Slick way to travel
Chico couple drives 23,000 miles around the country and into Canada on veggie oil
With gas at $4 a gallon and rising, many people are considering driving less or finding shorter routes. But two Chicoans actually have taken the opposite approach.
Chris Nelson and Michael Pike spent about nine months traveling across the country and back, hitting 30 states and three Canadian provinces, running their diesel truck on straight vegetable oil. They used oil collected from restaurants along the way and a little bit of biodiesel fuel to get the vehicle started.
Nelson, who had just retired as a public health nurse, decided it was prime time to go exploring, and Pike had the equipment to make it happen. The couple embarked on their trip last July, happy to leave the sweltering Chico summer.
“With all the environmental issues such as global warming and seeing friends get sick and dying, we just wanted to get away, and we wanted to do this in an environmentally conscience way,” Nelson said.
Pike collected used vegetable oil mainly from Asian eateries, where the quality of the used oil is better than at fast-food restaurants. Most restaurateurs were happy to give the couple the cooking byproduct, since they usually have to pay rendering companies to haul it away.
Refining the oil typically took about four hours, depending on weather conditions. The process involved heating the oil and then pouring it through an Acme juicer to separate it from water and dirt. Yielding about 24 gallons of clean fuel each batch, Pike would then pump the oil into his 18-gallon gas tank and store the remaining fuel.
“It was a constant process of heat, pour, check,” he said. “I was constantly checking something here and there, and you have to be very careful when you’re working with hot oil.”
Pike would do the refining about every four days, stopping wherever it was convenient, including a wildlife refuge and a library parking lot. Nelson would spend the downtime blogging about the journey from a laptop. The process wasn’t inconspicuous and neither was the couple’s ‘87 Ford truck and camper equipped with rooftop solar panels and oil containers on storage racks.
“People loved that truck—especially men,” Nelson said. “Old guys, young guys, rich guys, poor guys, everyone would talk to him about it.”
A converter kit purchased at the start of the trip cost $2,000, and Pike says the investment saved the couple approximately $5,000. During the trip, they spent only about $40 a day. Most of that expense was for food and minor car repairs.
Nelson and Pike estimate they drove 23,000 miles on straight vegetable oil, traveling about 100 miles per day getting 15 miles per gallon.
Aside from reaching Georgia by November to spend Thanksgiving with family, the two had no particular destinations in mind. The couple just wanted to avoid all the yellow areas of maps (urban places), and head toward the green ones, national parks and wildlife refuges.
They traveled mostly on back roads following rivers to avoid interstate highways, passed the day by going on outdoor excursions and camped at night wherever they could stop the truck.
“Everywhere you go there’s something special and unique about how people are and the way they live,” said Nelson, who loved the adventure.
They also found themselves becoming politically involved.
In Fort Benning, Ga., they participated in a protest against the School of the Americas, demanding the closure of the institution, which is used by the U.S. military to train Latin American soldiers for combat. In New Orleans, they joined people from all around the country and local activists in an attempt to save publicly funded housing. Near the Mexican border, along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, they witnessed the battle of border control and security, and they experienced the drought in the areas of New York through Maine.
The trip has also enlightened them about the problems this country has with waste management and recycling. Trash littered the roadways in many regions, even in rural communities.
“There are humans just about anywhere, and people throw trash everywhere,” Nelson said.
In some places, especially along the beaches, the two picked up recyclables but ended up having to hold onto them for several days. Nelson said the camper was sometimes so full of the things they had collected that they would have to go out of their way just to find a recycling center. This often meant following directions given by locals to facilities that were located miles away.
“Curbside recycling is something we’re very fortunate to have here [in Chico],” Nelson said. “Many places don’t have the luxury of curbside recycling. If they’re lucky, they’ll have one place in the entire county to recycle.”
Pike and Nelson would like to see better methods of recycling established such as curbside recycling and other types of recycling programs in all communities. They’d also like to see better use of used vegetable oil. For example, in Portland, Ore., public buses run on used vegetable oil and biodiesel.
People should also really start looking at what they’re throwing away. As the urban sprawl continues and people start moving into unincorporated areas, problems of waste management and recycling will only grow if people don’t make an effort to change, they said.
The two have long been environmentally conscience and are involved in the Butte Environmental Council and the Chico Peace and Justice Center. In Chico, on their own 12-acre spread, the couple grows food organically. For their other needs, they focus on supporting local businesses.
Back home since early May, the couple is settling into a routine of chores, housework and meetings to attend. Looking back, they started the journey as a way to experience a lifestyle closer to nature—a simpler way of life. Living as “mobile homeless” and being stimulated by seeing new things has brought the two closer together and made them more aware of the environmental and social problems the nation faces.
Both admitted it’s tough to be back.
“Life seemed like it was a lot of work on the road, but it really was much simpler,” Nelson said. “Everything seems more complex and expensive to be home.”