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Day 1, Sunday 2 August 1998

As the sun finished burning through the marine-layer clouds on Sunday morning, I pulled out of Long Beach with the opening fanfare of the "Hymn to the Sun" from "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss, better known as the theme to "2001", playing on my van's stereo. (I'm gonna have to fix the buzz in the right rear speaker, or stop turning the volume up to "kill"...) The Long Beach Gas Department was the first natural-gas provider to issue me a fuel card when I began driving natural-gas vehicles, so I thought it was appropriate to start "Clean Across America And Back" from the refueling station at their headquarters. The city has converted or bought natural-gas vehicles for a wide variety of duties: police cruisers, garbage trucks, street sweepers, you name it.

I'll refer to fuel cards many times in the course of this trip; they are a necessity of life for natural-gas-vehicle drivers in a lot of places, though I'll note some exceptions I encounter in the course of this journey. Most refueling stations are operated either by natural-gas utilities or by fleet fueling contractors, rather than by independent retailers like gasoline stations; this means you have to have a "credit card" specifically for each utility or contractor. I have five cards...

fuel cards

...and I still can't use half the stations in California, let alone across the country, though the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition has been working with the fuel companies for a couple of years at least, trying to integrate their card systems in this state. Anyway, most of my refueling stops across the country will be at places where I don't have a fuel card and I can't pay cash, so I have had to make special arrangements for a one-time use of some stations. Don't hold this against the practicality of natural-gas vehicles, though; as my handful of cards illustrates, if you are going to be even an occasional user of a company's stations (as I am with San Diego Gas & Electric or FleetStar) they are more than happy to issue a card to you as a private individual as well as to fleets. I just didn't want to ask, say, the gas utility in Providence, RI to issue me a card I may not use again for years.

Well, on with the journey! My first stop was in what I think of as the "Gateway to the East", the last refueling station before the Mojave Desert: Indio, CA in the Coachella Valley. This refueling station was built mostly to refuel SunLine Transit vans and shuttle buses; they operate the first fleet in the country (and I think the world) to run entirely on alternative fuels. A few years back they needed to replace an excessively aged fleet of diesel buses, and boy did they replace them: every one of the new buses and shuttle vans runs on natural gas.


The Coachella Valley city most familiar to most people is Palm Springs, which gives you an idea of the importance of the tourism industry in the area. Since people come out there in large part for the beauty of nature, blue skies are an important part of the local economy, and with this incentive in addition to a more general concern for the health of residents, the Coachella Valley Clean Cities Coalition participants keep cropping up in a lot of practical "success stories" articles in various environmental-business publications. There's an article about solar-powered recharging stations for an electric bicycle commuter program in Palm Springs on the cover of the most recent "Solar Today", for example. And one more thing about the Coachella Valley: it is spread out, meaning that if natural-gas vehicles (with shorter ranges than petroleum-powered vehicles between refuelings) can make it there, they can make it darn near anywhere.


Another thing they have a lot of in the Mojave desert, besides space, is wind; there are some humongous windmill farms in the vicinity of the San Gorgonio pass to take advantage of it (I remember coming through there in my old Chevy once doing about 120 mph airspeed without breaking the (ground) speed limit; heckuva headwind!). Windmills line the flats and the crests of hills; there actually wasn't much wind when I passed through this time, but that's kind of rare. Windmills remind me of one of the most pleasant things about electric vehicles, which is that they will get cleaner with time, unlike an internal-combustion-engine vehicle (even my natural-gas van): as renewable energy like wind or solar power displaces fossil fuels in the electrical generation market, the emissions caused by recharging an electric car will go down with time, while the aging catalytic converter and other systems in an internal-combustion engine will only get dirtier.

entering Arizona

I crossed the Arizona Border on I-10 in the heat of midday, after going up the steep grade out of Indio with my temperature gauge barely touching the half-way mark; that big frontal area on the van is heck on aerodynamics, but it leaves room for a nice big radiator! When I first mentioned this trip to one of my friends, he said "Arizona and Texas in August?!? You must enjoy heat!" Well, I do, so it didn't bother me to use the fan instead of the air conditioner with over 100 degrees outside. That conservation measure, like my self-imposed 60 mph speed limit (in 70- and 75-mph zones!) turned out not to be necessary. I arrived in Phoenix with a good forty miles of range left (after turning the air conditioning on and speeding up 5-10 mph for the last fifty miles, once I realized I was in good shape!), but one thing I have learned is that you have got to keep a close eye on the fuel gauge and play it conservative if you're in any doubt. You can't go fetch more fuel in your ten-gallon hat if you run out!

AFV sign on car-pool lane

One area where Arizona is ahead of California is in allowing alternative-fueled vehicles to use the carpool lane with only one occupant: you can see the small "AFV" label above the diamond on the sign in the photo. This privilege is a valuable incentive that doesn't cost the taxpayers anything, and it's probably going to come in handy when I go to Tucson tomorrow morning in rush-hour traffic... I got a good fill-up at the Pickens/MESA station by the Phoenix airport, which will give me an ace up my sleeve even after I refill in Tucson, when I undertake the longest leg of this journey, but that's a story for tomorrow.

Well, thanks for joining me on the first day of "Clean Across America And Back"! I'm going to spend the night with my big brother, his wife, and my big little niece (I'll see my sister, her husband, and my little little niece in Boston). They've been patient with my using up some of the few hours we have together during this visit to compose this missive, so I'm gonna go play outside now!

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new 2 August 1998, revised 19 August 1998