A MERCEDES-BENZ. TWO GUYS. AND NEARLY 700 MILES OF OPEN ROAD. WHAT KIND OF CARBON FOOTPRINT WOULD THIS LEAVE? A VERY SMALL ONE -- ASSUMING THEY’RE DRIVING A VEGGIE MOBILE AND BEING ENVIRONMENTALLY MINDFUL ALONG THE WAY. IN OTHER WORDS...
THE LUST FOR A GOOD, long, aimless road trip -- it’s as American as apple pie and, well, a gas-guzzling Chevy Blazer. And therein lies the problem of behind-the-wheel wanderlust for anyone who happens to be the least bit concerned about the environment, such as my pal Adam and me. Eager to meander around and report on one of the country’s greenest stretches -- from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon -- we also happen to be eco-inclined writers who want to keep our carbon footprint (or tire print) to a minimum. So, we decide that the first rule for our semi-directionless tour is to include stops at as many green locations along the way as possible, such as organic vineyards, eco-hotels, and alternative-energy farms. Then, after a very brief discussion about buses, we hatch the brilliant plan to do the entire road trip in my veggie car.
What’s a veggie car, you ask? Allow me to explain. When I moved to Los Angeles from New York about 14 months ago, I heard this story about some ingenious grease monkeys who were converting old diesel-engine vehicles to run on waste vegetable oil. Working under the name Lovecraft Biofuels, these mad-car scientists reconfigure a few things under the hood of an ordinary diesel car -- in my case a small, boxy, navy blue 1984 Mercedes 190D -- and, presto, the car suddenly runs on anything from waste vegetable oil to biodiesel to regular diesel. In other words, the soybean oil my favorite Japanese joint uses to cook tempura or the peanut oil that the Indian restaurant down the road uses to deep-fry samosas -- I can gather it up after the restaurant tosses it out, filter it, and use it to fuel my Benz. Sure, the exhaust may smell a little like spicy fries, but the emissions for a waste vegetable oil (WVO) vehicle are almost 75 percent less poisonous and polluting than those of normal fossil-fuel-based cars. Oh, and the oil is often free.
Now, I realize that this all makes me sound like I’m some hippie throwback, stitching together my own clothes from hemp and attaching a windmill to my roof or something. But I’m not, not by a long shot. In fact, my friends often refer to me as a lazy environmentalist. I’m not proud to admit it, but I take fairly long showers, use the occasional splash of bleach in my wash, and hate waiting for public transit. I would say I’m a fairly typical American when it comes to my feelings about the environment: I want to save it, just as long as doing so isn’t too terribly inconvenient, gross, boring, or smelly.
The good news is, on this little trip, Adam and I discovered that contrary to what many folks think, it’s pretty easy choosing to be green.
THE START of our road trip was to be the Bay Area, so I made the charmless 382-mile inland drive on Interstate 5 from my hometown of Los Angeles solo, getting 32 mpg in my trusty veggiemobile with a tankful of my very own batch of filtered vegetable oil. I met up with Adam for the first stop of our green trek -- an overnight stay in San Francisco at the soothing and centrally located Orchard Garden Hotel. Steps from the famous Chinatown gate and a short walk from Union Square, this LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) hotel touts itself as the “greenest” in San Francisco. With an in-room recycling system, compact fluorescent lightbulbs in many of the light fixtures, and a room-key-activated energy-control system (among other green perks), the hotel’s eco-credentials seemed quite impressive, as billed.
But it sounds horrible, right? I mean, where’s the luxury?
Think again. The surprise for me was how pleasant eco-rooms can be. They aren’t necessarily superstylish or chic, but they are extremely comfortable and clean. And the lobby-level Roots Restaurant -- rather than the vegan-soup-kitchen scenario I was imagining -- churned out a delicious meal, mostly made up of locally sourced organic products as well as sustainable meat and seafood. And all together it cost just about the same as similar-class hotels in the area.
As we suspected, the greater Bay Area lived up to its green hype throughout the two days we were there. Often, going green sounds like going without, but not here. We enjoyed a locavore’s feast at famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley (where most of the ingredients for the meals are grown locally); watched as the Juniper Ridge folks made incense, soaps, and tinctures from wilderness- harvested raw materials (and then wrapped them in biodegradable packaging) in Alameda; and we treated ourselves to massages using organically grown plants at the Claremont Spa, also in Berkeley.
Finally, refreshed and ready for some driving, we dumped the remaining four gallons of filtered veggie oil that I had brought with me from home into the car, loaded up our bags, and headed out for our next stop, Sonoma. A mere hour later, though (and about three hours short of our planned destination), we found ourselves stopping to munch our way through the three and a half acres of Edible Gardens at Copia, Napa’s renowned museum for wine and food. Modeled after the sixteenth-century Jardins du Villandry in France, the traditional grid pattern bursts with the organic fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers that grow in the various parts of California’s most famous wine region. While there, we learned about some of the simple yet clever organic and biodynamic gardening methods that vineyards use, like planting part of every field or garden with plants that attract, feed, or nurture beneficial insects that prey on crop pests.
After staying on a little too long (albeit learning about viticulture and making our own wines), we finally arrived -- 80 miles and 26 mpg later -- at the eco-ish bungalows at the new Solage Calistoga resort, nestled in the vineyards of Sonoma. Unlike the Orchard Garden, Solage is easily more luxe and chic than green, but there are still plenty of eco-conscious touches at this semi-solar-powered property, including room service delivered by bicycle and the harnessing of radiant energy from underground geothermal springs to heat the pools.
WE AWOKE THE next morning to face one of those issues that regular road-trip folks never have to face. The veggiemobile needed something to fill her up, and the WVO car owner in Calistoga who I had thought might be able to give me some filtered oil seemed to have left town for the week. Of course, the car also takes regular diesel, but for this trip, that was a last resort. Unfortunately, considering that the process of filtering waste oil takes at least 24 hours, it’s nearly impossible to do on the fly. And there are very few individuals who sell filtered WVO; it’s something that you usually get through friends of friends. So, we opted for the next best thing -- biodiesel.
The Solar Living Institute in nearby Hopland touts itself as a nonprofit educational organization that “promote[s] sustainable living through inspirational environmental education.” They not only provide workshops on renewable energy, green building, sustainable living, permaculture, organic gardening, and alternative, environment-friendly construction methods -- they also carry biodiesel.
And biodiesel is definitely quite good in many ways, not the least of which is that it is essentially free of sulfur and is proven to significantly reduce several of the unhealthy emissions associated with petroleum. But on the downside, because most blends call for new vegetable oil, it puts cars and trucks in the position of vying for oil from crops that might otherwise be used to feed people elsewhere in the world. Also, it’s a solvent, so unless you have special hoses in your engine, it could dissolve the rubber, especially in older vehicles. But, given the alternative -- regular diesel, which emits 78 percent more of the greenhouse-effect-causing carbon dioxide than biodiesel -- we pulled in and filled up.
It was right about this time that the requisite road-trip argument began. If you’ve been on a road trip, you know what I’m talking about. Friends, spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends, it doesn’t matter -- it’s an inevitable event that occurs after being locked in a car with another human being for more than two days. Our particular argument, appropriately enough, was about whose city was greener. Now, I never bothered to argue that Los Angeles was anywhere near green. But when Adam, who lived in New York at the time, made some comment about how New York was actually one of the greenest cities in America, I couldn’t help but balk.
I lived in New York for 10 years. I know how my lungs felt when I was living in the East Village. It was hard just trying to swallow. I figured there were bound to be a ton of smaller, tree-lined cities that stacked up ahead of New York -- like either of the two we were traveling between, San Francisco and Portland.
As it turned out, I was pretty much wrong. The low car dependence and high mass-transit usage of typical New York residents pushes the Big Apple to the top of several eco-lists. New Yorkers are said to use as much gasoline on average today as the rest of the country did in the 1920s, and the greenhouse-gas-emission levels from the country’s biggest city are less than a third of the national average. In fact, the average resident of San Francisco -- far from being a greener city -- consumes twice the amount of electricity as the average New Yorker.
In the face of overwhelming evidence, I recanted as we made our way around a bend in the road (and then another and another -- we’d burned our way through the better part of our tank of biodiesel because of all the twists and hairpin turns and traveled 130 miles at just 22 mpg) to arrive at the eco-conscious Mendocino, a quaint coastal Victorian town of about 800 that’s best known as the spot where Jessica Fletcher solved crimes in sensible shoes and a helmet hairstyle. We opted for a little eco-luxury and booked two nights at the comfortable Stevenswood Inn. The luxury was obvious -- fireplaces and memory-foam beds in the rooms, Hermès soap in the bathroom -- but we didn’t feel too gluttonous, because the inn had just opened the Indigo Eco Spa, which uses Northern Californian dandelion and licorice roots as cleansers, and the inn’s owners gather their used oil for a local WVO provider. As luck would have it, immediately after we chatted with the inn’s owners about our eco-trip, they offered us some of their filtered WVO (a good thing, since we discovered there were no other alternative- fuel sources in town).
From holistic bakeries to natural-food stores to a giant farmers market, this wealthy town of environmentalists has many ecosights -- but my favorite was the hard-core, vegetarian-only Stanford Inn and its out-spoken owner, Jeff Stanford. Perched over the Big River and surrounded by pastures for llamas and horses, the rustic, charming inn boasts organic gardens, an indoor pool, and a boathouse along the river, as well as an award-winning vegetarian restaurant called Ravens’ Restaurant. As avowed carnivores, Adam and I were slightly dreading the ground-to-table dinner, but we ended up loving the odd (yet hearty) strudel made with locally harvested sea palm and wasabi, umeboshi (pickled plums), and broccoli. And by the end, we found ourselves -- well, at least I did, anyway -- somewhat convinced by Stanford’s antimeat diatribe.
ON OUR WAY out of Mendocino, munching on a little beef jerky (okay, not that convinced), we quickly found ourselves in a very different part of the country, the so-called State of Jefferson, extending from California’s Mendocino County in the south to Oregon’s Douglas, Klamath, and Lake counties in the north. The people in this area of the country tried to secede from their respective states and create a new one, called Jefferson, in December 1941. Of course, the attack at Pearl Harbor, and then the swift entry of the country into World War II, upstaged the popular uprising. Thus, the plan for this mineral- and timber-rich area to become a new state was largely ignored in Sacramento and Salem, the capitals of California and Oregon, respectively.
Locals said that in recent years, this part of the country has been slightly depressed because of the ever-stricter regulations regarding the timber and mining industries. As a result, the redwood-strewn swath of the country is, strangely enough, not terribly eco-friendly. Anticipating that we might have trouble finding anywhere to top off the veggiemobile’s tank, I pulled another one of my last-resort moves and headed for the nearest Costco to buy a couple of giant containers of soybean oil -- as in about four to five gallons each. Now, the looks I get from fellow shoppers and the checkout person when they see my cart filled with just giant boxes of soybean oil are always a little on the funny side. But the looks I got at the Costco in Eureka were the strangest I’ve received to date. The curiosity finally got the better of one woman next to me in line and she asked, “What are you doing with all that oil?” Unfortunately, my usual silly retort of “I just love salad dressing!” was merely met with a cold stare (guess she didn’t believe me). Even in somewhat anti-environmentalist surroundings, though, we found a few pockets of green -- like the very welcoming WildSpring Guest Habitat, a five-cabin, eco-friendly resort spread out over five acres of densely wooded wilderness. This sanctuary in Port Orford overlooks the ocean and is so peaceful and quiet that the National Wildlife Federation certified it as a habitat for wild animals. We also came to learn that it’s an official birding site for the Oregon Coast Birding Trail.
Just outside of Eugene (another 500 miles and about 26 mpg on a mix of WVO from Mendocino and Costco’s finest soybean oil), we began to see signs of eco-ness returning -- like a shiny, solar-panel-covered biodiesel fueling station. We pulled off the highway to check it out. Apparently, it’s the first of many SeQuential biofuel stations about to be built up and down the West Coast, and all will offer easy green solutions, such as photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into power that helps run the pumps, lights, and appliances on site; a living roof; and even a convenience store with a seasonal organic produce stand featuring locally harvested fruits and vegetables. Nothing like any other gas station in the country, really.
All fueled up for the last leg of the trip, we stopped by a few vineyards on the way to Portland. Among them were King Estate and Sokol Blosser, which are both committed to organic viticulture -- an ecological production management system that promotes biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil activity -- on their properties. They both proudly explain that they are Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO), an internationally recognized symbol of organic integrity that originated in 1982. All of which is not only good for the environment and makes for delicious wines, but, as the King Estate folks told us, when the multi-billion-dollar market for organic food products increases about 20 to 25 percent annually -- growing organic just makes good business sense.
ON OUR FIFTH and final day, having traveled more than 1,100 miles from Los Angeles and having spewed about 70 percent less than the 700 pounds of carbon dioxide we would have if we’d run the car on diesel (around 215 pounds of CO2), we pulled into Portland, a city of rose gardens, daily farmers markets, vast parklands, delicious microbrews, and eco-everything. Tired from the trip, we headed up to our rooms at the new, chic Ace Hotel, which used reclaimed timber, found furniture, and nontoxic paint in its construction, and we felt right at home. Nearly everyone in Portland peppers their sentences with terms like sustainability and LEED-certified, and we now knew how to speak their language.
The next day, after I dropped Adam off at the airport for his flight to New York, I stopped by a newsstand and grabbed a paper. As I read through it later, a report about Chevrolet’s latest concept car, the Volt, caught my eye. It seemed the company that produces some of the biggest trucks and SUVs was now being hailed as creating one of the most significant hybrid developments to date. It felt a little jarring, but it also left me hopeful. And it made me realize that at this point, there really is no escaping the greening of America. So, in typical lazyenvironmentalist mode, I spent the rest of my long trip back to L.A. thinking about how a car that you plug in might be a whole lot easier to deal with than one that runs on waste vegetable oil.