Refueling

What it’s really like to take an electric car on a road trip.

At the charger in Sutherlin – not the first time we’ve shared a set of charging stations with another white Bolt. Ours is the one on the right, with its back to the camera.

I’m one trip behind on hike reports, but I thought I should do this first. We’ve just returned from a week in McMinnville, Oregon – a small town near Portland, 250 miles from our home in Medford. That is a “maybe” distance for an electric car: maybe we could make it all the way if we start with a full battery, but maybe not. So prudence dictated a refueling stop each way, as well as at the destination. And because the process of refueling an electric car on the road is broadly misunderstood, it seems useful to try to clear up some misconceptions by describing exactly how it worked on this particular trip.

One caveat: it is still necessary to plan carefully. This has nothing to do with the actual recharging process, and everything to do with the state of the charging network. There are gas stations just about everywhere, but charging stations are still few and far between. I dream of the day when there are charging stations on every corner and it’s the drivers of gasoline vehicles who have to plan, but we have to deal with reality. I had to choose in advance where to stop along the way, and I made reservations far ahead in the single reasonably-priced motel in McMinnville that has a charger in its parking lot.

Once that part is out of the way, though, the rest is easy. It is actually simpler to charge an electric car’s battery than it is to fill a gas tank, and it takes less time out of your trip. Let me repeat that: it is actually simpler to charge an electric car’s battery than it is to fill a gas tank, and it takes less time out of your trip. The horror stories you hear about how dreadfully long it takes to charge are probably true for the people who experience them, but they result from failure to understand that charging a battery is not like filling a fuel tank. It’s a different process, and requires a different way of thinking.

With a gasoline car, the usual procedure is to run the car until the tank is nearly empty, then pull into a gas station and fill all the way up. While it’s filling, you stay with the car. If the gas station is also a convenience store, you may run in to buy a bag of potato chips or a cup of coffee to go; otherwise, you just wait for the ten or fifteen minutes it takes the tank to fill. With an electric car, that model simply doesn’t work. You’re rarely going to fill the battery all the way up – that’s not even a good idea (doing it regularly can shorten the battery’s life). And you don’t need to stay with the car. While the charger is doing its thing, you can be off doing something else. Here’s how that works – actual experience, on our trip that ended yesterday.

PLANNING: I started by trying to find out whether we would be able to charge the car in McMinnville. The best tool for this is the Plugshare website (plugshare.com), a crowdsourced site that attempts to map and describe every public charger in the country. We would be spending the first two nights in a motel before moving to a dorm on the Linfield College campus, so I looked for motels with “destination chargers” – level 2 (220-240 volt) chargers located at places where you expect to stay a long time, such as overnight. McMinnville’s Best Western had such a charger. I called to see if we could reserve it; the answer was “no”, but the woman I spoke with said it was rarely used. That seemed satisfactory. I booked a room.

Next, I visited A Better Route Planner (abetterrouteplanner.com), a routing site designed specifically to help electric-car drivers find the most efficient routes for long-distance travel. It suggested a charging stop in Sutherlin, a small town just north of Roseburg, to boost the battery up to 71%. That, it said, would be enough to reach McMinnville with about twenty miles to spare. Estimated time on the charger would be 13 minutes. I checked out the Sutherlin charger on Plugshare and found it had a 10-star rating (out of 10) and four charging stations, which meant we could probably count on getting the charge started immediately. It was also next to a Dairy Queen and near a Starbucks. I penciled it in. Planning was complete.

THE TRIP NORTH: The night before our departure, I reset the top charge on the Bolt from 95%, where we usually keep it, to 100%. That would be insurance against broken or full chargers. As I backed the fully-packed and fully-charged car out of the garage the next morning, I noticed that the range indicator said we had 307 miles, which would get us to McMinnville with more than 50 miles to spare. That, of course, was based on running around Medford, rather than dashing a couple of hundred miles at freeway speeds with the air conditioner on. We decided to stop at Sutherlin anyway.

The drive went smoothly. At Sutherlin I plugged in, inserted my credit card, and had electricity flowing into the car in about a minute and a half. We had nearly 60% of the battery left, so we decided 10 minutes of charge would probably do. We slipped into the Starbucks, and those 10 minutes stretched to nearly half an hour, giving the car an 83% charge. I unplugged – about a 30-second procedure – and we headed for McMinnville, taking the shorter but slower Territorial Highway instead of the freeway route that A Better Route Planner had suggested. That got us to the McMinnville Best Western with 100 miles of range left. The charger’s parking slot was empty and the charger was a SemaConnect, for which we carry a charge card. Plugging in and starting the juice flowing took all of about 45 seconds. We would wake up the next morning with a full battery. It would take about 5 seconds to unplug.

THE TRIP SOUTH: We didn’t use the car much for the five and a half days we spent in McMinnville, so we didn’t bother charging again. Pulling out of town in the early afternoon, I noticed that we had a 95% charge – plenty to get back to Sutherlin, where we stopped and plugged in again. The charger told us it could get the car back up to an 80% charge in 40 minutes. It was just before 5:00 PM, so we went to the Dairy Queen and grabbed a meal. We finished eating with about ten minutes left of the estimated 40. The battery was up to 74% – more than enough to get to Medford – so I stopped the charge and unplugged. We changed drivers and Melody drove us the 110 miles home, at freeway speeds, with the A/C on and the outside temperature hovering above 90°F. We pulled into the driveway with 77 miles of range left.

ANALYSIS: Adding up the various plugging and unplugging times, you’ll find that we spent under five minutes charging the car. The car actually charged much longer than that, of course, but it’s really our time that counts, and while the car was charging, our time was spent doing things we would have done anyway. I wanted to stop for coffee, anyway; we would have slept in the motel all night, anyway; we would have made a dinner stop someplace on the way home, anyway. By combining those stops with charging, we had actually saved time over what it would have taken us to fill a gas tank twice. Or even once.

So that’s what it’s really like to make a 500-mile round trip in an electric car – a car that is as capable as any vehicle I’ve ever driven, and more fun than most. And it’s probably worth adding that the Bolt’s small appearance is deceptive. We got all we needed for a week – including our clothes and toiletries, a guitar, a laptop, a box of papers for the conference we were attending, and the car’s wall charger (just in case) – into the covered space behind the back seat, and we carted three extra people around McMinnville for part of the time we were there. Aside from the planning time needed, there was literally no downside to taking the Bolt instead of taking a gasoline-powered car. Ignore the naysayers. Welcome to the real future of driving.

The North Umpqua: waterfalls and wildflowers

In an earlier blog post (“The saga of the Bolt and the bolt“), I told about the blowout that brought an abrupt end to our waterfalls-and-wildflowers excursion on the North Umpqua River last week. This post is about the more pleasant parts of the trip that preceded the blowout.

The Bolt at the Mt Thielsen viewpoint near Diamond Lake

It started out well enough. Southern Oregon is blessed with something called the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway, made possible by the fact that two of the state’s most scenic rivers, the Rogue and the Umpqua, both head out near Diamond Lake, a large, lovely natural lake on the crest of the Cascade Mountains a short distance north of Crater Lake National Park. Beginning in the small town of Gold Hill on Interstate 5 north of Medford, the Byway uses existing highways – Oregon 234, Oregon 62, Oregon 230, and Oregon 138 – to climb the Rogue, circle Diamond Lake, and come down the Umpqua to Roseburg. The mountain scenery is spectacular around Diamond Lake, but that’s not the main draw: the main draw is waterfalls. Waterfalls of all shapes and sizes, from frothy rapids a few feet high to Watson Falls, the third-highest in the state at nearly 300 feet. Gems of white water set in dark evergreen forests and decorated with bright wildflowers. For waterfall lovers – and there are many of us – traveling the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway is somewhat akin to finding the Holy Grail.

Watson Falls

We can do the full Byway as a day trip from our home, but there is so much to see that we usually overnight on the North Umpqua, and this trip was planned that way. Near the tiny community of Dry Creek, roughly 2/3 of the way from Roseburg to Diamond Lake, there is an RV park and a set of rustic cabins that together go by the name Umpqua’s Last Resort. We planned to go up the Rogue, come down the Umpqua as far as the Last Resort, and spend the night in one of their cabins. A major draw for us, driving the Bolt, was NEMA 14-50 plugs in some of the RV slots. I emailed the management and was assured that, although none of the cabins had plugs associated with them, they would let us use an RV slot to charge the car. Charging would be free with our stay. There was one quirk: we couldn’t actually rent a cabin. All of them were already reserved. They did, however, have a large travel trailer permanently set up on one of the sites, and we could rent that for the price of a cabin. So all was set.

The first day went well. We got a leisurely start, had an early lunch at Beckie’s in Union Creek, and were at the uppermost falls on Highway 138, Clearwater Falls, before 1 pm. (We had elected not to stop at any of the wateralls along the Rogue, because we’ve been visiting them all spring.) And at this point, I’m going to let the pictures take over.

Whitehorse Falls
Columnar Falls
Tokatee Falls, probably the most famous of the Umpqua waterfalls)
Clockwise from upper left: violet (shot at Whitehorse Falls); calypso orchid (Watson Falls); Pacific starflower (Tokatee Falls); and twisted stalk (Columnar Falls).
charging, with chair

The highlight was Columnar Falls. It’s only fifteen feet or so high, and carries a modest amount of water, but the interplay of water, moss, and basalt columns is magical. The trail to it uses the same parking lot as Umpqua Hot Springs, so the parking lot was full, but we had the falls to ourselves.

The evening at Umpqua’s Last Resort was pleasant. The staff was welcoming, and interested in the Bolt – it was the first non-Tesla EV that had stayed with them. We had to borrow a lawn chair from our rented RV to hold our Juicebox off the ground, but there were no other problems, and the car got a full charge overnight. Late light on the river was lovely. The next morning we backtracked to Tokatee Falls and then….but read the earlier post. I’m going to just leave this right here.

The North Umpqua River in late afternoon light

The Saga of the Bolt and the bolt

Or the lag screw. Or the logging spike. Something long, sturdy, pointed, and probably made of steel. Whatever it was, it did a number on the Bolt’s left rear wheel, and after that it was – literally – all downhill until the wheel and tire could be replaced.

The trip had started out so nicely. We were on a two-day circuit of one of Oregon’s premiere waterfall routes: up the Rogue River to Diamond Lake, then down the North Umpqua to Roseburg, where we planned to pick up Interstate 5 for the 100-mile return to our home in Medford. The North Umpqua River, especially, is heaven for waterfall-lovers, with numerous falls both on the river itself and on many of its tributaries. So the plan was to spend most of our two days on the North Umpqua, with an overnight in a cabin at a small resort, roughly in the center of the most prolific group of falls, whose owner promised us access to an RV slot where we could recharge the car – the only place where it would make a difference that we were driving on electrons instead of gasoline.

All of this went according to plan – up to a point. That point came shortly before noon on the second day, and when it came, it came quite literally. I’ll save what happened before that for another blog post: here’s what happened then, and afterward.

We were headed west – downstream – a few miles beyond the tiny community of Dry Creek. The road was dry and beckoning in the bright sunshine. You don’t rush down the curvy, gorgeous North Umpqua highway (Oregon 138) – not if you’ve got any aesthetic sense whatsoever – so I was doing about 45. We were discussing what falls we would visit that afternoon, and both of us had our eyes on the road. Suddenly there was a loud BANG! and a simultaneous jolt. I looked quickly at the tire-pressure warning light. It was glowing bright orange. The low-tire-pressure screen came on in the middle of the speedometer, and we could watch the pressure dropping. All the way to zero. Neither of us had seen anything on the road, and I couldn’t see anything in the rear-view mirror, either. I decided the tire must have spontaneously blown.

There was a cliff up from the road on the right, and a cliff down to the rapids of the river on the left. Absolutely no place to pull off. I turned on the flashers and kept going on the flat, slowly. Eventually, a small turnout appeared on the left. I crossed the oncoming traffic lane into it and pulled to a halt. And there we were. No cell service. No OnStar (General Motors’ emergency responding system) either. No way at all to get a message out for help.

Except the old-fashioned way, of course. The flashers were still on. I got out and lifted the hood, even though there was nothing wrong under there. Cars continued to zip by. I tried a tentative wave – and the first of several angels we were to encounter that afternoon slowed quickly and pulled in beside us. Wearing camos and driving a new 4-wheel-drive pickup so big I had to look up to talk to him through the driver’s side window – and I’m six feet tall. The woman beside him looked concerned. So did the angel. “You got a problem?” he asked.

I explained the situation. The angel checked his phone. “I don’t have service, either,” he said. “I usually have it at Dry Creek. Who do you want me to call?” We settled on calling a tow truck; he drove his truck around the car on the river side – where I didn’t think there was room – and they wheeled on up the road.

Fifteen minutes later, they were back. He handed me a card for Roseburg Towing – where he got it I have no idea, unless he always carries them. “I called these people,” he said. “There’s a truck on its way. I made sure they sent one you can ride in with the driver.” He drove around the car on the river side again and disappeared back up the road. I turned off the flashers and closed the hood, and we settled down to wait.

It took an hour and a half, but a flatbed tow truck finally arrived, piloted by a wiry young man named Jack who might have been at least part Native American. He loaded the car onto the back and us into the cab, and we settled down for the long ride down to Roseburg. Jack had a quick smile and a gift for keeping conversation going – clearly another angel in disguise. If I’d had any doubts on that point, they evaporated when he told us he wasn’t going to drop the car until he was sure it was at a place that had our rather rare tire in stock, or at least a workable substitute. It took him three tries, in various parts of Roseburg. Finally, at the local Big O tire store, our third angel – Chad – assured Jack (and us) that he’d find a way to get us home to Medford. Jack carefully set the Bolt down, accepted my signature on the Visa slip and our profound thanks, and drove off.

Chad frowned at the tire. “I’m pretty sure you hit something,” he said. “I don’t think it just blew. These low-rolling-resistance tires are supposed to always be replaced by the same thing. We don’t have one, and we can’t get one in until Wednesday. But this is an emergency, right? We’ll put a regular tire of the same size on, and that’ll get you home. Might affect your range a bit.” He told us it would take about 30 minutes. It was already 4 pm.

Fifteen minutes later, he was back – rolling the defunct tire on its wheel. “I’ve got some bad news,” he said. “The wheel is cracked.” He pointed to a big pimple on the inside of the wheel, clearly made by a blow from something hard and sharp on the wheel’s road side. Bolt? Lag screw? Spike? Whatever it was, was long gone. “Usually, it’ll stay in the tire,” Chad said. “This is really weird. I can’t put a tire on this wheel, and I don’t have any wheels in stock that will fit. But I do have a buddy who works for the Chevy dealer. I’ll call him and see if there’s anything he can do.”

And that’s where Angel No. 4 comes into the story. I never met him, or learned his name, but we have him to thank for coming up with – and implementing – the only solution that could possibly have worked, short of waiting through Memorial Day weekend in Roseburg. The dealer had nine new Bolts on the lot. If we wanted, he would check to see if he could take a wheel off one of those and sell it to us. They’d replace it with the tire and wheel that would have been ordered for us, using the money we would have spent on the order.

“It won’t be cheap,” Chad said, relaying the message. I no longer cared. “Do it,” I said.

45 minutes later, we were on our way. The car rolled nicely, and the late-afternoon sun was warm. The pressure gauge for the left rear tire still read zero, but Chad assured us it would come up as soon as the car figured out it was dealing with a new sensor. Which it didn’t, but that was a minor thing. By 7 pm, we were home. I cracked a beer in honor of our four angels.

I’ve tried since to figure out why we didn’t see whatever it was that was waiting in the road to do the tire in. The only thing I can think of is that it was lying end-on to us, and was close to the color of the pavement. Such a small thing could easily go unnoticed. The front tire, running over it, must have flipped it up; the rear tire then impaled itself. Drag on the object’s head by the pavement would pull it back out of the hole, and it would be end-on and invisible again.

Whatever it was, and however, it had happened: after looking at the wheel, I could no longer blame the tire. Tires are the Bolt’s weak spot, but this time it wasn’t their fault. It could have happened to any car. This time, it happened to us.

And there is one more thing that should be reported: it’s a bit woo-woo and not easily explained, so I’ll just state it without comment. Ten minutes from home, my phone rang, and I picked it up via the car’s Bluetooth. It was my sister, Judith. I told her I was driving; she said I could call back, and hung up. When I reached her later and explained what had happened, she seemed unsurprised. “I was just calling to check on you,” she said. “I had a sudden feeling that you might be in trouble. It had something to do with your car.”

OK, maybe two words of comment. Fifth angel. I’m a rational person, not given to speculating about ESP and New-Age psychic phenomena, so I’m just going to leave that thing right there.

The Bolt being loaded onto the tow truck on the North Umpqua Highway.