another man’s hat in Texas, and other golden wisdom.
Sul Ross college students.
As the event moved on, more and more people came in. Rusty’s friend Julian spent some time, and ultimately brought a gift of mesquite firewood, of which he touted the qualities for burning in my wood stove. Many students of the local college, Sul Ross, came aboard to share a cuppa or two and some conversation. A world-traveler/motorcycle-rider/linguist named Asher came and shared his stories of romance of the road. We had live saxophone, live accordion, live banjo, live ukulele…. Whew!
A gang of kids sipping tea, playing ukelele, and causing mischief.
The tea bus became a hangout for many kids in the 10-13 year old range. It was almost like they ran the place for an hour here, or an hour there. They helped choose what teas to make, strummed on my new ukulele (thanks for the gift, Keith!), and brought a bunch of youthful energy. One of the most interesting interactions was when the kids found the Gift & Take moneybox. They said, “Wait, we can take this?” “Yes, that box is there for anyone to put in, and anyone to take out. If you feel like you need it more than the next person, then you can take it. But if you feel like you have something to offer the next person who is in need, then you can put in.” Within 15 minutes, the Gift & Take was empty of all the cash. When I realized this, and then saw the kids all buying cotton candy, I began to think about how to more effectively instill personal responsibility into these kids. I was hoping that just giving them the power to make the decision for themselves on whether they deserved or needed it more than the next person would create that sense of personal responsibility, and they would either take little, take none, or put in. In my mind (and I could’ve been wrong), they weren’t the ones who needed it the most – especially if they were just going to buy cotton candy with it.
Some kids enjoy the tea bus.
When they eventually came back, I asked them if they thought that taking all the cash that was in there and spending it on cotton candy was the responsible thing to do – and if that they thought the needed that, say, more than a homeless person who was hungry? Of course, they knew the answer. Some of them offered me money. I told them that it wasn’t my money that they took – that the Gift & Take is kind of like a community bank. Ultimately, some of them put money back in, and I’m sure it made them all think about their own personal responsibility to the community. Even some folks who witnessed this whole interaction, and were surprised when I was so open about the taking of money, saw the lesson instilled in these kids and told me so later.
One day turned into the next. It felt good to awake right there in downtown Alpine to the food vendors preparing their day. I was parked right by a couple who run a wood-fired pizza trailer, and I looked out to see them making dough and getting ready. It reminded me of my prized moments of waking up at festivals to see the tea zone outside my window starting to buzz with activity as I take my time to fully awaken.
Summer and the high-schoolers.
A surprise rain storm that made me close the handicap door and windows made the tea bus a little more intimate with some train-riding musicians showing up at the perfect moment to share hot tea and good music in Edna. We talked trains and travel, anarchy and personal responsibility. One of my favorite moments was later when one of the train-riders – Summer, an 18-year-old who has been on the road for three years – showed up when I had a group of four or five letter-jacket-wearing high-school senior girls enjoying a hot cuppa tea. Being of the same age as Summer, the high-schoolers had an amazing moment of mind-opening when they began to hear about Summer’s experiences on the road. They saw a girl who had grasped life and lived it in the way she wanted – riding the rail, playing music for money, touring Europe. Even thought the specifics of how she had done it might not be how some of these other girls would want it, it definitely made them realize that there are other ways of living life than just following the path that has been laid out before you. Among many deep and important things, we talked about the importance of surveying your options in life – even the ones that you didn’t know existed before – and then making the decision to live the life you not only want to live, but also believe wholeheartedly in.
There’s nothing like some good sax.
This little Texas town provided more variety of people, more kind and interested people, and consumed more cups of tea than I thought possible. Over the course of two days, I served over 500 cups of tea. Now I take the day of to recuperate from two days of 12-14 hours of tea serving, hosting, washing, hauling water, and interacting with strangers. I am beat!
Thank you sooo much to Katie and John for the good company, travel advice, and a place to call home temporarily. Thanks to Olaf for the insistence of giving me $10 to buy a wood-fired pizza, and to Jake for trying to not accept the money for the pizza. Thanks to the strangers who shared food in many forms (I was well fed!). Thanks to Julian for the mesquite. And thanks to this little Texas town for welcoming the tea bus in such a generous and accepting way!
Wow, time has flown. I was a little stressed from so much movement, tea serving, and some transmission troubles – but we found this little nest to give us some R&R.
Micheal (Sexy Ebola) comes in on Halloween.
We arrived Marfa on Halloween afternoon, with only a lead on a friend of a friend who was playing music at a local bar. Shortly after the bar owner gave us his blessing to open the doors of the tea bus out front of his bar, two folks came aboard. Michael and Mallory were highly interested, and insisted that the tea bus should go with them to a costume party at El Cosmico – a local hotel of vintage trailers, tipis, wall tents, and a yurt.
Upon arrival, I knew it was the right place to be. Michael and Mallory jumped out and checked with the manager to see if it was okay to serve tea here. After a thumbs-up, I pulled the bus up to a vine-covered canopy right out front. There were lots of folks, all dressed up, including myself dressed as Hewho Sipsalot. It was a great night of tea, DJs, costumes, and good people. The tea flowed! Towards the end, I secured a work-trade agreement with the facilities manager, Biff.
The Shop at El Cosmico.
And here at El Cosmico I have been for almost three weeks. In exchange for a place to park, shower, bathroom, and the ability to use the shop here, I’ve been helping out around the property. I fixed a bunch of burned out LEDs that line the pathways, helped lay flooring in one of the trailers, organized and cleaned the shop, helped fix a sink, and several other little things.
With help of having access to the shop I was able make a new stamped copper Gift & Take sign, paint a piece of scrap sheet metal with chalkboard paint and trim it in above the windshield, swap out my WVO lift pump (for one with more PSI), finish the interior window trim, do some solar battery maintenance, and several other small projects. Also, finding vegetable oil here was incredibly easy. My theory that WVO is easier to find off the west coast and on back highways has proved to be true thus far.
Three guests at the Farmers’ Market. Photo: Ryan Kailith.
Amongst projects, I was able to get out a little and serve tea at places like the Farmers’ Market, the Marfa Lights Viewing Station (it was raining and I didn’t see the lights), and at the Food Shark food truck. One day at the market/Food Shark, we had so much media attentions, that I almost ran off. There were folks from the radio station doing some follow up, three well-known photographers taking pictures, and all the usual photo-taking. Exploring this small town has been fun and interesting. Marfa is really an enigma. It’s a town of modern art, ranchers, Hispanics, and New York/Austin Hipsters. I actually started saying: Marfa: Where Austin and Brooklyn meet. But in reality, there are people from all over the world that come here. We met folks from Japan, South Africa, Canada, Portugal, and more. Marfa seems out of place, or else a lot of the people seem out of place here – one or the other.
Two guests visiting Marfa from Odessa/Midland.
One of the most interesting characters that I met here was a fellow who was Mexican. He was always coming by with his coffee cup, and never getting tea – just stopping by to chat. Through our conversations, I found that he was extremely racist against “wetbacks.” When I questioned him about what he considered a wetback (since I had only heard of it as a term for all Mexicans/Hispanics). He said that wetbacks were Mexicans from Mexico. He was NOT a wetback. He said to be careful of wetbacks, especially if they don’t speak any English – they would come in my bus, put me in a choke-hold and take all my things. Be careful, he warned. Also, Do you like niggers? F’ing niggers. Those mother f’rs are always swearing around children and being disrespectful. This interaction was very interesting to me. I didn’t know someone could be so racists against their own race (or section thereof), as well as against other minorities. Wow, throws a wrench in where I thought racism existed. There is a whole spectrum of people in this great country of ours.
Welcome to Marfa!
My plans to make a loop out to Presidio, Terlingua, and back to the next town of Alpine, were thwarted by the warnings of several to be careful of Border Patrol and Border Stops. My vehicle would gather lots of attention, and they probably wouldn’t like all the dried leafy material (no officer, it’s tea. I swear!).
We arrived Marfa knowing nobody, and today we leave with many friends. Today we head towards Alpine (the next town), where we’ll be setting up to serve tea at the yearly weekend-long Artwalk Alpine. From there: onwards through Del Rio and San Antonio to Austin, TX.
Thank you so much to: Michael for sharing vegetable oil, knowledge, and other resources; Ian, Mia, and Ryan at Marfa Public Radio for your interest and producing some radio pieces about the tea bus; Biff, Sarah, and everyone else at El Cosmico for hosting and sharing; Keith, for being a good friend, hiring me to work on his trailer, and sharing many meals and a ukulele with me; The Get Go for being a savior of healthy food; Mallory; and many many others. Thank you!!!
Oh, and PS – the Prada Marfa store wasn’t that interesting to me, and is in disrepair.
Serving tea in front of El Cosmico.
Clay Mazin and Fraser of The Emergency Circus stops by for a visit on their way to Nawlins.
Guisepi inside Edna Lu The Tea Bus. Photo: Ryan Kailith.
Panorama from in the court house tower in the center of town.
Edna at El Cosmico.
Freight trains run right through the heart of town.
This is a place of so much beauty, good people, and amazing resources. Ally, Edna (the teabus) and I arrived via back highways to Albuquerque after accidentally running into some beautiful places like La Ventana Arch and Malpais National Monument (If you haven’t been – check them out!).
Evading mounted police after sneaking into the Balloon Fiesta.
It was the right time to visit Albuquerque, as the Balloon Fiesta was just getting into full swing. I’d been hearing about this festivity from various people, including my friend David, who lives in Albuquerque. Through various connections, we happened to arrive the Balloon Fiesta first thing in the morning of my birthday with a bus full of folks and a parking pass to get us in the back entrance of the balloon launch site. Intent on having some fun and making some tea, I made an executive decision to just drive right through the back lot (reserved for balloonists, neighbors, etc.), and right on down to the huge grass lot where the balloons launch from. Tactic: drive like you know where you’re going, nod but don’t make eye contact with any of the folks who are supposed to regulate who enters the field, and find a nice spot amongst the balloons for setting up shop. And it worked!
Edna maneuvers through the inflating balloons at the Balloon Fiesta.
At first it seemed like the wind wouldn’t allow for balloons to take of, but once a green flag went up, dozens and dozens of balloons started inflating – and we were in the middle of it all! I brewed up some tea, and watched in amazement as the balloons grew to the size of houses all around us. A man came and told us we had to pull the rig off the side of the field, so we did, and continued in amazement as they balloons started taking off. It was a wonderful sight. All around us the sky was filled with balloons, and we sipped tea with joy.
Ally and Ryan and Tim of Tim’s Place.
Afterwards we made the trek to a place Ally and I had wanted to go since we saw a video online about it (see it here). The place is called Tim’s Place – a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and hugs. Tim has Down Syndrome, but owns the restaurant, and has a blast being a good host. Tim and his manager came aboard the bus and we shared good stories about the importance of ethos in business.
Fall Upcycle Fair at The ReStore Albuquerque.
Randomly, we ended up serving tea at The ReStore Albuquerque’s Fall Upcycle Fair. It was a perfect place for us to be, as so much of the bus is salvaged. People loved the tea bus, even gifting us mugs from inside the store. There was live music, rejoice about new solar panels on the building, several vendors selling upcycled goods, and a storewide half-off sale. Sometimes events like this just come together for the tea bus, and it’s such a great way to share our service. Thanks, Beth!
Serving tea in Madrid, NM.
After some good rest, play time with friends, filling up on biodiesel, and centrifuging some waste vegetable oil, we took off from Albuquerque on a (successful) mission to find my mom’s high school friend. This adventure brought us on The Singing Road, through Tijeras, Cedar Crest, and Los Cerillos (where Young Guns was filmed). In Madrid, a super fun and funky art town, we stopped to serve tea, meet new friends, and admire the junk-atecture (lots of salvaged materials, old freight cars turned house or restaurant, etc.). We met a nice astrologist/tarot-reader who we shared food with, I did some repair projects on her van she was moving back into, and she read mine and Ally’s charts. It was one of those nice reciprocal exchanges that took place over many days in a couple different towns.
Poetry in Motion van.
In Santa Fe, we had the nice fortune to end up at a cohousing community called The Commons, where a couple friends from back home on San Juan Island are living. It is a great little community of people, and the grounds are beautiful. We participated in a couple community meals, and served some tea in the parking lot, where we stayed for a week or so. Their residents (and our tea guests) included Alice Khan Ladas (co-author of the book The G Spot), Ilan Shamir (who owns Poetry in Motion – a mobile interactive magnetic poetry van), and many more wonderful folks. It felt good to be in a place where people care so much about community. If you don’t know about cohousing, look into it. We also served tea at a really slow farmers’ market, and took some time for self.
Farmers’ Market goers gather at Edna’s door to grab some tea ad explore the Gift & Take.
We arrived Taos on a Friday evening – just in time to get up early and cruise to the Farmers’ Market. It was rainy, and the market was slow, but we still got some great guests. Eventually the sun came out, and it felt good. Our days in Taos were filled with the cold autumn air, yellow leaves, some mellowing, and much adventuring. The back roads (that Google Maps brought us down) to Stagecoach Hot Springs were rough for Edna, but she made it. We served tea at the Earthships out on the mesa, picked up a hitch-hiker who told stories of local history, made tea at the Hanuman Temple for one of their thrice-weekly free meals, met some other white short bus WVO travelers (Lewis and the Fireflies), brewed up some tea at the Taos Herb Company while they had live music, and made some great new friends. If winter wasn’t so close on the horizon, I’m sure we would have stayed there for much longer. Thank you so much to Dara, Moss, and family for hosting us!
Edna admires the Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos, NM.
Ally left Taos midway through our stay and headed back to her bakery-on-wheels van in Southern California – a long delayed event. Her companionship on this journey off the west coast has been amazing. She supports this project on many levels and has continued to offer herself as a collaborator, teacher, supporter, and more. I will miss her presence in the bus. Thank you, Ally… seriously!
New friend plays some tunes in front of the UFO Museum in Roswell after he reported a UFO sighting from last night.
The drive south from Taos was steep, but beautiful, and landed us in the town of Las Vegas, NM, where we spent the morning in Montezuma Hot Springs, just outside of town. Continuing south, we arrived Roswell, NM. Many towns exist like Roswell, where there’s no one walking around town, there’s no places to meet people, and nowhere that helps facilitate community-building on a daily basis. Towns like this are hard to serve tea in, because there are very few people on the street. At least Las Vegas wasn’t just one big strip mall – there was a downtown here. I was curious, so we parked outside the UFO museum and made tea for people. At first a couple teenagers came by, but lost interest before they even got their tea, likely due feeling sketched out by a stranger offering them something for free. A few stragglers came by, including a woman who works at the museum. She came back a little while later with a pass for me to go in, so I did…
Tinkering on Edna in the desert outside Carlsbad, NM.
Continuing south, I needed a break from constant travel and serving tea. I knew I would find this place outside Carlsbad, likely in the form of some desolate desert. After Google Maps send me down an overgrown road in the dark of night, I found my transmission acting funky. I finally found the road to the campsite I was trying to get to, but the road was incredibly gnarly, and my transmission was acting up, so I parked out there in the middle of the desert. My long needed alone time was forced by this little breakdown. I spent the next day, however, tinkering with some wiring, and ended up getting the computer diagnosis plug to work (never has before), and determined that it was the electrical connections to the tranny that were pushed around by tall grass from the night before.
BLM campsite outside of Carlsbad, NM.
Driving a rough road out into the desert for the alone time.
That night I drove farther out into the desert to a BLM “campground” (really nothing but fire pits and parking). It was beautiful and away from everyone. I spent two nights there, reading, writing, tinkering, making lists, transferring waste vegetable oil, and exploring some caves that were right next to where I was camped. It was beautiful, needed, and showed me that I need to do this often.
Coming south, I passed over the Texas border, by the Guadalupe Mountains (gorgeous!) and on to Marfa, TX for Halloween, where I reside now. We’ll be exploring a little bit of Texas, so keep your eyes peeled for us!
Thank you also to David and Lauren in Albuquerque, Nate Dog for the bio and veggie, Rosa and Grisha at The Commons, Silvianne the van-dweller in Madrid, Yarrow (for the good conversation and the Rosemary plant), Tim and Ryan at Tim’s Place, the fellow at Montezuma Hot Springs, Ilan and his Poem Van, Alice, and all our other guests, hosts, and friends.
Autumn in Taos – golden trees and burning the wood stove.
Making tea at the Earthships.
Alice, who co-authored The G-Spot, sipping tea at The Commons in Santa Fe.
Serving tea at the Taos Herb Company.
Sonny jams some tunes at the Taos Farmers’ Market.
Ally sips tea while watching balloons take off.
Silvianne and her home on wheels.
A silversmith cowboy plays some tunes at the Upcycle Fair.
The recipient of the 25,000th cuppa free tea, Ward, and his gifts.
Another milestone is upon us! On Friday evening we served our 25,000th cuppa free tea at the First Friday Artwalk in Flagstaff. As we set up for the evening, we only had 30 cups to go, and I was a little nervous.
Tea on the streets of Flagstaff.
We had had a little run-in with a local teashop owner, who wasn’t too stoked on the “competition” that the free tea bus brought to town (read about it soon here). He had contacted the city and the county in regards to our operation, so I thought we might have to be a little careful – we were indeed probably breaking some laws. Flagstaff has some of the strictest anti-homeless and anti-camping laws in the nation. Regardless, I read up on local health code (as I often do), and printed out some signs stating that “You are engaging with a private individual in their private home. Please note that any food (e.g. tea) is prepared in this home kitchen, and is not subject to regulation and inspection by any regulatory authority.”
As the Artwalk started to pickup, and we got closer and closer to our 25,000th cuppa, the bus filled with a bunch of college-aged folks. Earlier, I had seen some of them walk by and heard them say something that included the word “sketchy.” I made a fun comment like “Didn’t you ever hear: Don’t take candy from strangers in a van?” After a bit, they came back to see what it was about. They came aboard and the bus became packed (14 people inside and a crowd outside).
Ward opening his tea certificate.
I secretly tallied each cup I served, and eventually gave a refill to a Belgian fellow named Ward, who was sitting on the floor. “With that cup of tea, you should also grab that envelope hanging up there.” He grabbed the envelope and opened it up. Inside was a certificate that said: “You have received a RANDOM CUPPA TEA. Which just so happens to be our 25,000TH CUPPA FREE TEA! This certificate entitles you to: one tea mug, one jar of tea, and one piece of non-integral tea bus memorabilia of your choice.” He was excited, and the more he and others thought about it, the more ecstatic he became. His excitement and the inspiration that this project was to him, showed me that he was the perfect person to receive such a thing. He spent hours on the bus, and finally picked the smallest teacup I had, a bag of Winter Spice tea, and a small handcrafted copper seal on a necklace as his piece of memorabilia (it, itself, was a beautiful gift from the Lopez Island tea goddess, Kyra – don’t worry, I’ll still think of you!).
Serving tea outside the Orpheum Theater.
Each time we reach a landmark like this, I insist that it’s about quality and not quantity, but I do have to say that even with this quantity, we have managed to maintain quality. It is the guests, the people who have sipped all 25,000 cups of tea, who are the heart of the tea bus. Thank you!
This don’t make no cents.
I also just wanted to note amongst some of our other tea parties around Flagstaff (Herb Folk Gathering, at Wheeler Park, at the Sunshine Rescue Mission, and downtown), that we had an awesome experience with the owner of the White Flag Laundromat. After Herb Folk we had done a bunch of laundry here, but I had somehow managed to forget my three small beautiful rugs – one of which I had just purchased at an antique mall. It had been a couple weeks, but I called them as soon as I realized. They had kept them safe, and after I identified them over the phone, I went in to get them. Earlier in the day I had expressed that I wanted to pay the Laundromat back for saving the rugs. Ally had asked me what it was worth to me. I immediately said $50. Ally told me I should offer them that out of the Gift and Take. I was hesitant, as I seem to be a little protective of the Gift and Take. Yet, as we arrived, it felt like the right thing to do. John took one look at the money and said, “no way.” His mindset was that people should help each other. “Jesus doesn’t like money,” he said as he referenced the story of Jesus getting angry at people trying to make money in the temple. “I can’t take your money. Only the Lord can pay me back.” Yet, we continued to offer the money. “No, you keep it. It’s just enough to me that you acknowledge it and offer your gratitude.” When he had pulled the rugs out of the dryer and was folding them, someone even offered to buy them on the spot, but he said “no,’ believing that the owners would come back for them. I was blown away, and by the end we were hugging. I thank you sincerely, John!
Cheersing the 25,000 cups of free tea!
Now, we sit at the Arizona-New Mexico border, sipping Earl Grey, and enjoying a nice desert morning. As for now, we are Albuquerque-bound. Look out, New Mexico – the Land of Enchantment!