Wander Like Water
December 03, 2019
When Southwestern sweethearts Patrick Houston ’09 and Sarah Woolley Houston ’11 were students at the University, neither of them had specific dream jobs in mind after graduation; they just knew they’d translate what they’d learned in their respective fields into any career. “SU gave us the tools to work effectively and thrive in a wide variety of settings,” Sarah says confidently.
Applying academic studies to careers
Patrick’s chosen field of study was quite personal: a traumatic boating experience led him to a grief counselor who inspired him to pursue the field of psychology. Sarah wanted to know how to create positive change in the world, so she majored in political science to better understand policy development and minored in communication studies so she could examine the influence of media in the daily lives of individuals and communities.
After graduation, Patrick began working for the state of Texas as a safety compliance specialist with the Railroad Commission of Texas; his position was in the department that is responsible for ensuring that Texas’s 469,737 miles of pipeline meet the state and federal laws and regulations governing safety and damage prevention. During those same years in a government office, he applied his psychology degree as a board member for the LifeSteps Council on Alcohol and Drugs, assisting families in Williamson County who suffered from the effects of alcohol and drug abuse. He landed the job thanks to his capstone internship with the organization, where, he says, “I learned hands-on valuable life lessons.” The executive director extended an opportunity to Patrick to serve as a board member following that internship, and he was later elected vice president of the board, where he served for six years.
After serving as student-body president during her college years and then as a member of SU’s Board of Trustees for the two years immediately following graduation, Sarah worked as a corporate communications fellow for what was then called Public Strategies (now Hill+Knowlton Strategies), an international public-relations firm that specializes in political campaigns and corporate communications. A fellow Southwestern trustee had recommended Sarah to a colleague, which got her the interview that earned her the job. She started in the firm’s Austin office, she recalls, “but then I moved to Washington, DC, for the experience and adventure!” She was drawn to the work because she knew that “communicating is vital to every organization and job position, whether that is explicit or implicit”—lessons learned in her academic minor and then applied in her new career. She was able to apply the critical-thinking skills SU had taught her to all aspects of her work, an ability that she says “upper management really recognized.”
The birth of a new venture
The pair moved back to the Austin area in 2013. Sarah was working as a program coordinator for the Colorado River Alliance while Patrick had founded a business called Creative Force. After dating for eight years, the couple decided to get married in April 2016. Then, when the lease on their duplex ran out just a few months later, their neighbors sparked the idea of a bicycle tour. “We had never considered long-term travel before—much less by bicycle!—but we fell in love with the idea,” says Sarah.
They began to slim down their possessions and acquired the gear they’d need to set off. But the couple wanted to do more than just see the U.S. and Mexico. “We thought bicycle touring alone would be a great adventure, but we wanted to give our journey a purpose,” Sarah explains.
And that is how the outreach project Wander Like Water was born: the Houstons would produce videos for YouTube and social media in which they would showcase not just their travels but also educate viewers about how each water source they’d visit “has a story, an issue, or a threat.” In turn, their goal was to encourage audiences to learn about their local water sources but also take action to protect those precious resources.
The project was a perfect mesh of the couple’s skills and passions. Sarah, a self-proclaimed “water educator” since graduating from SU, says her commitment to spreading awareness and dialogue about water and sustainable habits is “something I have carried in all my jobs regardless of actual title.” Patrick’s knowledge of film production and familiarity with YouTube helped the pair turn their dream into a reality.
Hills and mountains—both literal and figurative
Besides climbing the literal hills and mountains of the landscape they were traversing, the Houstons say that one major obstacle of their project was balancing the time spent capturing and editing video content with the distances they were covering each day. Their average daily mileage was approximately 50 miles, but they also sometimes covered 90 or more miles with bikes weighing up to 100 pounds, depending on the amount of water and food they were carrying.
But perhaps the most significant challenge of their tour was, as Sarah recounts, “digesting some of the disheartening truths about the water sources we studied along our journey. Seeing firsthand, from the seat of a bicycle, how intensely the natural systems that make up the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers have been altered revealed the complexity of ‘sustainability’ for these rivers.” For example, they learned that in the western Colorado River basin, water is diverted in every direction from all its tributaries, which prevents the river from reaching the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, she adds, “for the Mississippi River, the opposite is true. The levees and channelized streams push huge volumes of polluted water down into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the ‘Dead Zone’—and depleted agricultural lands and land subsidence [the compacting and sinking of the Earth’s surface]. None of these issues have an easy fix.”
Bicycle touring instilled in the couple a deep sense of concern; however, it also filled them with an undeniable feeling of hope. They encountered alarming conditions everywhere they visited, but, Sarah says, “we encountered an incredible level of kindness. We had strangers across the U.S., in Mexico, and in Hawaii offer us places to sleep, meals to eat, and lots of laughs. One of the prominent takeaways from over a year on the road was that people, overall, are kind.”
The Houstons also experienced an indelible sense of personal satisfaction when they arrived at their various destinations. After particularly long and sometimes grueling trips, being able to look back and think, “I rode my bicycle the entire way here?!” gave the couple a feeling of accomplishment and affirmation. “Traveling by bicycle affords the adventurer a completely different experience than if you were to travel by car or plane. The slower pace allows you to take in sights much more intimately, and interactions with locals were organic and [frequent], allowing us to really see some incredible places and connect us with more people along our journey. It felt like an immersive experience,” the couple share. “Trust us: there is a big difference between the cultures of Havi, Hawai’i; Lake Havasu City, Arizona; Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur, Mexico; Ruleville, Mississippi—and so many more!”
The Houstons took a break from their tour in September 2017, after a year of traveling by bicycle around the continent, but they continued blogging and producing educational materials on their website. They share that the experience was important for multiple reasons. “We wanted to show an alternative means of travel that is accessible to just about anyone,” Sarah explains. “It so cheap if you’re camping and cooking most meals. We lived on peanut butter.” The journey also gave the Houstons a “gap year”—an experience that “most Americans know nothing about,” she says. But perhaps most importantly, Wander Like Water enabled Sarah and Patrick “to connect people with their source of drinking water, aka the thing that we rely on to survive! Knowing about your water source means that you are more likely to protect it. We’ve had YouTube comments, emails, and messages telling us they have never thought about water before—and how it’s changed their appreciation for the resource.”
Rough and smooth waters
In the 17 months that followed the end of their whirlwind trip, life was admittedly “tumultuous” for the Southwestern graduates. They returned to Texas, purchasing an overgrown patch of land in Smithville, Texas, with the intention of creating a livable space while working remote and contract jobs. By April 2018, they started to build a tiny home—on their own, sans contractors—using repurposed wood from an old cabin on the property, free wood advertised on Craigslist, and piles of materials on the sides of the road. Then, a job opportunity in Memphis materialized for Sarah, and in the fall of last year, the couple moved to Tennessee, excited to start a new adventure and establish a bit of coveted stability.
Since then, Patrick has worked as the general manager of a locally owned bicycle shop and as a coordinator for Towne Park, a company that provides services to hotels and healthcare systems across the country. Sarah is the associate director of education and outreach at the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research (CAESAR) at the University of Memphis; her work focuses on translating the technical reports of researchers into accessible information about water sources and responsible development for policymakers, business leaders, educators, and members of the public. “All of this has stemmed from our bicycle tour and Wander Like Water,” she comments. “We would have never guessed.”
But Wander Like Water is not over; the Houstons remain adamant about that point. “Wander Like Water is still on our minds and in our hearts,” Sarah promises. The couple enjoys that their YouTube and Instagram followers as well as individuals they met on the road still reach out to them about their upcoming travels and other videos they’ll be producing. “Patrick and I both want to keep educating about water, adventure, and bike touring,” Sarah says, but they’re also excited about learning about their new home city and staying put for the time being.
To prospective and current Southwestern students, the Houstons share this advice: “Say yes to new opportunities and spontaneous invitations. The road to ‘success’ is not straight and simple, so be prepared to take detours and loops and almost fly off the curves!”