Traveling far fast is not part of my modus operandi. The longer I stuck around Austin, the less time I knew I had to travel the 2,000+ miles to the Boston area for the International Herb Symposium. Ally, Edna (the tea bus), and I left Austin on May 16th, which gave us three and a half weeks to get there. This averages about 1.5 hours of driving per day (back highways), which is quite a bit more than my preferred average of 1 hour of driving per day. This average was made dramatically worse by the fact that we ended up sticking around our first stop at The Cosmic Shed for a whole week. Of course, this was made up for by that awesome nature of the experience there (Read about it here).
We meandered through east Texas stopping in towns such as Marshall, and eventually made our way to the hidden gem of Hot Springs, AR. This town has a strong history from Native Americans, to baseball players training, to gangsters and gambling, to it being a mecca for it’s healing hot springs. These hot springs were channeled into the many bathhouses that line the east side of Central Ave. Also, surrounding much of the city is Hot Springs National Park. Perhaps one of our favorite aspects of this town was the numerous springs that fed up through the ground, and were channeled through pipes for the public to gather all around town. Some are hot and some are cold, but the cold water is by far some of the BEST spring water I have ever tasted. Ally and I gathered this water gallon by gallon until Edna’s 42 gallon fresh water tank was full.
Up on the hill overlooking town and the surrounding area we set up to serve tea at a look-out spot just below a big observation tower. Hot Springs seems to attract many tourists from all over the world. We were chatting with folks from China, Japan, Portugal, Belize, and one of my favorites was a conversation with a man from India about the Indian concept of Seva – or selfless service/being in service to God. We also connected with the woman who was to host us that night, Crystal, who opened up in our presence to talk about her own path and shifts and changes she was inspired to make in her life to live more in line with her beliefs and passions. As the day went on a thunderstorm forced us to close the doors and have an intimate half-dozen person tea party with lightning striking around us. BOOM!
Arriving in Bloomington, we immediately felt at home. We saw an anarchist book store, a food co-op, and lots of kind folks. One night we decided to set up at People’s Park on Kirkwood Ave, right between downtown and Indiana University campus. We didn’t realize that it was such a hangout for homeless people. Normally, I have a huge amount of patience and respect for homeless folks – probably from my early traveling days of hitch-hiking and riding freight trains, as well as the space I’ve held for serving homeless folks from the early days on Hollywood Blvd. But for some reason this night I was triggered into having less patience. As soon as we opened the doors, a mass of homeless folks came to see what it was all about. We were handing out tea left and right.
The first three people put more sugar in their tea than I have even seen any do before – they used over a cup of sugar between three smallish cups of tea. Then a fellow came up and asked for English Breakfast. I told him there was some in the large grab basket of tea bags. He made a weak attempt to find what he wanted, and complained that he couldn’t find any. At this point, both Ally and I were super busy with serving and making tea and talking to people – and this fellow demanded attention. I dug through the basket and helped him find the English Breakfast, which I promptly brewed for him. Once he had the tea in hands he asked, “Can I have a banana?” “Sure,” I said as I handed him a loose banana. “No, I want one of those greener bananas,” he said pointing to a bunch hanging from a hook. “I’d rather give you this one, it’s about as ripe, and I’d rather use up the loose bananas first. Plus, riper bananas are better for you.” “No they’re NOT!” He started to get angry and upset that I wasn’t catering to his every need. I had the stop the interaction there and said something like, “I’m sorry, sir, but you are being extremely rude. Here I am trying to share with you and you are being difficult, picky, and unappreciative.” At this point he quieted down, but I was still affected by the interaction.
Later in the evening several IU college girls came aboard the bus. They had been out wandering looking for something to do that didn’t cost money. Just like most people ask, they were curious if the tea was really free. This brought our conversation to some of the deep levels that it often comes to with curious people. The girls were so inspired that they came back a couple days later when we were serving tea at the farmers market with a whole slew of friends.
Because we knew what parking spot we really wanted for the farmers’ market, Ally and I parked Edna there the night before and just slept right there in the middle of downtown Bloomington. At 6 am we awoke to a busker playing guitar and singing sweet songs very near to the bus. We got up and thanked him for being such a wonderful alarm clock. He ended up being a great guy, and played tunes for much of the day.
The Bloomington Farmers’ Market can truly be described as one of America’s finest. There’s good people of all ages wandering amongst lots of organic veggies, baked goods, raw milk (not for human consumption, of course), meats, eggs, and more. The beauty of the market spilled out onto the B-Line – a rail turned walking/biking trail through the heart of town, next to which we were set up serving tea. We had doctors, farmers, Mennonites, kids, adults – everyone – aboard for tea.
By the time we had spent a few days in Bloomington, it was hard for us to leave. We had made friends and felt called to stick around. Alas, with out a semi-tight schedule to get to the International Herb Symposium, we were constantly re-evaluating whether we were doing the right thing in rushing towards a goal (and especially a goal that wasn’t particularly accommodating to us being there – see next blog entry). For much of our journey we were in this space – meeting good people, falling in love with places, finding good resources, and feeling a little rushed.
We left Bloomington the next day and just drove. We drove all day across Ohio in order to get us to an Elephant Revival show in Peninsula, OH. For the first time on our journey from Austin, we took interstate highways the whole day. Usually, we have a preference for back roads and highway – where the real America happens without as much distraction of American monoculture that exists along so many well-traveled roads. This day, we let go of ideals, and made it in time to see our friends play music and spend some time with them over tea afterwards.
The next day we decided to celebrate the cooler weather with a tea party in a parking lot in neighboring Cuyahoga Valley National Park. At some point a Park Ranger came to ask about what we were doing. Calling for backup, two more Ranger cars pulled up, and five Rangers total came for the commotion. They told me that it was illegal to conduct business in National Parks without a valid permit. I told them, “Thank God! I knew there was a reason I decided to not make the tea bus a business!” They didn’t find that amusing, but were nice enough about it. After digging through their law books (36 CFR), they pulled out a law that says:
“§ 5.3 Business operations.
Engaging in or soliciting any business in park areas, except in accordance with the provisions of a permit … is prohibited.”
There was no definition of “business” in the law, so I looked it up in the dictionary (occupation, employment, or trade), and none of it seemed to apply to my situation. Pressing them on the issue, they told me that it’s illegal to perform “trail magic” in any national park. Many of you know that trail magic is any kind of sharing or kindness from strangers towards people hiking long-distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. It would be okay to share tea with my family in my bus, but it’s not okay to make friends and share tea, evidently, especially since I had a sign. Though there were no laws quoted stating this, I had to comply with these authority figures.
Deciding not to push my luck, I offered to stop my free tea activities. Inside the bus was the best group of folks for the situation. They were a group of six Unitarian Universalist pastors. They, of course, like any other levelheaded person, thought it was the silliest thing to be hassled for genuine sharing, and as they exited the bus, they each came over to me to hug, shake hands, and offer places to stay, serve tea, and community to be with in the places they lived.
Of course, modern culture assumes that people are acting out of self-interest most of the time, and hence laws are written in this manner. And this is the stance that the Rangers have to come from – to protect people from a potentially nefarious situation that could come out of people serving free tea.
All of this leaves me with these questions: If the Rangers had been out of uniform and simply walking by, would they have been concerned at all? Is it simply the fact that they are paid money to uphold (supposed) laws and orders from superiors that they had a problem with the tea bus? If they weren’t on duty, would they have shared more similar views with the pastors?
Moving down the road, we stopped at Lake Erie, camped out for a few days in a state forest near East Otto, NY, visited family and met up with Tea Witch Tea in Rochester, NY, and filled up with spring water outside Ithaca, NY. Finally, on June 9th, we landed in Southborough, MA in order to prepare for the International Herb Symposium in nearby Norton, MA.
It was a long journey, and was a bit faster than I like. I’m excited for the Herb Symposium, but more than anything, I’m stoked that the tea bus has crossed the Mississippi River for the first time and we get to spend some time in the east for the next year or two.
A huge shout out to: Gil and Crystal in Hot Springs, AR; Judy and Malcolm in Bloomington, IN; Elephant Revival; all the Unitarian Pastors; Uncle Mark and his family; Tru from Tea Witch Tea; Walmarts for having overnight parking for us; and all the restaurants that gave us vegetable oil.