Magazine article Sunset

Road Trip, Recharged: A Drive to Napa in an Electric Vehicle Brought This San Francisco Couple to a Place Refreshingly Different

Magazine article Sunset

Road Trip, Recharged: A Drive to Napa in an Electric Vehicle Brought This San Francisco Couple to a Place Refreshingly Different

Article excerpt

Dan Brooks lives on a quiet cul-de-sac just outside downtown Napa, a soft-spoken, middle-aged guy in beach hat and sandals. He flies a medical helicopter for a living. Until one recent morning, when I pull up in his driveway, though, he is a complete stranger, a dot on a map that my wife, Amy, and I have built a strange vacation around. We are 24 hours into our experiment.

Longtime San Franciscans of the bleary parental variety, we'd been itching to ditch town for a couple of days. Rather than the standard road trip, however, we got the idea of renting an electric vehicle. Like many, we'd come to occupy a funny spot regarding EVs: We had the sense that they are on the cusp of ubiquity, but also we professed some basic ignorance about how they work. What's their range? What kind of chargers can you use? What button do I push?

Operating the car turned out to be the easy part. It was the spirit of the trip that was different. Rather than following your bliss, your bliss reorients to your car's limited range and the limited supply of charging stations, which Amy and I accessed on a website called PlugShare. Before setting out, we pulled up a map of North America, sprayed with dots, each representing available chargers. When we zoomed in, we noticed an impressively heavy concentration in Napa Valley. Rather than charting a road trip according to spots we wanted to hit, we chose dots that we had enough range to reach (about 80 miles, according to EV-owning friends). The paralyzing options travelers are often confronted with get whittled down to a manageable handful. Amy and I found this process of planning refreshing. My poet friend Matthew sometimes has his students stir the pot by writing poems without the letter e. This would be our e-less trip: a little harder, considerably more memorable.

HOW MANY CHARGES WILL IT TAKE?

Thus, one chilly spring morning, an hour after leaving the city in our freakishly silent Nissan LEAF, we rolled into Napa. Much as I'd hoped for some barely-making-it drama, we arrived with power to spare. We used the surplus to drive to High Water Stand Up Paddle.

Like EV driving, stand-up paddleboarding takes six seconds to learn. Amy and I pushed out onto a still stretch of water and glided about effortlessly, enjoying the backdoor approach to a town from the water--the weathered old mill, two dudes fishing from a rock. As we neared downtown Napa, the sites took on an added dimension, coalescing into a tour of our fossil-fueled civilization: a freight train, motorboats, a droning squadron of string trimmers, and finally cars cars cars. Then there was us, advancing up this winding ribbon by other means entirely.

After the paddle, we checked into the Napa River Inn, chosen not for the perfect views or sun-dappled balcony off our room, but the charging station in the parking lot. We walked around the city that night, our LEAF quietly readying itself for the next leg.

A STRANGER'S DRIVEWAY

While the PlugShare map mostly comprised businesses with charging stations (hotels, restaurants, and wineries), a handful of dots stand for individuals volunteering their own private chargers. We loved this excuse for meeting a certified local on our trip, much like we enjoy the glimpse of people's homes we get when we rent a house from Airbnb. Which brings us to Dan Brooks.

"It's surprisingly fun to plan your trips with an EV," the helicopter pilot tells us, describing the video game-like thrill of trying to reach a destination on a single charge, and of driving in the most mileage-optimizing way possible (see "EV Lingo," left). "Plus, you find yourself in this little community. You meet people at the charging station, or in chat rooms." So far, though, the number of EV drivers who have taken Brooks up on his charger offer is zero. "The truth is, there's a pretty good supply of them in the valley," he concedes when we meet. "But I like to think it'll happen. …

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