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Greening the Barrio: Part 1

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Greenscool is a non-profit organization that installs renewable energy systems and educates children in impoverished schools around the world. Its first initiative, The Guaymas Project, salvaged defunct solar panels from an affluent Mexican retirement community and repurposed them in a nearby barrio school. Daily video, photographic and blog updates on the group's journey are available on its website,

So I get a call from Mike.

"Where you at?"

"Just left Jackson Hole. Headed to San Franciso. Where are you?"

"Hagerman, getting the van ready. Everyone's here. You should come."

"Come where?"

"Mexico. Guaymas. I told you about it: Greenscool -- we're getting it going."

He had told me -- drive from Hagerman, Idaho, to Northern California, interview the CEO of a renewable energy company, pick up a solar panel system, drive it thirty-five hours south and install it in a neighboring barrio school along with other solar panels harvested from a nearby gringo retirement community -- but I had had other things on my mind. Besides, 2,500 miles of driving in three days didn't appeal to me.

"I've got a meeting in the Bay area Sunday morning, Mike. I can't go to Mexico."

"Then come to Hagerman and we'll caravan. We'll drive all night. You'll be in San Franciso in the morning."

"You're crazy," is what I wanted to say; but I didn't. I continued driving instead, and at Twin Falls, instead of heading south down Highway 93, I exited the interstate, followed Mike's directions, and drove into the late afternoon sun toward the Snake River and Mike's family's place in Hagerman. My company had collapsed three months earlier, and I was just starting out on the first leg of my third roadtrip since its close. Apart from the meeting in SF, all I had lined up was more climbing. What did I have to lose?

Mike Miller -- or Michael, as he prefers to be called -- is charming and handsome and improvisational and ADD, a visionary chasing images of entrepeneurship and social responsibility only he can see. He moved to Jackson, Wyoming, six years ago, and in 2005 he began creating his dream: a power company that focused on renewable sources of energy. A year later Teton Power, which sells and installs wind turbines across the country, had been born.

Mike, however, is afflicted with a restless mind, and early one morning in 2008 he woke with another vision. This one took the energy systems he was creating to schools where there was no electricity, only poverty, the common denominator of third-world countries around the globe.

He soon had a partner. Kina Pickett, a dreadlocked mountain athlete with dark freckles, an easy grace and a model's demeanor, is a black man from Vermont, the whitest state in the union. An upbringing on the hard blue slopes of Stowe lent his ski turn a precision that powder skiers from the Rockies rarely acquire, and an education in an elite New England college honed his intelligence with an edge belied by his Ray Bans and worn cotton shirts. By the time he got to Jackson he was ready for deeper turns, and carving lines on the peaks of the Teton range led to ever more adventurous trips abroad.

About the time Mike was woken by his vision, Kina was putting the final touches on a school he had helped build in Peru. When he got back to the States, he found four messages on his cell phone from Mike, all of them focused on the same thing: renewable energy systems in third-world countries. Serendipitously, he had been thinking along similar lines in Peru. A conversation later, Greenscool had taken form.

Mike had known Mati Gershater, a stocky, disheveled thirty-year-old with a penchant for upside-down handstands and ebullient laughs, for five years when he departed the Sun Valley area for Jackson. Mati had grown up in Flagstaff but moved to Hailey, Idaho, to pursue his passion: outdoor education that teaches children through the medium of nature. A decade of friendship between the two meant they were in regular conversation even after Mike's move. During a visit to Jackson, Mati listened as Mike described Greenscool. Mati had always wanted to expand his teaching experiences to the formal classroom. Now he had his chance.

By the time I got to Hagerman, the three men had been joined by Khyber, Mike's 17 year-old son, a six-foot-four man-child with the demeanor of a violin player (which he is). With alternative parents, his frustration with traditional education found a ready solution: quit, and get your schooling from the world. His next lesson was to be held in Guaymas.

Mati had driven down from the Sun Valley area with Mike Chase, an amiable, compact bear of a man with white hair and a place in his eyes that reacted slowly to the light. He had lost his father two months earlier. Now, he was headed to San Carlos, outside Guaymas, to work on the family house. He had accepted the offer of a ride from Mati. "We were supposed to leave on Tuesday," he told me after we shook hands. "It's Friday. It's a good thing I'm a patient man, because I've been waiting for three days."

Why was I in Hagerman? Well, why not? I had to drive to San Francisco anyway, and if they were going to drive all night, I could caravan and save myself the cost of a hotel room in Elko, Nevada. But Mexico? For a philanthropic renewable energy project with a loosely connected group of wanderers? I'm a climber: my car was filled with rock shoes, ice tools, ropes -- not to mention skis, boots and skins in case I ended up in Canada. There wasn't a pair of flip-flops or a sun hat to be found.

The van was headed to Healdsburg, an hour and a half north of San Francisco. ETD: one hour. ETA: fourteen hours hence. My route and theirs coincided for most of the way. "I'll go with you as far as Reno," I said to Mike. The full moon popped up above the basalt cliffs on the other side of the river, a pale yellow orb over the January snows. "After that, we'll see."

Mike just looked at me and smiled.

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