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Day 3, Tuesday 4 August 1998

Notes for travelers on music for a trip like this: if you are trying to hold down speed to give you good fuel economy, do not play rock-and-roll car songs or traveling songs, like "Highway Star" by Deep Purple or "Red Barchetta" and "Dreamline" by Rush; you will find your right foot unconsciously pushing the pedal toward the firewall! Also, if you are traveling in the Big Empty, like stretches of I-20 in west Texas where the nearest cars and trucks are barely visible ahead of and behind you, avoid Pink Floyd and certain albums by the Eagles; the loneliness of the music can bite a bit too deep.

On the other hand, it's not all loneliness out there. I saw a car run off the road and overturn; no bad injuries and no fire, so neither my first-aid training nor my fire extinguisher were needed, thank God--the two girls in the car crawled out the rear windows shaken but mostly unhurt. What I particularly noted, though, was that every single trucker, traveling in both directions, stopped to see what he or she could do to help, until the Border Patrol came by with radios and first-aid gear. Not one of them failed to stop; after all, we might have needed that one more person to lift the car up to get the people out, right? Knights of the road, all of you! As I said, there are other things besides loneliness in west Texas.

With regard to compressed-natural-gas fueling stations, however, it got pretty lonely. I did a little preaching in yesterday's diary entry about maintaining a range margin; well, today I drove two long stretches, from El Paso to Midland and from there to Ft. Worth, and I used the margin and them some! The headwind that I was concerned about yesterday was in my face almost the entire day, from 10 to 25 mph; this really chews up my fuel economy, so I was driving at 50 mph almost the whole day to try to get some range back. I wasn't running the air conditioning at all, but it turned out that this was the day that the 29-day stretch of 100-degree weather broke, as rain and clouds moved in, so I didn't miss it.

I got to Midland, TX, with a decent margin left--and then got lost. I had apparently failed to transcribe one turn in the verbal directions I got, so I went all the way into the city center and back looking for Cotton Flat Road, when the station was actually almost within sight of the freeway from where I had exited! So I pulled in just as my throttle pedal was getting mushy; I have not pushed my luck to test just how long I can run in this reduced-power condition, but I was really glad to pull up to the dispenser and not have to find out the hard way! Bob Potts and Greg Banner of natural-gas distributor Energas were on hand to fill me up and shoot the breeze while we waited for the compressor to squeeze one more fraction of a gasoline-gallon-equivalent into the tanks. Thanks also to Larry Tyson, who set up this fueling stop for me!

It turns out that, with the Midland stop, I compromised the "Olympic ideal" of refueling entirely at public stations on this trip. Energas had a public station in Odessa, about 20 miles further west, but there wasn't enough interest to make it viable, so now they maintain the station in Midland for their own vehicles and for the occasional fly-by-nighter like myself, but they don't dispense fuel commercially any more. I could have rerouted to the north, along the route that Bill Fairbairn traveled in Cleanest Across America and which I'll travel in the other direction in a couple of weeks (all those stations are public), but I had already made committments to some of the Clean Cities on the southern route.

Anyway, that's a quibble; the unfortunate thing is that Energas had to shut down the Odessa station. Natural-gas vehicles pay for themselves in fuel and maintenance savings very quickly in high-mileage use like taxis and airport shuttle vans, and believe me, there's nothing but high mileages in west Texas! Of course, a vehicle like mine without gasoline capability would put the owner on a tether around Odessa, but a bi-fuel vehicle would be able to go wherever needed, on gasoline if necessary, and refuel on CNG whenever it was in town. I hope Energas can make another go of it, now that the number of available vehicle models is starting to climb. Texas is already taking steps to help people find alternative fuels along the highway; I saw at least half a dozen signs like this one...

roadside Alternative Fuels sign

...from El Paso to Ft. Worth (this one was outside Van Horn). They all noted the availability of propane (LPG), but there's room on there for an entry for CNG!

Anyway, about a hundred miles out of Ft. Worth the headwind abated, and I finally encountered the long, slow downgrade that I had been expecting since I left the Guadalupe Mountains a few hundred miles back (I've got to get a topographic map with better resolution!), so it looked as if I would be able to get to Ft. Worth in good shape, fuel-wise. Another quirk of my vehicle is that, while I can run it once it's started until there is almost no pressure left in its fuel tanks, it nonetheless needs to have at least several hundred pounds per square inch pressure (about 1/5 of a normal fill-up) at the end of the day, or else when it cools down and the pressure drops I will be unable to restart it! Thus I can't end the day's driving on nearly-empty tanks without having to be towed to a refueling station in order to restart, and so I was planning to go to the FleetStar refueling station in Ft. Worth, where I was scheduled to show up at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, in order to fill up at least partway when I arrived late on Tuesday night.

Imagine my dismay when the card reader refused to accept my FleetStar fueling card! I tried again, and this time the card reader gave me an error message about "controller not responding" or some such. Okay, I thought, the computer is on the blink, but I should be able to go to another station and use my card there. So I drove about 14 miles south, using the last wisps of natural gas in my tanks, to another FleetStar station; its computer worked fine, but it still wouldn't accept my card. So my van was stranded there in front of the fuel dispenser (so near and yet so far!); I couldn't restart it until I got somebody there who had a working fuel card.

Unfortunately, the only contact numbers I had were for people who wouldn't get in to answer their phones until 8 a.m., so I had to push the van into a parking space and leave it there for the night while I took a cab to the hotel. I got in at midnight, which is why this day's diary entry is being posted a day late--and since it is, I'll end the suspense by telling you that everything worked out in the morning, with a net 40-minute delay in my schedule. It turns out that FleetStar of Texas doesn't share cards with FleetStar of west-of-the-Rio-Grande, which is where I got my card (I'd used it in California and Arizona, and I plan to use it in Nevada on the last day of this trip). I never thought to ask about that, but I'll remember it next time...

Anyway, sorry about the late posting and the paucity of pictures today; as with yesterday, I didn't want to stop for photos and restart more often than I had to because that costs fuel. Oh, by the way, this was the longest day's driving of the trip by far (as planned), at 647 miles (a bit longer than planned); and because of the extra stop in Ft. Worth before I ran out of fuel, it also turned out to have the longest distance between refuelings, at 326.1 miles (that wasn't planned at all!).

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new 5 August 1998, revised 7 August 1998