The Big Green Bus

A college student spreads the word about renewable energy, and renews his own spirit in the process.

By Nate Raines

Most college kids spend their summers working for the minimum wage to keep their student loans in check,or interning in an office to beef up their resumes. I spent last summer traveling around the country on a big green bus, talking to people about renewable energy and conservation. In the process, I had conversations with thousands of people, from the board rooms of major companies to the parking lot of a Doobie Brothers concert. Along the way, I also visited Arches, the Badlands, Bryce, the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Tetons, Moab, Yellowstone, and Zion National Parks.

The group of people I worked with, The Big Green Bus, is a collection of Dartmouth College students trying to get people to think and talk about how we can all use energy more responsibly. The vehicle itself is an old diesel school bus we converted to run on waste vegetable oil and retrofitted to include beds, tables, and all the amenities that 11 college students might need while traveling around the country for a summer. We also displayed plenty of other ways to use renewable energy, including a working solar panel and a working wind turbine.

On our journey, we engaged crowds by pulling up to a venue, parking, and talking to people while showing them the features of the bus. Although this approach allowed us to generate a healthy dialogue, participating in such conversations with complete strangers nearly every day for 11 weeks, 13,000 miles, 39 states, and more than 45 major cities was exhausting enough to make even the most devoted activist have second thoughts.

I arrived at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in June, immediately after spending six days talking about energy at the Bonnaroo music festival. As one of the largest music festivals in the world, Bonnaroo has strong environmental undertones, but the average concert-goer is more concerned with hearing the Cold War Kids than learning about the source of energy that heats his home. So even though it was a great venue, it left me questioning our mission and methods a little. Why should anyone be interested in energy issues when faced with everyday life issues?

With doubts raised by my experience at Bonnaroo still gnawing at my devotion to the project, I decided to go for a run in the park to clear my head. I started up the trail towards Hen Wallow Falls, and found myself running through a green tunnel of chestnut oaks, beeches, and yellow poplars backlit by late afternoon sun. As I made my way up the steep, rocky trail towards the falls, I passed through a clearing, a low patch of blackberry and raspberry bushes.

As I stopped to sample the fruit, I saw a bit of movement near the back of the berry patch. I looked up and, less than 20 feet away from me, a black bear stood on all fours, casually meandering through the shrubs. I froze immediately: This was a small bear, small enough that it might still be a cub, and I couldn’t see the mother anywhere. I stood there motionless, recognizing that by moving, I was more likely to disturb the cub or get between it and its mother. The bear, still unperturbed, finally wandered away from me and disappeared into the trees.

I walked back the way I had come, and decided to sit and think by the stream alongside the trail. I’ve seen plenty of bears before, having grown up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the north woods and lakes of Ontario, but the novelty and excitement at seeing one hasn’t yet diminished for me (and, actually, I hope it never will). I kept thinking, “Wow, that was really cool, I wish someone else was there to share it with me.”

It’s odd that I can pinpoint the moment so clearly, but this was when I was reminded why I’d hopped on The Big Green Bus in the first place. The Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks are visible, tangible reminders of what environmental activists like me strive to protect.

As owners and users of America’s national parks, we, more than most people, appreciate the importance of conservation, both for our own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of future generations. Energy issues have a direct impact on the parks’ conservation, particularly those issues related to the production of carbon dioxide and the expansion of fuel mining into wilderness areas.

It was dark by the time I got back to our campsite, but my mood had lightened considerably. And I wasn’t the only one with renewed self-confidence; Seven of the eight people who were with me when I arrived in the park had also gone for runs and they’d all come back with less furrowed brows. We spent the rest of the evening around a campfire, hanging out and talking optimistically, about how, just maybe, our trip might get a few people thinking differently about the way they use energy.

Zion National Park gave me a more tangible reminder of how important it is to have the national parks around for future generations. We had rolled into Zion for a couple days of presenting in front of the lodge and at a nearby community center. First, though, we spent some time exploring. My friend Hayley and I decided to check out the weeping rocks, intrigued by the prospect of tasting water that had been percolating through the canyon walls for nearly a millennium, after falling on the plateau above.

As we hiked up, we fell behind a group of eight- to ten-year-old kids who were playing dodgeball, using rocks they’d found at the side of the trail. As a couple of crotchety twenty-somethings, we started getting annoyed each time their projectiles missed the target and hit us instead. By the time we all got to the top and started walking under the weeping rocks, we were pretty fed up.

Then the kids started dancing beneath the falling water. At first, it seemed like they would have been just as happy under a shower at a water park. Then their guide started telling them where the water had come from, how it had fallen as rain long before Europeans ever came to this country, and was only now emerging on the surface one again. The children responded. It seemed as if they really started to look at their surrounding more carefully, as they suddenly realized what an amazing place they were in.

For me, this scene illustrates the national parks’ ability to inspire those of us with an established interest in nature and the environment, and their ability to foster an appreciation for the outdoors among future environmentalists. I was first interested in environmental issues as a kid when, hiking through Shenandoah National Park, my dad showed me acid-rain damage and told horror stories about what would happen if we didn’t fight to conserve wilderness. In the same vein, when we ran into the same group of kids later during a public presentation in front of the lodge, they were much more interested in learning what they could do to help reduce energy usage and protect the environment than were most similarly aged children we had come across in our travels.

The national parks reminded me why I was motivated to criss-cross the nation talking to complete strangers for a whole summer. Not surprisingly, it was also in the national parks that we found many of our most engaged audiences. And while interest is the first step, I’m hopeful that national parks users are ready to take the next step: Seek out ways to reduce energy use, purchase renewable energy, and support initiatives that encourage or implement alternatives to fossil fuels. It’s the best way to make sure the national parks are here for generations yet to come.

Nate Raines is now pursuing graduate work at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, preparing for a career in ecological and evolutionary sciences.

This article appears in the Winter 2008 issue.

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