Ten Things We Can Learn about Sustainability from the Great American Road Trip

rodatrip_with_text.jpgEach August, I have the pleasure of getting my nephew for a week of vacation. It started when he was eight and it started small. First he would come to Atlanta and see the big city. As he has grown, we’ve included my parents on alternating years. In 2016, it was Washington DC with Nana. This year, it was the truly great American road trip to the Grand Canyon with Granddaddy George.

The 3 generations on the great American Road Trip. One of us is so short, I barely fit in the picture.My father loves to drive, but we may have cured that after 2,300 miles. The trip had all the things that great family trips have:  laughter, discovery, diversity of scenery and places, and yes, maybe a bit of irritating each other. It really was wonderful. My family had done a similar trip after I graduated high school. We were trying to replicate some of it for my nephew.

We had planned the big items but the rest was just footloose and fancy free. We would go to where the GPS and Auntie Beth’s (that’s me) misinterpretation of the GPS would take us. We would see a lot. There were some things I knew we would see, like the great wind farms of the Texas panhandle. Others like the desalinization plant in Southeast New Mexico or one of those horrible cattle congregation processing plants, were a complete surprise. The experience is not duplicable but the lessons can be learned and shared by everyone.

Here are the takeaways. I like to follow David Letterman’s lead and count things down to the best. So, here goes:

10. People are doing sustainable things now and don’t even think about it. In fact, I don’t even think they realize it. This is why leadership matters.  If leaders put things in place and people just do it that’s a win. So, sustainability folks continue to lead! You’re are making a difference.

9. Recycling is still a big issue and particularly difficult on the road. Auntie Beth’s little green heart was just so sad at all the things we couldn’t recycle. Recycling saves anywhere from 50% to 85% in energy, and we need to rethink how we get more buy in.

8. On the East Coast we don’t really see how America’s energy is produced. You do out west. There is no hiding it out west. We saw wind, solar, oil wells, water wells, hydropower and not one but four coal plants. Who would have thought? More to come on the coal plants.

Texas Pan Handle Windmills7. Renewable Energy is Beautiful. The second day of the trip we were headed out of Waco. I had insisted that Waco was a good stopping place and I could also visit the new destination of HGTV’s Fixer Upper. I have such a deep respect for Chip and Joanna Gaines. I wanted to see their recycling project of saving Waco’s abandoned grain silos into a gathering place.

I knew once we got on the west side of Waco we would start to see the wind farms. The first peak of blades was so exciting. I was shooting pictures at every glimpse. I should have waited because soon enough we were driving through hundreds of windmills on either side of the interstate. It didn’t quite feel real. They are massive and in some ways it felt like we were in Jurassic Park. Their presence doesn’t feel like inanimate objects. They seem alive somehow.  It sounds crazy but put it on the bucket list. It is a view of the future right now.

6. Solar, solar, solar. We saw tons of solar but not like we think about solar. Yes, we saw one large utility scale installation. We did see a few homes with solar. However, most of what we saw was solar in small scale installations everywhere. First, someone in Louisiana is an excellent solar sales person. West of New Orleans and the swamp, every billboard had solar. Yep, every one. In Texas it just seems like a majority of traffic signs and roadway thingies (a technical term) had a small panel on it. So clearly, Texas gets something we don’t in the rest of the Southeast. One of the unintended benefits of using solar in this kind of installation is that you don’t have to run polls and wire out to these signs which saves electricity and a whole lot of unnecessary materials. And bonus? The more the state employs small scale solar the less it costs to run the sign and saves taxpayers money.    

5. Oil wells are ridiculous. We see pictures of oil well heads but that doesn’t tell even half of the story. Once you pass all the wind farms then you hit oil rig land, but photographers are clever. What you don’t see in the pictures is the thousands of miles of electric poles and wires running out to all the rigs. It’s simple really if you think about it. For each one of those oil wells to pump they need electricity. Also, the distance electricity has to travel means massive loss on the lines. It makes zero sense. 

Coal Plant on I-40 in the Najavo Nation4. When energy is speculative, we all lose. The thing that baffled me was the coal plants. In fact, there is one that sits right on I-40, as big, bold and proud as it can be. I couldn’t figure this out until some conversations with locals made it clear. Three of the four plants are on the Navajo nation lands. The Navajos are leasing or in some cases selling land and tearing down mesas for coal. In all the places in the country where solar really works it just really broke my heart to see those coal plants. To make matters worse, one of them is potentially closing because the investor is pulling out and the plant is less than 20 years old.  This proves that this is an investment scheme. If we are going to pay for speculative investments in Navajo country, then it should be something that can produce energy for the Navajos if all the speculators pull out. An empty coal plant produces nothing. An abandoned solar plant can produce energy for the Navajos for years. Enough said.  

canyon.jpg3. The Grand Canyon resort is super green. Wow! The Grand Canyon complex is a model for sustainable success. Everything that the sustainability community hopes to have a couple of things in place for their neighborhood or city, the Grand Canyon resort does in spades.  The buses run on french fry grease from the restaurants. There is recycling everywhere. The resort guest rooms have three trash cans; one for recyclables, one for trash and one for composting. In the bathrooms instead of having tiny plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, soap, and lotion, they have wall mounted squirt bottles that are refilled on an as needed basis. I know everyone loves those tiny little bottles you get at hotels but this is a much, much better solution. Think about the 10s of 1000s of plastic bottles used each day at hotels and then consider eliminating all that waste by simply using refillables.

Air-conditioners are tied to sensors. Once you leave the room, the air conditioners turn off automatically in case guests forget. The resort also has an entire channel on their TV network discussing all the sustainable things they do. It was really fascinating. Once you hear why they do it, it makes so much sense. The resort is an isolated village of its own up on the rim. So not only are they caring for the environment but also reducing costs by implementing sustainability items. They have a deep commitment to preserving the resort for future generations unlike the initial speculators did before it became a national park.  Kudos to the park service for making it work.

Carlsbad Caverns2.  Our national park service is a treasure and should be preserved at all costs. The Grand Canyon is of course our most known and popular park. I am sure there can be some debate about that, but even for Europeans, who travel just for our parts, the Grand Canyon is equivocated with that one grand family destination; the memory maker. However, we went to Carlsbad Caverns too. We drove by the Painted Desert and  the Petrified Desert.

There are plenty of National Parks. Thank you President Theodore Roosevelt for the vision of making it a national system. Let’s protect every park for the gift it is. Opening it to drilling, mining, timber and other industrial destructive operations seems to be a direct insult to the values Americans have held for over 100 years. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it should be put into business production. The parks need to be protected from a political whim or business opportunity. Our great grandchildren should know that generations have fought to protect the parks. From our most visited, The Smoky Mountain National Park, to Gates of the Arctic, the least visited is, each park was protected because of its unique microcosm that it represented. We must remain firm in our protection of the whole system.

Gratitude for my family and the National Park Service1. We should have gratitude. I got in my car to make the final leg from Mobile to Atlanta. I started to became overwhelmed by the experience. I cried a bit and was just filled with gratitude. First because I live in a place where our standard of living provides the opportunity to take that kind of trip. I know all Americans don’t have that opportunity which makes me doubly grateful. I was also grateful for the amazing country we have. I mean it is really AMAZING. How wonderful to drive from the lush languid South, through rice paddies and swamps, to the lake country of east Texas, to the rolling hills of central Texas, to desert of the Texas panhandle and south New Mexico, to the stunning lands of the mesas of the Navajo nation, to the Grand Canyon, and to Horseshoe Bend. That gratitude makes me more aware of how I need to incorporate that gratitude each and every day. We have a big country. None of us seem to agree on anything on even given day. If we could just wake up and say each and every day “Thank you God for a magnificent place to live, how can I show my gratitude today?” How would that change the way we live?

A couple more road trip pictures:

Monsoon season in Arizona creates beautiful light over the canyon Auntie Beth and Spencer out in front of the raft for Horseshoe Bend trip

Plaques set in the Grand Canyon Park by the developers:

pslams_plaque.jpg  20637969_10155882658481062_4403408027628272893_n.jpg

 

 

 

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