Yes, you read right. 10 years ago on the first day of Spring, I purchased a little, empty, yellow short bus. As I drove out the driveway, I asked the woman whom I purchased her from what her name was. She said her partner had been calling it “Eddy” because it was a Special Ed. bus. As the bus purred down the block, she seemed more feminine to me (or perhaps I just wanted a female travel companion) so I called her Special Edna, and she eventually became Edna Lu, the Free Tea Bus.
I knew from day one that the purpose of Edna was not only to be my home, but also to be a mobile free teahouse. I had started serving free tea a little over two years earlier on Hollywood Blvd. My big city loneliness had been squashed by these accidental non-monetary interactions. I had discovered something that fulfilled my deepest social and emotional basic needs – and ironically it was radical sharing. The bus was to be both a literal and figurative vehicle for this newfound passion of creating a non-monetary experience in order to cultivate genuine human interactions and community.
Legos, graph paper, and building forts in the woods as a kid helped my mind begin to wrap itself around the idea of building a bus, but it would take years of living on the road, being mentored by elders, and having a whole community of support that would create Edna Lu to where she is today.
Edna is now a radical example of small-scale, off-grid, low-cost, DIY, earth-friendly, and reclaimed living systems! In the past 10 years, she’s sipped mostly waste vegetable oil and biodiesel (only 5% of her fuel has been petroleum-based). She has a robust solar electric system that runs the fridge, lights, computer, and even the hot water tank once the batteries are full. Her hot water is also heated by waste engine heat from driving, as well as a biodiesel blend if need be. 99% of her wood, and 75% of her hardware is reclaimed. She’s got a tiny wood stove for heat, and an engine to bring her north or up in elevation to keep her cool. She has warm and cool zones for keeping ferments alive, and keeping food and herbs cool. Edna also has a decent enough kitchen to support my strong love for food. I get to ferment all kinds of krauts and kombucha and kefir, as well as cook, pressure-can, and sprout.
“Did you build all this yourself?” people often ask.
“I had many mentors and teachers, friends with good ideas, people who shared resources and skills with me. And the trees. Trees did most of the work. You know, photosynthesizing, building beneficial relationships with mycorrhizae – the hard part. But yes, it was mostly my hands.”
It was Ed in Los Angeles who taught me how to MIG weld, so we could build the roof rack. He also helped me plane and lay donated reclaimed Douglas fir for the floor. It was Ric in Coos Bay, OR who taught me how to TIG weld and machine metal so I could build my vegetable oil tanks. It was Joe in Eureka, CA who not only who let me work trade for shop space and access to tools and salvaged materials, but who also taught me a great deal about woodworking. It was the friends who let me park on their property, who let me pilfer their stash of materials, and who fed me food. It was Califa and her family in Sonoma County who let me set up shop in an abandoned house on their land. It was my brother Josh who I housesat for, and the resources that family share with one another. It was Jim, who mentored me in Hollywood, and got me a good paying job within the first few weeks of getting Edna, so I could start investing in my home. It was Paul, who answered so many mechanical questions and gave Edna some maintenance love. It was my mother, whose land and nurturing character I could always retreat to. It was all the strangers who came aboard and shared in the vision. It was Kyle, who’s sailboat-rigging expertise helped me rig the bed that lowers from the ceiling. It was Jorgan, who helped weld the interior bed support frame. It was Matthew, who gave enthusiastic support of building tiny living spaces, and shared a shop with many of us. It was Owen, fellow-bus builder, who shared adventures, passion, shop space, and so much more.
It was you!
It was you, who has come aboard Edna and shared your stories and visions; who has supported the Free Tea Bus in places to park, food to eat, resources to share; who has been inspired to pay-it-forward. It is you who has helped cultivate community resilience through sharing. Edna and I are resilient because of you!
It is because of you, my community, that the Free Tea Bus has been rolling for MORE THAN 10 YEARS! Your support has allowed me to support you! It allows me to focus on being of service to people, rather than being of service to money. And that’s the point, the help create a world where money is not the most valuable thing in the world – relationships are. This is both relationships with people (family, community, etc.), as well as the resources we use and consume (real skills, knowledge, etc.). This is why I like to spend my days being of service to you. I love fixing your plumbing, installing your solar, oiling the creaking door, and building your necessity from reclaimed materials. For me, that’s the life – spending my days keeping things from the trash by putting them to use to help fulfill your basic needs, so that you can focus on more valuable things than money – family and community, creativity and mindfulness, building resilience through real skills and connection to basic needs and resources, and so much more.
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When I spotted the Pacific Ocean, I began to cry. I was driving west down a residential street in Ocean Beach scoping spots for a potential 10-year anniversary tea party. It had been almost 4 years since Edna and I had been back to the west coast together. We traveled the west coast for more than 6 years serving free tea before starting a 2 (or More) Year North American Tour. That tour became 5 years on the first day of Spring this year. Being gone from our main community for so long had been a wild ride with ups and downs. We made it from Texas to Maine, Georgia to Colorado, West Virginia to North Carolina, New York City to Atlanta. And for much of this journey, my partner Ally was aboard to share in the adventure.
In these past 5 years, we’ve discovered that we were right: relationships are the highest form of value. It was hard to be away from the places we knew we could park, the dumpsters we could dive, the communities we knew we could integrate with, the paid work from people who appreciated our skills, and the people who love the tea bus. Quality relationships take time. We had built that community and connection to places over the 8 years we traveled the west serving free tea. It was hard to build deep meaningful relationships every single place we went. This is not to say that didn’t happen, but it usually took time. Some of the places we dug in became like home. And these are places I would feel super comfortable going back to. These places are West Virginia, Maine, North Carolina, West Texas, Georgia, and Colorado. These places embraced us, absorbed us, drank a ton of free tea, and offered so much more in return.
There were hard times, however. In North Carolina Edna’s transmission went out. Because we were in an area where we hadn’t spent much time cultivating relationships, the only way to fix her was to pay someone a ton of money. And for this same reason, we hadn’t been in places where the little money we needed was flowing in easily. It was you, our community that supported the tea bus. The relationships we’d built in other places jumped in to support us. In 36 hours, y’all shared $3600 in gifts with us. Edna’s transmission is tougher than ever!
And now, we set foot and tire back on the West Coast – our old stomping grounds. From Hollywood Blvd. to Arts Alive in Eureka, CA to the Sierra Mountains to the San Juan Islands, we are so excited to share in warm rounds of hot tea, story-telling, and re-invigorating bonds with people we’ve been away from for so long.
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Last Tuesday, March 20th, the first day of Spring, we arrived on the street in Ocean Beach, CA to celebrate 10 years of the Free Tea Bus. It was 10 years to the day that I purchased Edna right here in San Diego. With ease, Edna and I found a parking space right next to green grass, palm trees, lots of walking traffic, and the sound of lapping waves.
I was joined by Malia, who was an old friend from up north, her boyfriend Hank, who was a new bro-mance, and some of their house-mates. We had dumpster dove 5 dozen roses a few nights before, so we set them out in a large bucket of water for people to take. Chris and Emily (Shaggy and Goldilocks), baked cookies in their own short bus to share with folks. We met them when they stumbled upon hot chai and pancakes from the Tea Bus on the Appalachian Trail in Maine as they were in the process of falling in love. Not too long after, they purchased their own short bus, and have been traveling in it for more than a year and a half. My aunt and uncle, whose house I slept in front of the first night I purchased Edna, came and spent time catching up and meeting tea guests. Several folks who had been following the tea bus on social media arrived and shared some time. A fellow van dweller shared some tea from his girlfriend. A slack line was set up, people basked in the evening sun, and good cheer was in the air.
A homeless man with a tattooed face came to tell us that the world was ending in 7 years. Only the Native Americans and the government knew. But he knew because he was part Native. At some point he showed me a fresh gaping wound on his dirty hand. It was from a rape in progress that he stopped the night before where the guy had drawn a knife. I urged him to clean it and bandage it. He refused, but eventually let me bring him some hydrogen peroxide to clean it. I spent time with him, and several other homeless folks. We chatted, shared stories, and had a few special moments of recognizing each other.
I also enjoyed watching all the other interactions happening. My aunt and uncle were meeting new folks. People were engaging over the slack line. The roses brought smiles. The cookies satiated taste buds and conversation.
Free tea, cookies, and roses anyone?
By the end of the evening, I packed up the rugs, chairs and cushions. I washed the cups and swept the floor. When I closed the doors, I took a moment to reflect on the past 10 years. And I couldn’t help but get sentimental.
I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Happy 10th Re-Birthday, Edna!
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If you appreciate this journey, please consider visiting our Share Page for both monetary and non-monetary ways of supporting the Free Tea Bus.
See also 10 Years of Free Tea.