World-class kayaker Seth Warren was talking up biodiesel long before it was hip. And in the spring of 2006, he put his money where his mouth was, embarking on a 21,000-mile road trip that became known as the Oil + Water Project (www.oilandwaterproject.org)—the longest petroleum-free road trip ever.
Warren’s partner in the adventure was good friend and fellow kayaker Tyler Bradt, and the two made the trek from Alaska to Argentina in a retrofitted Japanese fire truck they named “Baby.” After converting Baby’s regular diesel engine into one that would run on any kind of natural oil, from French-fry grease to commercial biodiesel, the two journeyed for over a year through 16 countries—an endless summer adventure of paddling, exploring and promoting alternative fuel sources. A documentary of their journey, Oil + Water, The Movie, has won numerous awards, including People’s Choice at the Patagonia Wild and Scenic Film Festival, and Best Environmental Film at the Taos Mountain Film Festival.
Elevation Outdoors caught up with Warren in the midst of his latest undertaking—The Elements Tour (naturepropelled.com)—coming to Colorado for most of the month of January for Phase 3, the mountain phase of the expedition.
What is the Elements Tour?
The Elements Tour is a full-year expedition. It’s similar to the way most people go on road trips, but this is a tour of the water cycle. We’re tracking and following the water cycle through its full course—from rivers, lakes and oceans to evaporation to precipitation. We’ve picked out all these different nature-propelled action sports—hang-gliding, skiing, kayaking and surfing—and we’re not only doing them, but we’re using them to accentuate different types of renewable energy that exist within the cycle. We’re stopping along the way and teaching at schools and doing public events and seminars and things like that.
Where did you get your inspiration for the Elements Tour?
I’m basically inspired by nature. I grew up skiing and then I got really into kayaking. It was cool because I’d ski all winter and then kayak the rivers in the spring. I realized I was kayaking on the same water that I’d skied on all winter, and then I’d be down on the beach and realized I was surfing the same water that I skied and kayaked. When I did the Oil + Water Project, the film editor was big into hang gliding and he introduced me to a guy who taught me how to do it. He gave me this book called Understanding the Sky that was all about micro-meteorology. It suddenly just clicked that the air was the one missing component that created this full loop in nature and it was all through the water cycle. Air was the one thing I hadn’t really thought about until then. I remember looking up at a mountain range getting hit with wind and imagining this huge three-dimensional rapid going into it that nobody could really see. That’s pretty much what inspired this whole thing: the air going up into the sky to make the clouds that go over the mountains that make the snow. Then the snow melts down to the rivers and back to the ocean. The water cycle—the whole thing is awesome.
The route covers 42 cities in North America, starting in Mexico, slicing a line straight through the western U.S., and ending in Canada. How did you determine the route for the tour?
You could do this project anywhere in the world, really. We went so far in our last project that we decided to do something close to home this time, something that would inspire the people that we know the best. My goal is to make people think about the breeze hitting them in the face in a different way.
What will be the focus for the Colorado portion of the tour?
It’s really the same focus everywhere. We started in Baja, Mexico, with Phase 1, the ocean. And along the way I’m shooting time-lapse photography of all the different facets of the water cycle. Then we did Phase 2, the whole air section, starting on the beach in Southern California, traveling to the Grand Canyon, where we did some cool exhibitions with these crazy hang gliders and then ended up in Moab with BASE jumping. Phase 3, the mountain phase, kicks off in Southern Utah and then moves to Colorado, where we’ll stay for almost a month. We’re particularly interested in checking out different ski areas that have a clear environmental theme and use sustainable ways of doing things. For example, we’ll spend time at Silverton, because it’s a very minimalist type of a mountain. It’s got one lift and it’s real simple. It’s like taking what you need and leaving the rest. We’re trying to bring things like that to light in our presentations. We hope to do a stop over at the National Renewable Energy Lab, the NREL, in Golden, and we’ve got tons of school presentations and events.
Your truck, Baby, became famous for running on biofuels. What do you see as the next step for biofuel?
The next step for biofuels is figuring out efficient ways to use our waste. I use all recycled vegetable oil and it’s amazing to me that it isn’t being used more because it’s something that could go right into our gas tanks, right into a pre-existing infrastructure. And in most places, it just gets thrown out or poured down the drain into the water system which affects lots of other things. So I think education is critical. The main problem is that people think, “Oh, vegetable oil” and then they start using things like virgin vegetable oil and all of a sudden it’s coming from a food stock and then that affects our food, and food is a whole other problem. I’ve seen it firsthand, like in Honduras, where they’re actually chopping down rainforests to make room for plantations so they can make crops for biofuel. That’s definitely not the answer.
Why a Japanese fire truck?
Style. Everybody needs some style, right? It’s cool. I loved Toyota, it was sort of my favorite brand of vehicle, and so I Googled “Toyota Diesel Truck” and it was the first one that came up. It just happened to be a fire truck. And as it turns out, fire trucks are actually extremely tough. Every single part on Baby is built like a tank. So at the end of the day, what we got was just a superdurable vehicle that can handle the weight of all the vegetable oil we needed to carry to travel around the world.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from the people you’ve visited so far on the Elements Tour?
Far more than anything else, I am most inspired by the youth we meet. I’ve recently been going through footage of the last little bit of the journey and the things that the kids say, well, those are the moments from which I learn the most. The most important thing I’ve taken away is the ability to step back, clear my mind and visualize things like I was a seven-to-10-year-old kid. They have such a clear vision because they’re not hindered—they haven’t fallen into this whole social norm of “this is how it is.” This kid I talked to at one of the first schools I ever visited said, “I’m going to build a car and it’s going be called the photosynthesis car and it’s going to run on carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.” I like that, you know, why not?