Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Acclimating Along Desolate Roads

As with most new things--a new relationship, a new home, a new job, thin mountain air--there was an acclimation period with Arnie's new electric car. Arnie and Reggie continued to acclimate to the challenge of locating new places to charge the Tesla. Miles upon miles of country and mountain roads separated towns, RV parks and electric 240-volt hook-ups. Even when they found a place with hook ups, as they did in Alder, Montana—with only an 11-mile range left on their battery—there was no guarantee they would be able to charge their electric car.

“There’s the KOA. Hang a left,”  said Reggie.

A neon sign read “Open”, but a woman repeatedly knocked on the door to no answer. Arnie circled the park while Reggie used the restroom. When Reggie returned, he noticed a fellow lounging on the back patio.

“Excuse me, do you have an electric hook-up we could use for a couple of hours to charge our car?”

The middle-aged fellow looked suspiciously at Arnie, and his fancy car, who pulled up behind his travel companion. “I’d rather not.”

“We’ll pay you,” Reggie pleaded. “Other KOA’s have been helping us out.”

“I’d just assume not,” the man said nonchalantly.

Alder was a country western town of 103 people (circ. 2010) in southwest Montana, nearly surrounded by national forest land, but with few trees. Not much was around. Arnie and Reggie passed an independent RV park about a half mile before they reached the KOA, so they backtracked to see if they could assist them.

“You guys are in a bit of trouble,” the kind woman said. “We’re full. Best I can do is offer you a traditional plug.” She motioned to a 110-volt plug on the side of the restaurant in front of the park.

“We’re kind of in a bind here,” Arnie said. “The KOA won’t help us—even though he has space. We have about a 10-mile range before we get stuck. Do you know of any place that could help us out?”

“Your best bet is to drive to Virginia City RV Park—about a nine-mile drive down the road. They’re a lot friendlier there.”

If they powered with the 110-volt at 1:30 pm, it would take until the following evening and to gain enough range to meet their next destination, West Yellowstone. So Arnie and Reggie crossed their fingers and set out on east Route 287 for Virginia City. The AAA Travel book said the RV park was a half mile east of town. No towns popped up on the Tesla's G.P.S.

The 10-mile range dropped to five. No signs of a city--only brown hills baked from months of summer sun. Four miles...three miles...Suddenly a town appeared: Nevada City.

“I thought she said Virginia City. What’s this?” Arnie asked.

“A town with no RV park,” Reggie said.

The navigation system displayed the puke green bar reading “2-mile rated range”. More brown hills appeared, then an incline, then—as the navigation system read zero—a turn into Virginia City.  Like Nevada City, Virginia City was an old western town—straight out of the movies. In fact, Errol Flynn starred in a 1940 film named for the town.  But our boys were in no mood to sightsee. They needed juice—desperately—more desperate than at any point in their trip. 

On the east edge of town the Battery gauge on the dash blinked the color red. It now read: PLEASE CHARGE IMMEDIATELY. Silence. Like Thelma and Louise they drove on…the single lane widened to two lanes…the speed limit jumped from 25 m.p.h. to 75...the road inclined around a bend. Reggie held his breath. Arnie focused on driving slowly—on the 75-mile limit road, Arnie was going 30—gently pressing on the accelerator, trying to drift as much as possible. At that point, too much power would stall the electric machine. Then, like a celestial vision, the Virginia City RV Park appeared up the hill. As they turned into the driveway, Reggie sighed as the loose gravel road sloped downward. Arnie guided the drained machine past the campground office to the first hook-up and attempted to plug in. 

Reggie jumped out and searched for the grounds manager. A woman appeared on the porch of the building behind the office and approached. He calmly explained to her their situation while her husband Peter appeared down the hill loading a pile of dirt in his excavator. The kind fellow sympathized and assisted them--but the charge indicator failed to light. No power.

“I had a fellow parked here overnight and this box worked just fine,” the grounds manager said.
They went into the office and found a 30-amp adapter for a second outlet, but that still wouldn’t work. “There’s a fellow next door, he just moved in. He’s got a 50-amp for his RV. I can introduce you to him if you'd like. Maybe he can help you out.”

They walked further down the dirt road about 40 yards and Peter introduced them to neighbor Tom. He and his wife recently moved from northern Montana. The kind folks were curious and kindly offered to help them out.

 "I can even move the trailer, if it's in the way," Tom said. 

Since four hours was needed to charge the battery, they had plenty of time to converse with these fine Montana folks. Turns out, Tom’s daughter is Lutheran and a school teacher at a charter school in York, Pennsylvania—a short drive from Arnie’s home and the same town Reggie’s brother teaches. Then, after speaking with Peter and Debbie of the RV park, they discovered Peter was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University-School of Medicine in Baltimore. He and his wife, who was a nurse, retired from medicine about two years ago to run the park. 

While Tom’s garage powered the Tesla, Debbie offered Arnie and Reggie a ride into town to catch some lunch. An English fellow named Henry who was staying at the campground also received a lift. Arnie and Reggie sat down at the Outlaw Café—the only place open for lunch in Virginia City at that hour—about 2:00 pm on a Saturday afternoon. Henry joined them.

Henry was a bearded 21-year old rugby player from Manchester, England touring the U.S. by bicycle. He started in Astoria, Oregon—a seaside town Arnie and Reggie passed on their first day. Henry's plan was to bicycle from coast-to-coast to raise money for the English Army, but as we sat there eating lunch next to a cardboard, life-size figure of John Wayne, he talked of adjusting his goal.

“I’m not seeing enough of the country,” Henry said. “I pedal for miles and miles looking at the same mountain—and it’s not getting any closer!”

His latest plan was to stop more often and take more time in notable places like Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. But here in Virginia City, he was temporarily stuck. The spokes from one of his wheels were popping off. Henry understandably didn’t feel comfortable riding down the back side of the pass and into Wyoming. He needed a lift to West Yellowstone—the nearest bike repair shop—like we needed a charge of our battery.

“Does your bike come apart?” Arnie asked.


“Well, we’re headed to West Yellowstone. Would you like a lift.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you. I have a ticket to a variety show tomorrow night in town. It’s supposed to be pretty risqué. But thank you for the offer.”

“I imagine plenty of people pass through here on their way to the park,” Reggie said. “You’ll find a lift.”

They told Henry about their experience at the Alder KOA. “That fellow is a rude man,” he said. “I looked at camping there, but the online reviews were negative.”

By 6:20 pm Arnie pulled the plug with a 105-mile range for their 78-mile journey to the West Yellowstone KOA. They traveled up and down the pass and back onto the Montana plains. But their range dropped dramatically due to hills and the 75 m.p.h. speed limit they were traveling. They had a 20-mile range 20 miles outside their campsite—no room for error.

“If we run down to zero again,” Arnie said, “I’m gonna have a heart attack.”

The sun slowly set behind them—over the mountain pass they just traveled—and they coasted into the West Yellowstone KOA on zero.

Arnie’s heart beat faster, but it continued to beat.

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