The following is the follow-up to a Tucker Foudation Fellowship that Brooking applied for (and got) to help fund the bus adventure.
Project: Change Your Fuel, Change the World: The Big Green Bus
June 15th—August 7th
I have spent the last two months traveling the country in a bus powered by waste vegetable oil (WVO). With fourteen close friends, I have traveled over 10,000 miles in this bus; I have been hosted in the homes of over thirty kind friends, alums, family members and strangers; I have spoken with or presented to well over 1,000 people about alternative fuels and lifestyles; we showed about 500 kids how to throw a frisbee; we played in four major tournaments, and won one of them; we made new friends, and solidified old friendships; we drove through beautiful landscapes, and watched the sun rise and set against all sorts of pink skies.
In the end, back in Hanover, as the experience only begins to sink in, I can’t quite measure the impact of this trip. I know I impacted others, and I know the trip will carry meaning for me well into the future, but its effects on me are ongoing. I do know though that, above all else, I feel fortunate, and I feel grateful.
One of the most common questions we got on the trip (aside from the usual “how many miles per gallon?” and “where do you sleep?”) was what kind of impact we thought we were having. This often varied depending on what kind of event we were having, where, with how many people, and on which Bus member you’re asking. I’ve had many conversations with fellow Bussers, as we call ourselves, about these varied impacts, and our opinions vary as well.
Tabling was our most common modus operandi. We’d park the bus somewhere public, set up our table with t-shirts, our route, our booklets and ourselves for people to talk to both outside the bus and on board for “tours”. The effectiveness of our efforts often depended on geography. On the boardwalk in Carlsbad, California, we were approached by people that seemed almost unsurprised by our project and would tell us about what they do to help the environment—about being vegans, or how their brother runs his car on bio-diesel, about the environmental summer camps they run. In contrast, under the Arch in St. Louis, we were often ignored and even got a response of “I like fuel and I like oil” before that speaker walked away. But some people walked by and offered a simple “hmm, I didn’t know you could do that”, and a few of the incredulous even came aboard to check it out, in disbelief.
Some of us feel most satisfied with an in depth conversation with a like-minded alternative thinker. For example, I had an hour-long conversation with the director of a program that takes troubled teens out into the ocean to connect with nature. The program helps those dispassionate kids feel passionate about something again, and helps them channel that positive energy they feel towards their academic and social lives. The Bus’s impact on this man was that of encouragement—I talked to him about the project, and he was impressed with what us “youth” can do when we channel our energy into social betterment. It inspired him to use us as an example to his students, and we gave him about 50 of our booklets to hand out in his program. For that man, knowing about the Big Green Bus fueled his already fiery passion for making environmental issues important again in our culture. For me, knowing that his camp existed gave me a little more hope, too. In this way, when we spent our time talking to other environmentalists, it was not a waste of effort so much as mutual positive reinforcement.
Other Bussers got excited about the people that didn’t even know running a vehicle on waste vegetable oil was possible. A lot of those incredulous onlookers were forced by the existence of our Bus to believe that such things as veggie oil as a fuel are possible. We also gave formal presentation to crowds of 15 to 30 people, talking about global warming, carbon cycling, alternative fuels, and energy saving options. For adults, this often left the crowd with a clear and emotionally empowering message that we can all do our part, no matter how small. For kids, they got excited to turn off the lights and we got the thrill of seeing them get excited about conservation. Any one of the thought nuggets from seeing our bus or hearing our presentation could some day make a difference in lifestyle decisions for some of those people. And that to me is positive impact.
One of the hardest things for the group to sort through was our leadership problem. We had too many natural leaders—too many of us were used to being in charge, to taking command and offering to help out with every little task. We functioned like a democracy without a figurehead, which led to some inefficient decision making and frustrating discussions. In the end though we each found our niche and our places to take charge, and I learned how to back off and not take charge when necessary, as well. About three weeks into the trip, I wrote in my journal that I felt myself “letting go as I enjoy my time with this group—giving in to the group and letting go of the [need for] one on one [interactions].” – July 11th, driving through the Southwest. Once we each were able to do this as best we could, the group dynamic was pretty wonderful. The challenge and value of being a member of something before being an individual was something we were all familiar with from our individual ultimate team experiences, and translated very usefully to the Bus trip.
At this point I’d like to turn to some to personal development and realizations of the trip. As a road trip, there was much time for reflection, but even more time for new experiences. I’ve re-read my journal from the trip and my trip application in an effort to try to come to terms with how I’ve been challenged and changed by this trip, and I’ll try to relay some of the things I’ve come to understand about this process here.
Before leaving for the Big Green Bus trip, I anticipated that one of the greatest challenges for me would lie in social interactions. I expected my introverted nature to be problematic when living with 14 people on a 37-foot bus. Yet I found that the flow of life on the road and the comfort and shared purpose I felt with my Bus mates allowed me to thoroughly enjoy my time with the group and have little need for solitude or time away from the trip. In fact, I loved life on the road and it made a lot of sense for me. In a sense living in constant flux is in line with my spiritual outlook on life, and made all the actual journeying across the country feel very light and deeply satisfying.
In my Tucker Fellowship application, I wrote what I anticipated would challenge me most on the trip as follows:
“Perhaps most significantly, the Big Green Bus trip itself will challenge my social skills and outreach abilities. I am an introverted person, and though a capable leader I am often very shy amongst new faces. This trip will be an amazing opportunity for me personally to work on reaching out to people, to connecting with individuals on matters of values, politics and dreams for a different world.”
I do think the Bus challenged me socially, but in the end gave me confidence that I have the skills and charisma to effect people positively. From little things like being the first voice to speak (or sing, in this case) in our presentation, or giving a tour of the bus interior to strangers, I took little steps outside of my comfort zone and assumed a confidence I didn’t necessarily yet have in order to get our message across. In time, that confidence became more real, and by the end of the trip I could comfortably explain our engine conversion to a group of engineers and I could sing my part of the presentation with a confident smile as I looked audience members in the eyes. I think having a clear mission was helpful in this respect—I had a reason to overcome shyness and discomfort for a cause greater than myself.
In fact, much of what made the Big Green Bus project special was that it allowed each of us to feel a part of something greater than ourselves. This sense of metonymy holds true both at the individual and project level. As a member of a group more talented and capable than any of its individuals, and as a member of a group doing a small thing to try and address bigger social and environmental problems, I felt that I was part of something positive. One of my journal entries from the trip echoes this feeling:
“For all the little nuisances about this trip – small storage bins, being slow and terrible decision makers, engine and filter problems, sleeping space, crappy food and exercise habits, etcetera—I really think we’re an amazing and fun group. We carry good times with us where-ever we go, and every day I look forward to more of the same the next day, and feel so fortunate to be a part of something bigger, better, more skilled and more fun than myself.” – July 17th, Wichita, Kansas
It turns out that others sensed this in us as well. Often people were inspired by our project, and sometimes it was the veggie oil that got them. But more often than that it was the fact that a group of college kids could dream up this project, and could actually do it. In my mind, our biggest impact was in showing everyone we encountered that all those little pipe dreams they’ve had that “they would do but…” could be done. Vision, work, cooperation, and courage go a long way to making beautiful ideas come to fruition.
Looking back at my Fellowship Application, I found a line or two that strikes me now as inappropriate. I wrote that:
“As a person, I’ve come to better understand my talents and my limitations as they apply to the areas of work that I care about. I know I am not a scientist, that my brain and my training have not led me down a path where I could do environmental engineering projects, for example. I have great respect and admiration for those who do have such skills, and see such people as essential partners in a lot of the work I hope to do in the future.”
These statements bothered me a bit upon rereading. It sounds like I’m not giving myself enough credit. Yes, I’ve chosen a certain path of study and have more skills in some areas than I do in engineering. But this summer’s project gave me renewed faith that I can understand and work with science, engineering and mechanical concepts. I am entirely capable of understanding and explaining the carbon cycle and global warming and vehicular emissions to people. And it turns out that I can understand how an engine works after all, I just needed someone to explain it to me and I needed to actually listen and want to know. That was an important insight for me—to really learn something, I need to want to learn it.
The Bus project also gave me confidence that I will be able to live according to my values. Coming from an upbringing of suburban excess and materialism, I have often wondered whether I have the will power, the courage and the knowledge needed to live more simply. I’ve wondered how I’d do living with less clothing, in smaller spaces, with less electrical advantages, without a car, with less money, etcetera. Living out of a bin in a bus with a tight budget, I found myself happy. Sure, I was with close friends and often was treated to lavish meals by our hosts, but some elements of the Bus experience truly embodied simple living. And I loved it.
One of the hardest and yet most valuable elements of the trip was the group’s harsh, teasing honesty. Some of my weaker character points became jarringly apparent in the intense and tight living environment. Beyond the leadership issues already discussed, I found that I can be selfish about things like what kind of food I want to eat, that I have to be careful not to impose my vegetarian values on others, that sometimes I whine unproductively, that I’m clearly a youngest child, et cetera. I was teased about some of these qualities mercilessly by the tight-knit group, which served as an effective, unconfrontational way of communicating frustration. Somewhere in about the third week though, it felt a bit strong and I started to lose confidence in myself, as this journal entry shows:
“I’m learning some new undesirable traits in myself with this group. I’m pleased with that, but I can feel it sort of molding and mushing my confidence, turning it into a vulnerable dough. (Or maybe it’s my soul that’s being jarred, shaken, and challenged.)…Sometimes I feel undeserving of being here, along for the ride with smarter, cooler, and more interesting characters—people more skilled than myself.”
– July 13th, Carlsbad, California
I hadn’t had my sense of self challenged like that in a very long time. Yet I had been looking forward to this aspect of the trip—I knew that we were close enough that we could be honest and fair critics of each other, and was excited to work on the traits that came out in myself as undesirable or unproductive. Of course, it was hard at times to accept such weaknesses, but I got over the ego strike and truly did improve on all the things I did that were making other group members’ lives more difficult.
I’ve been working for a few years now on minimizing first-impression judgments of people I meet. Meeting new people daily on the trip gave me a chance to really focus on this. Still, I often judged people by their appearances as “not the type” to be interested in our project. Yet I was often wrong. For example, in Chicago we were treated to a lavish breakfast by the owner of a local gym. Two of his employees came to greet us at the breakfast—two very buff, macho and jockish men, one black and one Hispanic, and I greeted them, very worried in the back of my mind that they were not interested in our project at all. They turned out to be very kind and insightful about environmental issues and a pleasure to speak with.
I also got to work on communicating with people with shared interests but different ways of thinking about similar problems. From conversations with other Bus members to meeting a group of kids on a similar trip but with more political motives, I practiced navigating conversations, learning others’ vocabulary to talk about shared interests. My favorite such experience came in California with the owner of an environmental camp mentioned previously. My journal entry from that trip accurately describes my feelings:
“[Meeting the camp director was] an exhilarating opportunity for me to work on relating to and with people that share some values with me but speak a different language about them, that start from foreign angles to reach the same sort of conclusion about life and us people that live it together, and alone. This was a guy I might have judged and not talked to had I not given him a chance.”
– July 13th, Carlsbad, California
I think learning to navigate these kinds of conversations will be very relevant and useful in my career path and I was thrilled to have so many such opportunities on the trip.
I realize as I look through my notes for this paper that I have truly learned too many things and had too many valuable experiences on this trip to fit into these few pages. I guess that’s a sign of a successful venture.
Back to the main reflections page.