Editor’s note: Actor and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr., journeyed last month in a natural-gas car from his hometown of Los Angeles to Des Moines, Iowa, site of the nation’s first political caucuses, to raise the profile of clean-car technology. Here he relates his (mis)adventures.

Ed — happier in a tree than in a
car.

A Week Before Departure

The good folks at the EarthYear 2000 event in Iowa are excited that I’m driving an alternative-fuel vehicle to their conference. They intend to put it on display for all to see.

I love promoting clean technology. I’ve driven cross-country about 10 times and it’s always exciting and relaxing to watch the countryside unfold. I’m starting to get stoked as the day draws near.

Days Before Departure

I learn that my Ford Contour NGV (natural gas vehicle) will not be ready for my trip to Iowa. I can’t take my other car, a GM EV-1, all the way to the Midwest because I have to be there in three days and an electric car would take weeks with stop-offs for recharging. What’s a fella to do? I could, of course, hop aboard a plane like everyone else and burn a little kerosene at 31,000 feet. But there are no trees up there to turn carbon dioxide to oxygen. So what happens to it? This is the kind of stuff I think about. I toss and turn all night.

The folks at GM come through. They will loan me a Chevy Cavalier NGV so I can drive it across the Rockies in January. I must have a very honest face.

Day 1, January 18

I leave my house in L.A. at 7:07 a.m. I’ve done the cross-country thing before, so I’m well-prepared with a week’s worth of food in a cooler and a canvas bag. I stop in Glendale, Calif., to top off the Cavalier with natural gas, since it doesn’t have a huge tank (like the one I added to my Ford). I’ll top it off one more time in Rancho Cucamonga, and then Viva Las Vegas!

The Rancho Cucamonga natural-gas filling station is on the fritz again. I don’t know why I keep stopping there. It’s never worked properly in the two years I’ve tried to fill up there.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember why I stop there. Because it’s the last damn stop before you get on the I-15 and head across the desert to Vegas some 220 miles away! You’d think it would be a priority to keep it running.

So, I once again take a big-ass loop out of the way into San Bernadino and all the morning traffic to fill up at another station. After about 45 minutes, I’m back on the I-15 and heading for Sin City. Such is the price of this level of commitment.

I’m in the Cajon Pass. What the hell is this? The gas light just came on!

I know there’s plenty of natural gas in the tank. I’ll pull off to the shoulder and see if it works after I restart the car. It does! Thank God. It has a gasoline backup system, but I’m a stubborn bastard. I’m not going to put a drop of gasoline in this puppy all the way to Iowa and back. I’ve done it with only natural gas before. Even with the smaller tank, I know that it can be done!

I fuel in Vegas, then Cedar City, Utah, then on to the I-70 to Richfield, Utah, then Grand Junction, Colo. I’m doing it in the Cavalier! And without giving up all the trunk space like I did in my Ford.

As it gets late, a fog uncommon to this stretch of the I-70 sets in. I sleep in Parachute, Colo.

Day 2, January 19

I’m doing phoners from the road for the conference in Des Moines. Cell phones do sometimes serve a higher purpose. I stop in Glenwood Springs, Colo., to top off. The Cavalier’s natural-gas system shuts down again. It must be the altitude. I re-start it again. It runs for a while, then switches over to gasoline again, and again, and again … all the way through Colorado. I seek help from my friend Bob Weatherly in Wray, Colo. He drives a natural-gas truck and he helps me with a fill and adjusts the quarter-turn valve with an Allen wrench. It works!

Ten miles down the road, the car switches to gasoline again, and it won’t switch back to natural gas. Now I’m getting a little depressed.

Though the folks at GM have been incredibly generous in letting me drive this car across the country, it doesn’t get halfway before the preferred (clean) fuel system has gone ker-flooey. The car has less than 5,000 miles on it total when the natural-gas system shuts down.

And ditto for my friends at Ford. They have been equally generous in replacing parts way past the warranty period. But the Ford Contour was not even ready to attempt this trip.

A natural-gas Ford Contour. It’s trying.
Really.

Let’s re-cap: Chevy Cavalier won’t run on natural gas. Ford Contour won’t run on natural gas. Every MTA driver I poll who drives a natural-gas bus in L.A. hates to drive them. I always ask why. They say they break down all the time.

It doesn’t stop there. Even if you have a car that does run on natural gas, you will regularly get to a station that has a particular kind of fueling card that is unique to that area. I’ve got 10 different natural-gas fueling cards and it’s still not enough! It’s like the late ’70s, when you had to have a different ATM card for each bank. But this is the year 2000. Why not a common system like the banking community has had now for nearly 20 years?

There’s more. Natural-gas filling stations suddenly close without notice. You pull up to your vital station in Minden, Neb., and it’s gone. But, even when they are there, you can’t always find them. Roughly a third of the entries in the natural gas fueling directory are in error. And some are real doozies. They put 26th St. when they meant 6th St. in Silverthorne, Colo. They put 1001 14th St. when they meant 4001 14th St. in Topeka, Kan. You can spend hours in a strange town trying to make sense of that sort of stuff, and I have.

Day 3, January 20

I’m more than a little depressed. The Cavalier’s natural-gas system isn’t working, and I’ve used up all the gasoline that was in the backup tank. So now I have to actually pump gasoline. Lots of it. I pump about 20 gallons to finish the journey to Iowa.

Day 4, January 21

I have a great time with Denis Hayes, Bobby Kennedy, and Al Gore while I’m in Des Moines at the EarthYear 2000 Kickoff.

Then I have to pump another 60 gallons to get home.

Days 5 & 6, January 22-23

It’s only January and I’ve already pumped more gas than I pumped in the entire decade of the ’90s.

By a long shot.

I pumped less than 10 gallons in 1990, then sold my Volvo and was rid of gasoline-guzzling beasts. I pumped another 30 gallons in 1998 and 1999 when I ran into some problems and had to make use of the gasoline side of my flex-fuel Ford. Not bad for a whole decade. Forty gallons.

But let me not play word games with you. I made use of another 30 or 40 gallons that my girlfriend or my kids had left in the bi-fuel vehicle when I needed to make it to the next clean fuel pump. Okay, that’s my fuel, even though I didn’t pump it! So, what … 80 gallons for a whole decade? Still not bad.

And now I’ve beat that in the first few weeks of this decade.

Back at Home

I’m not going to stay depressed. I’m back in my solar-charged EV-1. I’m riding my ten-speed all around town.

And I’m certainly not mad at GM or Ford. They bent over backwards to try to keep me running on clean fuel. We’re all pioneers in this alternative-fuel business, doing our level best. We’ll get it right. And soon, I think.

But next time, I plan to ride my bike.