By Paige Lambert
Wine jugs painted with nail polish and model car paint drift out into the Gulf of Mexico, carrying letters of hopes, dreams and aspirations. Soon, one may even make it from Panama to Japan.
With a nod to Sting and the Police, the bottles are part of the SOS Message in a Bottle Project, an idea started by former Mountain City resident and author Dianna Aston.
Aston moved to Mexico about nine years ago after visiting San Miguel de Allende with friends from Buda.
“I realized I didn’t have a dream anymore,” Aston said. “My dream was to do things I was afraid of, so I moved to Mexico.”
There she created the Oz Project, which gave free hot air balloon rides to orphans.
After eight years she said it was time to go back to Texas, but not suburbia. Instead she settled down in Port Aransas, living on a sailboat and working on her children’s books from a pirate bar.
“The day I got back they shut the government down,” she said. “I turned on PBS and saw the disappointed faces. It was horrible.”
While painting a wine jug on her sailboat, Aston had an epiphany.
“I would pull into places and hear of people’s despair,” Aston said. “I thought why not collect their hopes and wishes and dreams.”
She started small, collecting stories from people in Port Aransas.
Aston filled the bottle with rice and sealed it with electrical tape to preserve the letters. Those writing the letters helped paint the jars at the pirate bar.
Sherri Henneberger said she put some of her own dreams in the jar, including a memorial card from a friend who had just lost her daughter.
On Aug. 12, 2013, Aston and her friends took a pirate ship into the gulf and cast the first bottle.
“It was a beautiful day,” Henneberger said. “We live in a world of hatred and sadness and she was bringing people into a world of happiness.”
Since then eight bottles have been cast into the ocean, Lake Tahoe and the Colorado River. Aston said she gathered around 400-500 letters, many from her cross-country trip.
The most unique ones came from visiting national parks, where some letters were written in Japanese, Lithuanian and Tunisian.
“No one asks what people’s dreams are anymore,” Aston said. “You get trapped in all of this but those things are still in their hearts.”
The project has not only stirred up dreams, but also consoled those who have experienced loss.
This week a family is painting bottles after their relative drowned near Port Aransas. After helping to look for him, the community is also helping them paint the bottles.
“This is a way of introducing people who wouldn’t normally meet,” Priscilla Torres said. “It’s really brought to light that people do care.”
After painting the seventh bottle with a pink breast cancer ribbon, Aston met a couple who agreed to cast the last bottle in Panama, where they were traveling for their 40th anniversary.
Before leaving, the couple learned their sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“There were tears from that couple,” Henneberger said. “This project brings us together and shows how close we can be.”
An Oklahoma man on a South Padre beach found the first bottle in 2014. It’s the only one to be discovered so far.
While Aston is just focusing on collecting stories for now, she said she hopes the project spreads.
“It’s a way to get people away from the TV and find out what people are thinking,” Aston said. “People need an outlet for their dreams and this is a magical way to do that.”