The author at Arches National Park in Utah. (STEVE BALL PHOTO)
Last fall, after multiple lockdowns and much social isolation, my work colleague Steve and I were ready for an adventure and an experiment. How hard would it be to drive a Tesla Model 3 across the U.S.? Could we make the trip safely with minimal exposure to pandemic risks? Could we avoid the interstates and recharge conveniently? More broadly, could we gain a better understanding of the country’s rigid polarization?
We launched on foliage-lined secondary roads across northern New England and beyond. Our first targets were five antique car museums in Ohio and Indiana to see Packards, Pontiacs, Fords, Studebakers, Auburns, and Duesenbergs. These splendid examples of American ingenuity, design and technology reminded us of the important role that the automotive industry played in our nation’s industrial achievements and the development of labor unions and the middle class.
After our old-car fix, we drove through central Illinois, with its history-filled towns and cities sprinkled among beautiful farmland. A highlight was Abraham Lincoln’s home and museum in Springfield. The extreme polarization and difficult decisions that he faced reminded us that our nation’s current polarization is not unique and can be reduced. Like recent presidents, Lincoln faced deep divisions over the direction of the country, its core values and his own leadership.
My paternal ancestors migrated from Ohio to Illinois when land there opened up for settlement in the 1830s. Near Springfield, I discovered 20 ancestors buried in the now-abandoned farm town of Grove City, including my great-great-great-grandfather Peter, a veteran of the War of 1812. It appeared that the area had not changed much in the intervening 200 years. It remained pastoral and scenic, with long vistas across agricultural fields and few houses. I wondered who owned the farms — individual families or large agro-corporations.
Next was the long trek across Kansas, with its beautiful countryside and historic towns. Leaving Kansas, we took in spectacular views of the Rockies soaring upward in the distance across the farmland of eastern Colorado.
Driving along scenic Route 128 to Moab, I understood why people have worked hard to preserve Utah’s Red Rock Country, an area of unsurpassed and pristine beauty. The many spectacular national parks were busy with visitors taking advantage of the wisdom and planning of previous generations that preserved these large and important landscapes for future generations.
With only two days left on our journey, we overnighted in the diverse retirement city of St. George, Utah. Our bed-and-breakfast sat diagonally across from Brigham Young’s winter home, a reminder that this remained an area of Mormon settlement. The B&B’s early polygamist owner would hide in a secret attic room each time the feds came to arrest him. Our 14th and last day on the road took us south from Las Vegas, using secondary roads to cross the Mojave Desert and reach our goal in Southern California.
The author’s Tesla Model 3 at Roy’s Cafe on Route 66 in the Mojave Desert, California. (ROB PORTER PHOTO)
The answers to the questions we posed at our trip’s beginning were all yes. One can easily drive a Tesla across the U.S. With one or two exceptions, we were able to go everywhere we wanted without worrying about finding recharging stations. Tesla founder Elon Musk was smart to install Tesla-specific fast-charging stations almost everywhere, a move that has given the Tesla an advantage over other plug-in cars for now. That exclusivity will not last much longer. Other manufacturers are producing cheaper EVs, and more fast-charging stations are populating the nation, thanks to government and private programs.
At the start of the trip, I had wondered whether taking 10-40 minutes to recharge would be boring and unproductive, but it was not. We took advantage of that time to exercise, eat and explore. We quickly learned to pay attention to how driving conditions and speed affected the frequency with which we needed to recharge. Driving 70-75 mph into relentless 25-mph headwinds sweeping across the Kansas plains drained the battery much more quickly than driving with no wind at 50-60 mph.
We found fatigue and stress to be less of a problem if we drove on secondary roads whenever possible, thereby avoiding huge trucks and reckless speeders. The need to recharge twice a day also gave our bodies a chance to recover nicely. It was possible to travel by road and stay safe from COVID-19. We ate outdoors whenever we could and dined inside at off hours.
The beauty and diversity of the United States were awesome and ever-present, and each day was full of unique experiences. Despite our nation’s regional differences and current polarization, we felt at home everywhere, and people were universally friendly. We drove portions of two iconic routes that transcontinental travelers had traversed in centuries past — the Oregon Trail and Route 66, the “Mother Road” built in the 1920s to connect the East and West and stimulate development. As e-car travelers, we felt a kinship with those who had experimented with new routes and vehicles centuries ago.
Soon more and more people will see the advantage of owning a low-maintenance electric vehicle that will save them considerable money to fuel and operate, especially after the rapid-charging network is built out. They are cheaper to buy than you think. Manufacturers are producing more vehicles to meet demand. Whether the future owners of all these EVs will be less polarized than we are as a nation in 2022 is another matter.
Rob Porter lives in Harpswell. He was a co-editor of “Glimpses of Harpswell Past and Present: Stories Celebrating Maine’s Bicentennial.”