Big Brother, Friend or Foe?

Day two dawned like an ice castle at the Quebec Winter Carnival. Trees, cars, and sidewalks were coated with ice. Like most other cars in the lot, ours was frozen shut. With a little persuasion, and a little sunshine, we opened the charge port and plugged in the battery to nudge it back to life while we ate breakfast. About 9 a.m., the air temperature rose above freezing, so we bundled up and hit the road, dodging the ice which was flying off trees and other vehicles.

After an hour or so of Connecticut, we discovered a third party in the car with us: Big Brother. As we sped well over 70 to pass a van with a snowy roof, our computer actually complained. “If you drive over 80, you will not reach your destination.” The nerve of that computer. I did not like Big Brother. I was not the Arctic explorer I once dreamed of being, but at least I could drive a car. Or could I?

On the New Jersey Turnpike, the car once again developed a mind of its own, and a good thing it did. A white SUV moved into our space from the slow lane, and before we had time to react, our side view cameras spotted it, and Big Brother steered us safely away. Otherwise, I would be a meatball on 95 South and never make it to Florida. So Big Brother redeemed himself. Now I am grateful, with a touch of ambivalence.

On the radio in Maryland, Siri played us this country gospel song: “When the storm around me rages, Guide me, Rock of Ages, guide Thou me.” Go figure.

Valentine Specials

We drove 414 miles today, and tried every kind of charger there is, with varying degrees of success. We started in Washington, DC, with the car charged up to 300 miles on the “destination charger” in our hotel. A destination charger is what we have inside the garage at home — it operates off a 220-volt clothes-dryer outlet installed on the wall. It takes about 6 hours to fill the batteries. The hotel charger was free, but overnight parking was extra.

As we white-knuckled our way around the outer loop of the DC beltway and then down I-95, we spotted our first Valentine surprise: an overhead sign from the Virginia DOT that said, “Buckle Up, Somebody Loves You.” We smiled and relaxed our grip.

Now one of us likes to navigate ahead in detail, and the other is comfortable with a seat-of-the-pants style enabled by a mobile app called PlugShare. When you enter a location into PlugShare, a map shows you all the nearby electric vehicle chargers. Two hours south of DC, in Chester, VA, PlugShare found us chargers at something called WAWA.

WAWA turned out to be an upscale gas station and convenience store. It had a Canada goose silhouetted over the door, and a dozen gas pumps and half a dozen Tesla superchargers out front, just like the ones on the turnpikes in Maine, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Two other Teslas joined us outside WAWA, so we held an impromptu club meeting for 30 minutes beside our cars while we waited. That was my favorite part of the day.

A rest stop in northern NC delivered the second Valentine surprise, a pink cherry tree already blooming. Southern NC featured an excellent bank of Tesla super chargers across from the Crackerbarrel Restaurant in Fayetteville, and after that, our luck turned.

Once Pedro’s South of the Border fireworks store welcomed us to SC, we bashed on to Florence, where the charger in the hotel we booked did not work. PlugShare had suggested as much last December, but we assumed the hotel must have fixed it. Not. Too bad, they were serving free pizza in the lobby, and the sun was going down. The outdoor outlet behind the second hotel, which had a friendly happy hour going on in the breakfast room, also failed. We finally tried the third and last place mapped by PlugShare, the Hilton Garden Inn. Their dining room was serving a 3-course Valentine Special, surf and turf with a fresh green salad and chocolate colored strawberries for dessert. When we plugged into the “J” destination charger, which serves all electric cars, the green charging light came on. We checked in and ordered the special. We were not disappointed.

Slow Dancing on I-95

The afternoon of day four found us slow-dancing down I-95. The flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants method had let us down. We were now 98 miles from our destination with only 100 miles of charge in the battery, too close for comfort, so we were learning to love the slow lane.

We started the day with 300 miles of charge in Florence, SC, and detoured for an hour to walk around Marion State Park, congratulating ourselves for spotting three scarce red-headed woodpeckers. We crossed Lake Marion, named after Francis Marion, aka the Swamp Fox, considered a Revolutionary War hero in these parts for his defense of Charleston. The car battery was only 100 miles down, so we skipped the Supercharger in Santee. Big mistake.

We pushed on to the Walmart in Walterboro, where the PlugShare map shows an orange icon for fast chargers. What we did not detect inside the icon was a tiny wrench which means that the charging station is still under construction. So when we arrived at the oasis, it turned out to be a mirage.

No matter. We would drive down the Palmetto Parkway to Parker’s Travel Store near Savannah, where Georgia Power positioned four assorted chargers. Alas, without a card from Georgia Power, we were eligible for only 30 minutes, and besides, the J charger which fit our car was not working. This was the point at which we had only 100 miles of charge to cover the 98 miles to Kingsland. Remaining calm was a real test of our mettle. We called Georgia Power and reached a capable customer service rep who rebooted the charger remotely and coached us on how to plug the car in. It worked, but it timed out after giving us only 20 additional miles. We entered Kingsland in the car’s navigation system anyway and crossed our fingers.

Then Big Brother posted a text message. “To reach your destination, stay below 65 mph.” Did this mean we could make it? I forgave Big Brother, again, for being intrusive, again. We turned off all the accessories and set off at 60 mph. We weren’t taking any chances.

On the way to Kingsland, the battery icon turned an ominous orange: only 50 miles of charge left. But we had only 30 miles to go, so we reached Kingsland with energy to spare. We plugged in at the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham, whose manager owns a Tesla and maintains two J chargers for his guests. We made a bee-line for the hot tub and then ordered chili.

After supper, as we planned the next day’s itinerary, we checked the fine print. We had learned an interesting lesson in managing energy, ours and the car’s.

The Hero’s Journey

On day 5, suddenly, we traveled smoothly. Somewhere on I-75 in Florida, our Tesla initiation completed itself. After facing the death of our battery in the lowlands of the Carolinas, with their dearth of charging stations, and emerging alive, we emerged with hard-won wisdom. Plan ahead, read the fine print, and never pass up a Supercharger, even if you think you have enough power to reach your next destination. Our car became the Millenium Falcon, and we became full-fledged Jedi.

My ambivalence about Big Brother resolved itself. While I resented him for back-seat driving, I was also grateful for his fast reflexes. Finally I saw him with new eyes, so I christened him with a new name: the Wookiee.

At the Supercharger in Ocala, FL, we met up with Obi-Wan Kenobi. He was charging his 3-year-old Tesla outside Millie’s Cafe, along with 4 other Tesla owners, the most we had ever seen at one charging station. It was almost noon, and everyone had to wait 30 to 60 minutes for recharging. Three parties repaired to the Cantina for lunch, where Obi-Wan recounted his own near-death experience. On a long trip home to the planet Valdosta, he had run his battery down to 6 miles of charge remaining. The ship shut down all accessories, and refused to accelerate, but it still ran, slowly, into his garage. He plugged it in immediately, and it worked.

South of Ocala, we plugged in again in Sarasota, at the Supercharger behind Whole Foods on University Blvd., and from the city, we reached the beach, with 250 miles of charge remaining on our starship, enough for several days of leisure. After 1500 miles, the hero’s journey was complete.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, far left, and the Jedi, at the Cantina in Ocala, FL.


On the Road Again

During 3 weeks of Sarasota sunshine, we didn’t guzzle electricity at a Supercharger even once. Instead, we relied on two slower charging methods: a destination-type J charger in the local park, and the 110-volt golf cart charger at our resort. The resort’s maintenance man showed us how to charge our car without blowing the fuses in the unit upstairs. Three miles of charge per hour isn’t much, but over a weekend it adds up. The palm tree by the pool had an an electrical outlet as well, but it was out of order.

Saturday morning, it was time for us to drive back to Maine with the other climate refugees. We set an ambitious destination: Florence, S.C., 550 miles north of Sarasota. It was the farthest we ever drove in one day. We planned carefully the night before, selecting the fastest of the charging stations from our trip south, and adding Santee, which we foolishly skipped on the way down. We left the beach at 7:30 a.m., with the Beachboys on the radio singing “Help me Rhonda, help, help me, Rhonda,” which expressed how we felt.

189A4AB3-F842-4E1A-B904-DB4DE01FD544.jpegWe stopped at the Superchargers in Ocala, FL, at 10 a.m., and then at 1 pm in Kingsland, GA, which hit the ball out of the park. Beside them was a unique Southern food truck, a black, barrel-shaped BBQ grill on wheels serving three kinds of BBQ meat plus sides. It was popular. Only 26 miles from Kingsland is the Okeefenokee Swamp Refuge, for another trip. The next Superchargers north of Kingsland are at the airport in Savannah; we skipped them and learned later from another Tesla owner that they were already full of other Tesla’s.

1846EBDD-449A-4870-9F60-3B774AA4E83C.jpegAt 5 pm we arrived in Santee, S.C., to find six cars filling all six Superchargers, which slowed them down so they added only two miles per minute to each car’s batteries. So we purchased the minimum we needed to reach Florence, SC, and rushed off an hour before sunset to the now-familiar low-charge warning from Big Brother, “If you exceed 70 mph, you will not reach your destination.”

We stayed below 70, mostly, confident that we could cover 57 miles on the 86 miles of charge in our batteries. We pulled into our hotel at 6:30 p.m., with 25 miles of charge left, just as Big Brother threatened to turn off the A/C and the radio. Victory! We covered 550 miles in 11 hours, including all stops to charge. We put on our Tesla hats, plugged in the car, and walked tall but stiff-legged to the front desk to check in.

I Can See Clearly Now, the Rain Is Gone

 

Tornadoes in Tennessee and Mississippi dominated the Weather Channel last night, and the same storm moved east across the Carolinas and Virginia in the early morning. We watched the weather radar closely and decided to set off at 8:30 a.m. Dramatic clouds and fresh cool air surrounded us. The Great Pee Dee River north of Florence was swollen from the storm, but the rain itself had moved out. The palm trees and live oaks of the low country were behind us now, so red maple trees and pines lined the road. Daffodils bloomed in Fayetteville, and fruit trees planted a generation ago blossomed white in the dooryards.

719E3765-9A3B-4FE4-91BD-633F790390E4.jpegAfter 180 miles, we pulled into the Superchargers behind the Texas Roadhouse in Rocky Mount, N.C. The pleasure of a leisurely chat awaited us. A Tesla Model X, with a high roof and gull-wing doors, pulled in beside us. The owner plugged in and then showed us how he fitted a foam mattress in the back seat. He also cut the back off a tent and velcroed it to the uplifted door to make a porch for his car, so he was a happy camper. While his battery charged, he unfolded a Segway scooter and rolled off to see the sights. We stood around and marveled.

Not so marvelous was our subsequent, heated disagreement on the auto-steering features of our Tesla. One of us embraces all the technology — cruise control, lane alert, automatic braking, and self-steering. The other is not so trusting. Whether it was the two cars in the ditch beside us, the heavy traffic around Richmond, or too many hours behind the wheel, I don’t know, but we blew up over whether or not to override cruise control as we passed the accident. In the end we agreed to tolerate our differences, but we sat in uncomfortable silence as Etta James wailed about lost love in“Purple Rain.”

We stopped for some retail therapy in Fredericksburg, VA. While charging the car batteries at one of the 8 Superchargers beside the WAWA on Jefferson Davis Highway, we walked over to to the Goodwill Store and bought some summer clothes to spiff up our wardrobes for Florida next year. The next leg, up to DC and around 495 to Bethesda, MD, went smoothly, and our friends welcomed us with chicken soup.

 

 

Rollercoaster

Today was a rollercoaster ride through boredom, laughter, and gloom.  From Maryland to New Jersey, the sky was gray, the grass was brown, and the trip around the beltway to the interstate was manageable.  Only in retrospect did boring look good.

At the WAWA in Paulsboro, NJ, life perked up.  Next to us at the Supercharger was Hank, whose new Tesla 3 Performance model was the first we had ever seen.  We discovered that both of us, in misguided attempts to have our cake and eat it too, had previously owned VW “clean” diesels.  Hank’s actually was clean, sort of. He and his kids brewed their own diesel fuel every Saturday morning out of discarded French fry oil from their school cafeteria. He brewed it in a hot water heater at his office, not at home,  he said, because no matter how careful you are, something always spills.  We set off laughing.

Two hundred miles later we pulled into the Superchargers behind Trader Joe’s in the West Hartford Shopping Center.  I was anticipating some tasty dinner treats,  but on the way there we ran the rear wheel of our car up on a curb (operator error) and dinged it underneath.  We plugged the batteries into the Supercharger, took pix of the scrape, and consulted an on-line Tesla users group. “There are no little dings in Tesla’s,” one owner warned.  Thus sobered, we drove the next hundred miles to Boston. Along the way we called the local authorized Tesla repair shop and made an appointment for an estimate the next day.