Me, You, And A Van Named Stew
Wandering couple live in their van and work to save the environment.
Thursday, March 13, 2003
Photo by: Phil McKenna
Fifteen months ago, Jonathan Carpenter and Erin McDonald drove into Big Sur in a 1970 Volkswagen van with a "Don''t Mess with Texas" sticker plastered on the rear bumper. The van, which is also their traveling home, is named STEW--Save The Earth Wagon--a metaphor for the way they live.
High school dropouts from Louisiana, Erin and Jonathan ran away from home together when she was 17 and he was 18. For the past four years they have lived out of their van volunteering and interning their way across the country as field biologists. After more than a year working for the Ventana Wilderness Society and the state parks system in Big Sur, the two are now leaving for Costa Rica, where they plan to continue their volunteer work for the environment.
My brother Will and I recently caught up with Jonathan and Erin at Andrew Molera State Park for a weekend of hiking in Big Sur.
Jonathan is wearing a ripped, stained, threadbare shirt with a giant sea turtle on the back; a tattered relic from a long-ago field gig. A pair of worn binoculars rides comfortably on his hip. His gnarled beard hangs from his face like wisps of Spanish moss from an ancient oak, suggesting a wisdom that exceeds his 22 years. He smells like he hasn''t bathed in weeks.
Before we reach the coast we stop at a eucalyptus grove where Erin spots a Monarch fluttering by. Jonathan marks the occurrence in a notebook that he will write in throughout the day.
"Ecosystems are the ultimate puzzle," he says. "I think the more you know about the pieces, the more you can help preserve the whole."
At any given time Jonathan is updating a dozen different lists in his notebook. He keeps a life list for all the butterfly species he sees and a bird list for all the songbirds that winter at Molera. While others are inside sleeping, he''s sketching the different species of moths he finds at night under Big Sur lampposts.
"There''s so much that''s been discovered. Who''s going to put it all together?" he asks aloud, though in his mind he''s already working on an answer. "In a lot of ways it''s a race against time to really understand how an ecosystem works and to preserve it before we lose it entirely.
"Take eucalyptus groves," he says of the giants that surround us. "Everybody thinks they are great. But they are actually killing the Monarchs and birds."
Erin, known as ''Smiley'' on the State Parks work schedule, takes Jonathan by the arm and we hike to the coast. "I''ve always loved him, ever since we first met," says Erin, her dreadlocked hair as thick and wild as the kelp forests.
The couple first met in eighth grade in Ruston, Louisiana. By the end of that year, Jonathan was kicked out of public school and lost touch with his newfound friend. He spent the next few years dropping in and out of private schools and youth homes. He never set foot inside a high school. By the time Erin was in 11th grade, Jonathan was working at Wal-Mart. She was working nights at McDonalds. They soon realized there was more to life than checkout lines and reconstituted hamburgers.
"She called me up out of the blue one day and said, ''I love you, let''s get out of here,''" Jonathan says. "That was all I needed to hear." They left town the next day and spent the winter hanging around a nature center in South Carolina where an older interpreter took them under his wing.
Reaching the water''s edge in Big Sur, Jonathan and Erin quickly key in on a turkey vulture soaring overhead. We follow the bird down the coast. Before long it lands near a dead fish exposed by the low tide, and begins to scavenge.
"Field work exposes you to so many things," Jonathan says. "People come out with me and see something like a snake eating a mouse. It''s the first time they''ve ever seen anything like it and they totally trip out." Yet for Jonathan, fieldwork is more than just seeing interesting wildlife. "My purpose in life is to use what I have learned to make things better," he says.
For the past four years Jonathan and Erin have worked for many conservation agencies in exchange for knowledge and, sometimes, subsistence pay. On the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas they helped reintroduce endangered sea turtles. In Washington State they pulled non-native plants from Olympic National Park. Returning to Texas they lived on the beach and studied environmental science for a year at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi, before volunteering to run a rehabilitation clinic for injured wildlife. This past year in Big Sur, they helped reintroduce California condors.
"Every night when I go to bed I dream about animals--condors, anacondas, jaguars--and when I wake up in the morning I decide what I want to go out and see," Jonathan says. "I''m proud that I''m doing what I love. As far as I''m concerned I''ve already succeeded in life."
My practical Midwest upbringing and bottomless stomach tell me you need money, at least a little, to succeed, if not survive. Jonathan disagrees. "Money has no meaning to us other than to further our education," he says. "We use very little money living in our van or on the beach."
He and Erin lived in STEW for their first four months in Big Sur. I got a chance to ride in the van earlier in the weekend. Field identification guides are strewn around, elbowing out canned food and wilting produce. A banjo and guitar, STEW''s only entertainment center, sit on the back seat.
Sitting around the campfire that evening I ask Jonathan and Erin what they liked most about the past 15 months. "Big Sur is paradise," Jonathan says, lighting an American Spirit cigarette. "The ecosystem is still totally intact. But as far as conservation goes, there isn''t that much that needs to be done. We''ve got to move on to other places, places that desperately need being saved."
"It''s a land of extremes," Erin adds. "I''ve had to learn more hard lessons here than anywhere else. I''ve learned how to catch condors, how to count butterflies, how to adjust break pads, how a non-profit works and how not to let people take advantage of me."
Both Erin and Jonathan speak warmly of the Big Sur community. "Anything you want in Big Sur you can get out and do," Erin says. "I''ll miss it."
Still, the young biologists are looking forward to their next adventure.
"I''m pretty stoked," Jonathan says. "It''s nice to be moving on to the next thing. This was the longest I ever stayed in one place, for sure the longest I ever worked in one place."
While the spirit of Save the Earth Wagon is driving Erin and Jonathan on to the tropics, the van itself will remain parked in Texas. "As for STEW, I think he''s looking forward to the rest," Erin says.