Two Years Off the Road – San Juan Island, WA

Edna reflects on being back on San Juan Island, WA.                                            

Wow, has it really been that long? Ally says she’s surprised at how well I’ve adapted to a new life that has almost completely altered my identity. Although, it hasn’t been as smooth as she makes it out to be.

When I hung my clothes in the closet of the apartment above my mom’s garage, I kept the hangers pointing left. In Edna this is the best way to hang them so that I can see the shirts, vests, and jackets from the front. Maybe everyone isn’t as OCD about the direction of their hangers, but I am. This is why it is so weird of me to leave the hangers the same direction in my new abode, even though they should be pointed the opposite way to view my shirts “properly.” I guess it has been an exit strategy. Subconsciously I’ve kept my shirts hung this way so that I could grab them in a heartbeat, hang them in Edna’s closet, and hit the road.

Edna got her worst leak yet!

The problem with this is that it has become apparent that maintaining Edna isn’t as practical when I’m not living in her. I let her insurance expire, and when I wanted to renew, my old insurance company (who had been bought out by Sam’s Club) said no(or rather, never responded after I sent in photos they requested). When we tried to take her out to Sh’Bang Festival, one of her brake calipers had rusted stuck and her wheel almost caught on fire on the highway. The list of maintenance has stayed the same, and none gets done. I almost killed the solar batteries from letting them run dry. The amount of effort it takes to maintain a moving home makes less and less sense when I’m stationary. Especially when I’m working towards building a new, stationary home. And all of this makes me sad.

Using tea ink to draw for The Tea Bus Factory Service Manual

When I built Edna, I always had in mind that she would become a cabin in the woods when she was too tired for the road. While she still has some life left, and I plan to not let her go too far to shit, this may be her destiny sooner rather than later. As for now, she is a guesthouse, office, and retreat. Occasionally I have had the honor to give people tours who have interest in the Free Tea Bus. She is also kind of like a museum.

As a way to honor Edna Lu, I’ve been spending time in the winters working on The Tea Bus Factory Service Manual: A Guide for Small-Scale, Mobile, Off-Grid, Low-Cost, DIY, Earth-Friendly, and Reclaimed Living Systems. Every winter I say I’m going to finish. This winter is the same – but this time I mean it!

*     *     *

Ally is stoked to have a “real” kitchen.

Making home. This has been a theme of being on tour. Whether it was making our own little home on the bus, or helping other people make home, this is what Ally and I did. This is probably one of the reasons we were so welcomed many of the places we stayed – because we helped people realize some of their home-making aspirations, whether it was helping in the garden, building structures, getting systems in place to accomplish tasks, preserving and fermenting food, etc. While roam-steading in Edna, we were able to feel like we were doing this enoughfor ourselves, but not quite to the level that we ultimately wanted. This is where making a stationary home started to take hold in our minds.

I get to expand my tool collection and channel my creativity into making useful things.

And now this is our path. We’ve created a temporary home above my mom’s garage – remodeling the space our first summer here with a bigger kitchen, salvaged wood floors, and plenty of space for one of the things I missed the most on the road – books. But still we seek the right place to be for long term. We have the opportunity to purchase the cabin next door that I grew up in. It’s funky, and was already made from lots of salvaged materials (in the 1970s). But, that would require a mortgage, and the things that I have purposely kept out of my life in order to be a little more free. We want community, with whom we share our gifts, and vice versa. We’re still waiting to find the place that makes us say f*ck yeah. Got any ideas?

“The Cabin” — one option for a home.
Solar trailer (as found in a field)

In the meantime, we’ve been slowly building our infrastructure and resources that can be moved to our ultimate homestead. In Fall of 2019 we purchased a 20’ flatbed trailer with a 3000W solar array that hydraulically deploys. It was a prototype that sat in a field for a decade and was starting to rust and grow green stuff. It’s been an ultimate reclamation project that has been perfect for a pandemic. Plus, it’s fully mobile, and can be plopped down wherever we make home for instantaneous off-grid energy (it’s powerful enough to run my welder!).

Big Red

I was also gifted a Dodge Ram 2500 Cummins turbo diesel truck, which I added a utility bed to. This has been an indispensible resource for hauling, fixing, building, work, etc. A longtime island friend, Patty, gave this truck to me knowing that it would carry on the legacy of her husband who passed away a decade ago. In return, I’ve been able to help Patty with many projects around her property. It’s been a fabulous example of non-calculated reciprocity. Many thanks, Patty!

I’ve also been doing some work-trade with some other folks here. I’ve been helping several people with handyman tasks in exchange for tools, materials, and hardware.

Freshly built “Dust Shack”

One of my biggest feelings of lack on the road was not having a shop, more tools, and a way to store larger amounts of reclaimed materials. I had all of this creative energy, but didn’t have the means to work on projects as much as I had liked. This is where being stationary I have found contentment. I built a reclaimed material storage quonset hut and gathered lots of roofing panels to store larger materials like wood, metal, windows, etc. In the garage downstairs, my mom has given me some space to cultivate what I call the Discard-Ware Store – a series of drawers and boxes that house endless fasteners, plumbing and electrical parts, hinges, hooks, and other hardware. It’s been my dream to create something like this. As of now, it’s primarily for our family unit, but as it grows, it becomes a resource for my intimate community, and eventually could grow into something for the larger community. Outside the garage I built The Dust Shack – a quonset hut where I can cut wood, grind metal, weld, and more.

The Dust Shack

Honestly, my happy place these days is downstairs sorting hardware, cleaning up and restoring old tools, and preparing for the soon-to-come days of building a permanent home. Perhaps it was all the time I spent in public interacting with thousands of strangers that has led me to be perfectly content sitting at a workbench being a hermit for much of my time.

And boy am I glad to be off the road during a pandemic. This newfound hermit mode has fit nicely into the apocalypse.

My hometown paper.

Part of my hermitage has been to divorce myself almost completely from posting on social media. This was an integral part of the Free Tea Bus. I liked to post for people to join us if they were nearby, to provide a place for people to follow along vicariously, and to get the message of sharing out into the world. During the early years, I thought that some level of recognition for the Tea Bus would help my mission, and get the information out to a wider audience. While this became true to some extent, I also realized that the message was diluted by social media, mini-documentaries, and articles. The profundity of experience could not be contained in a 3-minute video. While an overwhelming majority of comments were positive, I felt dismayed at the serious lack of grasp of what the Tea Bus was about by many commenters. This was everything from a disturbing attachment by trolls to my unibrow needing to be plucked to being saddened by the brainwashing that Adam Smith has had on our understanding of human nature and economics. I’m too sensitive of a person to read all the comments and not be affected by them.

This is why the first-hand experience of the Free Tea Bus will always hold the most impact for everyone involved (including me). Experiencing it in person was magical, transformative, and deep. Experiencing it online just scratched the surface.

(Pre-Covid) Brunch at our place!

This brings me to life now. I’ve been working towards bringing more magic into my life now as a sedentary human. I’ve tried not to get too used to the monotony of waking up in the same place every day, going to the same places during my week, working more for money, interacting with the same people regularly. While I know these things are normal for most people, I didn’t live this life for 13 years. And while I chose to leave that on purpose, perhaps I forgot some of the ins-and-outs of it all. I’ve been thinking a lot of how to cultivate more sharing in my stationary life. Gifts of time, hand-made items, and homegrown and homemade food have been on top of the list. It’s been interesting realizing that I need to focus this energy on the people with whom I am trying to build intimacy with, and not with every stranger I meet as so much of my life has been.

Spending time with the nephews.

I’ve been spending more time over the past few years giving and sharing with people who I care about, or who I am looking to deepen relationships with. Of course, radical sharing like the Free Tea Bus is awesome, but it isn’t quite in line with traditional human economy and may not have been sustainable for me in the long run. Having reciprocal relationships with those I care about has been very rewarding. I’ve taken a couple trips to see friends, family, and elders. Along the way, I’ve helped them lay a wood floor, build a huge fence, paint a shop, finish siding a chicken coop, and so much more. These people – my community – they are the ones whom I want to give my time to. Giving freely to everyone who passed by my doorstep was a test in radical sharing. Now is my test for focused sharing.

Ally’s favorite place is the forrest.

Along the same line, we have been trying to broaden our sense of community to include the land we live on and the creatures that inhabit it. There are a series of walking trails throughout the woods here. We walk them often, checking on the creek level, finding the berries that are in season, spreading edible mushroom spores – all while Ally’s cat Jezebel follows along. We tapped the maple tree outside our apartment and made almost a quart of syrup last year (yum!).

*     *     *

Building Edna Lu was an exercise in exiting the mainstream – utilizing systems and relationships to replace money. It took money, routine, and bending of moral values to get to a place of living closer to my moral framework. I had to go backwards in some ways in order to go forwards. I feel like I am back to that stage. I am living with grid power (although it’s supplemented with solar), in a larger space, and driving on fossil fuels. But this is the creative space. I get to design a home, living systems, a solar greenhouse, an off-grid power system, a shop, and more. I get to collect reclaimed materials, build relationships with people on a long-term basis, and meditate on the direction I am heading. This allows me to move forward, and I am thankful for it.

Ring in teapot.

Speaking of moving forward, in Summer of 2019, Ally and I headed to Sh’Bang Festival outside Bellngham, WA, where we had sparked some romance 7 years earlier. While there, Ally found a ring in the teapot, and I asked her to marry me in a way of our choosing. She said f*ck yeah! Our weeklong wedding campout was supposed to occur in September 2020, but was postponed due to Covid, and will likely take place in Summer of 2022. I cannot think of a better person to make a home and spend my days with.

She said “f*ck yeah!”

*     *     *

Chicken mama.

When the pandemic hit, it gave us a good kick in the rear. What was most important if things were really going to shit? Food and energy seemed to be top of the list. It was almost as if the things we wanted to be pursuing in regards to sustainability were the same things that were needed if the world was ending. I ordered the remaining parts needed for the solar trailer, and we got going on building a garden. I don’t have a lot of experience growing food, but Ally moved to the island initially 10 years ago to do just that. I was thankful to have her and my mom around to help guide the process of getting the garden together. We built a fence where the garden was when I was a kid, hauled compost, planted seeds, and my step-dad and I timber-framed some gateways. I really liked the systems and construction part of it all, and Ally really nurtured the plants. Complimenting all this was filling the old chicken coop from my childhood with chickens. Ally has become the chicken mama, and all 14 of them have names.

Early garden shot.
Mom, step-dad, grandma, and I

Family has been an important and interesting aspect of making home here. When we first arrived back on the island, Ally and I took on the duty of spending our days with Grandma, who needed 24-hour care due to being in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t talk, walk, eat on her own, or really much of anything. We spent much of the day with her at a care facility, helping her on the toilet, feeding her, changing her diapers, talking to her, taking her on walks, etc. She is one of the reasons why I have been able to do what I do. Her and my grandfather were crucial at helping my family flourish. She passed in Spring of 2018.

My mentor Ric, standing in front of his shop we later painted.

Things with my father on the other hand have been odd. As a child, one of my father’s primary ways of communicating was to belittle and make fun of. “It’s just a joke,” he would often say. It took a lot of work in the form of academic achievement and being “good” to get him to approve or give me words of affirmation. One of the realizations I’ve had since being back home is that a part of my tea tour was to put salve on this wound. Much of my journey was traveling around and receiving praise. While piling this all on from many strangers was a great cushion for the pain, it stopped once I stopped serving tea. I’ve had to face my wound, and in doing so just the acknowledgement of it has helped me release the need for approval from my father. I have had no approval from him in regards what I dedicated my life to for the past decade. And in part because he is the archetype of the profit-maximizer, which deprioritizing in myself and others has been one of the major themes of my past decade.

But all of this is okay because I’ve sought out mentors and teachers and elders who have been more fatherly than my own father. And for this I am extremely grateful. They support my ongoing growth as a human in directions that my own father doesn’t. They would give their all for my success, and I for them

*     *     *

Mason rides the Free Tea Bike

Oh! And I almost forgot – Edna and I had a baby! In 2019, I took a trip to Portland where I built a Free Tea Bike for Mountain Rose Herbs. Some friends and I had rallied a tricycle around Burning Man a decade ago, making people laugh and having fun. At some point we decided that trike would make a great free tea mobile, so when Mountain Rose Herbs asked me to build one, I couldn’t say no! I painted it the same colors as Edna, though reversed the body and trim colors, and used a lot of materials left over from Edna’s construction. In addition, I installed an electric hub, and wired in lights to the ebike battery. It was a dream come true. Mason from MRH and I christened it at the Mushroom Festival in Eugene, OR. They will use the bike around Eugene and for events.

Serving tea at The Mushroom Festival.

*     *     *

Things that have changed since leaving the road:

  • I drink more alcohol
  • I put on 5 lbs
  • I have more regular bowel movements
  • I own way more books
  • I drink less tea
  • Dumpster diving isn’t for food anymore – mostly for building materials
  • I visit the ER once/year now (never on the road)
  • Edna is lonely

And finally, check out this documentary from Independent Lens (PBS) that was finished when we were on the island.

Thank you so much to our community for sharing and supporting us in our journey, and now in our desire to make a (stationary) home. Maybe you know the perfect spot for us?

Next to my mom’s pond — where we stayed during our remodel.
Serving tea at the 100 year anniversary of the Lime Kiln lighthouse.
Ally helps out under the solar trailer.
Our garden.
Edna still sees some action sometimes.
The Free Tea Bike details…
Hauling the solar trailer home from Oregon.
The Free Tea Bike concept.
Setting up to serve tea at the Friday Harbor Farmers’ Market.
Edna in one of our rarer snow storms.
Somewhere over the rainbow…
Ally helps clean the solar panels.
Well, it used to be a potato farm — maybe thats why they are growing so well!
Jezebel likes Edna.

Comments

One response to “Two Years Off the Road – San Juan Island, WA”

  1. Katie Ray Avatar
    Katie Ray

    Hi guys!

    Happy to read the update and see the photos. Looks like y’all are doing great. we might try to spend some time in WA this summer – if so, we’ll be stopping by the island to say hello. We are expecting our 3rd kiddo in the next month as well.

    Sending love your way,
    Katie and John Ray, Alpine, Tx

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