Tour Through The South – Winter Update – Hot Springs, AR

Hanging in Oxford, MS.

Hanging in Oxford, MS.

Whew, what a tour! Edna Lu (the Tea Bus) and I just spent the last 3 months touring The South from West Virginia to Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally to Arkansas, where we are now. It was a long journey, with sweet and salty moments, new friends, old friends, and a lot of Southern Hospitality.

Edna heads into her 33rd state.

Edna heads into her 33rd state.

When I was 19, my buddy Shawn and I spent a week and a half in New Orleans, and trying to hitch-hike from there to Florida. We definitely experienced some good ol’ Southern Hospitality, but we also faced the other side of the sword: what I dubbed “Southern Hostility” in my recounting of all the tales later on. In a matter of 3 days, we had guns pulled on us 5 times. We had police say, “We don’t like n*ggers and vagabonds around here.” Never before, and never since have I had a gun pulled on me, and never have I heard a police officer be so racists and bigoted so openly. Perhaps it was because we had backpacks and we were outsiders. But whatever it was, I was hoping this tour – 14 years later – would show me something different.

Folks from across this nation had been warning me about The South. “Be careful down there!” “I don’t think I’d go there if I were you.” As I began wandering down through Virginia and North Carolina, most folks warned me of heading into The Deep South, like Georgia, Alabama, and beyond. They spoke of the hostility that would await me. Of course, a few of folks told me that I’d be just fine. When I got to Georgia, the folks there warned me of heading into Alabama and Mississippi – where the real trouble lay. In Alabama, they warned me of Mississippi and Louisiana. And finally, in northern Mississippi, they warned me of southern Mississippi and Louisiana – the places where I had had guns pulled on me in my younger years. As I had moved through these “dangerous” places, I actually felt more comfortable and more well taken care of with most of the strangers I had met than almost anywhere else in the country. This was true no matter how “deep” I went.

My first cup of Sweet Tea - Thanks, Kelly!

My first cup of Sweet Tea – Thanks, Kelly!

When traveling south in the eastern US, once you hit about Virginia, there’s a shift in language. I don’t just mean in the accent or dialect, but in the way that people talk to you. It’s almost as if people start speaking to you, as a stranger, with more depth and soul. You start making more eye contact walking down the street – or even driving down the street, for that matter. In Georgia, a fellow I met randomly and chatted with for a couple hours told me that making eye contact with someone in the South is grounds for a 3-hour conversation – and it was true. By the time I was in Alabama, I would be driving through a neighborhood and a local would make eye contact and wave hello. Black, white – it didn’t matter. In the rest of the country folks say, “Oh, here’s my business card. If you ever need anything, let me know.” In The South people say, “What do you need?” And they wont leave until you tell them.

Centrifuging oil outside Selma, AL.

Centrifuging oil outside Selma, AL.

Even the police were like this (I know, as a white man, I have a different experience than others – I’m not ignorant to the privilege this body affords me). I had more interaction with police in the south than in most parts of the country, but mostly it was to ask me how I was doing, if I was broke down, or if I needed anything. In Athens, GA on Christmas Eve, one police officer told me I was breaking the law by obstructing the sidewalk with my rug, chairs and table, but instead of giving me a ticket, he let it slide and gave me a cake to share with my guests. Outside Selma, AL, I spent half-a-day centrifuging waste vegetable oil on the side of the road. When a cop stopped to make sure I was okay, he told me not to sleep there because it was dangerous. I wished later that I had asked him what he meant by that, but in this predominantly black area, I had some ideas.

Driving through the fog on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Driving through the fog on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Ally and I had left West Virginia after a long summer/fall working on Front Street Grocers. After cruising Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park, I dropped Ally at the train station in Charlottesville, VA. This trip through the south was going to be a personal journey of serving tea and meeting people, but also to get some alone time. Ally and I had been spending about half our time together for several years until this past year-and-a-half, which we spent entirely together. After dropping her and finding some waste vegetable oil from a burger joint, I hit the Blue Ridge Parkway for an indeterminate amount of time, headed towards Asheville.

Edna basks in the sun along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

Edna basks in the sun along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

The next three weeks, I explored the Blue Ridge Parkway and beyond. I camped out in the woods, spending lots of time reading, writing, doing little bus projects, and getting some time to reflect. I hiked, centrifuged waste vegetable oil, and enjoyed my time with no restrictions. I had been so busy in Thomas for the Summer and Fall that it just felt good to be in the slow lane. I stealth camped in Parkway pullouts, made fires in my wood stove to stay warm, and in Floyd, VA, I met an unexpected community for the week around Thanksgiving.

The wonderful FARM Cafe in Boone, NC.

The wonderful FARM Cafe in Boone, NC.

In Boone, NC, I served some tea downtown and met some great folks. I even randomly ran into a buddy who I made in Austin, TX. The next day I went into their local community café called F.A.R.M (Feeding All Regardless of Means). Community cafes are spaces where food is made for anyone. You can pay money or work-trade/volunteer for food. I opted to work-trade. After eating a delicious meal, I told them I could do the standard cleanup, OR I had a school bus full of tools and I could fix some things for them. They were so stoked that someone came with tools! I tightened a bunch of tables and chairs, fixed a bench, repaired some cabinets, and organized their whole tool/hardware cabinet. It was nice to be so well appreciated. I love these kinds of places!

Filling water at the spring in Black Mountain, NC.

Filling water at the spring in Black Mountain, NC.

In Black Mountain, I filled Edna’s water tank at one of my favorite springs. In Asheville, NC, I found myself at my step-sister and her family’s house. It was a good time to be there to give a helping hand with the kids, some house projects, and more. I served some tea around town – in West Asheville, Downtown, the River Arts District, at the Montana House, and at The Orange Peel for a Standing Rock benefit potluck and concert.

I headed out towards Brevard to Trails Carolina and the Academy at Trails Carolina – a school for troubled and at-risk boys and girls (I only met the boys) that incorporates wilderness and adventure therapy into their curricula. It was a powerful experience. Many of these kids are living in wall tents, hiking and studying nature, while living in nature, and making fire with bow drills. They work through phases of accomplishment of real skills as they work towards graduation. This not only gives them something to work towards, but it empowers them in their community and in the real world.

Talking to kids at Trails Carolina, watching them make fire, and Edna at the Lake onsite.

Talking to kids at Trails Carolina, watching them make fire, and Edna at the Lake onsite.

My favorite story from the day was one of the students, who had battled the teachers the day before when they were trying to express the importance of community and sharing. He rebuked, saying that wasn’t the way the world worked and they weren’t preparing him for the real world. Perhaps this was his experience coming from Miami (his hometown). But, at the end of our time together he let his vulnerability out and expressed that if there were things like the Free Tea Bus out there in the world that perhaps he was wrong.

The solar display and bike-powered electric generator at Trail Carolina.

The solar display and bike-powered generator.

The weird object table in Steve's classroom.

The weird object table in Steve’s classroom.

Solar powered golf cart.

Solar powered golf cart at Trails Carolina.

The frame for the new solar array at Trail Carolina.

The frame for the new solar array at Trail Carolina.

Myself and Steve from Trails Carolina.

Myself and Steve from Trails Carolina.

I was welcomed into this place by a science teacher, and fellow tinkerer, Steve. He was excited to show me the new solar array they were installing, as well as what I would call has lab, or classroom. There were all kinds of snakes and reptiles living in cages and in clear tubing habitats running around the ceiling and almost all of these animals were either ex-pets or injured non-releasable animals that Steve and his students have taken in and care for as education animals. There was a table of odd objects from technology and nature for kids to touch and play with. There was a solar and electronics display that showed kids how it all worked – including a bicycle-powered electricity generator. There was a big screen TV (that Steve fixed from a dump score) that could do things like track the International Space Station. It was a science and nature geeks’ mad laboratory, and I loved it! Steve also took me in the back room where he had spread out some old tools passed down in his family, and asked me to take what I wanted. I didn’t know Christmas had come early! What a generous guy!

After some of the student had come on the bus, they came back and had left a whole stash of things to go into the Gift & Take. They knew the meaning of reciprocity.

Working on my bed in Jim's shop in Brevard, NC.

Working on my bed in Jim’s shop in Brevard, NC.

Steve introduced me to Jim and Alice from Brevard. Jim and I took a liking to each other and they invited me to come stay for a night in a “real” bed. They were super generous, feeding me dinner, and sharing their space. The next day, Jim and I spent half the day working on some bus projects. He has an excellent shop, and he invited me to come play in it. He helped me do some routing, grinding, and cutting of some parts for my bed. It was fun to meet another builder/tinkerer, and get to spend some time soaking up the wisdom of an elder. I miss my west coast elders and spending time in the shop with folks.

As I drove south, I stopped in Travelers Rest, SC (seemed appropriate), and Greeneville, SC. In downtown Greeneville, it was busy, so I tried to find parking to serve tea, but lucked out. I kept moving.

My favorite spot to serve tea in Athens, GA.

My favorite spot to serve tea in Athens, GA.

When finally arrived in Athens, GA, I had a similar experience to Floyd, VA. I showed up in town without knowing anyone and by the time I left a couple days later, I had lots of new friends. Downtown Athens is hopping, even when all the University of Georgia students are gone for the holidays. It was pretty cold, so the folks enjoyed the hot tea the couple nights I was out serving.

In Atlanta, I had scheduled a talk hosted by The Homestead Atlanta at The Goat Farm’s donation-based café, The Warhorse Coffee Joint. The Goat Farm is a magical place. It’s an old industrial complex that has been reimagined into an artist and maker compound of studios. Much of it has been revamped with salvaged materials, and much of it still holds the character of abandoned industry.

The Goat Farm in Atlanta, GA.

The Goat Farm in Atlanta, GA.

Talking to folks for my Salvaging the Heart of Tiny Living talk. (Photo: Kimmy Coburn)

Talking to folks for my Salvaging the Heart of Tiny Living talk. (Photo: Kimmy Coburn)

My talk was called Salvaging the Heart of Tiny Living. It was a two-part talk focusing on Relationship-Based Economy and the technical systems of tiny-living. The turnout was great – the whole café was packed. I was glad to see some folks who I had met in other places in attendance. We spent most of the time talking about the economics of relationships (both with people, as well as the things we use and consume), and still had some time to step outside, hang with Edna Lu, and share some tea while talking about solar, water, waste vegetable oil, hydronic heat systems, and more. Mad thanks to Kimmy of The Homestead Atlanta for getting the word out, and to The Warhorse café for hosting.

While in Atlanta, I stayed at The Big House (AKA 368 Ponce), where I offered some of my services in exchange for a place to park and be. I served some tea in Little Five Points, which was a great place to be. Little Five is a diverse area with everyone from train-riding dirty kids to hipsters to homeless folks. I loved the diversity, as it reminded me a little of the early days on Hollywood Blvd.

Edna hangs with an AirBNB bus at 368 Ponce in Atlanta, GA.

Edna hangs with an AirBNB bus at 368 Ponce in Atlanta, GA.

Yet, I had began to become a little pre-occupied with some bus issues I was having. While driving on the Parkway, I had developed a coolant leak, but only when the engine was cold (and boy was it cold up there). I also was having some fuel pressure issues when running WVO, as well as low WVO temperature issues, which I had been experiencing for about a year. I had been giving so much of my time to other peoples’ projects for months and months, that I had neglected a bunch of my own projects like bus maintenance and troubleshooting.

I had made a friend named Cricket in Athens, who had offered for Edna and I to come to stay with her and her family while I figured out my bus issues. After nearly a week in Atlanta, I headed back to Athens for some breathing room, and some good Edna time. Cricket and her family’s home was 6 acres out in Oconee County, about 25 minutes outside Athens. It was open and beautiful, with chickens, WiFi, an empty cabin that I could utilize for laundry and showers, and the occasional needed human interactions – with no obligations from my end. I so often come to a place with a “what can I offer?” mentality, but I had been so drained as of recently from doing this, that it felt good to feel free from the obligations I usually feel when coming to a place.

Edna's home outside Athens, GA with Cricket and fam.

Edna’s home outside Athens, GA with Cricket and fam.

Cricket hangs on the bus.

Cricket hangs on the bus.

The day bed Cricket and I built in her studio from 99% salvaged materials.

The day bed Cricket and I built in her studio from 99% salvaged materials.

Cricket was a reminder to the friendships we can have that transcend time and space. Most relationships take time to create, as trust builds and experiences are shared. Cricket and I, however, knew each other the moment we met. This made her comfortable to invite me to stay with her and her family. And it made me comfortable to know that I could just come and be, and do the things I needed to accomplish. It was fun to get to know her three kids, and her husband Vic, who is a logician (yup, seriously), philosopher, and computer programmer. Even though Cricket and I knew each other since we met, we still took the time to deepen our friendship with shared experiences. She made me a stocking for Christmas and brought me black-eyed peas for New Years; and I often invited her in for tea when she passed by the bus. She taught me how to throw pots (she’s a ceramicist and artist, and repurposes a lot of “junk”). Together we built a day bed for her studio – a place where she could sip tea and day-dream. She brought me on bikes to the secret, old, and well-preserved cotton gin just down the road in the woods. And I taught her the art of dumpster-diving.

Serving food on Christmas Eve in Athens, GA.

Serving food on Christmas Eve in Athens, GA.

Throughout my stay in Athens I drove into town to serve tea at least once a week. On Christmas Eve, I drove downtown and made a ton of food to share. I was joined by another fellow (who ran the local jail), who had made some chili to share with folks too. We spent the evening sharing food and tea with everyone. On Xmas morning, I awoke parked at a homeless shelter, where I opened up the doors and made hot tea for all the homeless folks who didn’t have anywhere to be (like myself, I guess). I had a strange time, however, on New Years Eve, while celebrating my 11 years of free tea.

Gretchen's tiny house.

Gretchen’s tiny house.

I also me a local woman named Gretchen who had built a tiny house from the ground up – literally, she welded the frame that it sat upon, built and wood-worked it, plumbed, did electrical, and more. I have mad respect to her process of learning real skills. We need more people like her who embrace real skills, regardless of what gender is “supposed” to have those skills. Thanks for living your values, Gretchen!

I spent more than three weeks at Cricket’s outside Athens. I replaced Edna’s injectors, the WVO heat exchanger, the WVO fuel pump, various filters, the thermostat, the front rotors and brake pads, and more. I did a compression test on Edna’s motor and tested the coolant for exhaust gasses. I installed a fan in the skylight for pushing hot air down towards the floors when the wood stove is burning. Next to the wood stove, I installed the start of a duct/vent system that uses both passive convection to heat the coldest air in the bus, as well as a fan system to blow warm air to the coldest part of the bus (more to come on this).

Edna's compression is good!

Edna’s compression is good!

Putting rebuilt injectors in Edna.

Installing rebuilt injectors.

Edna jacked up for brake work.

Edna jacked up for brake work.

New rotors and pads!

New rotors and pads!

The new flat plate heat exchanger.

The new flat plate heat exchanger.

The new copper pipe I installed next to the wood stove as part of a vent system.

The new copper pipe next to the wood stove.

My new fan for blowing hot air down while the wood stove is burning.

My new fan for blowing hot air down while the wood stove is burning.

Testing Edna's coolant for exhaust gasses - none present!

Testing Edna’s coolant for exhaust gasses – none present!

Working on Edna's motor.

Working on Edna’s motor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I guess this sign was for real.

I guess this sign was for real.

I felt good enough with Edna to leave mid-January. After one last tea party in downtown Athens, I headed towards Atlanta again. I was hoping to serve tea in downtown Decatur, but had a confrontation with a fellow who tried to bar me from parking a public parking space with a cone, all while I was in the middle of parallel parking. I ended up calling the police on this rich white guy who acted out his privilege with predictable precision. The police sided with him, and I realized the “UNLAWFUL TO PARK WAGON OR BUGGIES AROUND THIS SQUARE” sign posted wasn’t just a historical marker. I moved on towards Atlanta, and ended up back in Little Five Points – which ended up being a super fun evening. Also in Atlanta, I set up along the Eastside Beltline Trail on a busy Sunday.

A tea guest drew this on her arm.

A tea guest drew this on her arm.

Awaiting tea guests along the Eastside Beltline Trail in Atlanta, GA.

Awaiting tea guests along the Eastside Beltline Trail in Atlanta, GA.

Little Five Points in Atlanta seems to always be lively.

Little Five Points in Atlanta seems to always be lively.

An impromptu wagon circle in Atlanta with a fellow short bus owner.

An impromptu wagon circle in Atlanta with a fellow short bus owner.

In Alabama, I enjoyed the street scene in Opelika and Auburn. In Auburn, I used my WVO postcards with great success – the first two restaurants I asked said yes. The owner of one restaurant asked me to come back after the lunch rush. When I arrived back, he had read my website and Facebook and wanted to see the inside of the bus. He even knew I was heading to Arkansas to work on my book. Before I left, he told me to come back anytime I was traveling through and he’d share waste vegetable oil.

Edna sips waste vegetable oil through a straw in Auburn, AL.

Edna sips waste vegetable oil through a straw in Auburn, AL.

Stoked, I headed to Camp Hill to meet up with Cricket at an old high school that an artist buddy of hers had bought. It was a creative person’s dream – with lots of art, and lots of potential, but a lack of people to push it through to vision. The town was sad, poverty-stricken, and pretty decrepit. We enjoyed it, nevertheless.

I arrived in Prattville with an invitation from Pam, who had been following the Tea Bus on Facebook for a couple years after seeing a video online. She and her family hosted me for 4 or 5 days. They were gracious hosts. I loved them because of how they defied stereotypes. They were ex-military. Pam was in herbalism school. They are super into food-growing, canning, fermenting, and more. Their politics are not cut-and-dry like the media makes you want to think most Americans are. They are Christian, but Pam said they speaks “both languages” when I said something about evolution. We went on walks, a driving tour of town, and hung out a bunch at their house. I especially liked hanging with their 19-year-old son, Hutch, who taught me lots about bush crafting, sharpening blades, and more. He was one of those elders-who-is-younger-than-you types. I also met some of their friends, Peter and Kelly who are Trump-loving prepper-types (not that you, as a reader should draw any conclusions from this stereo-type). I love connecting with folks like this, despite our differences in personal politics. They were generous and awesome: feeding me my first real Sweet Tea – sweetened with an abundance of sugar, poured over ice – as well as offering a gift of tea bags, a hand-made star decoration, and Peter was excited to share info on Ham Radio operation with me. Peter also did a 30-minute video tour of the Free Tea Bus for their Portable Preppers Facebook/YouTube pages.

The water flows at Doster Well in Prattville, AL.

The water flows at Doster Well in Prattville, AL.

Prattville is also known as The Fountain City – because of its abundance of fresh water springs. Yes!!! I am always seeking out good natural spring water, and this town was in no shortage. The main spring is Doster Well – with easy access and delicious water. I’ve been getting the hang of my new spring water pump.

While in Prattville, I made the journey 15 minutes into Montgomery. I explored town, seeing the First White House of the Confederacy, the Capital building, the bus stop that Rosa Parks got on the bus, and more. I served tea downtown near The Alley on a Friday evening. It was great to get such a good variety of folks, including LOTS of military folks, white and black folks, and even a curious police officer. I loved finding more seemingly counter-stereotype folks, like the black military man who would have voted for “my man” Bernie if he was on the ticket, but ended up happily voting for, and supporting Trump. I loved the whole family of black folks who came on the bus and loved it. One of the fellows worked as a garbage man, and loved collecting things from the trash to fix and wanted to learn more about building things from waste. Needless to say, he was super inspired by the tea bus to see what you can build from waste.

Serving tea in Montgomery, AL.

Serving tea in Montgomery, AL.

Hanging in Montgomery, AL.

Hanging in Montgomery, AL.

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Edna at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

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Driving across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

I drove west and stopped in Selma for a couple nights. I drove the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Bloody Sunday happened, and stopped at the civil rights monument and park on the other end of it. Just like much of Selma, it was in disrepair and needed some attention. Selma seemed forgotten. There wasn’t much happening downtown, and the parking spots were too small, so I didn’t get a chance to serve tea. I drove through neighborhoods, wanting to stop and talk to this predominately black and poverty-stricken town, but unsure how I would be received. A man from Selma later told me that this town (which was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation of schools) was essentially re-segregated in later years, with all the public schools being 98% black and the private schools being mostly white. It was a prime example of money and poverty being at the roots of systemic racism.

Rural Studio in Newbern, AL.

Rural Studio in Newbern, AL.

The passive solar fire station Rural Studio built for the town of Newbern, AL.

The passive solar fire station Rural Studio built for the town of Newbern, AL.

I kept moving. From Selma I drove to Newbern, AL to visit Rural Studio – a design/build site for architecture students from Auburn University. They specialize in salvaged, low-cost, energy efficient, experimental, and accessible buildings for their local community, and build a lot on site as well. They’ve built a lot of things locally, in one of the poorest counties in the state (and probably the country). They built a fire station in town, so that people’s insurance would go down, and later built the town hall. Nearby towns have their projects in the form of low-cost housing, structures in parks, etc. Their site is littered with cool experimental buildings, materials, a garden that’s about to double in size, chickens, and more. I had dreamed of being an architect as a kid, and if I’d known a place like this existed, I may have tried to go to school for it.

Some of the tiny/experimental buildings at Rural Studio.

Some of the tiny/experimental buildings at Rural Studio.

Tim gets the 30,000th cuppa tea while Nicole and Josh look on.

Tim gets the 30,000th cuppa tea while Nicole and Josh look on.

Further north, I arrived in Tuscaloosa, AL. My friend Nicole from the old days on Orcas Island, WA had recently moved there with her new husband, and I couldn’t think of better folks to stay with. They had moved from New Orleans, where they had been serving free breakfast every Sunday on the median of the road for several years. They are eager about creating alternative economic functions as community-building projects. I loved staying with them. Nicole brought home-baked cookies out to a tea party I hosted near The University of Alabama on “the strip.” They were present for the 30,000th cuppa free tea.

A fun tea party in Tuscaloosa, AL on University Ave.

A fun tea party in Tuscaloosa, AL on University Ave.

Pushing on, I crossed into Mississippi, stopping in Columbus. I had been given a great invitation from the local newspaper owner, Birney Imes. Birney had arranged with the city and the local Arts Council a place for me to park Edna all day on a Friday to serve tea. He had a reporter lined up to do a story. On Thursday I arrived in time for a small piece to be put in the Friday paper announcing that I’d be serving tea. I’m usually never so official – it felt a little weird, but definitely good.

Mother Goose sips tea in Columbus, MS.

Mother Goose sips tea in Columbus, MS.

Friday was a great day, serving tea from 11 am to 11 pm right in the middle of town. It was so busy I only had about 5 minutes all day that I was alone. Many, many folks came out, including Mother Goose, a flamboyant local woman who everyone knew; the whole Imes family, who were hosting me so well; local business owners (the local bar owner even offered for me to come drink on her tab after I was done for the evening, and a local bookshop owner brought me a travel novel); and many random passersby. Folks brought me lunch, cookies to share, and more. By the end of the evening I became the listening ear for a teenage couple going through a rough patch, offering what advice I could.

Where I spent all Friday serving tea in downtown Columbus, MS.

Where we spent all Friday serving tea in downtown Columbus, MS.

I was hosted by Birney and Beth Imes in Columbus. I felt like I was at home. They fed me food, offered showers, and Beth even baked me some fresh granola to take on the road. Birney seemed to be the most well-known character in town. He arranged for me to get waste vegetable oil from some restaurants, and everyone knew who he was. Their house was spectacular and they were my people, for sure.

Serving free tea in Starkville, MS.

Serving free tea in Starkville, MS.

The next day just down the road in Starkville, MS, I arrived in town and opened up to serve tea. I was joined by Tanner (Birney and Beth’s daughter), and sought out by a young fellow named Alex who had been on the bus in Columbus. He had just finished a soccer tournament in Starkville, and came by to gift me some tea, and have one last cuppa. It was sweet that he wanted to come back and hang out.

The next day, the Starkville Dispatch and the Columbus Dispatch newspapers both came out with a front page, full color article on the Free Tea Bus. It was exciting and wonderful. I’ve never gotten a front page before!

The front page of The Starkville Dispatch.

The front page of The Starkville Dispatch.

Serving tea in downtown Oxford, MS.

Serving tea in downtown Oxford, MS.

At this point I began feeling anxious to get to Hot Springs, AR, where I was planning on spending the month of February working on the Tea Bus Factory Service Manual. Each day I didn’t arrive in AR was a day I wasn’t writing. I sped my pace. In Oxford, MS, I spent the evening serving tea on the semi-quiet streets of this beautiful college town square. In Little Rock, I spent a day and a couple nights exploring, meeting some folks, and gathering resources before heading to Hot Springs.

I was hoping to not see the closed-mindedness, the bigotry, and the aggressiveness that folks had been warning me about, and that I had encountered in The South when I was 19. But I guess that wasn’t in the cards. In Tuscaloosa, I was serving tea, and during a lull just one other fellow was there. I noticed a couple fellows walk by, stop at a tree behind the bus, pull off a branch and chuck it at the back of the bus. It hit with a clatter, but didn’t break anything. I leaned out the side of the bus and said, “Excuse me, what are you’re doing?”

“SUCK MY F*CKING C*NT!” one of them yelled as they walked off.

“You have a c*nt?” I asked calmly.

They kept walking away and yelling. I was surprised and a bit baffled. I asked the fellow who was hanging out what he thought. He said that they were just drunk frat boys, and not to take it personally. It’s common he said. Seeing something out of the ordinary just gives them the excuse to act on their desire to cause trouble. It’s part of both the good ol’ boy and redneck cultures of The South, he said.

Tea guests in Starkville, MS.

Tea guests in Starkville, MS.

In Starkville, MS, the bus was half full when a couple drunk (self-proclaimed) rednecks came aboard. Redneck 1 began chanting “Trump train, Trump train.” No one joined in, not even his buddy, Redneck 2. “If there’s any Democrats on here, I’m leaving. I’m not going to be brainwashed like Obama’s done for the past 8 years.” I wasn’t sure how to respond. “If there’s any Democrats on here, I’m going to kick their ass.” Even though the energy in the bus wasn’t quite up to their rambunctious, drunken demeanor, they stayed. I poured tea for redneck 2, who wanted it.

After they had calmed down, Redneck 1 decided that we should say a prayer together. We held hands. “Lord, please look over all the people here on this bus. We know you are good and fair and we ask you for your blessing. Lord, forgive me, for I am a bad, bad person. I don’t deserve everything you have given me.” He went on like this for several minutes. “Amen.”

Serving free tea in Starkville, MS.

Serving free tea in Starkville, MS.

A woman who was leaving came up to me and gave me a big hug. She told me that she appreciated me being there. It helped remind her what was important, and that even though she sometimes feels isolated (in the South), she was inspired and reinvigorated after coming aboard the bus. Once she left, Redneck 2 began to belittle her experience. “How could any one meet a random stranger and be so affected by them? I could never find myself in the position to get so much from a stranger.”

I told him that different people are in different places in their life. Some people need to be boosted back up. He didn’t understand, but his buddy, Redneck 1 began to tell a story of a time that he was in that place. When he was much younger, his brother had died. As he told the story of his brother’s death, he began to tear up and finally cry. Meanwhile, Redneck 2 was calling him a sissy. Redneck 2 played the classic love/hate switch, where one moment he was telling Redneck 1 how dumb he was, and then saying, “No, but for real, I love you… Do you got a cigarette? C’mon you sissy.”

Looking in Edna's windshield in Starkville, MS.

Looking in Edna’s windshield in Starkville, MS.

After they left, (and caused most of the other guests to leave), a couple fellows who stuck around told me they remained on the bus to make sure that I was safe. “You never know with these rednecks – once minute they can be soft, and the next they are throwing punches and breaking things.” I didn’t feel unsafe once they settled down early in their stay on the bus, but I was still appreciative of the support from the two fellows who had stayed. They told me that rednecks (like everyone) have a sensitive side, but that it’s suppressed through cultural machismo, and it comes right on out when given the right opportunity.

On the other end of the spectrum, I loved how the Tea Bus brought out the hidden open-mindedness, inner-hippy, and all around excuse to step out of Southern normalcy. I received more crystals as gifts per capita in Mississippi than in Northern California (that says something!). Because the Free Tea Bus is all-inclusive, it made many liberal folks feel more comfortable to be themselves, whereas I was told many of them feel they have to withhold some of their feelings and ideas often in The South.

A fun mug gifted by a tea guest - Thanks, Ben!

A fun mug gifted by a tea guest – Thanks, Ben!

One of the great generosities associated with Southern Hospitality is the willingness to share food. I experienced this from Virginia all the way to Mississippi. In three months on the road through The South I spent less than $50 on food (and I think half that was taking my step-sister out for a burger). Part of this was the fact that I had work-traded for food to bring with me from Front Street Grocers. Part of this was due to the abundance of good dumpster-diving that I encountered. But mostly this was due to people feeding me and giving me food. Folks who grew food offered it fresh from the garden. I was given fresh eggs, and lots of random foodstuff. Folks that canned food gave it for my journeys – everything from cubed venison to soups to jams. I was even sent off from Montgomery, AL with a half-a-dozen quarts of homebrew wine of various flavors (lime, strawberry, spiced cranberry, carrot, etc. – thanks Pam and Phil). People who hosted me also fed me delicious meals, or took me out to eat. I sometimes had to turn down offers of food just so food wouldn’t go bad in my fridge. This is part of the reason I turned to serving food on Christmas Eve – because I had so much to share! I arrived Arkansas with a bus full of food, which is what is helping me get through this month of writing.

Our retreat in Hot Springs, AR.

Our retreat in Hot Springs, AR.

Alas, now I am in Hot Spring, AR, a town that Edna, Ally and I accidentally discovered a year-and-a-half ago. I was invited to come back here by Gil, who owns the old estate I am staying on. He has an empty cabin, so it has become my writing cabin. Limited internet and lots of alone time should be good for me and my writing.

The rest of the country has something to learn from The South. The depth of immediate connection can be great here when people are willing (and don’t see you as a threat). The eye contact, waving, and sparking up of conversations is my kind of thing. The hospitality, topped with food sharing, good hosting, gift giving, and kindness brought a sense of home to me that no other region of the country has offered so quickly. I’m barely this well hosted on the west coast, where I spent almost a decade building my community.

I am still a little thrown off by the hostility of folks towards people they don’t even know. I can’t fully comprehend this Southern Hostility. I only wanted to have a pretty picture painted for me in The South this time, but I failed. Why is it culturally acceptable to express violence to people who you haven’t even talked to? Why is it culturally acceptable to threaten beating up people who don’t agree with your politics? How is it that system racism is so obvious and prevalent in many places? How can the people be both so open to being hospitable, and closed to those they view as outsiders or different? None of these traits are unique to The South, but they do seem more prevalent.

I finish my tour through The South wishing that more of the country was like the people here in regards to hospitality, but I’m worried that the hostility is the other side of the same coin, and that they come together. What do you think???

THANK YOUs:

Strange folds a flower from paper as a gift to share in Tuscaloosa, AL.

Strange folds a flower from paper as a gift to share in Tuscaloosa, AL.

Wow, so, so many! Thank you so kindly to: Daniel in Charlottesville, VA for the gift of jam; all the folks of Floyd, VA; F.A.R.M. café for everything they do; Natalie, William, and Janet in Boone; Kelan, Link, Oliver, and Aether in Asheville; J and the folks who hosted the Standing Rock Benefit at The Orange Peel; Steve at Trails Carolina; Jim and Alice in Brevard for hosting and helping; Cricket and the whole Bancroft Family; Gretchen and her tiny house/bicycling lifestyle; The Bigger Vision of Athens homeless shelter for letting me sleep there a few nights and fill my water tank a couple times; The Goat Farm and the Warhorse Coffee Joint; Kimmy and The Homestead Atlanta; Cooper, Joey, Catherine and everyone at 368 Ponce; Lev the filmmaker for coming out to shoot some video in Atanta and Athens;  Lorna from Herbalista for linking me in with good folks in the Atlanta area; Tara from Fermentation on Wheels for linking me in with good folks across The South; The police officer who gave me a cake to share; Keela, who gave me a free breakfast at the café she worked at because she loved the idea of sharing that the Tea Bus is spreading; all the folks who share vegetable oil with me; all the folks who sipped tea with me; all the folks who shared food with me; the dumpster gods; Keen and his family in Camp Hill; the whole Herberer family in Prattville, AL; planet earth for making such delicious spring water; Rural Studio for hosting us and creating such a magical place; Nicole and Josh in Tuscaloosa; The Imes Family in Columbus; David and Jamie in Starkville for being such great hosts; Ben, for the great mug; and so many more that I can’t even remember!

Seriously, people of The South: thanks, y’all!

Serving tea in Starkville, MS.

Serving tea in Starkville, MS.

Oil collected in Columbus, MS - thanks to Birney!

Oil collected in Columbus, MS – thanks to Birney!

Josh enjoys cookies that Nicole baked to share on the Tea Bus.

Josh enjoys cookies that Nicole baked to share on the Tea Bus.

The passive solar fire station Rural Studio built for the town of Newbern, AL.

The passive solar fire station Rural Studio built for the town of Newbern, AL.

Cruising back highways in Alabama.

Cruising back highways in Alabama.

Delicious water at Doster Well in Prattville, AL.

Delicious water at Doster Well in Prattville, AL.

A state I had never been to before!

A state I had never been to before!

Sipping tea after my talk at The Goat Farm.

Sipping tea after my talk at The Goat Farm.

Collecting the delicious water of Hot Springs, AR.

Collecting the delicious water of Hot Springs, AR.

Heard back west.

Heard back west.

Crossing the Mississippi - we're back in The West!

Crossing the Mississippi – we’re back in The West!

A breakdown while driving through MS - a helper spring had busted on Edna's rear suspension.

A breakdown while driving through MS – a helper spring had busted on Edna’s rear suspension.

A tea guest drew this on her arm.

A tea guest drew this on her arm.

Tea guests in Little Five Points.

Tea guests in Little Five Points.

Serving tea along the Eastside Beltline Trail in Atlanta, GA.

Serving tea along the Eastside Beltline Trail in Atlanta, GA.

My last tea party in Athens, GA.

My last tea party in Athens, GA.

Some tea guests in Athens, GA (one, randomly is the niece of a good friend in CA).

Some tea guests in Athens, GA (one, randomly is the niece of a good friend in CA).

Gretchen shows off her tool shed in her tiny house.

Gretchen shows off her tool shed in her tiny house.

Christmas Eve in Athens, GA.

Christmas Eve in Athens, GA.

Making golden chai for folks in Athens, GA.

Making golden chai in Athens, GA.

Coming into Georgia!

Coming into Georgia!

Tea in Starkville, MS.

Tea in Starkville, MS.

Tea time in Columbus, MS.

Tea time in Columbus, MS.

The view out Edna's window often during our three weeks along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The view out Edna’s window often during our three weeks along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

 

Myself and Steve from Trails Carolina.

Myself and Steve from Trails Carolina.

Scene from the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC.

Scene from the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC.

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Tour Through The South – Winter Update – Hot Springs, AR

  1. will says:

    I’m impressed with the amount of meaningfulness one person can impart just by “being”.

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