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Can a Lime-Green Vegetable-Oil-Powered Beetle Save the Earth?

One writer ditches his S.U.V. for a vegetable oil-powered Volkswagon Beetle and drives into the Sierras to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and test his environmentalist platitudes

It isn’t the ugliest rut I’ve seen.

It’s maybe a foot deep, and it arcs across the dirt surface of Piute Mountain Road. It might be a washout from the monsoon rains that hit California’s southern Sierra in spring. A small boulder juts from one end, and a loose, lumpy swale of a shoulder rises from the other. It’s the kind of obstruction that, if you’re driving a high-clearance vehicle, might cause you to dip below 5 mph, until you ka-thunk over it, and then you would be on your way without another thought. If, on the other hand, you’re driving a lime-green, vegetable-oil-powered Volkswagen Beetle with nearly tread-free tires and 6 inches of clearance, then you’d be forced to do what John and I are doing. Namely: Pace around, study the rut from various angles, and ponder the immutable fact that the road to planetary change is almost always winding and bumpy.

We had our warnings. First was the guy back at the Twin Oaks General Store wearing a chef’s coat and a David Carradine kung fu ponytail who was sucking on a cigarette in the shade. He told me the road gets graded once a year. “They don’t do it until the rains stop,” he said.

I looked up. The sky was an unblemished blue. The entire landscape, in fact, seemed drier than the after-party at the National Spelling Bee. “You think it might rain soon?”

He shrugged. “Don’t know. But they haven’t been up there to grade it yet.” Which, of course, was all that really mattered. Still, I had one more question: Had he ever driven it before it was graded?

“Once,” he said. “Wouldn’t do it again.”

Yet we’d flown and driven more than eight hours to get here, so we pushed on, undeterred. Even the sign at the turnoff from Walker Basin Road didn’t slow us: “Extreme caution–narrow road–blind curves.”

We turned in and climbed 5 miles, things getting dicey–a crater there, some jaw-rattling washboards there–but always viable. Until now. Up ahead is 8,440-foot Piute Mountain, the first summit we’d planned to bag on our four-day road trip. John votes to drive until we’re officially punked. I’m not so sure. It’s our first full day out in the lime-green Beetle. We’re going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and hit a backcountry hot spring and hammer up to a couple of other high places. Does it make sense to blow the car up this early?

A pickup approaches. I slide into the car, back into a pullout. Before the truck passes, I yell at the driver to hold up.
The cowboy type behind the wheel stops and looks over. Something passes over his face: I register bemusement, maybe a tinge of dismay. “What’s it like up ahead?” I ask.

He smiles in that cowboy way, without actually moving his mouth. “It gets a little worse.” And then he ka-thunks over the rut and drives off. I get out and walk over to John.

“OK,” I say. “Let’s try it.”

The trip started as a challenge. I’d been harassing my buddy Chris for buying a new SUV instead of something a little more planet-friendly. “Remind me,” he said, “what is it you drive on your hiking trips?”

“Right,” I said. “But that’s on hiking trips.”

“Ah, so it’s OK as long as you’re hiking?” Chris asked. “Bet you get great gas mileage on those dirt roads. Tell you what: Let’s see you start leading by example.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. There are functional reasons for renting a four-wheel-drive on my annual backpacking pilgrimages out West. There are places–much of Utah’s canyon country, for example–you simply can’t access without bouncing down high-clearance dirt roads.

Still. Chris had a point. It did annoy me to pump all that fossil fuel into those thirsty brutes. Enough outings like that and your carbon footprint stretches to Wilt Chamberlain proportions. And I was aware that the BLM and Forest Service have been grading dirt roads all over the West, making more trailheads than ever accessible to regular cars.

At first, I considered renting a hybrid from Hertz or a fuel-sipping Subaru 4WD. Then I Googled something better: A company named Bio-Beetle recently began renting biodiesel cars in Los Angeles. Biodiesel is an all-natural, 100-percent-renewable fuel usually made from vegetable oil. In some such cars, you can dump the contents of a commercial deep fryer into the gas tank. On the road, it’s Eau de Hardees.

Bio-Beetle is a small enough operation that Shaun Stenshol, the owner, picks up the calls. He turns out to be a character. In his environmental-activist days, he backpacked into the Nevada desert to disrupt bomb testing. Bio-Beetle is his kinder, gentler protest against the military-industrial complex. Stenshol was happy to rent me a car, but warned that I could only refill in L.A. or elsewhere on the coast. But he estimated the Beetle could cover 350 to 400 miles on a full tank, and he could stash five gallons in the trunk. I did some quick math: That would get me on the PCT in the southern Sierra, and maybe over to some desert peaks, and back again.

The plan was coming together. It looked like a sweet road trip and a satisfying in-your-face to Chris–but maybe something more, too. The way I figured it, I’d be creating a new travel template for planet-conscious adventurers, one that said: You can go on big trips, and use less fossil fuel than if you were driving your regular car. (Sure, there’s irony in flying cross-country to avoid using gasoline in a car, but that’s one step back for two steps forward. And in this case, BACKPACKER purchased carbon offsets for our air travel.)

John, a longtime buddy with a forestry background and a fondness for the absurd, signed on to ride shotgun. There would be comical moments: John is 6’4″; I’m 6’7″. Crouched inside the Beetle, we’d look like a couple of performance-fabric-wearing circus clowns. There were other issues, too. What if we crunched the numbers wrong, and ran out of gas in the Mojave? If the car smelled like French fries, what would those larcenous Sierra black bears do with it? Would we return from the trail to find a stripped-down chassis?

Pioneers, I decided, have to take a few chances. That’s what makes them pioneers–along with their ludicrously zealous sense of mission. By the time I’d booked my flight, I’d convinced myself that driving the car up sketchy dirt roads was nothing less than a moral imperative.

And then we saw the car. Did I mention it was a shimmering lime green? The hue and round shape suggested a scoop of sorbet, as if an hour in the severe California sun would turn it into a syrupy, emerald puddle. The words POWERED BY 100% BIODIESEL FUEL appear in large letters on the doors. Shawn had pasted his web address (bio-beetle.com) onto the back window, and, just in case those subtle messages failed to resonate, he’d slapped a Biodiesel: No War Required sticker on the rear bumper.

But it was the dimensions that really stunned me. The interior was tiny, so small that we had to leave two Alpacka rafts behind in Stenshol’s office. Before driving off, I measured the car’s clearance with my Pilot Precise Rolling Ball pen. The Beetle’s oil pan was barely an inch above. Inside, my right knee jammed between the steering wheel and dashboard.

Nonetheless, the car did fine in the Saturday midday rush hour. It’s hard to get noticed in L.A., but as we crept north on I-5, I sensed people throwing looks our way. In Bakersfield, where we stopped for supplies, people approached to ask what we were promoting. One guy hoped we were a rolling billboard for a new biodiesel station. In a gas station, the cashier asked, “Biodiesel? Cool!” Then he said, “What is it?”

The southern Sierra turn out to be the perfect place for this adventure. The American Lung Association’s latest State of the Air Report, which was featured in the newspaper that day, concluded that Bakersfield no longer had the nation’s worst air. Now it was second to L.A. These people needed us.

Which is why, up on Piute Mountain Road, I decide to go for it. Lewis and Clark had to eat their horses. The Donners had to eat the other Donners. This was the least we could do to break new trail. I decide to try the shoulder, craftily approaching from an angle. Somehow, I end up hung up, tires spinning. I retreat and try again, to no avail.

Plan B is this: We turn back and head north to Miracle Hot Springs, which my guidebook describes as an abandoned resort that’s now a secluded sanctuary for clothing-optional bathing. There, we set up our tent, roam the foothills, and then hike 10 minutes down a steep slope to three artificial pools of various temperatures set along the Kern River.

It’s a Sunday, late afternoon, so it’s no surprise to find that a small crowd of six or ten regulars has gathered to do what regular crowds at such places do: sit and chat quietly, tiptoe into the frigid river, and beer up. When word gets around about our mission, people approach to ask about the car and issue murmurs of approval. At one point, someone spots a huge beaver in the river, and everyone stops what they’re doing and watches the animal slice through the swift, cold current. A rope swing hangs nearby, untouched.

The scene is even better in the morning, before the sun has climbed the ridge. All is still except for swaying vapors of steam. As the sulfuric water rinses away the last of our jet lag, though, we arrive at our first philosophical divide. I’m ready to beeline for the PCT, and John wants to loiter. “If we’re really committed to halting global warming,” he asks, dropping his head back and closing his eyes, “wouldn’t it be better to not drive anywhere at all?”

“The car can’t do the world any good sitting here,” I say. “Anyway, I’m here to hike and camp. You know, do things.”

He cracks an eyelid. “You’re so ADD,” he says.

John is a strange combination of kinetic energy and inertia. He’s usually a greedy-for-experiences, Kerouac-type traveler. He can also be a bit of a sloth. A single parent, he recently shipped his only child off to college and gained 15 pounds. John’s clearly on board for the stop-global-warming part of this hiking adventure. The hiking part, not so much.

He is, in other words, becoming Katz to my Bryson. I remind him of our mission. “Would Lewis and Clark sit in hot springs while the Northwest was waiting to be mapped?”

“Hey,” he says. “They took two years to get there. I bet they had a day to spare.”

I clamber out and dangle the keys in his face. “Mule train’s leaving,” I say, grinning.

By late morning we approach Chimney Peak Recreation Area via 11-mile Canebrake Road. At the entrance, we see the road is designated, oxymoronically, a “national backcountry byway.” Such routes “typically accommodate high-clearance vehicles and are mostly made up of slow-speed, narrow secondary roads.” But a “normal car”–uh-oh–can usually travel the road “by using a little extra care in a few places.”

All of which is fine, except that before breaking camp earlier, I’d made a discovery. Sorting through our stuff, I saw the rental agreement. I usually file such things where I won’t encounter them, but given what’s ahead, I scanned the fine print. And sure enough, Article 2 says I’ll be liable for all damages if any of a number of things occurs during the rental. One of them is this: “Vehicle is used on unpaved roads.”

This causes a twinge. Normally I’m happy to flout such rules, but I like Stenshol, and I like his small, gestating business. I’d rather it wasn’t him. But we’re in too deep. Standing there at the Canebrake Road entrance, I convince myself that he’ll ultimately be happy to be part of the solution.

The road turns out not so bad. It’s filled with squirrelly loose sand that confers the same feeling you get driving over a steel-grate bridge, but we rumble effortlessly to Chimney Rock Campground, the gleeful punk-pop chords of Green Day’s “American Idiot” rattling the windows. We can’t find the PCT intersection that the maps promised, though, and there’s no one else around. After a while, we continue up to Kennedy Meadows, the next PCT crossing point.

On the 4-mile hike to Clover Meadow, where we intend to camp, we encounter prickly-pear cacti and sequoias with massive trunks and syringelike needles. We find impossibly tiny red flowers that John, holder of a forestry degree, can’t identify. We keep spotting a beautiful yellow bird with a red face–a Western tanager, I figure out later. Lizards glide away at almost every turn, over jumbles of precariously perched granite. We talk the way people talk on trails, in a shambling fashion. We talk about the massive burn area we saw on the road to Kennedy Meadows, and how it’s one of nature’s little ironies that fire is so damaging and so useful. We comment on how much sequoias screw with your sense of perspective. In the late afternoon, we sprawl out on a vast, perfectly flat hunk of rock that rises about 10 feet off the ground: God’s own chaise lounge.

Lying back, it hits me why I’m so eager to have this trip go well. Climate change is a dodgy issue for me. I care deeply about my 3-year-old son inheriting a hale, healthy planet, and try to do what I can. I recycle. Turn lights off. I’ve changed my bulbs. But I remain a sinner. I’m able to hold only so many things in my head in the course of a day, and remembering to bring a spork to the office rather than using the disposable cutlery available in the company café isn’t one of them. I keep accumulating plastic cups, because I’m either too lazy or I forget to use my Nalgene. I can bike to work, but too often don’t make time. Habits. I’m good at forming them, lousy at breaking them. This trip would help me atone.

When we return, the parking lot is mostly empty, and it occurs to me that we’re not getting as many people on board with the whole vegetable-oil-powered road trip idea as I’d hoped. But damned if we aren’t having fun.

We don’t get far heading west from Kennedy Meadows on our third day before meeting this sign: “Road closed ahead due to snow.” Even though it’s early May, Sherman Pass, at 9,200 feet, is still clogged.

In the other direction, straight east, are the alien wonders of Death Valley. We may not have enough fuel to get back to Los Angeles, but on the map we see Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet the park’s high point, beckoning from its western fringes. And just like that, we have a mission that simply can’t be halted.

That is, until we’re stopped far up Mahogany Flat Road. We’ve rattled up for miles now, shuddering across Death Valley’s world-famous washboards, when we reach Thorndike Campground. There, we drain our spare container of biodiesel into the Beetle. Curious, I dip my finger in; there’s no onion-ring aroma, but I do pick up a tincture of Wesson.

The trailhead is just another 1.5 miles up. But 100 yards beyond Thorndike, I pull up to a pothole that from the Beetle’s cockpit looks like an abyss. We scout ahead. It gets no better (actually, it gets worse) and the road tips upward toward ski-jump grade. The rest of the way, we’re on foot.

The trail to Telescope Peak is 7 miles long and gains nearly 3,000 feet of elevation. We hike into the evening and camp where we can glimpse the massive sweep of Death Valley, the lights of Vegas glowing to the east. Sitting there drinking tea, John looks around and sees, 20 yards away, an enormous jackrabbit, its periscope-like ears plying the dusk air.

I boil water for our freeze-dried meals, and we eat, and as night falls we see a UFO. Off to the southeast, a brightly glowing light appears; it looks like a car, until it begins floating and zigzagging through the air. We stare at this for a long while, and even though we later conclude that there’s probably some kind of laser show going on down on the edge of the national park, it doesn’t spoil the effect.

Then I flick on a headlamp and stare at the empty Backpacker’s Pantry containers: not very green of us. There are other wrappers–for pistachios, for M&Ms, for coffee. Those bad habits again. We’re creating a lot of garbage. I’d been too busy beforehand to buy bulk pasta and beans and avoid sending a bunch of crap to the landfill. And then it hit me: The lime-green vegetable-oil-powered Beetle isn’t going to change the world. We even wind up not having quite enough Wesson to get back, and have to buy some regular diesel near L.A., blemishing the purity of the journey.

No. To really make something happen, I’m going to have to start by working on my own entrenched habits, by influencing people to do better by righting my own ship, leading by example. Redemption lies in everyday life, not in an off-kilter if stupendously fun 700-mile road trip.

In the morning, our final day, I’ll head off without John up the flanks of Telescope, and we’ll each have our own solo moment up high. My view will be astonishing, and I’ll have the inevitable moment of simultaneously questioning my own significance and feeling like the ruler of the cosmos.

But for now, it’s dark, and soon it’s completely quiet, both inside my head and out, and there are more stars overhead than thoughts anyone can have in a lifetime. And I think, this is it. This is a very good place to start.

Former Senior Editor David Howard now almost always remembers to fully inflate the tires on his 2001 Volkswagen Passat.

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