How I Lost 15 Pounds in Seven Days on the Appalachian Trail

It is 607 stairs from the base of Amicalola Falls to the top, and as I stood there at the bottom looking up at the climb to come I was keenly aware of the tug of my pack against my shoulders. It’d been years since I’d walked under any significant weight.

The date was Tuesday September 2nd and I knew the movie theatre back home would be holding a five-dollar special. People there and all over the country would be flocking in for the release of A Walk in the Woods, the Robert Redford, Nick Nolty adaptation of Bill Bryson’s famous book. Some people, I knew, had gone out and bought the book in order to read it before they saw the movie. We, I thought with nervous excitement, would be living it. For the next few weeks a friend and I would be retracing the first segment of Bryson’s walk, sleeping in the same campsites, and dining in the same outposts, and it all started here at Amicalola.

Now technically speaking Bryson and Katz began their hike from the top of Amicalola Falls, the last bit of paved road you see before wandering up into the Georgia mountains on your way to the summit of Springer, which itself marks the actual southern end of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a very good thing they did, because if they hadn’t A Walk in the Woods may never have been written, or at the very least may have ended up being a much-loved short story about a waterfall, and Katz’ heart attack. The climb is hell. I’m writing this from a motel room in Hiawassee, with more than a week and much of Georgia behind me, and for my money those stairs are the hardest bit we’ve done yet.

That’s not to say that the rest of Georgia’s easy; It includes several formidable climbs including Blood Mountain — at 4,458 feet, the tallest mountain on the trail in Georgia — and a thigh-torching ascent up an unassuming looking hill called Kelly Knob. But those stairs at Amicalola beat them all.

This is partly because, well, there are 607 stairs — who in this day and age has ever walked 607 stairs to see anything? — and partly because, since they are at the very beginning of the trail, you are inevitably carrying too much weight.

“I call these first few miles the REI trail,” a man named Survival Dave told us on the ride from Atlanta to Amicalola, “people ditch all kinds of gear in the woods, trying to cut weight.”

We’d weighed our packs at the Amicalola visitor center, and felt quite gratified to see that they were just forty pounds or so. Weight is a big deal among backpackers, and it’s understood that the lighter your pack is, the more seasoned and trail tested you are. To pack everything you need to stay alive on your back — clothes, food, water, everything — and have it all weigh less than a large bag of dog food seemed quite macho.

But in truth, you don’t understand the meaning of the word need until you begin to climb those stairs. From the moment, the moment, we started walking I began an ever expanding list of shit I was carrying but didn’t need; knife-sharpener, spare knife, a pair of jeans, a guitar, several books, and much more than I’d like to admit in writing, all of it dead weight in the face of the mountains.

This proved to be a popular conversation topic with hikers we met over the next few days, many of whom were amused by the things I’d felt compelled to lug through these hills. Luckily I wasn’t the only one who’d made bad decisions on gear; Wasn’t the worst one either.

“I met one kid out here last year,” a man named Smokes had told us one night in camp, “couldn’t have been more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. He was carrying — I shit you not — ninety pounds worth of stuff. He had thirty days worth of food on him!”

Thirty days worth of food is quite excessive, since you can easily re-supply every 3-5 days in towns and outposts along the AT.

“He was carrying a bow and arrows!” Smokes said, “He was lucky to make five miles a day.”

This of course is the principle lesson that the trail teaches, and the reason, I think, that people flock to it year after year. It forces you — through steep, rocky ascents, jarring descents, wind, rain, snow, heat, and an ungodly number of stairs — to strip away everything that’s not really important to your survival. Day by day, mile by mile, you cast off the superfluous stuff of modern life until soon even your name is gone.

Smokes, for example, was not the man’s real name but a nickname given to him by fellow hikers at some point in his travels. These “trail names” as they’re known are a time-honored tradition among long distance hikers, and getting one is a right of passage. As is optimistically carrying too much stuff out into the hills, and later dumping it — with equal optimism — into the first post office box (or trash can) you can find.

It’s through this stripped-down lifestyle, and the constant meditative work of strenuous walking, that the people out here hope to gain something that the modern world, for all its gadgets and gizmos, can’t offer them: clarity.

I can’t tell you if it works at all; Not yet. But I can tell you that these days, with only a week on the trail so far, my pack weight is down to about twenty-five pounds. My guitar is gone. I carry just one book. I do have a trail name, in case you’re wondering. But that is a story for a different time. For now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a couple more things I need to mail home.

Build a School for the Price of Your Daily Coffee: ChangeHeroes

 

“That’s the most fucked up question I’ve ever been asked,” said the disembodied voice echoing to my headphones through the Skype-o-sphere from the other side of the continent. I was nineteen minutes, and a half dozen technical difficulties into my interview with Taylor Conroy, and things were going great.

Conroy is the founder of Change Heroes, and is among a growing group of innovative disruptors. Business owners known as Social Entrepreneurs who see potential for companies to be economic engines that drive positive social change.

Change Heroes is a friend-funding platform which gives anyone the tools they need to raise $10,000 and build a school, library, or water well somewhere in the developing world. The system leverages technology and small meaningful numbers to create huge tangible impact in very little time. For example, a typical campaign is designed around one person getting 33 of their friends to donate $3.33 a day for three months. By the end of their campaign, and for no more than the price of a daily cup of coffee, those friends will have raised enough money to build a school and change more than a thousand lives for decades to come.

Put another way, if they were to begin in say, September, they’d have funded an entire school before the end of the fall semester, giving dozens of deserving kids the right to an education and each for less than they’re likely to spend on a textbook or two. They’d also be part of one of the world’s largest education pushes in recent years. A project Change Heroes is calling their Back to School Build a School Campaign.

“Even though you and I are in the part of the world where we’re starting to think about going back to school, 130 million children aren’t. We want to change that so we’re starting with a goal of funding 100 schools in Kenya in September.”

This may seem like an extreme goal, but it’s a perfect example of what sets socially concerned businesses apart from their traditional for-profit and non-profit relatives. Change Heroes is a for-profit business keeping 10% of all funds that roll in through their platform. Because their revenue is wholly dependent on the success of their social mission, the only way they can survive as a company is by funding lots and lots of schools for other people.

“Like if they [for-profits and non-profits] spawned a freakishly good looking child that’s what Change Heroes would be.” Conroy said. The impact of this month long campaign would reach well over a hundred thousand students all over Kenya, and put one hundred schools on the ground in a country smaller than the state of Nevada.

Preposterous, you say? Don’t be so sure. Change Heroes has already raised over $600,000, funding more than 60 schools in just their first round of testing. In less than two years they’ve been able to work out the kinks of the program, and are scaling quickly.

“The site’s now ready to go live,” Conroy said, “If we had ten thousand people log onto the site today, and start campaigns, it would be able to handle it.”

As for the aforementioned “fucked up question”: Will it be able to continue handling it? Is there any legitimacy to the claim that social entrepreneurship is just a fad? Can it possibly be as sustainable as the capitalism we’ve seen until now?

“It’s ridiculous that someone would say [social entrepreneurship] isn’t sustainable even though we’re living in a world that has proven to be unsustainable. Our food supply is not sustainable. Our climate is not sustainable. Our health is not sustainable, it’s deteriorating at a ridiculously fast rate – that’s the definition of unsustainable. It needs massive change, and the thing is whenever massive change happens it’s met with massive opposition. The people that think that it’s unsustainable, or think it’s a fad are people that are grasping onto the old way of doing things.
There’s always tons of ‘em. You can call them leggers, you can call them late adopters, or you can call them people that just have it dead wrong.”

For more on Change Heroes, and to start up your campaign check out their website at http://www.changeheroes.com/

This article originally ran on MISSION.tv. You can find it, and a ton of other cool articles on social do-gooders here

Flip Flops That Are Ending Wars

Every startups got its low points. Sometimes it can feel like getting trampled by a raging bull. But when those low points hit me, I like to pause, and think of the experience of Matt Griffin, general badass and founder of Combat Flip Flops.

That’s Matt in the picture, the guy trying to hang his flip flops on the horns of the bull. It was taken just a few days before we connected via skype from halfway around the world. But in order to understand what he’s doing there, you must first understand what he’s doing in general.

After beginning his career as a US Army Ranger and serving three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq Griffin – Griff for short – was “invited back” to Afghanistan in a private sector consulting position. It was there, while on a tour of a factory that he saw a flip flop made from the sole of a combat boot. It was an ugly little thing, likely made as a joke, but in that instant an idea was born. The concept was to create a footwear brand that expressed the unique culture of Afghanistan, and was produced within their borders, helping to stabilize the job industry and provide economic opportunity as the allies drew down their military presence.

The idea seemed solid enough, but the team was battling a clock. Their first production round of 2,000 pairs was a flop (no pun intended), and with troop drawdowns increasing and the demand for military equipment plummiting, factories were closing their doors left and right. Just as he was closing the door on a shipping container full of materials for 3,000 pairs of flip flops, he got a call saying that his factory needed him to commit to 80,000 pairs in the next year, or they too would have to close. With 2,000 pairs down the drain, and more than 3,000 pairs worth of materials without a home, Griff did the only thing he could do: He shipped the container to his house.

“We had no idea how to make flip flops,” he said “So we did what anybody would do, we googled it.” After selling one of his cars, and some of his toys, they raided an old manufacturing plant and secured the low tech machinery needed to turn his 600 sq ft garage into a flip flop factory. “It took a few weeks of 5 am to midnight” he said, but they got the shipment done, and Combat Flip Flops was on the chart.

The experience of crafting  thousands of pairs of flip flops in a garage gave rise to the company’s next big idea. Something they call their Expeditionary Production Facility, a full on flip flop factory which fits in a single shipping container, and can be dropped anywhere in the world. CFF plans to ship these EPFs to some of the most conflict ridden places on earth – Columbia, Afghanistan, Parts of East Africa – and provide what is essentially a turnkey solution for jobs, and income. Working with a group of marketers, supply line specialists, and craftsmen CFF is poised to change the way we pick up the pieces of violent conflict.

Their motto really says it all – “Bad for running, worse for fighting”. A tongue in cheek reference to the power of responsible industry to stabilize conflict zones. It’s a slogan that Griff has taken upon himself time and time again to prove, running first from attack dogs, and most recently with the bulls in Pamplona.

If you dig what they’re doing, agree with the idea of driving economic development in conflict zones, or simply want to learn more check out their indiegogo campaign here.

This article first appeared on MISSION.tv. You can find it and lots of other cool stuff here

Dale Partridge and His Ridiculously Productive T-Shirt Co

It’s natural for people – upon hearing that a company donates a portion of its revenues to charity – to question exactly what the impact of such a strategy is. To wonder how much is being raised, and whether or not their purchase is really going to make a difference. Well, there’s one company that answers this question straight out with donation totals displayed right at the top of the page, and it’s awesome.

“We typically won’t do less than $15,000,” said Dale Partridge, CEO of online cause marketplace Sevenly, “…Ever, really.” That number – 15,000 – isn’t raised yearly or even monthly, but weekly and it’s often much higher than that.

The idea is simple, but has proven overwhelmingly effective: Each week Sevenly partners with a new non-profit and $7 from every sale goes toward supporting it.

“We weren’t called to the field,” Partridge said, explaining how the idea came to be, “But we felt really called to the people called to the field.” After starting five other companies and searching for a more fulfilling experience than profit alone, Partridge began thinking of ways to blend value and meaning. He did some research and was surprised to find that there were thousands of charities out there, all doing great work but struggling nonetheless. “Dozens of these guys are closing their doors every day,” he said, “and it’s not for lack of passion.” It was funding. Funding, and attention. Sevenly became a means of funneling those two life giving resources to the people who could make the most out of them.

They do this by selling custom shirt designs for every cause, hand drawn in house and produced right here in the U.S. under the strictest sustainability guidelines. Shoppers also have a chance to multiply their social impact by buying any of more than 250 other products from various socially beneficial brands. Just three years ago Sevenly existed as nothing more than an idea. But already they’ve backed dozens of causes. From the humane treatment of animals to the end of human trafficking Sevely’s supported it all. A weeklong campaign for 4 Paws for Ability raised $31,434 to support the placement of service dogs with disabled children. A campaign for Autism Speaks raised seven times that. All told more than a hundred campaigns have been run so far and nearly three million dollars donated.

It hasn’t been easy.

“Logistically it’s crazy,” Partridge said, “non-stop work.” New designs must be drawn up every week, along with pictures taken, ads created, and campaigns tracked. Products are ordered 24/7, and the whole thing starts anew every single Monday. At one point Partridge worked more than two hundred days straight. “Now,” he said, “we get weekends off, sometimes.” All the work isn’t without it’s benefit though. Theres the obvious reward of supporting so many good causes, but it also provides a formidable competitive advantage.

“We never worried much about competition because we doubt anyone else has the stamina we do.”

As the company grows they’ve begun putting systems in place to ease the workload. In the coming years Sevenly aims to be the world’s largest online cause-marketplace. A mix between Fab and Kickstarter. A place where you can get the things you want from the brands you love, and support a great cause while doing it. Check ‘em out here to find out more.

This article originally appeared on MISSION.tv. You can find it and lots of other cool stuff here

Editing Your Life with Graham Hill

GRAHAM_HILL_Reid_Rolls_Headshot

Graham Hill speaks in the slow, confident tone of someone who works too hard to be enamored by their own success. He doesn’t say much. But when he does talk, he mentions amazing feats, like his time on the Plastiki – a catamaran made from recycled water bottles which sailed across the Pacific – with such passing simplicity that you might think he was merely recounting an interesting article he’d glanced over, rather than a once in a lifetime adventure he’d undertaken. He is, in short, a very nice guy who does very cool stuff. His newest project, LifeEdited, is no different.

“So the basic concept behind LifeEdited,” he said, Continue reading “Editing Your Life with Graham Hill”

Moving Beyond Bandaids with LivelyHoods

“Alex, have you ever made this much money in your life?”

The young man had sold four products in a single day and was going to earn a respectable $30 in commission. He got very quiet, and a hesitant smile spread across his face, eyes sparkling.

“Yes”

“Really? When?”

“Only when I was stealing.”

That story was related to me by Maria Springer of the Kenya based social startup LivelyHoods as we skyped from half a world apart. Springer and her co-founder and longtime friend Tania Laden are addressing social issues in Kenya via a two-prong approach. First identifying promising street youth and offering them training and employment in salesmanship. Then putting the team to work selling socially beneficial goods (think clean burning stoves, solar lamps, and feminine hygiene products) to people in the surrounding area. Their hope is to use entrepreneurship to offer economic opportunity and a standard of living previously unknown to the slums of Kenya.

And the model is working! Their first shop opened in Nairobi in 2011, and since then has trained and employed more than 65 youth salespeople. It was showing an operational profit in a little over a year, which is amazing for any retail location, and has prompted the team to open its second location, which officially kicked things off in the middle of August.

“We had no idea how talented these young people were going to be at sales,” Maria said of their brand’s impressive growth, “I mean, just incredible, natural salespeople.”

LivelyHoods funded the second store through an amazing Indiegogo campaign, which raised more than $27,000 without levying even one single ounce of guilt, or what’s known in the industry as “Poverty Porn”. No pictures of starving babies, no tent cities or thousand yard stares. Just a sincere, even comedic call for legitimate solutions to solvable problems. Oh, and one crazy stunt: Springer vowed to wear 25 bandaids on her face throughout the campaign, one for every thousand dollars they wished to raise. A call for an end to temporary “BandAid solutions” to social problems. She did, and dozens of fans jumped in on the #BeyondBandAids campaign, posting pictures of themselves all over the world with colorful strips of elastic rubber adhered to their cheeks and foreheads.

“It was a way to make talking about job creation fun. You know what I mean? Like, that’s typically pretty yawn-worthy,” she laughed.

And they’re not just changing the conversation on employment. They’re changing the perception of what street youth are capable of, and they’re changing lives. Take the young man, Alex, from the story at the beginning of this piece. His early life was characterized by drifting in and out of orphanages, and hustling the streets of Kangaware just to survive. Unfortunately that story’s not so unique. Kenya is a nation of roughly 40 million, where 75% of the youth are unemployed, three-hundred thousand of whom are estimated to be living on the streets. But when he began work with LivelyHoods Alex was transformed into someone truly remarkable. He showed an instant capacity for sales, rising in just days to the top of the leaderboard, and setting records that remain unbroken. Today, he works as the group’s Director of Recruitment. And while he’s certainly headed for a promising future, it’s his words about his past that Springer will never forget. Words straight from the source on what matters most even to those who have least. His new job provided for him in a way that only stealing once could. And he was the top salesman. What did that say about his peers?

“It was at that moment,” Springer said with a tone that can only come from remembering something that truly changed you, “that my co-founder and I realized that in some cases these young people are willing to take a pay cut in exchange for dignity, in exchange for opportunity, and in exchange for a future, and that… Well, I guess there’s a lot you could say about that”

This article originally appeared on MISSION.tv You can find it and a ton of other great articles on social good here

 

Turning Trash to Treasure

 

It’s surf season in southern California. Well, some might say every season is surf season in SoCal. But the summer’s particular blend of vacation time, warm weather, and bikinis on the beach makes it a special time in the region’s year-round surf calendar. The smells of sunscreen and wet neoprene fill the salty air from La Jolla to Santa Barbara as people fill the beaches and riders flock to the waters at Lower Trestles, Huntington Beach, Bolsa Chica, and dozens more in search of the perfect wave. The northern swells are shutting down, but the big southern waves are rolling in, and when they hit hard you’ll be sure to find a handful of broken surfboards in the trash cans that line the state’s beaches.

Under normal conditions no one’s quite sure how long those boards would take to disappear.

The best estimates for biodegradation of the foam and fiberglass that make up most surfboards is around a million years. But of course, that’s just an estimate. Styrofoam’s only been around since about 1941, so it hasn’t even existed long enough for us to find out how long it takes to de-exist. In fact, we haven’t existed long enough to do so. Let’s say Jesus surfed. If the Vatican got their hands on his board tomorrow it would really still be more new than old – only .2% of the way through its breakdown process. If the very first homo sapien walked into this world carrying a surfboard, broke it, and chucked it on some cenozoic beach somewhere it would only be a fifth of the way through its decomposition today, and could witness the rise and fall of modern civilization eighty times over again before disappearing. Left to their own, surfboards last a very, very long time.

But in the hands of Ed Lewis and Kipp Denslow of Enjoy Handplanes those old broken boards disappear in a matter of days – re-shaped, re-painted, and returned to the economy as one-of-a-kind handplanes for bodysurfing.

“We feel really good about it,” said Lewis during our chat at their brand new shop just north of San Diego, “We’re a filter. Taking other people’s trash, and creating something that’s artistic and functional.”

It may seem natural that two surfers would end up starting a company that recycles old boards into equipment for bodysurfing. But they’ll tell you that the idea couldn’t have been further from their minds just a few short years ago. Lewis was a freelance web designer, Denslow a “garage surfboard-shaper-glasser-kinda-guy”, and neither one had ever heard of a handplane. Lewis sought Denslow’s help in constructing a more eco friendly all-wooden surfboard kit he’d received, and the two men bonded over fatherhood, and their love of the surf.

“On Thursday nights we’d have our daughters come together, and we’d glass this board in his house,” Lewis said, “Eventually we got into this movement of sustainable surfing, and we just really got into it.”

Their attention turned to what to do with all the broken surfboards they saw lying around their beaches, and lining the curbs on garbage day whenever big swells rolled in. The answer came from a chance encounter with legendary surfer John Peck.

“He pulled this handplane out of his van and was like ‘this is what I’m playing with these days’,” said Lewis, “and I was looking at it and I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t even know what it was used for” he laughed.

Turns out what it’s used for is making a day at the beach a whole hell of a lot more fun. A handplane is like a tiny surfboard for your hand. Its size and shape help to reduce drag while bodysurfing, increasing your speed and pulling you into waves more easily. Their size and shape seemed perfect for up-cycling the old broken boards, and Kipp quickly turned one out in his shop.

“I took this thing out in the water,” Lewis said, “and I caught a few waves, and I just started laughing. It was so fun, it was like being a little kid again. So I stopped surfing for three months, and just bodysurfed.”

Word spread organically as surfers caught sight of what he was doing and began requesting handplanes of their own. Lewis started posting pictures of each creation on his blog, and all of a sudden Enjoy had an international audience. GoPro got in touch after seeing that they’d begun including camera mounts on some of their models, and after catching wind of their surfing related eco-effort Patagonia began carrying them.

Every single handplane is a custom creation, made from a recycled board that otherwise would have gone into the trash. The hand straps are made from recycled wetsuits, and many of the designs are actually recycled shirt fabric that they’ve glassed into the board. They use an environmentally friendly resin rather than polyurethane, pack their handplanes in cardboard boxes rescued from the trash, and seal them with a biodegradable packing tape. They’re even searching for innovative uses for their scrap foam.

This is good business for sure, but the eco-concern goes deeper than mere marketing. I asked Ed if they considered themselves social entrepreneurs and was met with a pause, then a chuckle “Was there a day we were supposed to sign papers on that?” he asked. His way of saying that you don’t give yourself the title of social entrepreneur. You’re either truly concerned with your company’s responsibility to the world, or you’re not.  Enjoy’s model is about true responsibility, the kind that a parent feels for their child. In fact, it was that same paternal instinct – the desire to be a good influence – that originally gave rise to the logo that would become their name.

“Surfing went through its rebellious faze, and now that I’ve got kids I just want to set a more positive example,” said Lewis “When Kipp asked me to create a logo for these boards he was making I started thinking about what just a simple, positive message would be, and I thought of that word – enjoy. He tried it out on the first handplane, and the name just kind of stuck.” It’s more than a logo though. More than a brandname too. It’s a signature, the symbol of the collected efforts of everyone behind the handplane. It’s also a call to action. A one-word reminder that trash doesn’t have to be trash. With creativity it can be spun around, re-imagined, and re-released into the world as something brand new. Something that’s artistic, and functional, and green. Something that the end user will ultimately – totally – enjoy.