Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Good Planet is Hard to Come By


Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains just outside of Tucson, Biosphere 2 rises from the desert like a gigantic diamond with thousands of jeweled facets gleaming in the sun. However all that glitters is not gold and Biosphere 2 is no exception. Plagued by controversy and labeled by many as a “failure”, this massive experiment has managed to prove that Biosphere 1, our planet, is an incredibly complex system, and that man’s puny efforts to replicate or control it often produce less than the desired result. We recently spent the day there and here is our report.

Funded by wealthy oilman Edward P. Bass, the initial project was designed to study how man might create artificial earthlike sanctuaries in space and on other planets, as well as to learn more about how our planet does what it does so seamlessly, flawlessly and seemingly effortlessly. What looks like a giant greenhouse, is in reality a complex set of systems designed to regulate the water, air and soil that was to be the key to the inhabitants survival. What they learned was that mother nature has spent billions of years, not millions of dollars to perfect her systems, and that there are so many pieces to the puzzle, that missing even the slightest detail like forgetting to seal the concrete which resulted in a gradual loss of oxygen, can be a disaster. But unlike Biosphere 2, where the occupants always had the option to open the doors and step back into Biosphere 1, we have no options when it comes to our survival.

As with any experiment, the outcome is not always certain, that is why you conduct it. So Biosphere 2 is considered by many, as living proof of how resilient life is on this planet, and yet how fragile, surviving only within a narrow band of environmental parameters. If, like the designers of Biosphere 2, we miss a few details about the impact of human activities on the ecosystems, the results may be, just like at Biosphere 2, the shutdown or collapse of those ecosystems.

When the first eight Biospherians were sealed inside the structure in 1991, the whole world was watching, and the problems began almost immediately. Food production was inadequate due in part to unusually cloudy skies caused by El Nino. Plastic used to reinforce the millions of cubic feet of glass reduced the UV radiation reaching the inhabitants resulting in vitamin deficiencies. Cockroaches, brought into the experiment as they were considered important for their ability to breakdown organic materials, began to overrun the place. And the people, both constantly under the microscope from the outside, yet hopelessly trapped with each other inside, began to breakdown as well. Yet remarkably, these eight people stuck it out, and for two years they worked and lived in this sealed goldfish bowl with no inputs from the outside world. The diminishing oxygen finally resulted in new oxygen having to be imported from the outside world, but in all other respects, they lived and breathed and ate and drank from the same materials, recycled endlessly, that they had entered with. When they left, they were all 25 lbs. lighter, their skin tone reflected the lack of natural sunlight, and while relatively healthy, they all looked like hell. I can only imagine the strength it took to tough it out.

By the time the second group of Biospherians entered the structure in 1994, many of the original environmental bugs had been worked out. However six months later the human factor would bring the entire mission crashing to an end, and Biosphere 2 would never again be operated as a sealed environmental test.

Today, time has taken its toll on the habitat within the structure. The various Biomes including the 850 square meter ocean complete with coral reef are in different states of health. The coral reefs, much like our own, have collapsed completely, and the science being conducted is now being changed to help us understand the effects that global warming may have on our ecosystems. The rain forest is slowly being dried out to replicate the effects of drought, and the CO2 levels in some of the other Biomes are being increased to study those effects as well. The University of Arizona now operates the project, and it appears they have saved it, at least in the short-term, from the destruction many thought would occur when a land developer who has plans for a resort hotel and housing development bought the property in 2007.

Stephen Hawking, the brilliant mathematician has said that the survival of the species may depend on our ability to leave this planet at some time in the future. I would argue that why should we waste our time and precious resources trying to find or create a new home on a distant or inhospitable planet, when we have a perfectly good one right here. Biosphere 2 has proved that it is not any easy job to steward a planet. We have a lot of work to do.

For more info and pictures, CLICK HERE to visit our website.

Monday, December 21, 2009

6 months, 17,000 Miles, 32 States, and One Lifetime Later

As 2009 draws to a close, Kate and I find ourselves in the desert of New Mexico taking a bit of a hiatus from our travels. In part because we found that trying to do one of our shows or visits became more difficult as the holidays approached, in part because we wanted a chance to visit with family and friends, and finally because we needed a bit of a break from the rigors of the road.

So what have we learned in 6 months, 32 States, and 17,000 miles of traveling? Well, first of all it has been an incredible journey so far. We have met a multitudinous array of people, and virtually without exception, from North to South and East to West, these people have welcomed us warmly, treated us kindly and opened their hearts and their homes.

Sure, there were a couple of jerks, like the guy who sprayed the side of our vehicle with gravel when he became impatient in a line of cars and did a “burn out” next to us. Or the gal that sat there in front of a gas pump and finished a long cell phone conversation while our Airstream sat sticking our in the road and snarling up traffic. Or the vandals that decided to take a hammer to the side of our vehicle in New Mexico. But these were pretty minor annoyances in comparison to the hundreds of people that toured our Airstream, or the dozens that offered us a place to stay, a warm meal, or a hand with anything we needed. Many of these people were family, many were friends old and new, but many of them were complete strangers, and as we count the days to Christmas we are counting our blessings as well.

We also learned, and hopefully taught many others that you can reduce your footprint on this planet without giving up all the comforts we often take for granted. Yes, you have to make adjustments. Like turning the water on and off as you shower, which saves a remarkable volume and still leaves you feeling fresh and clean. Or how to operate a composting toilet, which although is a bit more work, the feeling you get from NOT flushing down several gallons of fresh drinking water each time you get rid of your excrement actually makes you feel guilty when you do use a regular toilet. But the biggest thing we learned is that although we lived with a lot less, we still lived in relative comfort and style, and that “giving up” things doesn’t have to be sacrifice, indeed it can be a joyful liberation.

Sometimes we learned that which we already should know. Like how the fact that our water is a finite resource becomes painfully clear when you have only a 30 gallon tank of it, and you have to think about where that next 30 gallons is going to and coming from. And as we predicted the Airstream has become for us a microcosm of the real world, and of our planets potential future. A world where water is in short supply, where our waste of all types must be carefully recycled, where when it gets hot or cold outside, it gets hot or cold inside, where a safe place to sleep at night is not a given, and where each of us considers more carefully the effects of our actions on the environment.

The first thing you learn from small space living is that no matter how few material possessions you take with you, you need less. During months of preparation for this trip, we carefully went through each item to determine it usefulness, and like many travelers we have been shedding items ever since. When you think about it, we are all just travelers on this planet. Here until the end of our journey, we will either leave it clean and ready for the next round of visitors, or trashed like some funky campground full of pop bottles, candy bar wrappers, and cigarette butts.

Our children and grandchildren are the next visitors to this campground people, what on earth will they find? We all use too much, we are all guilty, and if there is even a glaciers chance in hell of stopping catastrophic climate change, we all have to do more to use less. Here in this great country that we have been blessed to be born in, where nearly all of uses more than our fair share of our precious resources, will have to bear more of the burden for change or the less fortunate people of this world will suffer terribly as our resources become increasingly scarce.

Decidedly, not everyone we met agreed with our views. Indeed some disagreed passionately. But what was interesting is that everywhere we went, people were willing to talk about it. I remember in the 1960’s when the war in Viet Nam was raging and the struggle for civil rights had reached its peak, and it seemed like most everybody was on either one side or the other. War protesters and civil rights demonstrators were beaten in the streets by the police who were clearly aligned with the powers that be, whether it was the military industrial complex or the institution of racism, and meaningful dialog was hard to come by.

But today, and I believe due in a large part to the courageous struggles of the 60’s that changed our society forever, people seem at minimum willing to talk, and frequently willing to listen. However as they say, talk is cheap, and as we just learned in Copenhagen recently, we can talk a lot and get little or nothing done. The time for action is upon us, and personally we have decided to act. We hope from our actions will come results, and from those results, a chance to keep learning more about how we can shape the future. We hope you will continue to join us.

Best wishes from the road!

John & Kate

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Photo Galleries




We've just added several new photo galleries for your enjoyment. To see hundreds of new photos, CLICK HERE!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Gas Museum

As we were headed toward Taos on our way to visit the Earthship Landing Zone, we passed an amazing pile of gas station memorabilia and a sign that said “Museum”. Intrigued, we pulled in and started to take some pictures. Before long we were greeted by a man who appeared from the back of the property. Surrounded as we were by the thousands of pieces of old gas stations and other automobile paraphernalia, I said “Wow! Nice collection! How long you been doing this? ” “Bout two weeks” he fired back, chuckled and wandered off towards an old Coca-Cola cooler that was sitting on the front porch.

Reaching in to the cooler, he wrestled around for a few seconds and came back up with a small wrapped package about the size of an ice cream bar. I had noticed the sign out front, in addition to saying “Museum”, also said “Moon Pies”. Having not seen a Moon Pie since some time in the 60’s, I assumed the sign was just part of his collection. But lo and behold, here he was clutching an honest to goodness Moon Pie! As he unwrapped it to eat, I couldn’t help but notice the Moon Pie almost looked like it had been around since the 60’s, but he happily began to munch on what had been one of my favorite treats when I was very young and before my Mom realized they probably weren’t the best snack food in the world.

His collection was incredible, and included everything from vintage gas pumps to oil cans and posters, and even an old typewriter of the same make and model I remember my Dad banging away on a few hundred years ago. With obvious pride he showed my brother-in-law Simon and I around the museum which was packed so tight you get barely get down the aisles. Out in the parking lot sat a nearly complete, although quite dilapidated small diner on wheels. Everything was still there, from the 50’s style bar stools to the sink and stove, and even some of the pots and pans. Johnnie, as I found out his name was, was planning on doing a full restoration this summer and selling some ice cream out of it to go with his Moon Pies.

Simon bought a small trinket, and I made a donation which I found out Johnnie gives to the local Humane Society each year. As we drove away, I realized that someday all the paraphernalia of the fossil fuel powered automobile age will end up in a museum. Perhaps Johnnie is just a little bit ahead of his time.

To enjoy more photos of the Gas Museum and New Mexico CLICK HERE to visit our photo gallery.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Earthships Land in the New Mexico Desert!

While enjoying a visit with my Mother and my Sister and her family in Albuquerque, we took a little journey and headed up to Taos for the day to visit the “Earthship” community that is growing on the edge of town. The Earthship concept has been designed by Michael Reynolds who has been pioneering the development of eco-friendly housing for over 35 years, and whose innovative designs have been built around the world.

Nestled into the desert under the brilliant blue New Mexico sky, the Earthship community pops up from the sagebrush and juniper just outside of Taos. Located about a mile or so past the stunning Rio Grande Gorge, the community has been slowly blossoming on the arid landscape for over 20 years. If you are not familiar with the Earthship concept, the homes are built using a variety of readily available recycled materials, and feature solar and wind power systems, rain-catchment cisterns, gray and black water recycling, and are a showcase of low-impact living and design.

Visitors to the community are greeted at the visitor’s center and are shown a short video to familiarize them with the concepts. Accompanied by a guidebook (which you return before you leave so as to minimize their printing!), you then take yourself through the building on a casual self-guided tour. While not a complete or lived-in home, the tour allows you to see all the innovative details of the construction, as well as the energy and water saving systems incorporated in their design.

A 3000 gallon water cistern with an active water feature dominates the main room, and lush gray-water fed planting boxes in front of the passive solar windows were teeming with flowering plants and vegetables even in the middle of winter. Some of the stucco on the interior walls has been left unfinished to reveal the used tires and aluminum cans that along with the rammed earth with which they are filled, is the dominant feature of their construction. These three foot thick walls which are built into the earth on three sides provide the superior insulation that allows the passive solar features of the south facing structures to provide more than enough heat to keep the homes warm on the coldest of desert nights. Like many solar homes, getting rid of excess heat is sometimes more of a problem than using it, and the Earthships are graced with a plethora of skylights that not only bring a great deal of light into the recesses of the homes, but allow the occupants to release the extra heat when needed. The solar powered electric and the gray water filtration systems are also visible and described in detail. The very hobbit-like dwellings also feature a delightful use of recycled glass bottles which poke through the walls in intriguing patterns and send beams of colored light into the home.

Surrounding the visitors center, the rest of the Earthship community stretches out across the desert. However as a result of the south facing earth-berm design, from the tall windows that grace the front of the homes you see little of your neighbors except the floor of the desert that seems to crawl up the backside of their house.

After working tirelessly for many years, Michael Reynolds and the Earthship team is finally being recognized for their innovative designs, and was recently given funds by the State of New Mexico to build a new larger visitors center. They are also actively building pilot project homes around the world to help spread the Earthship mission and as we departed into the bright desert sun, we hoped for their success.

For more information and pictures CLICK HERE to visit our website.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lower Ninth Ward-The City Below the Sea

While all of us have heard that the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, few of us have actually seen it. What most of us are not aware of is that it was not devastated, it was utterly destroyed. After the flood waters receded, many of the homes had floated completely off of their foundations and were not necessarily even on the lot where they had once stood. Those that were still left standing had been filled with water up to the roof lines, and between the thick layer of mud that was left behind and the mold that soon blossomed from every surface, they also had to be demolished. What was left for nearly as far as the eye can see in some areas was block after block of nothing but the remnants of the fronts steps and concrete foundations upon which they once stood. For the most part, these were poor people before Katrina came and took what little they had to begin with. Over four years later, little has been done to restore these neighborhoods, and many of the residents will never return. Most have found new lives in places like Houston, a city that opened its arms to the busloads of refugees that poured out of the city.

We were not quite sure what to expect when we arrived on one of the rare cool and sunny days when the humidity is not stifling. We were there to tour the handful of homes that are being constructed by Make it Right, a non-profit organization spearheaded by Brad Pitt, and dedicated to helping rebuild this neighborhood. We were also there to answer the question that many of us ask ourselves. Should it be rebuilt?

As most of us are aware, the city of New Orleans sits on land that is largely below sea level. The wisdom of rebuilding a city that lies in such a precarious position, particularly in light of the potential for rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity associated with global climate change, has of course been questioned. As we toured the area however, here and there in the homes that had managed to survive, and in those that had been rebuilt, one could feel the spirit of this poor but once proud neighborhood struggling to rise from the ruins. In front of one of the few remaining FEMA trailers, a handwritten plea to the President and the people of this country not to forget that this was once a place where people lived and worked and had babies and died, stood as a stark reminder of that. Below it another hand painted sign showing the spreading base of a large banyan tree proclaimed “Roots run deep here”.

And deep they are for many of the residents and former residents of this area. Beginning before 1000 BC when the Mississippian culture built mounds and earthworks in their communities along the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, and continuing when the French explorers, fur trappers, and traders arrived in the area by the 1690s, some making settlements amid the Native American village of thatched huts along the bayou, this area has been continuously occupied by a variety of cultures for thousands of years. Indeed the white settlers who came here considered what eventually became New Orleans, the “city that had to be built” lying as it does at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico and one of the most important trade routes in the world, the Mississippi River. Today, many of the residents are direct descendants of the natives, French, Spanish, and African American slaves who helped build this city and its unique blend of cultures. For many of them, generations of their families have lived and died here, buried in the above ground catacombs made familiar to my generation by the acid-trip graveyard scene in the iconic movie of the 60’s, Easy Rider.

What is astonishing is the amount of work it took to build this city below the sea, and the equally incredible effort it takes to keep that sea and the rivers that feed into it from reclaiming it. From the bottom of the Lower Ninth Ward, the dikes and levees that hold back these waters rise way above your head, while the water itself on a beautiful sunny day like this is mere feet from their tops. One can only imagine the sights and sounds when the fury of Katrina breached those levees and filled these neighborhoods like a bathtub without a drain. In many ways this is sacred ground, and the occasional cross or memorial to the nearly 2000 people that died there are a stark reminder of what happened that day.

I happened to be in Miami less than thirty days after Hurricane Andrew did its number on that city, and the damage was tremendous. However when I returned there again on business less than a year later, it was already becoming hard to tell that the storm had ever occurred. Because it was a fairly affluent and well-insured city, money poured into rebuilding Miami. In the more affluent areas of New Orleans like the Garden District, or the French Quarter, where money flowed to rebuild these areas like the whiskey flows to feed the tourists, there are virtually no signs of the damage. However, due to a combination of a lack of insurance, a federal government that has a damaged economy and two foreign wars on its hands, the fact that this was a poor neighborhood to begin with, and that the question of whether we should rebuild still remains, four years later almost nothing has been done to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward.

While it may seem odd and almost like shaking their fist at them, Make It Right has chosen to rebuild only a stones throw from those infamous levees. Using some of the latest in green building materials, and constructing them on stilts that would have protected them from even the highest water in the area, each of these brightly colored homes is unique, much like the people who live here. As we toured the neighborhood, these residents waved at us from the porches and yards of their newly constructed homes. Only fifteen of these homes have been built so far, but what is plainly clear is that they are not just rebuilding homes, but attempting to rebuild a community.

Should we rebuild this city? I guess that depends on who you ask. For the people we saw stubbornly rebuilding their homes there, I would have to say the answer is yes, yes we will.

To learn more CLICK HERE to visit our website.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grass to Gas

As one travels through the South, the incredibly invasive species known as Kudzu is everywhere. If you have never been in the South and have never seen Kudzu, then you cannot imagine the havoc that this plant is causing on the landscape and the environment. When I say everywhere, I mean hanging from the trees, power lines, buildings, road signs, and even cars that are parked too long will soon disappear from sight as the vine crawls relentlessly forward. This stuff is unstoppable. It can grow over a foot a day and up to sixty feet a year and it will eat anything in its path. If you cut it down, two plants will spring up in its place. First introduced to the U.S. in 1876, the planting of this non-indigenous species was actually encouraged by the Soil Conservation Service from 1935 until the 1950’s when it was discovered that we had unleashed a monster. It now covers over 7 million acres of land in this country and will soon cover millions of acres more.

As we gazed upon this vast sea of bio-mass that not only needs to be removed, but is free for the taking, we wondered if Kudzu was a viable material for making cellulosic ethanol. A little research on the internet led us to Agro*Gas, a small company in Cleveland, TN that has not only looked at it as a source of feedstock, but has developed the technology to make it work. A few days later we were able to speak with Tom Monahan, one of the principles in the company, and an expert on bio-fuels.

Tom is passionate about the subject of bio-fuels, and we quickly discovered that he sees a future in which his grandchildren can still enjoy the same quality of life as we, but without the damage to the environment. Tom sees biomass every where, and Agro*Gas has developed a proprietary method for extracting the sugars needed to produce ethanol from a wide variety of feed stocks. The problem is, there is currently no money coming to these types of projects. Somewhere along the line, the powers that be decided that corn based ethanol was the way of the future. For those of you familiar with the story of corn in this country, and its complete control by the likes of Monsanto, Du Pont, and Cargill, this will come as no surprise. Apparently using readily available bio-mass that does not depend on genetically modified seeds, petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, makes absolutely no sense at all.

Tom also made it clear the unlike the corn ethanol industry, his company not only does not seek government subsidies and financing, they abhor the thought. They have what they believe is a viable technology for producing economically feasible bio-fuels from a variety of feed stocks, and they will be damned if they will let the government get their hands on it and completely screw it into the ground like they have done with everything else. To be truly economically feasible, this technology needs to stand on its own, without the need for subsidies that support so many of the so-called “alternative” energy programs in this country. It’s amazing, they actually believe that if you don’t have a system that can stand on its own and start to make money from the get-go you don’t actually have a viable business model. In this day and age it is rare to see this kind of entrepreneurial spirit.

What really makes the Agro*Gas system different is that it is designed to work using almost any bio-mass feedstock for its input. Corn ethanol plants, upon which we have spent billions of dollars in research and subsidies, are designed to run on one thing and one thing only, corn. Corn is food, and unless you are someone like Cargill who will profit immensely from the process, the idea of turning food into fuel when there are millions of tons of non-food bio-mass just waiting to be used is insanity. The Agro*Gas process can turn almost any type of agricultural waste of which there are many and most of which the producers actually pay to have hauled away, into fuel.

In addition to fuel, much like the “cracking” process that turns a barrel of oil into everything from cosmetics to plastic bags, Agro*Gas sees fuel as only a small part of the chain of products that can be produced by the breakdown of cellulosic feed stocks. They are actively pursuing many by-products of the bio-fuel process that may be commercially viable. Indeed much like gasoline that was burned off as a waste product by the early refineries in this country, the fuel side of the process is actually not the center point of the production. There are a variety of products that can be produced from this process that can contribute to a commercially viable process. The entire business model revolves around small regional plants that can turn local produced bio-mass into regionally consumed products. This is Buy Local-Use Local defined.

Tom let us know that they realize that they may not get rich from their process, but they firmly believe that it is the right thing to do. Based on our evaluation of anything that bucks the trend of big business or government, and takes on the Cargill’s and Monsanto’s of this world, we would wholeheartedly agree with them that they will not get rich. Most probably they will get delegated into the realm of good ideas whose time will never come because it makes too much sense. It is our hope that the Richard Branson’s and the T. Boone Pickens of the world will recognize the difference between the world that Cargill creates, and the world of the sustainable future, and step up to the plate and actually make a difference.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Vintage Airplanes, Cajun Sushi and Southern Hospitality

Yesterday, as we wandered the streets of Natchitoches, LA (pronounced I am told by the locals “Nack-a-tish”although it seems to be missing a syllable) I saw a poster for a Vintage Aircraft Fly-In and 1940’s Hanger Dance. Always a sucker for vintage aircraft, and looking for a place to spend the night, we decided to drive out to the airport where this event was scheduled to begin later in the day. We found the “terminal” as it were, a small nondescript building near the entrance, and I wandered inside. I told the young man at the counter that we were “here for the air show”, and asked if he knew if there was anyplace we could park the Airstream for the night. He did not, but he quickly introduced me to a very friendly gentleman named Larry, who it turned out was the Airport Operations Manager.

As soon as I mentioned that we were here for the show and told him a little about our vintage Airstream, Larry’s southern hospitality gene went into overdrive, and two phone calls, one locked gate, and a drive across the tarmac later we had ourselves a choice spot on the grass right between the hangers and next to a small lake! We also got a Welcome Kit from the Chamber of Commerce and two free tickets to the “Aviator’s Reception” party to be held that night at a local restaurant. We felt like royalty, and after a visit from some curious members of the staff at the airport, we set up camp for the night.

As evening approached, and armed with the secret code that Larry had given us for the automatic gates that control entrance to the airport property, we headed into town for the reception. We had met one of the promoters Marc earlier in the day, and as we came around the corner still nearly a block away from the restaurant, he began waving us down and then welcomed us warmly. We were beginning to understand that southern hospitality is more than just a cliché. These people are some of the friendliest folks we have ever met, and throughout the evening, people would come up and introduce themselves to “that couple from Oregon” and welcome us to their community.

The Aviator’s Reception was being held oddly enough in this land of Cajun and Creole, in a Japanese restaurant, and we were treated to a huge spread of Sushi and other Japanese delicacies. Before long a local band set up and began a great evening of cover songs done in a decidedly Louisiana style. I ended up on stage playing a tambourine for their rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl” and as we excited the building later that night, the lead singer called out his thanks to “John from Or-y-gone!”

After a surprisingly quiet night at the airport (not much coming and going here in this small town) the next morning we watched as the planes flew in and then wandered around the grounds looking at vintage aircraft and making some more new friends. Tonight we can listen to the Big Band sounds of the 40’s as the dance is in the hanger we are camped behind. Our special thanks to the wonderful people of Natchitoches!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Containers Become Homes in North Carolina



We recently had the pleasure of spending a few days with our friend Jennifer, in Boone, NC. I met Jennifer through my work with the Sustainable Furnishings Council, and she is a joy and a pleasure and one of the inspiring young people I know who really cares about the future for her generation, and the generations to come.

While we were holed up at her cabin overlooking the hill country of North Carolina, we had a chance to visit with Ethan Anderson from Dwellbox. Ethan’s company is a East coast leader in the development of “container” homes, a small but growing segment of sustainable design that revolves around the use of used shipping containers. These shipping containers, of which there are thousands and thousands , just sitting around waiting to be used or recycled, are readily available, waterproof, structurally significant, and relatively cheap.

The containers can be stacked and welded together in a variety of configurations, and then various openings can be cut out for doors and windows. In a matter of a few days, the basic structure is up and ready for the finishing touches. Complete houses can often be built in less than 90 days, significantly lowering the cost per square foot, and using far fewer wood products in the process. Structurally, the containers are designed to ride on the deck of an ocean going vessel loaded with tons of goods, and riding out thirty foot waves and torrential rain. I’m pretty sure they are adequate for the average household.

Because of their modular design, and the fact that they can be cantilevered out up to 14ft without additional support, the opportunity for creative designs including, carports, overhangs, and rooftop gardens is tremendous. Advances in eco-friendly insulation, interior finish materials, solar, rain catchment and gray water recycling systems can all be combined to create a cutting edge small space home on a budget.

We met Ethan at his office in downtown Boone, and learned quickly that he is a rapid-fire talker, and full of enthusiasm for his buildings. We headed over to their first project, a spec home on the property next door to Ethan’s own home. A small studio style apartment with an ample deck sat over the small garage nestled below. Ethan, an avid mountain biker was renting the space to one of his buddies/bike mechanic, and apologized for the rather lived-in condition of the place, including a pile of bikes in the garage. We promised to look around it and spent the next half hour learning more about the construction details of the project.

Container homes are brilliantly simple, and Dwellbox has overcome many of the challenges associated with plumbing, electrical, insulation, and interior walls with creative solutions. Perhaps the biggest challenge was convincing the local building department who, unlike some cities on the West Coast, was unfamiliar with the process, and a bit skeptical to say the least. Through their perseverance, they finally got the city to sign off on it, although not without first having one of the inspectors, a large gentleman I am told, spend some time bouncing up and down on the solid steel sub-floors just to convince himself the thing was structurally sound.

After our energizing meeting with Ethan, we drove by one of their other projects, a 1600 sq ft home outside of town that they had recently completed. This home was a good example of what can be done by creatively stacking the containers.

In addition to residential homes, Dwelbox is working on a variety of other designs including a Mobile Learning Lab, and a temporary shelter design that could replace the use of FEMA’s famous toxic trailers after Hurricane Katrina.

For more pictures or to learn more CLICK HERE to visit our website.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sending Out An SOS (Save Our Species)

I participated in an interesting thread on FaceBook lately. My friend Sally had reposted one of my posts on a piece about the disappearing glaciers of Kilimanjaro. One of her friends had responded by calling bullshit on global warming. The exchange went back and forth and a number of other people stuck in their two cents, but in the end, it was essentially a conversation between me and another gentleman who does not believe that manmade CO2 emissions are something we should be particularly concerned with. He did not believe that science has enough evidence to call manmade CO2 a culprit in global climate change, or that it even exists, and he was adamantly against any government regulation to limit those emissions. His point was that we simply do not know enough about how things work to make a judgment call. We argued passionately back and forth, and in the end neither of us really changed our position much. We both still believe strongly that the other is wrong.

As a result however, I did come to realize, both through his arguments and some other things I have come to understand lately, that one thing is certain, and perhaps it is good news. We do not need to save our planet. In spite of years of arguments by treehuggers and conservatives, naysayers and doomsayers, recyclers and political extremists, pundits, hippies, weirdoes, whackos, and those that just want to cash in on a buck no matter which side they are on, rejoice in the fact that there is no doubt, THE PLANET IS GOING TO BE OK!!

One of the main points the gentleman I sparred with appeared to be making was that there have been plenty of periods on this planet when things were warmer or colder, or wetter or drier, or maybe just full of a lot more dinosaurs than we seem to have today. But the point is, things change and Mother Earth really doesn’t give a damn. She likes trilobites and dinosaurs just as much as whales and humans. However She also doesn’t really give a hoot when She decides to sentence one of us to extinction either. As it turns out, She likes Asteroids and Ice Ages, Global Warming and perhaps even Nuclear War, just as well. She will simply, through the process of evolution and adaptation, adjust the life forms to fit the current situation on the planet accordingly.

Now, this all works fine and good, unless you happen to be one the life forms slated for extinction. I am sure that if the Dinosaurs had had their druthers, they would have continued to rule the earth for another 500 million years. We on the other hand, apparently being the one of the first species on this planet which actually has a choice, appear to be generally unconcerned about Mother Earth’s possible rejection of our species in the not too distant future. The fact that we may have elected to take most other major life forms with us in this mad dash for extinction doesn’t really matter to Her either.

So, my point is that both we and Al Gore can totally relax. The planet will be just fine. Hotter, colder, drier, wetter, bombarded by cosmic rays, or covered in ice, She will survive. The question we must ask ourselves, and be darn glad that we actually can, is if whether or not We and many other life forms will survive and more importantly if We really care.

Our history and religions tell us that we seem to think we hold some special place in the Universe. If this is the case, we need to be working on our placeholder if we intend on staying there. You can bet that if the Dinosaurs had seen headlines in stone tabloids that screamed “Killers Asteroids Headed Toward Earth” they would only have turned away and continued to devour other life forms. We on the other hand can at least look at the large body of scientific data that is being generated and decide. Will we open our eyes and look at global climate change as the asteroid that may be bearing down on us, or will we go on consuming the natural resources and other life forms around us until our fate slams into the planet like a runaway train. Most dinosaurs had brains barely large enough to support their life systems. We on the other hand appear to have been blessed with an incredible quest for knowledge and new technology. In the end however, perhaps it will be the dinosaurs that were blessed. As the world around them changed irreversibly, they simply looked up and perhaps thought “strange weather we’re having”.

So,we all need to make a choice. Will you do what you can to help save not the planet, but our species, or will you bury your head in the piles of garbage we are creating until Mother Earth decides she is done with us and sends us to the trash heap of evolution. Personally I shouldn’t really have much reason to give a damn. I have no children, and the world I hand off to the next generation is their problem, not mine or my progeny. But much like the Lakota Indians we met on this trip, we believe in the circle of life. Kate & I both have nieces and nephews that are every much as part of our families as children might be and I think we owe it to them to try and do something. I suspect however that many of you may have children or grandchildren or hopefully someday great grandchildren of your own and that you might have a hard time explaining your apathy to or downright disdain of the increasing evidence for man-made global climate change to them. “What did you do Grandpa” they will ask as the world that supports their life changes around them. And just like the War in Viet Nam that my generation suffered through, I will be able to say “I fought. Not in the war, but against it. And I’m proud.” What will you say?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Return to Pine Ridge-The White Plume Saga Continued

With all of our travels, I have not had a chance to finish the remarkable story of Alex and Debra White Plume who we were fortunate to visit at their home on the Pine Ridge Reservation. If you missed the first installment of this story, I suggest you visit these pages on our blog to catch up.

Bring Back the Way-Our Visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation

Our Visit with Alex White Plume

The Treaties and the First Crop of Hemp

The Bust

As the helicopters and Suburbans full of DEA Agents swept on to their property, Alex and other members of their family went out to meet them. Alex was determined that if they were going to steal his crop, they were going to have to arrest him in the process. He had contacted the U. S. Attorney for the area and invited him to witness the harvest so that everyone could see that this was industrial hemp and that no deadly marijuana was being grown here. Now this attorney was here to watch as the DEA destroyed the hard work of these people just days before they could reap what would have been their first commercially viable harvest.

Alex positioned himself in front of his crop until the DEA agents changed his mind by pointing their automatic weapons at his head. “Don’t make this hard Alex” the attorney implored him. Still determined to be arrested so that this action would end up in court and where he stood a damn good chance of blowing the DEA’s case for making illegal raids on a sovereign nation, Alex told the attorney he could either arrest him or Alex would “kick him in the shins” and began to dance around him taking little jabs at his legs. “Please don’t make this hard Alex” he implored and walked away as the DEA held Alex at bay with their rifles.

Soon the DEA had pulled down the crop and in the process of dragging it across the field, spread thousands of seeds and next years crop across the land. They then loaded up the White Plumes hopes and dreams and fled the reservation with their illegally confiscated goods.

This game of cat and mouse would go on for the next several years as the White Plumes continued to plant their crops and the DEA continued to steal them. The Feds finally came up with the idea of simply getting an injunction against them. This would allow them to put Alex in jail for violating the injunction without the benefit of a trial that the Feds knew they would lose. With this lose-lose proposition in front of them, the White Plumes finally relented, and stopped planting their crop. Some people think they have given up and wonder why they don’t take this case all the way to the Supreme Court. But that is easy to say when you don’t have to feed and cloth your family and even more importantly when your basic beliefs tell you that the Feds have no jurisdiction in this case and the Supreme Court is a white mans court and not applicable on Indian land.

The White Plumes struggle to grow hemp will continue and is being played out by farmers across the land. Nineteen states have now legalized the growing of industrial hemp, and wait only for the Federal Government to recognize the difference between hemp and marijuana.

Here are some excellent links to learn more:

PBS-Standing Silent Nation
Friends of the Lakota
Bring Back the Way

Monday, November 2, 2009

Some Rich Men Came & Raped the Land...and Nobody Caught Em'


Recently we passed through the coal country of West Virginia and Kentucky on our way to Lexington. This is a land of sharp contrasts, steep canyons, tall limestone bluffs, and deep poverty. As we wound our way through the little towns that dot these canyons, many of them bearing dark black scars from the coal that is being ripped from the earth there, we passed a strange blend of boarded up businesses and run down houses right next to state of the art schools that seemed strangely out of place. We hoped the schools represent this areas hope for the future and that the people here understand that by educating their children instead of sending them into the mines to suffer a slow and painful death, perhaps they can carve out some kind of real future for them.

While coal will continue to be mined here for many generations, the process is being increasingly automated, and thankfully for their health but furthering their poverty, the number of workers needed continues to decline. In the meantime however, coal mining continues to dominate this area. Trains filled with coal line the tracks that run down the narrow canyons for miles. Black seams of coal protrude from the bluffs and the mine shafts and conveyer belts spring from the hillsides high over the towns. There is a kind of dark grey tint from the coal dust that covers everything. Every once in a while a Burger King or a Wendy’s pops up with it’s shiny façade designed to mask the bleak existence of these hard working people, but right next door the shuttered windows and rusting cars can’t hide the broken dreams of the businesses and people that once flourished there.

But by far, the most insidious thing that is taking place in this part of the country is the practice called MTM or Mountain Top Mining by the coal industry. It is more accurately called MTR or Mountain Top Removal by its opponents. Recently this practice has been receiving more attention as the likes of Daryl Hannah and other celebrities who are working to end it. If you not familiar with it, this method of mining will shock you to say the least. First any and all vegetation is indiscriminately removed. Then the blasting begins to remove the “overburden” which actually consists of the topsoil and any rock that lies on top of the coal. This overburden is then dumped into the surrounding valleys and becomes “holler fill” where it buries the small streams that run through them. The coal is then removed until all that is left of the mountain is a flat barren plain. Although the coal companies were originally supposed to return the mountains to their “pre-mining contours” in most cases they are given waivers allowing them to create "a level plateau or a gently rolling contour with no highwalls remaining." The Bush administration in one of their more brilliant moves further eroded any protections by changing the rules to allow the dumping of the overburden directly into the headwaters of the streams. Under these heinous violations of the Clean Water Act, as well as any sensible interpretation of the Environmental Protection Agency charter, almost 500 mountains have now been destroyed and over 1000 miles of streams have been buried. The EPA estimates that by the end of 2010, over 1.4 million acres will have been leveled with the permits they have issued.

I urge you to learn more about massive ecological damage being inflicted by MTR and to help end this practice. Our use of coal to generate over 50% of our energy is already causing us huge problems by releasing massive quantities of greenhouse gases as well as other pollutants like Mercury into our ecosystems, but MTR is like coal mining on steroids and the effects are devastating. Here are some excellent links to learn more:

www.mountainjustice.org
www.wikipedia.org
www.ilovemountains.org

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gaps, Hollers, and the Occasional Notch

When I was growing up and reading some of the popular tales like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that scared the pants off me with the Headless Horseman, I was always curious about what the heck a hollow was. Being from California, I was blissfully unaware that things like Hollows, Gaps, or the occasional Notch even existed. Now as I travel through the East and South, I find that they are everywhere! To me they look surprisingly like Canyons and Passes, but apparently there are subtle differences perhaps not visible to the untrained eye. But the real difference is the magical images the words invoke. I mean just imagine if Ichabod Crane had been pursued by the Headless Horseman through Sleepy Canyon. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it, and the story would have flopped.

When I was a kid, my Dad used to take us on long hikes,and when we got tired he always reassured us that we were almost there by saying “it’s right through that notch”, so I sometimes cringe when I hear that word. But now as we head into the fourth month of our journey I keep thinking to myself “it’s right through that notch”. Thanks Dad.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bluegills and Bluegrass

After meeting Ronnie, I took a little walk around the backwater lake by which we are camped and will spend the next couple of nights in preparation for a show in nearby Lexington. This little park is operated by the city of Shelbysville and is a favorite fishing spot for the locals who began to filter in around 4 o’clock and take up their positions at the various docks and benches that dot the shore of this tiny deep green lake. Ronnie had wet my appetite for fishing and I was wondering what they were catching and what they were using for bait.

As I wandered around the lake in the gathering dusk, watching the fisherman cast their lines, I stumbled across a large green fruit with a convoluted skin that looked something like a human brain. I picked one up and found that it had a strong but not unpleasant odor similar to a slightly sour orange. I had never seen one before and took it with me as I continued along the trail that ran along the bank.

Still curious about the fishing, I approached a black couple who had parked their chairs by the side of the lake and were quickly filling their bucket with fish. “Evening” I said, “Catching anything?” “Got some nice Blue Gill and a few Crappies” the man answered as his companion kept up her serious fishing without so much as a glance in my direction. “Watcha using for bait” I queried as I had never actually fished for either one. “Red wigglers” he replied and held up a can that had small red worms busting from the rich dark soil it contained. As worms are easy to come by, I was already planning the next evenings’ possible fishing trip and asked him how he cooks them. “Just cut the heads off and fry em’ up good” he laughed. I could just imagine the look on Kate’s face as the smell of fish filled the Airstream. “Works for me” I replied with a slight grin at the image in my head.

Seeing as I had a local here, I held out the fruit I had dragged along with me “What the heck is this?” I asked. “Bodark” he drawled. “Least that’s what we call em’. Technical name is Hedge Apples.” “Never seem or heard of em’. Odd looking things, are they edible?” I wondered. “Nope, but they do a hell of job getting rid a bugs. Just quarter em’ up and stick em’ in the corners. No more bugs!” he exclaimed with a sparkle in his dark brown eyes as a smile spread across his face. “An they’s walnuts in them trees over by the outhouse and hickory nuts just down the road” he offered. I thanked him for the tips on the fishing and bringing me up to speed on the local fruit and nuts. “Names Johnny” he offered as I began to wander off and stuck out his calloused hand. “John” I said and he laughed. “Can’t be all bad then.”

Later I would find out that these fruits are also known as an Osage Orange and that they were used to grow hedge rows all over Kentucky before the advent of modern fencing. Prized for being “Horse High. Bull Strong, and Hog Tight” they were tall enough that a horse could not jump it, stout enough that a bull could not push through it, and woven so tightly that even a determined hog could not find its way through. Still an odd looking thing though.

Tomorrow I think I’ll grab my fishing pole and a bag for some nuts, and see what I can come home with. Perhaps there will be walnut crusted pan-fried blue gill on the menu at the Airstream Hotel!

Welcome to Kentucky

As I set up camp tonight in Shelbysville KY, I was approached by a young man out riding his motorbike. He stared at our license plates and asked “Y'all from Oregon?” I answered yes, and that we were a long way from home. He pointed to the house down the road and let me know he lived "over yonder” and then wondered “So, did you hear that us people from Kentucky don’t wear no shoes and stuff?” I told him we have been traveling all over the country and that people are just people and we don’t pay much mind to what other people say about them. “Uh-huh, I ain’t never been outside of Kentucky” he mumbled hanging his head down ever so slightly. “They’s hickory nuts in them trees next to your trailer if you wan’ em, and we go fishing down in the lake most every day. Not today though, I got band practice, I’m learning to play guitar” “Good for you, keep it up” I encouraged him.

“My name’s John by the way” I offered. “Ronnie” he said and looked back toward his house where a pickup truck was pulling in as the sun settled over the lake behind us. “That’s my Pa, I gotta’ go. How long you gonna be here?” he asked. “Until Friday, see ya around?” “Yea, see ya” he said as he kicked over the reluctant motor on his bike and searched for first gear. “Can’t never find first” he complained and drove off down the road. I suspect I might see a little more of Ronnie over the next few days. Maybe he will take me fishing, and maybe I can teach him about solar power.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Blue Ridge Mountains

We spent two gorgeous days in Virginia winding down the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains along a meandering route known as Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here the riotous colors of fall that we have followed down the eastern seaboard from Vermont were stealing across the verdant landscape. I learned that rather than “turning” colors in the fall, each day as the chlorophyll drains from the leaves, the vibrant shades of red, yellow and gold emerge from the leaves where they have lay hidden under the cover of green. For almost 225 miles we traveled along this narrow winding ribbon of road and marveled at the unspoiled beauty that spread before us.

The only commercial enterprises in the entire length of this drive are operated by the National Park Service, and are quietly placed there with only a small park style sign to mark their presence. Other than these few discreet interruptions, there are no fast food joints, no tourist traps, no billboards, and very little else to distract your eye from the natural beauty of the area. In many areas, the deep dark forests roll over the hills for as far as the eye can see, and it is easy to imagine this magical place as it was when only the early inhabitants wandered through here to hunt and gather. Deer are abundant, and although it is strictly illegal to feed them so that they will remain as wild as possible, they have little or no fear of man as they cannot be hunted here either. Walking through the forest on the first day, I came across two bucks grazing on a luxurious patch of grass. As I emerged from the woods, these two large animals with their imposing rack of antlers were less than ten feet away from me and at first I believe I was more surprised by them than they were by me. They nonchalantly looked up at me, then dropped their heads to the grass and resumed their quiet chewing.

When we returned at last to a small city on the edge of the park, I was dragged kicking and screaming back into civilization and reminded once again of the impact we have on this planet. Like an island in the sea, this small oasis is a treasure and a reminder that “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Frank & Barbara's-Sabillasville Maryland

Before he died in 1985, my Dad was married to Barbara. Although we had only met her a few times, she is a intelligent and charming woman and along with her husband Frank they opened their home just south of Gettysburg to us. We felt a little guilty about showing up when we did as Frank was recovering from surgery, but they assured us that it was OK, and indeed we felt very welcome there.

Frank, in spite of his surgery was a firecracker and regaled us with stories and jokes while Barbara plied us with wonderful food. The setting was spectacular, and we found out that we were literally just over the hill from Camp David where the Presidents of the United States enjoy their holidays. Luckily Mr. Obama was not in residence, or I might have been tempted to drop by and give him my two cents worth. My feeling is however he would probably have told me to keep the change. As I was still attempting to get caught up on my writing I took advantage of the solitude of their rural Maryland home to do so.

On Saturday we took the train into Washington D.C. and spent a great day at the Green Festival where we got to see our friend Summer from Envirotextiles, and run in to Ed Begley Jr. whose TV Show “Living With Ed” I had done a guest appearance a while back. The highlight of the day however was Summer’s “Green Fashion Show” which featured a variety of hip hemp clothing. For more about the Green Festival, go to (Washington DC Green Festival).

Sunday we took a drive past Camp David and through the Catoctin Mountains where we stumbled across an Antique Car Show. While antique cars are not particularly "green", they are a form of recycling, and hold a place in my heart next to antique Airstreams.

The next morning as we headed off for the Blue Mountains, Frank and Barbara wished us well and sent us down the road with a nice bag of new potatoes, one of the other perks of visiting friends and family!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Green Festival-Washington D.C.

Our timing was perfect to attend the Washington D.C. Green Festival. One of five festivals, they are held in San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, and D.C. We took a train into D.C., (an experience in itself and only $4.70 round trip!) and arrived at the train station strategically located just beneath the Convention Center right on time. Our friend Summer from Envirotextiles and Vice-President of the Hemp Industry Association (HIA) was going to be there and the HIA had a new Hemp Pavilion inside the show. Summer also let me know that she would be doing a “Hemp Fashion Show”, but that in no way influenced my decision to attend!

The new Hemp Pavilion occupied a large section of the floor and was a showcase for a wide variety of hemp products including clothing, food, soaps, cosmetics, pet products, and building materials. It was very well done and throughout the day speakers and vendors from the HIA gave short presentations to the crowd. On the whole, the presentations were entertaining and well done and Adam from Capitol Hemp in D.C. kept the crowd laughing while he educated us on the benefits of Industrial Hemp. All in all, I thought that the Hemp Pavilion was the highlight of the show, and quite frankly was a bit underwhelmed by the rest of the displays. It sort of had your typical Home Show feel with a little dash of green.

The show was fairly busy from the start and the crowds continued to grow throughout the day. I ran into Ed Begley Jr. whose television show “Living With Ed” (click here to visit)I had appeared on a while back. Ed was very gracious and thanked me for helping his wife Rachelle with the project she was working on. We also got a chance to rub elbows with Ralph Nader when he paid a visit to the Hemp Pavilion. We only had the day in Washington, so we had to work the floor fairly quickly. Other than a pretty cool solar oven, a self-contained bio-diesel distillery, and some innovative vehicles, nothing really struck me as setting the world on fire.

The fashion show was a blast however. Summer had rounded up a ragtag group of volunteers, and without exception they put their heart and soul into the show. Summer narrated while the wanna-be models hammed it up and paraded around the stage in the latest in hemp fashions.

We soon jumped back on the train and headed back to Maryland to prepare for our next adventure.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gettysburg Pennsylvania

Gettysburg as we all know from our history class was the scene of one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War. The town itself is full of beautiful historic buildings but is largely overrun with tourist traps of every description. The battlefield is a solemn place where you can feel the ghosts of the more than 50,000 men who were killed or wounded there in just three days. The Civil War is infamous for these huge casualties due in part to the advances in weaponry, and in part to the lack of advances in medicine at the time.

As I stood upon the fields with familiar names like Gettysburg and Antietam where another battle that claimed more than 23,000 victims in just twelve hours raged, I reflected on the incredible waste of war and the sad fact that more Americans died killing each other than in all the other wars we have ever fought combined. Now almost 150 years later as we enter the eighth year of war in Afghanistan I wonder if it will ever end. I’m not sure why we feel compelled to visit places like this. It didn’t make me proud to be an American, it made me sad.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Andy & Beth's-Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Off to Philadelphia and the City of Brotherly Love where we caught up with my friend Andy. Andy and I were inseparable during Jr. High and High School and Andy actually lived in our home after his parents moved from California to Philadelphia. He wasn’t happy there at first and amazingly my parents agreed to take him into our home. After a life full of adventure and a million hours playing drums, he eventually returned to Philadelphia and now resides there with his wife Beth and their son Michael.

Beth whom we had never met welcomed us into her home and wined and dined us like old friends. Their son Michael who has a degree in Environmental Science was very interesting to talk with, and once again I took hope in the next generations ability to take on the mess they are being given and help solve our looming environmental problems.

We did a quick tour of the city with them and I was thrilled to see the buildings, sit in the chairs, and walk on the steps where people like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many more hammered out remarkable documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The city just oozes history and makes it come alive.

Andy is an incredible drummer and also has the most amazing collection of music I have ever seen. That evening we shared a few songs and some old memories over a few glasses of wine. All too soon we were on the road again and headed toward Maryland by way of Gettysburg.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Alex & Shirley's-Bethlehem Pennsylvania

Kate’s Aunt Shirley and Uncle Alex live just outside Bethlehem, PA where we were scheduled to do a show at Home & Planet, an eclectic home furnishings and art gallery in an up and coming section of the old downtown. Bethlehem is an iconic symbol of the destruction of jobs and the disruption of lives that has occurred here in the heart of the Rust-Belt. While the industries that were destroyed here were anything but green, they represented both the ingenuity and work ethic of the American worker, and the arrogance and greed of the companies owners and executives that eventually caused their destruction. To me it also represents the opportunity we have to rebuild our industries with a new ecologically sound model and bring jobs back to the American people who are willing and able to work again.

Alex worked for Bethlehem Steel for almost 20 years when he lost his job as the company began the long slide from the largest steel producer in the world to its ultimate bankruptcy and eventual closing. During our conversations, Alex shed some light on the “glory days” of the American Steel industry and some of the causes of its demise. As one of the company’s top engineers, Alex helped manage the maintenance and logistics of the massive infrastructure that supported its operations. As we drove by the now empty shell of the 34 story building that used to house its headquarters, Alex shook his head and began to describe some of the perks and privileges that the same executives that had failed to see the handwriting on the wall received. This symbol of excess was actually built at a time when the industry was probably already in serious trouble, and while this same privileged group of executives completely failed to realize it, they continued to be rewarded for their incompetence. Alex described in detail the perks these executives were given. The private jets, golf memberships, and maintenance and upgrades on their homes at the company’s expense were just a few of the things they took for granted. They continued to stumble forward while their business dissolved around them, and the jobs that had once made this area a good place to live and raise a family were shipped overseas.

Unlike some of the cities we have been through that look almost like the bombed out remains of Europe after the war, Bethlehem has struggled but managed to remain as vibrant as possible under the circumstances. Although there are depressing rows of dilapidated houses in some areas, they are doing their best to reinvent themselves and create new jobs to keep their young from leaving. For the most part, these are people with a very strong work ethic, and while the Unions can also be blamed for many of the problems that led to their downfall, these are people who want to work and are willing to work hard. If only some of the billions of dollars we spent to prop up some of the worthless scum on Wall Street that got us into this mess had been spent to create new green industries in these hard hit areas, then perhaps there would have been real job creation in this country. I firmly believe that America can be a leader in creating these new green jobs, and these are the people who can do them.

Our show at Home & Planet(www.homeandplanet.com)was a huge success as the people of Bethlehem poured into the streets for this formerly run down business districts "First Friday” celebration. The crowd was predominately younger, but there was a good mix of all ages. At many points throughout the evening there was a line of people waiting on the sidewalk to view the Airstream. Up and down the boulevard people were playing music, eating food and getting pretty mellow on the wine that was being served in some of the shops. We stayed open until 10pm and really enjoyed our visit with the gracious people of this great American city.

We spent a couple of more days at Alex and Shirley’s while I did some maintenance on the Airstream. Their daughter Miranda graced us with a visit, and Shirley who is a Pillsbury Bake-Off prize winner and an excellent cook kept us well-fed. Alex helped me with the trailer and a few martinis to help ease the pain.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Jim, Jean and Marilyn-Andover New Hampshire


After Vermont we headed to New Hampshire which according to New Hampshirites is not very “fah” from Vermont. We had arranged to meet my Mother who was there to do some “leafing”. She was staying at the home of her travel companion Marilyn’s brother in law Jim who lives in a historic 200 year old farmhouse in the New Hampshire countryside. Although we were complete strangers, and possibly in the eyes of this conservative New Englander, complete whackos, he welcomed us with open arms.

We spent an interesting evening discussing a broad range of subjects, on many of which we certainly disagreed, but Jim is a sharp, engaging and open minded individual, and his staunch conservative upbringing has not prevented him from listening to what we had to say and learning some things in the process. It was a learning experience for us to hear his ideas and opinions as well, and I think we all came away with a broader perspective. This process of sharing with people from all walks of life has become an important part of this trip and and a special part of making new friends. All in all it was a delight to see my Mom and meet her friends in the land where people either "Live Free or Die"!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Michael & Janet's-Charlotte Vermont

Next we visited with Michael,his wife Janet, and their lovely daughter Allie who live along the shores of Lake Champlain in the rustic little town of Charlotte, Vermont. Michael was a childhood best friend whom I had not seen in over thirty years. He had just returned from sailing the Atlantic from Maine to Ireland (you can read about his adventure here), so he could really relate to the small space and the on board systems in the Airstream. He also relied on solar power for most of his equipment, and was delighted to see our home on wheels. Having never been a sailor, I was in awe of the guts it must take to sail the open ocean in a boat not much bigger than our trailer.

It's amazing how thirty years can go by in a minute and I felt bad that I had not stayed in touch with Michael, but then I realized he had not stayed in touch with me either, so then I felt better! The stay was all too short as we were headed off to do a show, but we had a nice meal at their home and did as much catching up as time allowed. Don't tell Kate, but I hope Michael will keep me in mind when he looks for a crew to sail from Ireland back to the U.S via Africa!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Steve & Teresa's-Woodstock Vermont

We visited Steve & Teresa, friends who live in the country outside Woodstock, Vermont. Steve and I used to work together and have stayed in touch over the years. They had a great little spot to park the Airstream, and Teresa is an excellent cook who loves to pamper her guests!

In between some local sightseeing and a visit to the farmers market, we got a chance to share some of the eco-friendly systems with their two children Kavi & Neela, as well as one of the neighbor's kids who had dropped by. They were fascinated by the solar power system, and I gave them the complete tour from roof top panels to the under the bed batteries. Despite their young age they already had a remarkable knowledge of how it all works and asked a lot of good questions, and it was encouraging to see the next generation accepting these things as a given part of their future.

Teresa keeps chickens, and every time I turned around their curiosity got the best of them. If I didn't close the door I had chickens in the trailer, if I opened up the truck, I had chickens in the bed. If it wasn't for the fresh eggs, they might have become roast chicken! Actually they were lovable, and the "girls" as Teresa calls them were an interesting distraction.

Fall in Vermont is incredible,and seeing Steve and his family made it even nicer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Badges? We don't need no stinking Badges!


Here I am in Vermont and not three miles from the border that separates us from our strange neighbors to the North, when I see that Homeland Security, fearing that I may make a desperate run for the border after having failed to qualify for the “Cash for Clunkers” program, was doing their job and on the alert in this sleepy little border town. “Damn” I thought, “these guys will track you down everywhere”.

Unlike the border towns of Mexico, where a small but influential part of my misspent youth was indeed spent, Vermont border towns do not consist of a hundred bars, a dozen brothels, and thousands of street vendors just waiting to sell you everything from a taco that you will later regret, to a tattoo that you will later wonder where the hell it came from. Instead of Tequila and fireworks, you will find maple syrup and cheese. Although they are wonderful and friendly people, you might say that the residents here were “born to be mild”. One charming young lady we met on a Friday night was headed off to a Corn Maze, the living on the edge excitement of which most of us can only imagine.

Deterred by the presence of the J.B. Police, we turned back from the frontier and re-entered the safety and warmth of rural Vermont.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Near Disaster in New York-Or "It Could Have Been Worse"



Sorry for the delay in new postings, but as we headed through the Adirondacks, I suddenly noticed smoke beginning to pour out of the left rear wheel. Within seconds, as I began to maneuver the Airstream toward the side of the road, I watched in horror as the wheel completely separated from the trailer and spilled out onto the road. This left us careening down the highway on one wheel and we soon ended up off the road and stuck in the soft dirt there.

We would later find out that the hub of the axle had suffered a catastrophic failure which caused the wheel to separate. Stuck in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday night, and hopelessly stuck in the ditch, it was about four hours later before we were able to get the trailer up on the flat bed tow truck that came from the little town of Old Forge, NY twenty-five miles away. The driver said he knew of a small shop in town that “builds trailers”, so he dumped us in their lot and we spent the night there waiting for the shop to open the next morning.

Steve from East/West Trailer Sales arrived at work early and after surveying the damage for a moment, declared that “Yup, we can fix that” and sauntered off to get his tools. Several hours later we had everything apart and considering the intense violence of the hub failure, were surprised to see how little mechanical damage we had sustained. Unfortunately, we had suffered a small amount of body damage as the wheel excited the wheel well. Kate is one of these “it could have been worse” people, but surveying the damage I was hard pressed to think of how. Steve could fix the axle, but could do nothing to make our silver beauty whole again.

We had to order parts, so we spent another night in the back lot of the trailer shop. In the morning a family of deer sauntered through the lot on their way to the nearest watering hole. Our parts were not due in until the afternoon, so we spent the day working on the website and looking for someone to repair the body damage. As luck would have it, my friend Steve from Vintage Trailer Supply knew a guy in nearby Plattsburg, NY that he highly recommended. One phone call later, and we had set up an appointment for the next day with Colin Hyde, an expert on vintage Airstreams.

Our parts arrived as we had hoped, and by 5pm we were back on the road, a little bit worse for the wear and tear, but moving none the less. We spent the night on a nearby lake, and made our way to Colin’s place the next morning.

As we approached the shop, there were a half dozen or so Airstreams strewn about the lot and it was obvious we had found Colin. Inside the shop another group of Airstreams were in various states of disassemble and awaiting their repairs. Colin grabbed his floor jack and was soon drilling away at the rivets that, like an airplane hold an Airstream together. For the next three hours, we swapped Airstream lies as Colin cut away the offending bits of metal, and replaced them with some salvaged aluminum sheet from a previous repair. Once complete, he gave the spot a quick polish to match the rest of the trailer, and although clearly a visible repair, “it could have been worse” as Kate loves to say, or “it is what it is” a phrase Colin and I discovered we both share.

By mid-afternoon, we were back on the road, took a ferry ride to Vermont, had a Martini in Burlington, and settled down for the night by the peaceful shores of Lake Champlain. As I drifted off to sleep, I realized that just before the axle failed, I had looked back at the wheel and thought that something just did not look right. Next time I will listen to the voices in my head!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Organic Valley-Organic AND Farmer Owned


The first thing you notice when you pull into Organic Valley’s (www.organicvalley.com) headquarters in La Farge, WI is the large array of solar panels that dominate the front of the building. Recently installed and built with the help of students from the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) the panels are just part of their efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations. The power from this impressive array is pumped directly into the grid, thereby reducing their dependence on power generated by the power company with fossil or other fuels. Immediately inside the front lobby sits a computer station that monitors every aspect of the array’s performance. Anyone can see at a glance how much power it is generating at the moment, for the day, month year, and how much CO2 that would otherwise have been generated it has reduced. Way cooler than my little control panel in the Airstream!

We had arranged a tour with Jennifer Harrison, the Sustainability Program Manager for Organic Valley. If you are not familiar with the company, they are the largest Co-Op of Organic Farmers and Dairies in the U.S. Their products such as milk, cheese, butter, eggs, juice and produce are available in many groceries throughout the country.

Jennifer greeted us in the lobby and gave us an excellent tour of the facility that began with the solar panels and the fields of Camelina and Sunflowers that grew nearby and from which they produce bio-diesel for their vehicles. They not only generate fuel for themselves, they also have a “mobile” bio-diesel distillery which they are using for a pilot program to help teach their Co-Op members how to produce bio-diesel on their farms from the waste they generate. We did not get to see the distillery in action as it was out in the field doing its work! This program has been very successful so far and it has inspired a number of their members to begin their own programs. This has the duel effect of reducing their waste and their dependence on fossil fuels.

Unlike many companies that prefer to use carbon offsets to reduce their impact, both the Solar Panels and the bio-diesel distillery are part of Organic Valley’s commitment to develop and use programs that make a real measurable difference. These programs include a van-pool for employees living in outlying areas, free bicycles for the use of the employees, and a community garden.

We then toured their building which was built in 2004 to LEED Silver standards. We did not get to meet George Siemon, one of the original founders of Organic Valley and now the self-styled “C-E-I-E-I-O” as he was out, but we did see his unassuming office which included reclaimed barn wood floors, and a view of the community garden that he has been known to wander out and weed the less diligent members plots to improve his view.

After meeting some of the other members of the staff, we were treated to lunch in the company’s cafeteria, where Organic Valley products such as milk, cheese and juice are available at no charge to the employees. Lunch itself is very inexpensive and based on weight. The more you eat the more you pay!

We continued to chat with Jennifer while we ate and covered a wide range of subjects including their efforts to reduce or capture the methane produced on their farms, ongoing social responsibility programs, and one of my biggest concerns, Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs (Wikipedia-GMOs). GMOs are genetically engineered crops which now constitute up to 90% of certain crops like corn and soy grown in the U.S. The use of these monster seeds is very controversial, and many believe that it is not only potentially disastrous, but may also be linked to some strange goings on like the sudden collapse of bee colonies around the world (Wikipedia-Colony Collapse Disorder). Jennifer indicated that they were very concerned about these issues, and were actively involved in efforts to regulate their use and developing a “seed bank” to prevent the loss of certain strains and species of plants. Many plant species are already under pressure and hundreds of them are already lost. Most of the GMO seeds come from the supplier already infused with pesticides and are sterile so that the farmer is forced to buy new seeds each year. Many fear that these sterile plants will unleash an Armageddon in the plant world that will leave us with plants unable to propagate themselves. Should something then go wrong with the supply of GMOs, or further research proves that they are indeed as harmful as it is feared; we may find ourselves unable to replace them with the plants that our ancestors ate (Article-GMOs Threaten Food Supply)

While we were eating, an email was circulated inviting the employees to come visit the Airstream, and we were delighted to show it to a number of them after lunch. We hung for awhile then bid Jennifer adieu and drove off through the verdant farmland of SW Wisconsin.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Knot for Naught


When I think back on my Boy Scout days, it’s a miracle that I can even light a fire.

During the first initiations, we were sent on a wild goose chase by the older boys to go find a “blue & white smoke-shifter” which was apparently stored down the road. Our absence from the camp was then used to mess with all our stuff including the usual sophomoric pranks like “short-sheeting” our beds. If you are not familiar with this, it involves folding the lower sheet of your bed in half then re-making the bed. The supposed point of this is that when you go to get in bed, you feet are supposed to tear through the sheet and ruin your bed. I never really saw it work, but the tradition carries on never the less.

The next ritual we had to endure was the venerable “pink-belly”. The first night of camp us newbies sat quivering in our sleeping bags, knowing full well the older boys were going to pull this inevitable torture on us, and waiting for the raid to begin. Sure enough just as we finally began to drift off to sleep from pure exhaustion, our tent flap was flung open and in sprang a couple of the oldest and meanest Scouts in the Troop. They threw us on our backs and began slapping the tight young skin of our bellies with considerable force. It was excruciating, and the eventual outcome of this openly sadistic and probably clandestinely homosexual ritual is a very pink and very sore belly. Luckily for me, my tent mate started crying and was of course subjected to far greater torture than I.

The list goes on. Little tricks like dipping a sleeping boys hand in warm water, causing him to wet the bed, and substituting various nasty substances for things like salt and sugar. Of course the Scout leader who I now realize probably had questionable sexual intent as well was indeed the leader of the pack.

But just like getting a “wedgie” from the older boys in Jr. High School, over time, these tortures subsided as the next round of newbies came in, and you were expected to join in the fun of terrorizing the next generation of Scouts. I quit the Scouts for this and many other reasons, foremost of which was the fact that I discovered that these were BOY scouts, and I was becoming a lot more interested in what the GIRL scouts looked like under those crisp green uniforms.

However, in the meantime, I dove into earning merit badges, and learned all kinds of things that I have come to appreciate over time. Tonight as I watched my neighbor struggle to light a campfire, I had one blazing in a matter of minutes. On the other side of our camp a young couple tied their rain tarp up with enough rope to hog tie a horse, only to have it crash down around their heads, while I can tie knots that would baffle Houdini.

I learned to start a fire with just a stick and some moss, and how to filet a freshly caught trout with a pocket knife. And once I caught that fish with nothing more than a piece of string and a paperclip. By the time I was in my early-twenties I used to go on week long “survival” trips with just a sleeping bag and a drop line. All the hazing I went though to get there is perhaps an integral part of the learning process, and that which does not kill you makes you stronger.

The Boy Scouts made me stronger. Hopefully time has made me wiser. Either way, I sure got a nice fire.