The American Dream, sans gasoline

 

I’ve had it with gasoline. Not only is it helping melt the glaciers in Glacier National Park, thaw the Alaskan permafrost, and drown low-lying Pacific islands, but it's also emptying my wallet. So when my husband and I decided to buy a new car recently, we both wanted it to use as little gas as possible — or, better yet, no gas at all.

We knew hybrid cars were gas-efficient, and sexy, but they were way, way out of our price range. (I’m a writer and my husband is a teacher, so our cars usually hail from the Golden Age of Disco.) We had to find something a bit less chic. We then learned about biodiesel, a fuel made from used vegetable oil.

Biodiesel, we were told by its many fervent fans, burns efficiently and reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions by using recycled ingredients. It can power most normal diesel engines, and it’s usually very easy to procure; those willing to get a little greasy can even make batches of biodiesel in their backyards. While biodiesel cars aren't as clean and green as, say, bicycles, they’re a definite improvement on standard gasoline vehicles.

The problem with biodiesel, we discovered, was finding an inexpensive diesel car.

So we began prowling the back alleys of eBay, looking for our dream diesel. My husband, who would normally rather eat nails than sit in front of a computer screen, made inquiries about a 12-passenger diesel van once used by the Kansas City Transit Authority, and began happily cyberchatting with members of a biodiesel discussion forum. We did consider a Volkswagen Rabbit that was spending its declining years on an Oregon farm, and an almost-spiffy red Jetta parked not far from our home in Colorado, but the prices of both quickly climbed beyond our reach. It looked like we might have to stick with gasoline after all.

Then, a business trip took us to northern New Mexico. And there, in a parking lot next to a busy highway in Santa Fe, my husband happened upon a 1982 silver Mercedes Benz station wagon, outrageously high in miles but tenderly cared for — and wonderfully affordable. It was, after all, more than a generation old, a spry senior citizen of the auto world.

Its owner, a merry-faced amateur mechanic, turned out to be both a Mercedes fanatic and a biodiesel aficianado. He told us that the car had already run on veggie-based fuel for more than 20,000 miles, and the greasy stain below the gas tank supported his story.

After a test drive in town and some deliberation, we paid up, filled the tank with biodiesel at a gas station in Santa Fe, and began our journey home to Colorado. When my turn came to take the wheel, I slid eagerly into the driver’s seat, ready to pilot our new car down the highway. Something was different, I realized, and it wasn’t just the fuel. It was the proportions.

After years of driving the tiniest, most gas-efficient cars I could find, the wagon seemed enormous, long and broad and burly. Its trunk was big enough to camp in, its bucket seats generously sized, its chrome hood ornament hilariously ostentatious. When I pressed the gas, the engine took a noisy gulp of biodiesel, and the car lumbered onto the road.

This, I thought, was no rattling Geo Metro, no simpering Toyota hatchback. This was a car with some meat on its bones, a car worthy of a proper American road trip. This car, I thought giddily, could rocket on Route 66 … or swerve down the scenic coast of California … or swallow the desert miles between Salt Lake and San Francisco. It could do pretty much anything, and do it with gusto. And best of all, it could do it without the help of globe-heating, world-destabilizing, bankbook-busting fossil fuel.

Was that chic, or what? I looked out over the vast hood of the venerable Mercedes, and I watched the white clouds tumble across the sky. As our vegetable-powered beast roared north toward the Colorado border, the empty road unwound before me, disappearing into the steep, snowy peaks piled on the horizon. I tugged open the sunroof, found a Mexican mariachi tune on the radio, and grinned: Thanks to a couple of gallons of cooking grease, I finally understood the real romance of the American road.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org) where she lives and writes.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.