October 11, 2002
A month ago today, when I first publicly shared my billion-dollar-a-year "Backpack Nation" vision, I was of course terrified that I would be laughed at, scorned, derided as a dreamer and fool. But there's been none of that - the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Over the past thirty days, we've raised almost $2,000 of the $20,000 needed to fund the first ambassador, and much other necessary groundwork has been laid. I feel very good indeed about the chances of deploying the first Backpack Nation ambassador sometime during the first half of 2003. And having already deployed one ambassador should certainly facilitate future deployments. I imagine that making the leap from one ambassador to ten ambassadors will be not so difficult. And when the stories of ten ambassadors start bouncing off each other, I envision that literally anything will seem possible.
John Flinn, the exquisite travel columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a column about Backpack Nation on Sept 8. The article has since been reprinted in Sunday newspaper travel sections in Honolulu, Milwaukee, Austin (TX), St. Petersburg (FL), and Rochester (NY) - and will be reprinted in Dallas soon, I'm told. Keeping up with my email takes at least an hour a day now, and sometimes much more.
Donations have so far totaled $1,902 - the smallest was $3, the largest $500. On October 7, a Paypal feature was added to the Backpack Nation page of my website, so that people can make online contributions - in any major currency. (No one has used this feature yet - you could be the first.) I am enrolled in an ongoing seminar in which each participant is developing his/her own project. The seminar ends on January 13, 2003, and that date is my goal for having the first $20,000 collected, and the first ambassadorship fully funded and viable.
The Ambassador Selection Committee
I will NOT be selecting the first ambassador. I am assembling a group of more than twenty friends and colleagues from my writing and travel communities to read and evaluate the incoming essays/applications (How to Apply), and their votes will determine the first ambassador. At least twenty people have emailed to tell me they are working on their essays, but I'm not sure whether we'll have receive twenty essays or twenty thousand. I'm trying to devise a structure for processing and treating with dignity each incoming essay. If you have any ideas or know anyone with relevant experience, please...
This has proved pretty slow going. I realize I will need to have an established nonprofit organization serve as Backpack Nation's "fiscal sponsor" (we can use their tax ID number and have donations be tax deductible) until we can achieve non profit status on our own, a process that can take 3-4 months to two years. Pamela Michael has offered fiscal sponsorship through her non-profit umbrella River of Words, and we're currently working on those details. In the meantime, if anyone knows anyone who can (for a reasonable fee, such as nothing) walk me through the process of filing for nonprofit incorporation, please...
My immersion into the world of nonprofits has been something like turning over a rotten log in the deep woods. Underneath ordinary reality lies a world teeming with people and nonprofit organizations trying to make the world more harmonious, more digestible - a world that works for everyone. One organization I'd like to mention is the 100 Friends Project. After the Backpack Nation launch event, a happy looking man named Marc Gold approached me. "For the past several years I've been an ambassador just like you're describing," he said, and handed me his card. "I know you've got lots of people wanting to talk to you. Please look at my website. I think you'll want to talk to me." I did, and I did. We had breakfast a few days later. In short: Several years ago, while traveling in Asia, Marc spent about $75 to help a deaf stranger. He was present when the doctor flipped the switch on a new hearing aid, returning this woman to the world of sound. The look on her face was priceless. Marc came home fired with the realization of how much good a very small amount of money (in Western terms) can accomplish in the Third World - and, by extension, the whole world. He sent a letter to 30-40 of his friends saying that on his next foreign trip he would pay his own expenses, but would distribute to the needy whatever money his friends wanted to send him. Marc expected to receive $300-400. His friends sent $2,100. He has repeated this process many times now. On his last trip he distributed over $8,000. His website has a long list of individuals whose lives he and his friends have changed. It's pretty impressive. It's exactly in line with Backpack Nation. Have a look, if you will: www.100friends.com
My New York publisher
"Take Me With You" is, I think, the most effective promoter of the ideas and sentiments that lie at the heart of Backpack Nation. The wider the audience for my book, the more viable Backpack Nation becomes. I had a phone conversation with Tracy Brown, my editor at Ballantine in New York, in which we discussed the puzzling gap between the sales figures of "Take Me With You" in America (roughly 4,000) and in the smaller British market (roughly 20,000). Tracy said he'd put his mind to this conundrum, and when it comes time to reprint he is leaning toward replacing the rather ordinary American cover with the transcendent British cover, and including a new afterword discussing Backpack Nation, and also an update on my friend across the ocean.
My friend across the ocean
(WARNING: This paragraph will ruin the surprise at the end of "Take Me With You." If you haven't read the book, but intend to, please just skip this section. Really!)
On October 6, one year ago, three months after his return home, his wife Rita gave birth to a baby boy to whom they gave the name...Bradley! A couple of weeks ago I received a letter saying that on this recent Oct 6, the couple were throwing a party to celebrate Bradley's first birthday - Tony's father was donating a pig to the celebration. The party would also mark the progress of the work on their new guesthouse, which is nearing completion but has been stalled by lack of funds. Another disturbing development is the Philippines' continued tourist drought. (On my website I've offered a $100 reward to each of the first five travelers who go to Banaue and send me a picture of themselves trekking with Tony.) But Tony himself generally seems and sounds in very good shape. I'm trying to get a magazine to send me back there this winter (the dry season) to see him, and write an article about whether my invitation/his visit to America were, in retrospect, good for him, bad, or some bittersweet combination.
Bill Clements, who read about Backpack Nation in his newspaper in Rochester, NY, sent me $100, and then coached me through establishment of my website's Paypal donation button. He has also been auctioning things on ebay to raise money for Backpack Nation.
Michael McCarthy, a writer friend who lives in Marin, has been organizing a travel-story-telling benefit for Backpack Nation, tentatively scheduled for December 18th in San Francisco (mark your calendars). He and I have also been discussing a book, an anthology of heart-warming travel stories, the proceeds of which might just fund one entire ambassadorship - or more!
This past month I spoke at the San Francisco County jail, at Easy Going travel bookstore in Berkeley, and at two book clubs. The response to Backpack Nation is always gratifying. If you know of any organization in need of a speaker, please let me know. Also, if you know of a teacher or school in need of speakers - high school or college preferably, but I've spoken in front of kids as young as first grade (I have a slide show which always seems to engage people.) I will be discussing Backpack Nation on Pamela Michael's radio show on KPFA (94.1 FM) in Berkeley at 8:30 a.m. on October 17.
Your responses to my ideas (which are not at all my own - I'm still waiting for my first original thought) have been the only thing that make this whole Backpack Nation possible. I can't tell you how much your support and interest mean to me. I thank you in advance for spreading the word wherever you feel it is appropriate, and making this project your own in whatever way you choose. It's yours for the taking.