Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution

10. Slow Travel

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh 

It’s possible to travel without relying on fossil fuels. I enjoy slow travel more than flying, even though it requires more planning and time. Slow, low-energy travel gives me time to think. It gives me a chance to connect with the land and the ocean—and I dearly love this planet—and with the people I meet along the way. It makes me more grateful for the time I have with the friends, family, or colleagues I’m visiting. And it’s guaranteed to come with a healthy dose of adventure. It’s not difficult, but it does require a shift in mindset.

Bicycle travel

In Chapter 8, we discussed the bicycle as a vehicle for local travel. Bikes are also practical for long-distance travel. A slow long- distance bike trip exists in an entirely different mental space than a fast airplane trip, or even car trip.

I once rode from Denver to Chicago over 16 days. I’d just finished a summer job building trail in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. A few months earlier, I’d graduated from college, and I had no idea what to do with my life. So I decided to bike to my parents’ house.

But first I needed a bike. I hitched a ride up to Colorado Springs. All I could find there were mountain bikes. So I hopped a Greyhound up to Denver. After two days of hitching rides to bike stores—and two nights sleeping in a wooded margin behind one of the stores—I found the perfect bike, a heavy-duty touring bike on sale at REI for half price. It’s the bike I ride to this day, an old friend, the Beast. I bought some rear panniers, a helmet, a rear- view mirror that clipped to my glasses, some spare tubes, and a small pump, and set off.1

To properly tell the story of this adventure would require a book of its own; here I can only give some flavor. The constant backdrop was pedaling on nearly abandoned two-lane highways from one small town to another. As I approached each town, I could see its water tower from miles out across the plain. One day early in the trip, I spent hours at a town’s library, reading every book they had about bikes and bike maintenance. I only went 40 miles that day. Most other days, I biked around 100 miles.
Each day I’d pedal and pedal, and as the sun sank low, I’d start to look for a place to sleep. I’d head down the road in the failing light, figuring I’d go a ways and then settle in with the chirping crickets somewhere. Sometimes this is what I’d do. But more often than not, hospitality materialized from the ether, in one form or the other. I suppose you could consider a safe, cozy spot among the crickets a form of hospitality, anyway.

One night I knocked on a farmhouse door on the outskirts of a town, asking to sleep in a field, but was turned away (the only time this happened). I pedaled toward town. Before the road dis- appeared completely into the inky night, a red neon glow shone far ahead. This turned out to be the local watering hole, so I stopped and ordered a beer. The couple next to me at the bar was celebrating a birthday. They were curious about my trip, and we talked for a long while. They ended up offering me the couch in their single- wide for the night. The man was a cowboy—he rounded up cattle and drove cattle trucks.

His wife cooked breakfast the next morning as the cowboy barked orders imperiously. The atmosphere was toxic; in the light of morning, I realized both the man and the woman felt trapped. 

I insisted on washing up. As soon as I finished, I thanked my hosts, stepped outside, and breathed in freedom as I saddled up and hit the road.

In cattle country, there were flies. Biting flies, and lots of them. Also long, rolling hills. To outrun the flies, I had to maintain a minimum speed up the hills. I’d sweat up those hills, and then roll down the other side ecstatically at speeds in excess of 50 mph, judging by the occasional cars which crept past and must have been going 60 or 70 mph themselves.

One morning, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I rode through a town hosting its county fair. I got talking to an older couple who invited me to spend the night at their place. They were empty nesters, and I reminded them of their son. The man was a grumpy farmer, and he thought I should be working at a job instead of tramping across the country on a bike. He taught me how to set the irrigation siphon tubes that sent the water from the Ogallala Aquifer onto his fields. I ended up staying two nights, to rest a bit and to avoid holiday drunk drivers.

That’s how it went. Some nights I’d wash my “other” t-shirt and shorts in a public sink in a park, and sleep by the side of the road tucked somewhere hard to find. Other nights I knocked at the rectory in town, and I’d either be offered a spare room or a place to sleep on the grass; then I’d tag along for dinner at a congregant’s house.

On my last night out, I stayed with Sharon’s parents in western Illinois, a day’s ride from my home town of LaGrange. At that time, Sharon was overseas, serving in the Peace Corps in Albania. I was hopelessly in love with her, but officially we were still just friends. It had been a long day. I’d taken a wrong turn in the late afternoon, which had tacked 12 miles onto an already long ride. Sharon’s older brother gave me the third degree. I sat there, utterly starving but answering his questions with a smile. I think I passed, somehow.

As I pedaled, I earned each mile, and each mile had its own personality. Each day was an adventure. I was curious to see who I’d meet. I learned that I could trade the story of my trip, my optimism and openness, for a beer, a place to spend the night, a meal. I had no idea where I’d sleep at night, no deadlines at all. I was open to life, and life was open to me.

Driving on veggie oil

While I’m no fan of fossil fuels, I somehow happen to like old diesels. I like the way they clatter, and I like the way they can run on strange fuels, from kerosene to motor oil. Once, while returning from a backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo mountains with a friend in an old diesel VW Rabbit, we ran out of fuel. Half a gallon of kerosene, borrowed from a guy in a cabin, got us out of the woods.

Years later, shortly after moving to Altadena, I bought a 1984 Mercedes-Benz diesel for a song. She had 300,000 miles on her. I fixed a few things and converted her to run on waste vegetable oil (WVO) from restaurants.

In the future, as my awareness continues to deepen, I may find that I enjoy not owning a car more than owning one. I know people who choose not to own cars, and they get by just fine (though none have kids). But for now, driving on WVO is a good compromise, helping me live a new story within industrial society.

Making Maeby

Getting an old Benz to run on WVO isn’t complicated. In fact, Rudolf Diesel designed his engine to run on mineral and vegetable oils in the first place. The crux of the problem is that WVO is thicker than diesel. Thicker liquids spray through nozzles in larger drops and in a narrower spray pattern. In an engine, this could cause incomplete combustion and engine damage over time. From discussions on internet forums, I learned that the critical design question was whether to cold start on diesel and then switch over to WVO once the engine is hot (a two-tank system) or to cold start the car directly on the WVO (a single-tank system). The two-tank system uses engine heat to lower the WVO viscosity to that of diesel fuel, while a proper single-tank system switches out the stock diesel injectors for injectors that work optimally with higher viscosity fuel.2 A single-tank system appealed at first. Superficially simpler, and with no need to warm up with diesel.3 However, I could find no solid research on the proper injectors for running WVO in an old Benz. I began to realize that designing a proper single-tank system would likely require bench-testing various injectors myself, in order to replicate the proper spray pattern and drop size with cold veggie oil. Getting this wrong could ruin the engine, and then my low-energy experiment would end as just more stuff for the landfill. I decided on the two-tank system. The other design decisions were relatively easy, and their implementation was straightforward (see Figure 10.1). I ordered two solenoid valves, a flat plate heat exchanger to transfer heat from coolant to WVO, and a large truck filter (heated by coolant in order to pass the oil more easily). Then I bought some rubber fuel hose, some hose clamps, and a spare set of steel fuel lines for a new five-gallon diesel tank which I situated in the trunk. Those fuel lines posed the biggest challenge. Getting them from the junkyard involved lying on my back in broken glass under the shell of an old car on a blazing day in a field full of broken cars, with diesel fuel dribbling down around me—I felt like Mad Max. And so Maeby4 was born. I relished the process of creating her. And after 50,000 WVO miles, I still get a thrill when I switch over to veg.

Playing with fire

Meanwhile, I needed a source of grease and a system to filter it. At the time, I was a physics postdoc at Caltech. Many years earlier, an oceanology postdoc, long gone, had made biodiesel5 from the dining hall’s WVO. His abandoned apparatus—four 55-gallon steel drums, two with cone-bottoms, linked by various pumps and hoses—hulked over a corner of the machine shop in the basement of the chemical engineering building. I wasn’t interested in cook- ing biodiesel, having opted instead for an upfront effort on the car to avoid the ongoing effort and dangerous chemicals required for biodiesel production. Preparing WVO fuel is far simpler: first you let it sit for a few days to allow tiny particles to settle, and then you run the settled oil through a ten-micron filter, discarding the bottom layer of sediment. With the blessings of the machine shop manager and the dining hall manager, I began collecting, settling, and filtering dining hall grease with the old equipment. It’s challenging to handle WVO without the occasional spill or leak. Once I made a mistake while hooking up a pipe, and I managed to pump a quart of oil onto the floor. I wiped it up with shop rags and thought nothing of it. A few days later, as luck would have it, I happened to be in the shop when the fire alarm went off. Smoke was coming out of the dirty rag can. My oily rags had spontaneously combusted! I hit the can with a fire extinguisher and then rushed it up the stairs and outside into the sun, into a small crowd of grumpy professors and blinking students who had evacuated their labs. After this incident, I decided it wasn’t a great idea to mess around with drums full of flammable oil under Caltech’s chemical engineering building. I now filter my veggie oil outside, in my backyard. This way there’s less risk, and less mess.

The first epic trip: California to Illinois in the winter

Until a few years ago, we’d flown to Chicago to visit our parents every Christmas. My folks still live in the suburb just outside of Chicago where I grew up, and Sharon’s folks live 90 miles to the west. We’d never questioned this ritual. Could we trade in the airline for a 30-year-old experimental vehicle? We’d already taken several shorter road trips in Maeby, to national parks in California and to a wedding in Arizona. All of these trips had been short enough for Maeby to carry all her fuel in her trunk. They’d also occurred in the heat of the Southwest summer, which is ideal for running on WVO. On a hot day, veggie oil flows easily, almost like diesel. Los Angeles to Chicago and back in the middle of winter would be much more challenging; WVO congeals in the cold. Hoping to keep the WVO flowing through the fuel lines, I led a coolant loop under the car next to the WVO lines, and wrapped everything to- gether with insulation. I led the loop up into the trunk and along the bottom of the WVO tank. Another major challenge was even more primal: simply getting enough fuel. The total trip distance would be 4,000 miles, requir- ing 38 five-gallon cubies—about 1,200 pounds of oil! (Cubies are the plastic containers in which the new oil is sold.) I managed to lash six cubies to a roof rack. With another 6 cubies in the trunk and 18 gallons in the tank, we’d set off with 80 gallons of fuel, good for about 1,700 miles.8 Through a friend who worked for The Cheesecake Factory, I arranged to pick up WVO from franchises along the way. I also found a dude in Breckenridge, Colorado, who had some he could sell me. With these preparations, we set off. The trip out was mildly challenging. We took the southern route, through Arizona and New Mexico, in temperatures slightly below freezing. While driving through Petrified Forest National Park, Maeby started to stutter. Fuel starvation. I’d been getting around 4,000 miles on filters, but this filter had only lasted 600 miles. I changed it, and we continued on. Outside of Oklahoma City, she started stuttering badly again, and I had to start running on diesel. This is a problem, given that the diesel tank is simply a five-gallon container in the trunk—without a fuel gauge. We’d been driving hard, and I was very tired, and we ran out of diesel late at night. I added the reserve diesel, but air was in the system. It took some doing to get her started, bleeding the fuel system in the cold night on the side of the freeway, exhausted and not thinking straight. This freaked out my family a bit, but I got her going again. The biggest challenge for me at this point was not knowing what was keeping WVO from getting to the engine. Engine problems aren’t always obvious when you’re exhausted on the side of the freeway late at night. We limped into Oklahoma City and checked into a motel. In the morning, I went to get WVO from the nearby Cheese- cake Factory. The manager there informed me that the grease dumpster had been emptied the day before, but he’d had the col- lector save some for me. Of course, this was the bottom sludge— the stuff I discard in my own process. I was forced to put a tankful of diesel into Maeby in order to get to Illinois. We had a nice two-week visit with our parents and siblings. Visiting over Christmas had typically been stressful for me, but it was noticeably less so after the slow travel, probably because I was more grateful to be there and less prone to take the visit for granted. A restaurant right under my dad’s office had closed a few months earlier, and its grease dumpster turned out to be full of extremely well-settled oil. I gathered and filtered more than enough to make it halfway home to California. On the way back, we took a more northern route through Den- ver, where we stopped to visit friends. We picked up enough fuel in Breckenridge, just over the pass above Denver, to make it home. But then the weather became extremely cold.

Maeby in a world gone mad?

Maeby depends on a complex set of conditions to keep lumbering down the road. She needs parts, fluids, fuel, and the roads themselves. How hard would it be to keep her running in a “Mad Max” world?
  • Parts: There are many other old Mercedes-Benz 300Ds around Los Angeles, so reusable parts could be had fairly easily, at least for the next decade or so. And assuming there were millions of empty, stranded cars, there’d be plenty of tires. But other parts—filters, seals, and the like—might soon become difficult or impossible to get, and would require creative improvisation.
  • Roads: Our modern asphalt roads are oil-intensive. As the cost of oil rises, so does the cost of roads. As roads degraded in the Mad Max world, Maeby would become useless with her rear-wheel-drive and low clearance. But with almost no traffic, the roads might last for a long while. And Maeby would run just fine on desert hardpan.
  • Fuel: Where does vegetable oil come from? The world’s largest oil crops are oil palm, soybean rape- seed, and sunflower. An industrially farmed acre can produce an annual average of about 600 gallons, 50 gallons, 100 gallons, and 100 gallons of these oils, respectively.6 Oil palms need a tropical forest climate, rapeseed likes cold temperate zones, and soybeans like moist grasslands. In principle, I could cut down all of my beautiful fruit trees and grow sunflowers for oil. If I did this, I could probably get about three gallons in a year,7 enough to drive Maeby 75 miles. I think I’ll keep my fruit trees and hop on my bike instead—at least, until I run out of inner tubes.

Driving through the high ski country, Maeby’s stuttering got progressively worse: her engine wasn’t getting enough fuel. To get up hills, I sometimes had to switch her over to the tiny diesel tank. I finally realized that the main filter simply needed more heat to keep the fatty oil from solidifying.

Once again running on the five-gallon diesel tank that lacked a fuel gauge, I did my best to keep track of mileage. But inevitably I made a miscalculation. Once again we ran out of fuel, once again I added the emergency diesel, and once again air in the old gal’s fuel lines kept her from starting. I was under the hood for an hour, working the priming pump and having Sharon switch back and forth between WVO and diesel to maintain suction. My hand was bleeding from rubbing against all the extra fuel and coolant lines I’ve installed. The boys begin to cry. Finally, I felt the priming pump catch and move diesel fuel. I bled out the air, started her up, and we drove on.

That night found us driving on a cold and black stretch of Utah highway, slowly, with one headlight. Sharon and I were exhausted. We checked into a motel in Salina, Sharon in tears, talking about renting a car to get home. Everything seemed to be going against me.

This was the low point. Sometimes a moment comes, a moment in which I’m not sure I’m going to make it. It’s an interesting moment, a teacher. I’ve learned to observe it objectively: what is this situation trying to teach me? The feeling of deep uncertainty, is that worth something? Reality is different than my expectations, and somehow this psychic friction causes suffering. But why should it?

There’s no way to make the present reality other than it is; it can only be accepted or not accepted. Not-acceptance causes suffering. In that moment, Sharon is disappointed in me, and this causes suffering. But why should it? I can’t control another person’s image of me, and why should her image affect my own happiness? But I’m also disappointed in myself. I’ve constructed a self-image in which I’m powerful, smart, and capable. But here I am, face-to-face with my limitations. I’m being taught that not accepting my own limitations causes me to suffer. I smile. With these observations in mind, I laugh at myself and at the situation. The deep darkness vanishes. It is what it is. Now what can I do to get my family safely home? Maybe this is a kind of practice for dying gracefully.

I woke up before dawn to a −10°F morning. The second I stepped outside, I felt my boogers freeze: that kind of cold. I cranked Maeby until her battery died, undone by another preparation I hadn’t made: an engine block heater. I swallowed my pride and called AAA. Soon the fossil fuel cavalry arrived in a gleaming diesel tow truck. We jumped Maeby, and after much cranking (and just a touch of ether), we got her running.

Later that day, on the climb outside of Barstow, California, the air conditioning belt let go while Sharon was driving; no big deal. Half an hour later, the power steering belt let go. I figured the extreme cold must have fatigued the old rubber, and I began to wonder about the alternator belts. Shortly after nightfall, we made it home, with no power steering and one headlight. I felt proud.

The trip was 4,400 miles, and we’d burned 35 gallons of diesel.

Long-distance WVO trips become a normal part of life

After learning from that experience, we got much better at taking long trips in Maeby. Our next trip was up to Portland, Oregon, then to Chicago, and then back home: an easy 6,030-mile trip in the summer. We burned 2.5 gallons of diesel, getting over 2,400 miles per gallon of diesel.

I’d installed a hitch, and Maeby pulled a trailer of fuel. We left Altadena with over 1,000 pounds of filtered WVO that I’d stocked up, 150 gallons in 30 plastic cubies. One of the amazing things about driving on WVO is how I become aware of the sheer mass of the fuel, since I have to lug it and pour it all myself. All that fuel disappears over the course of the journey as if by magic, right into the atmosphere. I sometimes wonder whether we’d have climate change if people had to lug their own fuel, or if CO2 was hot pink and easy to see—either way everyone would be aware of just how much stuff they were dumping into the atmosphere. As it is, we pump it effortlessly, invisibly, and mindlessly into our tanks, and it comes out our exhaust just as effortlessly, invisibly, and mindlessly, allowing us to avoid knowing the material nature of our fuel, its sheer bulk. Out of sight, out of mind.9

As always, people along the way were fascinated by my jour- neys on veggie oil. I’d answer their questions, and most of them would tell me something to the effect that although they under- stood the severity of climate change, they didn’t see a way to stop burning fossil fuels in their own lives.

During these trips, my awareness of our nation’s addiction to fossil fuels deepened. On another summer trip (4,600 miles on less than a gallon of diesel, six nights camping, one night with friends, almost no money spent), we saw train after train of black tanker cars along the Nebraska highway. The few trains that weren’t carrying Bakken crude were carrying coal. In the desert of Utah, near Grand Junction, Colorado, we saw fracking well after brand new fracking well along the interstate. One evening we followed a buried natural gas pipeline a mile into the backcountry, where we unrolled our sleeping bags and slept.

Once, while changing Maeby’s WVO filter at a truck stop, I met a gasoline tanker driver fitting his hose to the port in the tar- mac. I walked up and said, “I guess that’s what keeps everything rolling.”

The man, who wore a jumpsuit with Dean embroidered over his heart, looked at me kindly and said, “Do you know what would happen if we stopped the supply for a week?”

I said, “We’d all starve to death.”

“That’s right, we’d all starve to death. We’re addicted to this stuff.” Dean is all too aware of global warming, and feels helpless to stop it. He lives in Las Vegas and rides his bicycle the two miles to and from his job. The other drivers don’t understand this strange behavior; Dean says they find it unnatural for someone to ride a bicycle two miles instead of jumping into a pickup truck. Dean had been driving and piping gasoline since 1976, but when I met him, he was looking forward to retirement in a year, to no longer living so deeply in the shadow of fossil fuel.

So you want to drive on grease?

In case you’re interested, here are a few tips from my experience.

  • Thirty-year-old cars are cheap to buy but costly to maintain. To avoid paying a fortune to mechanics, I work on Maeby myself. But this takes time away from other things.
  • For a consistent source of grease, build a network. Partner with a nearby restaurant or two. You have to pick up reliably; join forces with other local greasers.
  • Restaurants put their used oil back in the five-gallon plastic cubies for me, making it easy to collect. I can also collect from bins using a drum pump strapped to the side of a plywood-reinforced plastic bin and a length of vinyl tubing, but this is more work.
  • Taking WVO out of a bin that’s owned by a com- modities company is theft, whether or not you have permission from the restaurant owner. Ten or twenty years ago, people often did this, but I wouldn’t advise it.
  • I settle the WVO for at least a week before pouring it through a one-micron sock filter and into clean five-gallon cubies.
  • I add about a half teaspoon of algae growth inhibitor to each newly scavenged cubie of WVO.
  • If I had it to do over, I’d keep the stock tank for diesel, and add a second Mercedes tank (from the junkyard) for WVO. I’d run fuel gauges for both tanks.
  • Transporting WVO legally may require registering your vehicle for this purpose—and paying an annual fee.
We camp along the way. In some parts of the country, it’s challenging to find good family camping options. I dream of a world where every acre isn’t spoken for, where traveling and camping along the way is an accepted, normal thing to do. Where do we get this strange notion that we can own land? Native Americans in the 19th century found it bizarre. What does it mean for a human to “own” a mountain? The mountain laughs at the notion. Each chuckle takes it a million years. During another trip to Illinois, I worked as a server on a ten- day meditation course that my mom sat, her first. On the way back, we slept in Arches National Park, a mile off the road. Heading back to Maeby an hour before sunrise, we walked under Sand Dune Arch, quietly rising above us against the stars and the eastern glow. As I walked among the sandstone fins, with Sharon and the boys in the church of nature, I felt comfortable, welcome, and at home. This is one of the great benefits of slow travel: a visceral sense of connection, that everywhere is home. Everywhere I go, I’m home—the whole Earth is my home. Taking the train I’m writing this section in the lounge car of the Southwest Chief, an Amtrak train that crosses the plains and mountains between Chicago and Los Angeles on a daily schedule. I’m on my way home from Christmas in Illinois. I love the train, and so does the rest of my family. As I write this, we’re passing by the place where I fell in love with the wilderness as a youth, the place I built trail before riding my bike home to Chicago: the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Raton, New Mexico. Yesterday evening, we passed within a mile or two of the Possibility Alliance, near La Plata, Missouri, an inspiring experiment in living without any fossil fuel whatsoever; I hope to visit the next time I pass through. I spend most of my time in the lounge car, where I get a tremendous amount of work done; I go back to my seat to sleep at night. We actually sleep fairly well in the huge seats, which are more affordable than sleepers and result in less emissions. Even in coach, the four of us are emitting more CO2 than if we were driving a 50 mpg car (see Chapter 9), and much more than if we were driving Maeby. But it’s a nice change of pace. And as it’s winter, I don’t need to worry about Maeby’s fuel congealing, or snowed-out mountain passes. We prepared meals for the train. Sharon baked scones for breakfast and made a frittata for dinner, and I made baba ganoush for lunch. The trip takes about 40 hours, but Sharon and I get so much work done and enjoy ourselves so much that it feels, if any- thing, too short.

Crossing the ocean on a sailboat.

Once I crossed the deep ocean on a small sailboat. This was a pas- sage from Bermuda to New York City while I was a graduate student, and it took a week. It wasn’t technically travel, though. I flew one-way to Bermuda to help sail back a Jeanneau 36 that had just completed the Marion- Bermuda race. Since high school, I’ve had a dream to spend a few years sailing. On this trip, I tested the waters. There were five of us on board. I stood four-hour watches with the three other hands. Crossing the Gulf Stream was eerie and beautiful. My first night on watch in those waters was quiet. With my watchmate asleep on the bench in the cockpit, I was the only person awake on an unknowably vast expanse of ocean. Bioluminescence scintillated in every splash and left a long glow- ing wake. The stars stretched from horizon to horizon. As the seconds turned into hours, the rocking boat lulled me into reverie. Suddenly the depth gauge, which had been reading infinity, started reading 30 feet, 20 feet, 25 feet . . . I rubbed my eyes. Despite my brain’s knowledge that we were in the middle of the ocean with no land anywhere, I started to sweat. How sure was I that there was no land around? Could it be a submerged container? A whale? Dolphins? A few heartbeats later, the depth gauge started reading infinity again. I’ll never know the cause. The ocean is like this. Maybe the ocean is so vast and featureless that the mind starts to feel like anything can happen. It’s no wonder to me that sailors tend to be superstitious. The last two days of the trip gave us moderately heavy seas. It was quite a feeling to steer a sailboat on a beam reach with a huge wave towering up right behind me, far over my head. The boat would rise up and then surf thrillingly down the other side, and repeat this again and again. I could feel the forces on the vibrating rudder transmitted through the cables and into the wheel. We made the New Jersey coast in the evening on the 4th of July, and we enjoyed the distant fireworks on the shore. The real show, though, was sailing up New York Harbor toward Battery Park with the city arrayed before us in all her predawn, fragile splendor. After crossing the ocean, the city was unreal, a mirage. It was as if I could see the buildings rising up and then falling down again, over the course of a few centuries.10

Hitching a ride on a container ship

In 2012, I rode a container ship to Hawaii and back. The SS Horizon Spirit sailed between the Port of Los Angeles and Honolulu every two weeks, bringing food to Hawaiians, right under the low marine clouds I’d begun working to decipher. For a year, the Spirit carried a suite of instruments for studying marine clouds. A newly minted atmospheric scientist, I was on board to learn about these instruments, to help monitor them, and to launch weather balloons from the bridge. The round trip took 12 days. I parked Maeby at the Port of Los Angeles and passed through security. Enormous gantry cranes were loading the even more enormous Spirit as I walked up her gangplank. Everything was humming on fossil fuels, from the reefers, to the cranes, to the trucks, to the Spirit herself. Crew members of container ships fly to meet their ships for one-month stints. One of the Spirit’s officers lived in India and flew home six times per year. I slept through the predawn departure. When I woke, we were ghosting eerily through heavy fog. The creaky silence was shattered occasionally by the ship’s massive air horn. I went to the bow of the ship and looked down. Dolphins were swimming with the ship and leaping into the air. In the afternoon, I visited the engine room. It was hot and noisy, with two massive steam boilers powering two massive steam turbines which turn a massive propeller shaft. The propeller is called the “screw” because it screws through the water. The chief engineer told me it slips by only 5%. To get to Hawaii and back, the ship burns about 7,000 42-gallon barrels of a low-grade fuel called “bunker C,” which is the tar left over after an oil refinery has taken out everything else. A good run, which means departing LA on time in the early morning, burns about 6,600 barrels. If loading is slow and departure isn’t until noon, the ship needs to sail faster to keep schedule, burning 7,300 barrels.11 The sulfurous engine soot seeds clouds, creating ship tracks like those in Figure 10.2. Does my voyage on the Spirit count as low-carbon travel? The RMS Queen Mary 2 emits 0.4 kg CO2 per passenger mile,12 comparable to a plane. But when hitching a ride on a container ship—so long as the ship’s cargo isn’t reduced to accommodate passengers—it’s reasonable to account for the passenger’s emissions as a mass fraction of the cargo. When looked at in this way, my emissions for the trip were 0.003 kg CO2 per mile,13 1% of the emissions had I flown. That said, the biosphere would be far better off without container ships plying its seas. If some visionary entrepreneur brings back tall sailing ships, I’d sign on in a heartbeat. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. I finished an immense amount of work on my first paper in atmospheric science. And for me, time on the ocean is spiritual nourishment, at once refreshing and mystical. I’d often walk to the stern of the ship, under 1/5 of a mile of creaking and groaning containers, to where I stood high above the ship’s churning wake, alone. I was surrounded by ocean. It was beautiful, stunningly so. With the moon rising low on the horizon, on that huge ship, the planet was very clearly a planet. And the moment was clearly a drop in a vast ocean of time.

A new story: Slow travel

The end of the era of cheap air travel may be approaching. As fossil fuels get more expensive to produce, air travel will get more expensive as well. If society begins to value the biosphere, it will implement a carbon fee, further driving up the price of plane tickets.

Regional conferences will become more important, as will remote conferencing technologies. Fewer of us will have the re- sources to fly across the globe for weddings, and we may move away from friends and family less frequently.

Extended families may begin to regroup. It’s wonderful to live close to loved ones, especially when they get old. The year after that first epic trip Maeby, Sharon and I decided not to make our annual Christmas pilgrimage to Illinois. Although I missed everyone, it was also wonderful to shed the burden of holiday travel, the intense expectations that come with Christmas visits. I had many good phone and video conversations with my parents and sisters, including about someday moving closer to one another. The members of my extended family may even have taken each other less for granted.

Slow travel is powered by creativity instead of fossil fuels. There are so many other ways to go about it. You could build a WVO-powered motorcycle that gets 120 miles per gallon and drive it down to Tierra del Fuego, refueling with grease from empanada stands along the way. You could build a wood gasifier and drive on wood chips. Maybe you could even travel cross-country in a WVO-powered self-launching motor glider, harnessing the power of updrafts.

Or, you could fully experience the simple miracle of being on this Earth: you could walk.

  1. In addition, I carried a sleeping bag and pad, an extra shirt, an extra pair of shorts, a stash of surplus powdered Gatorade and Power Bars from the summer job, and not much else. I started off with a rain fly for shelter, but after a few days of biking against headwinds, I realized it wasn’t worth its weight, and I mailed it to Chicago.
  2. The following book was helpful: Forest Gregg. SVO: Powering Your Vehicle with Straight Vegetable Oil. New Society, 2008.
  3. Some “greasers” deal with the viscosity issue by blending other fuels, such as gasoline, into the veggie oil.
  4. Maeby, she’ll get there. Maybe she won’t.
  5. The viscosity of WVO can also be lowered through chemical means; biodiesel is essentially WVO that has been chemically modified for lower viscosity: Lyle Estill and Bob Armantrout. Backyard Biodiesel: How to Brew Your Own Fuel. New Society, 2015.
  6. Global production of vegetable oil: Jim Lane, “Global 2016/17 vegetable oil production to hit record level: USDA,” Biofuels Digest, September 25, 2016. [online]. /global-201617-vegetable-oil-production-to-hit-record-level-usda/. Yields per acre: Keith Addison. “Oil Yields and Characteristics.” Journey to Forever. [online]. .html
  7. My yard has about 1/20th of an acre of growing space, and I’d grow the sunflowers organically, which likely reduces yield by 40%: M. Mazzoncini. “Sunflower under conventional and organic farm- ing systems: Results from a long term experiment in Central Italy.” Aspects of Applied Biology 79, (2006). [online].
  8. Maeby typically gets about 25 miles per gallon, but with the cubies on the roof, this dropped to about 22 miles per gallon.
  9. Imagine all the gasoline you’ve burned in your life, together in one place. Multiply by the number of cars.
  1. A few years earlier, one bright blue Tuesday morning, I did see some of the buildings fall. I’d stepped out of the Wall Street subway and onto that strip of island to a snowfall of singed papers falling gently from a burning World Trade Center. Sailing up to the island after the cruise, I tried to pick out the building I’d been sitting in as I talked on the phone with my dad, telling him I was OK, then repeating “please don’t let the second building fall, please don’t let the second building fall” as the second building fell, a lifetime ago.
  2. The ship typically burns about 1.5 barrels per nautical mile. At the time of my trip, fuel was over $100 a barrel; fueling that round-trip cost about $1,000,000.
  3. According to Climate Care, a carbon offsetting company: “Is cruising any greener than flying?” Guardian, December 20, 2006. [online]. This number for fossil-fueled cruising, 0.4 kg CO2 per passenger mile, is reasonable: it’s what Spirit would emit if she carried 2,000 passengers (see next note).
  4. The Spirit burns 1.5 barrels (63 gallons) of bunker fuel per nautical mile. Bunker fuel (residual fuel) emits 11.8 kg CO2/gallon: US EIA. “Carbon Dioxide Emissions Coefficients.” Release date, February 2, 2016. [online]. Adding 20% extra for upstream emissions (see Chapter 9), this comes to 14.1 kg CO2 / gallon. So over one nautical mile, Spirit emits 892 kg CO2, or 780 kg CO2 per statute mile. She has a 29,500 short ton cargo capacity, so with my 50 pounds of baggage, I accounted for 0.0000041 of the cargo, making my emissions 0.0032 kg CO2 per mile.
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