Liftoff!

I sat staring out the big bay window and listened to the discordant grumble of the engine going through its warm-up routine, knowing that I’d look back on this seemingly insignificant little slice of time as a turning point, one of those pivotal moments where you end one of life’s chapters by taking a headfirst dive into the next. But it did seem like everything before this had just been laying groundwork. The years of organizing sustainability programs in undergrad while pursuing a degree in Environmental Science; traveling around the world and exploring everywhere from Washington rainforests to Arizona deserts, from Icelandic glaciers to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro; running and training in the mountains of Colorado. And here I sat with this big idea, a green van with all my belongings, and no plan for how to make it all happen.

The idea had bubbled up out of a realization that came to me a few weeks earlier after meeting a couple traveling from Argentina to Alaska, their journey dubbed ‘Kombi pa’l Norte’ (Check them out; they made it! What an awesome story). I didn’t want travel to be this thing I did on the odd holiday, and I didn’t want sustainability to be just this thing I studied in college; I wanted them to be a way of life! Not only that, I wanted to share this message with everyone I could. After some brainstorming on an especially long Sunday run, I had my harebrained scheme: I would visit all fifty states, run fifty miles in each, and plant fifty trees in each, spreading the spirit of this idea all over the country. With my regular training, the running would take care of itself, as long as I managed to stay healthy; Turtle, my green VW van, was already loaded and ready to go; now all I needed was a name. Well, and a way to acquire and plant 2,500 trees.

I knew I’d need to work out all the kinks of traveling, training and working on the road before diving into the project, however. So I rolled out of Boulder, Colorado headed north towards Ontario, where a big family reunion with untold number of distantly related aunts, uncles and cousins I hadn’t seen since I was a toddler was planned for the July holiday. The next few weeks I made my way through the land of the Great Lakes, getting the hang of balancing morning runs, afternoon workdays, evening drives and finding spots to camp.

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In one little town on the banks of Lake Huron, I was getting ready to leave when a dark blue-green van much like my own pulled up into the adjacent spot. A leathery, sun-tanned older man in a straw hat and filthy plaid shirt hopped out and made a beeline for Turtle. Without even turning to introduce himself he began poking and prodding around the van, frowning at the splotchy, rust-eaten exterior. After a few bewildered minutes, I took a step forward and asked, “Can I help you?”. “Name’s Bill”, he replied, and turning to the van. “She’s seen better days, ain’t she?”

 “It runs okay”, I said, a little defensively. “Just not much to look at”.

“Well, your wheel bearings are loose. And I can patch up these rusted holes here on the side. What’cha doing the rest of the day?”

 “Um. Nothing. I guess” I said, racking my brain for the first lame excuse I could think of to get out of there.

“Well, what’s ya say we go down to my place and fix’er up a bit?”

 “Really?”

“Sure. Basin’ on your plates you ain’t from around here, and gonna need to keep her runnin’ better’n this. I’ll show ya what you need to know”.

 Three days and countless hours of cutting, welding, sanding, and painting, Turtle had been transformed from a rust-covered eyesore to a bright green thing of beauty. I had learned more in a few days about how to fix the little recurring ailments of the old engine than I had in the previous six months of studying a tinkering myself. That evening as we cleaned up and pieced the old van back together, Bill asked “What brings ya all the way up here, anyhow?”.

“I’m visiting all the US states. Running and planting trees. Fifty, in every state”

 “Huh. How’r you gonna get all them trees?”

“I don’t honestly know”, I replied truthfully. I had submitted a few project proposals to running shoe and outdoor gear companies, but so far they had all turned it down.

 “Well, sounds to me like you need to find someone who’s done sumthin’ like that before, and ask ‘em how”, he said.  “What’s it called?”

I had been struggling with a name for weeks, but at that moment, I looked down at my feet making depressions in the soft grass, and I knew. “Green Footprints” I said, grinning.

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Thanking him for his incredible patience and generosity, I headed back south. As I made my way back down towards the States, I thought about what Bill had said. I immediately thought of Rob Greenfield, who I’d been following since early in my college career for ideas and advice from some of the numerous incredible projects he’s accomplished. That evening I went on his website and submitted an email outlining the project and asking for his advice. Knowing how busy he is with projects all over the world and seeing how my previous attempts at finding sponsors had gone, I didn’t expect any response.

 The next morning, my inbox chimed.

Not only did he like the idea, but he offered to help fund and publicize it through his nonprofit, Happy Healthy and Free. I had never felt more honored and excited in my life.

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Green Footprints was on its way.

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