Texas family journeyed to New Hampshire using only bitcoin

Last modified: 7/8/2014 12:18:21 AM
Catherine Bleish’s political activism has taken many forms over the years.

She’s stumped for Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, she’s videotaped police officers arresting people on drug charges and she’s protested at fusion centers where the federal and state government manage and share information.

This summer, the mom of two is protesting with her wallet.

Bleish and her husband, John Bush, drove from San Marcos, Texas, between Austin and San Antonio, to Lancaster, in New Hampshire’s Great North Woods, for the Porcupine Freedom Festival, an annual campsite gathering of the Free State Project.

They packed 2-year-old Aliana and 16-month-old Bill into the minivan and traveled almost the entire 4,400-mile journey spending only bitcoin for everything from hotel rooms to snacks.

The family isn’t the first to try this type of experiment. Last year, a childless couple spent two months adapting their normal lives to living on bitcoin, then traveled overseas. They’re planning a feature documentary about the trip, called Life on Bitcoin.

Bleish and Bush are also no strangers to self-promotion, having made six episodes of a reality show documenting their unconventional farm lives in Texas.

She’s blogging about the bitcoin journey for Bitcoin Magazine, including the moments when – exhausted from driving and dealing with call-center customer service representatives who had never heard of bitcoin and didn’t want to deal with the complicated transactions – she felt like she had single-handedly let down the alternative currency movement.

For the first leg of the trip, from Texas to Washington, D.C., to New York City to Lancaster, Bleish and Bush spent a few “FRN” (federal reserve notes, or dollars) on unexpected tolls and put $21 on a credit card for a last-minute hotel reservation.

“I actually sat in the car sobbing when John paid with the credit card. I had committed to doing this, and I felt like a failure, but it was 3 a.m. and we had been stuck in construction traffic for an hour and half and I couldn’t put the kids through that anymore,” Bleish said.

Why go through the experiment at all? For Bleish, it’s simple.

“It’s ethical money. Unlike the dollar, which is blood money,” she said.

Bitcoin is a digital cryptocurrency established in 2009. Like PayPal, encrypted transactions between bitcoin accounts travel over the internet from a buyer’s wallet to a seller’s wallet. Every transaction is verified by computers that solve a code to authenticate the bitcoin based on its “blockchain,” the history of all the transactions it has been used in.

The individuals who own the computers are rewarded with bitcoin when their software is the first to crack the encryption code.

Bitcoin wallets aren’t insured or backed by a bank, so if they are hacked or stolen, the money is lost. Bitcoin is also not tracked by the government, which is how it earned a reputation as the favored currency of online black markets.

Using his phone one morning at the festival, Bush accessed his bitcoin wallet. He scanned the code on the table in front of him with the coffee pot, entered the price listed, and hit a button. The seller wasn’t even at the table, relying on the honor system.

“People say, ‘it’s dirty money, it’s used to buy guns and drugs.’ In reality, this is what it’s about, people peacefully, voluntarily interacting and using money they believe in,” said Bush.

He and Bleish believe people should live their lives independent of centralized and coercive institutions. For them, that includes the U.S. government and the federal reserve banking system, as well as big-box stores and corporate farms.

“When people pay their income taxes, they’re forced to subsidize these wars of foreign aggression. Every time someone uses that dollar, they are empowering that system, giving it reason to exist,” Bush said. “We choose to operate with systems outside of that. We want to build and grow this and show there are other ways to engage in exchange.”

Which is all well and good when they’re living on their farm in San Marcos, where they grow most of their own food and raise chickens, using the eggs as barter. They accept payment in bitcoin for their labor, and mine them by setting up computers to verify transactions online.

Bleish purchased what she could ahead of time on Amazon – a stroller, boxes of snacks – and painstakingly mapped out their route, researching what gas stations would be most prevalent along the route. She bought gift certificates to Whole Foods and Orbitz for hotels.

They found one restaurant in Washington, D.C., and one in New York that accepted bitcoin directly, and participated in a pilot program at a Holiday Inn in Brooklyn.

In all three cases, though, the employee cashing out their bill had to call a supervisor for help.

“It’s been a learning experience for us, to know that even if they say they accept bitcoin, they’re still learning,” Bleish said.

“I just wanted to prove that this could be something. I want to bring kids and families into bitcoin, to show the practical side of it. . . . To live a truly free life, you have to take responsibility for everything. That’s your currency, your food, your health. . . . It’s a major shift we have to work on. John and I have been working on it, exploring it for four years, and it’s been hard, it’s been major changes.”

And, when the going gets too hard, there are always loopholes. Like proxies, people who paid for things in cash and let the family reimburse them in bitcoin.

That’s how the family got to enjoy strawberry picking at a cash-only farmstand in Hollis on their way out of New Hampshire in a car fueled by bitcoin.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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