First, let me say this: This is not the end of the Free Tea Bus.
This is the moment when I take the time to reflect on a dream I once had – a dream that I worked towards, with the help of many people, for many years, and just this month completed. This dream was to travel the country, from coast to coast, serving free tea to anyone and everyone as a way to cultivate community and inspire sharing. Often when we accomplish an idea or dream, we quickly move to the next one without taking adequate time to consider the impact. That is what this winter is for: reflecting on accomplishing a personal goal – the North American Free Tea Tour.
During this journey, we spent 6 years traveling 45,000 miles from coast to coast, served 20,000 cups of free tea, and visited 34 states.
Nearly 11 years ago, I purchased a little empty yellow short school bus and named her Edna Lu. Even back then, I knew I was going to build her out and take her on a North American Tour. I had found this special thing in serving free tea that made people smile, inspired generosity, and helped fulfill my basic human needs for community and genuine human interactions. And I wanted to share this with the country!
I figured it would take 2 years to build Edna out, and another year to travel the country. Whelp, it ended up taking 5 years to build her out (while simultaneously traveling the west coast and serving tea), and nearly 6 years to go from coast to coast. One of the greatest lessons in this has been that quality takes time. It takes time to build something from mostly reclaimed materials, tangled in a web of systems like water, solar, and waste vegetable oil, while learning most of the skills necessary along the way. I had to build relationships with people, find mentors, collect materials, ask questions, and learn things. Also, when your pocketbook is thin, and you can’t simply purchase your every need, relationships become the highest form of value. Quality relationships take time – another reason why slowness has come at every step of the way – especially when we were out in parts of the country where we knew no one!
As the tour departure date drew nearer, I realized that I should also expect to take more time out there on the road, so I announced our 2+ Year North American Tour. This tour began on the 5-year anniversary of buying the bus: March 20th, 2013.
When I left, my plan was to have no plans, but I found that somehow I actually had to have more plans with no plan. When I was open to all possibilities, I would envision heading down this highway to that event, which meant I could go here. But if I did it this way, then I could go here, and loop back around for this event. It began to get too confusing, so I altered the modus operandi to: Make a plan or commitment to something down the road, but give plenty of time to get there. This way I would have the flexibility to do things on a whim and say yes to invitations. In general, I began giving Edna and I a day for every hour of driving (a 7-hour drive takes about a week). Of course, this isn’t simply 1 hour of driving every day, it’s perhaps driving for 3 hours, finding a town to serve some tea, get invited to an event or school or radio show, meet people, dig in, get involved, find some vegetable oil, and then move on. It’s been a great strategy.
The hardest part for me was to leave the West Coast, where I had been traveling for 7 or 8 years serving free tea. I had community and resources. It was scary to leave! For that reason, I stayed on the West Coast for the first year-and-a-half of the North American Tour. Finally, in September of 2014, we headed east into the Southwest.
As I was preparing for tour I was dating Ally. It was romantic and genuine, but when I left for tour, we waved good-bye. But not one week into tour, she surprised me in Bellingham. This began a stretch of wonderful short-term meetups. We’d travel together, sometimes with her van too, and then part ways for weeks or months. On the West Coast and in the Southwest, this was easy, as coming and going were such short distances (she was based mostly in Nevada City, CA). Finally, as Edna and I were preparing to leave Austin for Boston, I asked her to come with me on the 30-hour (30-day) journey. At that point, Ally came aboard for a full year-and-a-half and our romance blossomed into partnership. From then on, Ally became an integral part of the journey for the 4 to 12 months of the year she spent aboard Edna. For her support, I cannot thank her enough.
The more time we spent off the west coast, the more I realized that the main premise of the Free Tea Bus was true – that relationships are the highest form of value. On the West Coast I knew where to park, where to find waste vegetable oil, where there were good dumpsters to dive, where I had community, where to get towed if I broke down, where to fill up water, where to find work (paid or not), and so much more. As we ventured out into the unknown, it became much more effort to get basic needs met. We were spending more and more time sharing, gifting, and building relationships with people, as well as more and more time exploring dumpsters, finding springs, and looking for resources. It became a lot of work!
I realized how much more effective money is in places where you haven’t built relationships.
The apex of this was when Edna’s transmission went out in North Carolina. I am forever grateful that this happened just 20 miles from my stepsister’s house, where we could get towed to. But at this point in the journey, we were scraping by financially. I tried to find shops to let me work-trade or participate in the rebuilding of the transmission. No luck. At this point I didn’t know what to do.
One of my personal obstacles has been in receiving. And this is from the beginning of serving tea. Back on Hollywood Boulevard, where I first started serving tea and food from my tailgate, my then newfound friend Geraldine forced me to confront this obstacle. When I turned down $5 for all the food I’d fed her, she asked, “How can you be so selfish to think that everyone else needs, and you can get the satisfaction of giving, but won’t accept anything in return.” And of course, this is traditional human economy – to practice non-calculated reciprocity with those we are willing to build or maintain a bond with. Still, over the years I’ve always been hesitant to receive. I’ve never accepted monetary tips or donations while serving tea, and I always get choked up when someone asks what I need (though traveling through the South, and how often people ask there, made me aware that it’s a good idea to have an answer). I’ve turned down thousands of dollars over the years, usually directing people to put it in the Gift & Take, which acts as a community bank (it’s fun to think about the Robin Hood element of this – encouraging those in excess to share with those in lack).
For these reasons, I was hesitant to ask for financial help with the transmission. But one day I posted a photo on social media asking for help. In 36 hours, people gifted $3600 and I had to ask them to STOP! Every notification of donation I received in my email made me cry. These were people I hadn’t seen in years, family members, people from around the world who I had never met, folks who I’d only ever served tea to once, and close friends. The value of this experience was not only in the money people donated, but also in the bonds reinforced and how valued I felt in this project. I can’t thank people enough for this!
Money is truly a useful tool when you don’t have relationships, when you need to transfer value to a stranger, or to get an item from far away. While this was handy when Edna’s transmission failed, it also makes for a certain amount of disconnect between ourselves and the resources we use and consume (think: purchasing something from halfway around the world). This was a balancing point for me. The condemnation of money as a tool wasn’t right, even though I had some of that surface for me sometimes. Instead, it reinforced that relationships are the highest form of value, and that those relationships can be reciprocated and reinforced with all kinds of resources, services, time, and yes, even money.
On a similar note, being out there in the world, and doing paid work for people who I consider friends, I learned one very valuable thing: that highly calculated modern exchange is fine to do with friends, but that gifting still needs to occur in order to maintain the bond. I am so thankful to people like Gwen, Justin, Evan, Gil and others for helping me come to this, as well as practice it.
In order to keep the bus afloat Edna and I built relationships, both with people as well as the resources we used and consumed. This meant gathering water, finding waste vegetable oil for fuel, dumpster-diving/work-trading/wild-harvesting food, collecting firewood, and more. For the $6,000-$8,000/year that Edna and I need, I fixed and built things like: a straw bale house in West Texas; installed solar on a double-decker eco-education bus; did all sort of small-scale salvaged building; installed a few wood stoves in tiny spaces; helped build a pole barn in Maine; was the lead builder for a small-scale, solar-powered, natural grocery, wood-fired bakery and kitchen in a food desert of West Virginia; and did a couple house deconstructions to salvage the materials in Texas and North Carolina.
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Some of the places I fell in love with were the places that I simply showed up, didn’t know anyone, thought I was only going to be for a few days, and got so sucked in by the community that I didn’t leave for a week or months! Some of these places are:
- – West Texas (Marfa, Alpine, and Terlingua)
- – Floyd, Virginia
- – Athens, Georgia
- – Hot Springs, Arkansas
In these places, I found respite and community. In West Texas, I met folks who are somewhere between rejecting society, and society rejecting them. They live, and build, and play in the ways they want, outside many of the constructs of rest of the hubbub of the world. I cherished being among them, helping build a straw-bale house, making tea at the farmers’ market, and hanging out on the porch listening to music as the sun went down. Thanksgiving there was a show of generosity, and from that point on I felt welcome. I realized that I was one of them – tired of the way things are in the world, seeking a way to make a change.
In Floyd, I was treated like family amongst homesteaders, herbalists, and builders. I helped butcher a deer, ate a Thanksgiving like no other, and was gifted so many preserved foods to continue on down the road with. In Athens, I met a friend who I suspect will be lifelong. She offered a place to park and take a break from the road so I could do some maintenance on the bus. She taught me how to throw teacups on her potter’s wheel, and I built her a day bed for her studio from reclaimed materials.
Other places too, captured my heart. Maine, where my grandfather is from, held us dearly. We visited family, served tea on the Appalachian Trail, discovered Liberty Tool, were impressed by community around the Blue Hill Peninsula, fell in love with Chewonki, and cherished the all-organic Common Ground Fair. We built a salvaged apothecary in a teashop in Portland in exchange for some new solar batteries.
We arrived Crested Butte, Colorado for the eclipse, getting sucked into the community. We camped in town next to a remodel I was working on while bears dug through trash cans. Quality free piles were in abundance (due to there not being a thrift store). We had our compost collected by a local composting business, and served tea every weekend at the farmers market.
All along the way, we sought out free freshwater springs that come out of the ground. Often they were found via findaspring.com, but sometimes they were found through word of mouth. My favorite water in the country comes out of the ground in Hot Springs, AR. This 4,000 year old water is more refreshing than any I’ve tasted. Other notables are: the secret spring outside Thomas, WV; the Lee Vining Spring on the backside of the Sierra Mountains (my favorite on the west coast); the Sandwich, MA spring; Bitney Springs in Nevada City, CA; Cold Springs Ranch in Crested Butte, CO; and the Devine Spring in Oklahoma. Good water makes good tea (don’t worry, it all gets filtered before serving).
I also truly loved visiting all the places that people thought the Free Tea Bus wouldn’t do too well. “People in New York City are too time and money focused. They wont like you there.” In Manhattan, we found the opposite to be true. Because there is almost nothing that is free, there is almost no public indoor space to exist without money or a time limit, people LOVED the Free Tea Bus. It was a meeting place for those of every kind. There was the “known drug addict and thief” (told to us by a bouncer), who you could tell felt more at home than he had in years because of the genuine human interactions. Or the high-finance guy who knows that his well-paying job moving numbers around doesn’t do anything productive for the world, who was overjoyed to find something that was non-monetary.
“Be careful in The South,” said almost everyone. The South, and especially the Deep South taught us the meaning of hospitality. Everywhere Edna and I went people shared food, places to park, and genuine human interactions on a dime (making eye contact in the South is grounds for a 2-hour conversation). To illustrate this, I spent only $50 on food in 3 months while traveling across the South (and half of that was taking my stepsister out to dinner). People shared their homemade food and wine, took me out to eat, and invited me over for a meal. Plus there were great natural food store dumpsters. The rest of the country has something to learn from Southern hospitality (granted, there are some ugly parts of the South as well, and I probably only experienced a small portion of them due to my skin color and sex).
Of course, there were hard times too. There was the guy in Asheville who was off his rocker on drugs and alcohol and extremely threatening, and the Rangers in Ohio who accosted us for “conducting business” in a National Park, the jerk cops at the DNC, and the drugged up dude in Athens who was being inappropriate with women, and the teashop owner in Arizona who was so threatened by our existence that he called the county health department on us.
There are many lessons from this journey. And as I sat down to write them out here, I decided that many deserve more reflection. There have been lessons in serendipity, taking the less traveled path, the connections of people that string out across the country, and the beautiful scenery we accidentally stumbled onto. I hope to write these out in more detail in the coming months as the winter retreat moves forward.
This year was a particularly hard one for me. I got back to the west coast in the Spring just in time to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Tea Bus, and felt a great pressure release. I had made it back home! Immediately people began offering me places to park, work, and showing me amazing hospitality. I was living in abundance again! All of these people who are my community were excited to see me, and I was excited to see them. With all the depth, however, came the real life hard stuff too. When these people in my community have needed me, I’ve tried my hardest to be there. A lot of family and personal issues came up, redirecting my travels to be with loved ones. I served less tea than I was hoping, and skipped whole communities of people I was aiming to see.
While I am so glad to have done this journey, and the overall effect has been marvelous, it honestly has felt like the North American Tea Tour has left me drained, and now I’m playing catch up with the people I care about, as well as myself. It’s hard work building new relationships all the time!
It’s been absolutely wonderful to be back “home” on San Juan Island, where I grew up. I’ve been serving some tea around at the Farmers’ Market, a birthday celebration, a music event, and a solstice gathering. The relationships that I have here are very meaningful for me, and the longest ones of my life. I feel nurtured by them, and I look forward to being here as a place to reenergize and reflect on the past 13 years of free tea.
What’s next for Guisepi and the Free Tea Bus? Ally and I have been pondering the value of making a home — a place where we can stretch out and then take off on journeys. Out in the country, I felt a giant lack when it came to shop space. I need more access to tools and workspace to feel fulfilled. For Ally, not having a proper kitchen all the time led her to reduce her kitchen witchin’ and baking. For those reasons we’re considering a home base somewhere. I’ve also been considering keeping it mobile, and staying on the road. My whole identity in this world is wrapped up in being a nomadic free tea server, so it’s been a mind warp thinking about change.
A big thing to note here: The end of the North American Tour does not mean the end of the Free Tea Bus. I traveled the west coast for 7 years serving free tea before the big Tour, building my community. While I’m not sure whats next, I will continue to nurture those relationships.
Also, as many of you are asking about, I will be working on finishing The Tea Bus Factory Service Manual this winter.
Of course, I couldn’t have done this tour without your support! So many of you have sent messages of love, gifted tea and other resources, offered showers and places to park. You’ve shared our adventures on social media to help us get out the word on sharing. Without you, our journey does not exist. THANK YOU!
I’d especially like to thank Mountain Rose Herbs, Organic India, WishGarden Herbs, and Dr. Bronner’s for your continued support in the realms of herbs, tea, soaps, and tinctures. I also want to shout out people who have given so much to us: Randall and Lisa in NC, Courtney and Owen and fam in Maine, Owen and Whitney in OR, Joe in Arcata, Perry in Arcata, Edward in LA, The Grimsleys in VA, Justin and Trevor in WV and West TX, Marcus and the farm in Longmont, CO, Bridget and Tierro, The Farmer & The Larder folks in GA, Michelle and Ryan, Jimi Hollywood, Ude in LA, Evan and The Ecology Center, Jodi and Earthroots and fam, Shade in Austin, Dick and Cathy in Maine, Billy in CT, Jon Watts and Megan in Philly, Kristen and Nate and Kylie in VA, Hostel in the Forest in GA, Quill in NJ, Colin and Alexandra in Brooklyn, Uncle Mark and Fam in Rochester, Sarah the Tea Lady in Portland, Case in ME, Ed and Abby in South Portland, Chewonki in ME, Abigail and the fam in AZ, The Rays in West TX, Gil in Hot Springs, Cindy and The Cosmic Shed, Ed Hose in Brunswick, Cricket in Athens, Josh in Arcata, Will and Laura in Denver, Frank in Austin, Nathan in Round Rock, Perry in Eureka, Dave and Lauren in Albuquerque, Dara in Taos, Matthew and Steph, The Big House in Atlanta, Lorna from Herbalista, Andres in Colorado Springs, Maestra Stuart in C Springs, Mason in Eugene, Ric and Joan in Coos Bay, and seriously soooooo many more.
Thank you, everyone!
Check out more photo highlights below.