Mark McConville is planning a summer road trip that he hopes turns other Americans green -- not green with envy, but green in the sense of opening their minds to the use of alternative fuels.
And he's going to do it in style.
McConville -- co-owner of Airport Express, a Birmingham, Ala.-based firm that operates a daily shuttle service to and from Atlanta -- and his friend Keith Barfield have converted McConville's 1966 Pontiac GTO, one of America's premier muscle cars, to run on compressed natural gas.
Beginning on June 26, they plan on leaving Santa Monica, Calif., pointing the GTO east and driving to Chicago along Route 66, relying on CNG exclusively for the entirety of their nine-day, 2,200-mile trip.
On the Fourth of July, they plan on wheeling the GTO into the Windy City, signaling the end of their adventure and perhaps ushering in a new era for America's most famous roadway.
If they pull off what they are calling "The Drive to Inspire," it'll be unprecedented. McConville knows he and Barfield aren't the first Americans to espouse the use of alternative fuels. But they're likely the first to try to demonstrate it's possible to cross half the continent in a vehicle that personifies power and speed, and not burn a drop of oil in the process.
"I would like to put a face on the (alternative fuels movement) and give it a real grassroots feel," McConville said.
Rooting hard for McConville and Barfield to succeed, and doing what they can to provide them with logistical assistance, are the founders of the new Route 66 Alliance, a national organization headquartered in Tulsa that promotes and preserves the historic roadway.
One of those founders is Michael Wallis, a well-known Tulsa writer and author of the book that reignited the fascination with the historic highway that had slipped into obscurity by 1990. That's the year Wallis's "Route 66: The Mother Road" was released, propelling the roadway back into the national, and international, consciousness, where it has remained ever since.
Coincidentally, around the time McConville and Barfield were hatching their scheme to drive the converted GTO from Los Angeles to Chicago, Wallis and his fellow co-directors of the Route 66 Alliance, Jim Conkle and Rick Freeland, were discussing a plan under which they would promote the road as a green highway -- a route by which motorists could cross thousands of miles from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean and take advantage of all variety of alternative fuel stations along the way -- CNG, biofuels, electric and hydrogen.
"The Drive to Inspire" will put that dream to the test. If everything goes as planned, Route 66 boosters hope the publicity the trip generates encourages others to follow suit, bringing new life to the famed roadway that seemed doomed to status as a mere artifact or historic curiosity when it was decommissioned in 1985.
Wallis looks forward to that day with a great deal of anticipation.
"Even with the decertification of the road, thanks to the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, it took decades to finally decertify the whole road and take down the last of those famous shields in the mid-'80s," he said. "And then it went into this brief limbo period, and now we're in this great renaissance again.
"And it occurs to me, in a certain irony, here was a road that did so much for the internal-combustion engine and the fossil fuel business and petroleum and gasoline and oil and so forth. If what we intend to do happens, and I'm confident it will, the road will become this green belt, this linear laboratory of alternative energies other than fossil fuel."
Wallis cites the different missions Route 66 has carried out in the past and its deep resonance in the American psyche. In its early days, it conducted millions of poor, disenfranchised Americans from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and other states ravaged by the Great Depression to the dream of a better future in California. During World War II, it carried millions of American troops and vast quantities of materials along its length, and in the 1950s and 1960s, it was an unparalleled vacation route for millions of families -- "an avenue of entertainment," as Wallis calls it -- becoming synonymous with the word Americana.
"Since the birth of Route 66 in 1926 to this very day, the road has passed through several incarnations," he said. "By looking at those incarnations, you really get not only the history of the actual highway crossing two-thirds of the continent, you get a real history of the life and times of this country -- actually not only during the life of this highway, but way back pre-Route 66, since it's a road of historic trails and traces that have been put together.
So when I'm talking to people, I always explain these layers of the highway."
This green highway project, Wallis believes, is only the latest example of how Route 66 continues to serve the nation.
"The notion that we at the Route 66 Alliance have come up with, one of the great missions of this alliance, can be to see that the road once again rolls up her sleeves," he said. "Maybe by this time, the Mother Road's a Grandmother Road, as I like to say, and she's a feisty granny. And now she can take a step in a whole new direction, and really serve the country again just as the road always has -- and all for the better."
Pioneer Spirit, Revisited
Making that vision a reality won't be easy. While some alternative fuels are relatively easy to find in major markets, it's the task of making them readily available all along the way for periodic fill-up that serves as the challenge.
Creating that alternative fuels infrastructure for the length of the highway is a task the Route 66 Alliance is taking on, or at least helping to promote, one step at a time.
Initially, the point man for that effort was Californian Albert "Albee" Thomas, who produced a 21-page white paper on the subject called "The Alternative Energy Roadway: Green Choice 66 & The Route 66 Liner Experience."
Phase one of Thomas' rapidly evolving plan called for the creation of 18 recharge stations, called Green Choice 66 stations, spread across eight states. Initially, the stations would offer at least three forms of renewable- or nonrenewable-energy fuel types. Thomas writes that electric, CNG, and B-20/E-85/E-10 regional biofuels and biodiesel would be the logical choices to start with.
The stations would feature a stand-alone canopy, a cashier-attendant booth and a large monolithic sign announcing a sponsor's name. According to the plan, there would be space under the canopy for additional pumps and fuel types to be added at a later date.
"Our idea and motivation comes from people like Mark McConville and Keith Barfield, two average American guys that reflect the ingenuity and creativity that made this country great," Thomas writes in his white paper.
Thomas' plan initially called for the 18 Green Choice 66 stations to launch in August, but that date was postponed indefinitely as the Alliance sought partnerships with corporations to sponsor them. Eventually, the organization's leaders decided to avoid any formal involvement with the stations altogether, Freeland said.
"The more we talked about it, the more we realized it was not in our best interest to put our eggs in that basket," he said.
The idea of operating the stations under the umbrella of the alliance was simply too ambitious, Freeland said. Ultimately, he said, the organization didn't want to get involved in the risky business of owning the properties, staffing them and trying to make them self-sustaining.
"It made sense to take it on, but not take it on where it's part of our business plan," Freeland said.
The co-directors believed those demands would only sidetrack them from their larger mission of working for the welfare of the entire length of the road, he said.
"That was too complicated, too sticky," Freeland said. "We're returning to our core business of promoting the road."
That change of heart is not to say the alliance thinks the stations are a bad idea. In fact, Freeland said, the organization parted on good terms with Thomas and hopes he'll take his idea and run with it.
That's exactly what he intends to do, Thomas said.
His new plan is identical to the old one, Thomas said, except it will be operated under the auspices of the recently incorporated Americana Fuel Centers rather than the nonprofit Route 66 Alliance. The stations themselves will retain Green Choice 66 as their working name.
"We're going with private funding, although at some point we anticipate going back to public funding," he said.
Thomas is moving ahead quickly with his plan, indicating he hopes to go public with it in just a couple of months.
"I think by June, we'll be ready for a full presentation," he said. "Of course, that depends on how fast the money comes in. It's going to take $31 million for all the buildings, although we won't build all of them at once."
In addition to offering alternative fuel pumps, each Green Choice 66 station eventually will feature a restaurant and an interactive Route 66 exhibit featuring vintage cars and electronic media. That's where the "linear experience" part of the name comes in -- each station will present a different part of the Route 66 story, with the idea that motorists will be led to visit each one along their trip. That way, each station becomes a destination.
Each station would range in size from 4,500 to 6,900 square feet and offer three to nine alternative fuel pumps. The buildings would be designed employing sustainable techniques, with electricity for the fuel pumps, recharge stations and the building itself coming from the sun's energy, produced by photovoltaic panels on the roof and adjacent PV power farm.
Beyond that, Thomas said, he hopes to create the Route 66 Institute, a clearinghouse of information about the roadway and alternative fuels that will begin as a Web site before evolving into an actual building. The institute is designed to promote the creation of an alternative fuels network across the country.
According to Thomas' new plan, Americana Fuel Centers is aiming for an August 2011 launch date.
Supporters of the idea of alternative-fuel stations acknowledge they aren't likely to be self-supporting at first, or even for a while, given the relative scarcity of alternative-fuel vehicles currently on the road. But they hope to promote the growth of that market by making those fuels more widely available.
"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," Freeland said. "What car company is going to make a car that runs on compressed natural gas when you don't have natural gas stations across the country?"
Freeland said a typical driver of a CNG-powered vehicle might have to drive 250 miles or more between refueling stations right now.
"Conversely, why doesn't someone build a natural gas station? Because there are no natural gas cars to make it profitable," he said. "Somebody's got to do something to break that cycle."
Conkle likens the situation to "inventing the wagons before we have the horses." He believes the alliance would be well advised to work with the rental car industry to encourage the availability of alternative-fuel vehicles as a means of bridging that gap.
"Until there's a lot more vehicles using these fuels, we're going to be opening up stations that don't have that much of a market," he said.
According to Thomas' original plan, electric recharging facilities also would be part of the equation, a logical delivery point for the energy generated by the numerous wind farms that have taken root along many stretches of Route 66, quickly becoming another iconic presence on a road that features an abundance of them.
"You're seeing a lot of that happening," Wallis said. "There are great wind farms. If you drive down 66 westward through Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, California, you see these great wind turbines popping up, almost like these big metal sculptures, harnessing that energy. And, of course, there's no shortage of wind. Everyone in western Oklahoma knows that."
Wallis said earlier this month he had just returned from a "very good" meeting with Federal Express officials, who had just unveiled an all-electric delivery vehicle that was making its maiden voyage.
"We're exploring ways we can work together on Route 66," he said.
There's No Place Like Home
Promoting the "Drive to Inspire" and marketing the roadway as a green highway aren't the only projects the Route 66 Alliance is working on. But it's a large part of why the organization is based in Tulsa -- along with the city's friendly attitude toward the highway.
"We have chosen Tulsa to be our headquarters for a lot of reasons," Conkle said. "The people there are already in tune with Route 66. We don't have to educate you. Chicago wanted us. St. Louis wanted us. But we picked Tulsa."
Pointing to the commitment of Vision 2025 funds to build a Route 66 flag plaza, and purchase and shore up a historic bridge across the Arkansas River, Freeland believes Tulsa has embraced Route 66 more than any other city in the country. Still planned at the site is a building that will house the alliance's offices, a restaurant and gift shop, and the interactive Route 66 Experience.
"You guys are taxing yourselves," he said of the Vision 2025 funding that was approved by Tulsa County voters in 2003. "You guys put $15 million toward advancing the cause of Route 66. You saw that Route 66 was a great natural resource that you wanted to see not disappear. You guys really get it and are willing to put your money where your mouth is."
That made the decision to put the alliance's headquarters here an easy one, he said.
"You guys are building (Route 66) icons, and all the rest of the cities are losing icons," he said. "Tulsa is in a growth mode, and all the rest of the country is just holding on."
Freeland also pointed to the way Tulsa has embraced the use of CNG as another element in its favor. He's particularly impressed by the proliferation of CNG refueling stations in the city.
"Tulsa has them all over the place," he said. "You're setting the pace."
Both Freeland and Conkle would like to see the rest of the nation follow Tulsa's lead in relation to the availability of CNG, which they regard as perhaps the most realistic bridge fuel for ending America's dependence on foreign oil -- a prominent concern for both men.
Freeland recalls visiting Tulsa for the first time and seeing the perpetual natural gas flame that burns from a refinery on the west bank of the Arkansas River. Intrigued, he began examining compressed natural gas as a fuel option and thought it made a lot of sense. He's deeply frustrated by the fact that it isn't being used to power more vehicles in America.
"It burns cleaner and you have it in abundance -- so much so that you burn off the excess so you don't have to bottle it," he said. "What's wrong with this picture?"
Conkle is another strong advocate of the idea of using CNG to wean Americans off foreign oil while other, even cleaner energy forms are developed.
"That's the beginning," he said. "The technology is here. You can take an old car and convert it for very little money to CNG and maintain the existing life of the vehicle. What we don't have is refueling stations everywhere. We want to use (what) we learn on Route 66 as a template and guide to use across the country."
Wallis welcomes the energy and enthusiasm Conkle and Freeland bring to the alliance, which was formed out of the recognition by the author and his partners that there was no organization advocating for the legendary roadway as a single voice.
"For some time, there's been this void because there hasn't been this central clearinghouse, there hasn't been one national entity quarterbacking this thing, making it happen," Wallis said. "And that's evident every day when queries come in every day from travelers in Western Europe or the Pacific Rim or domestic travelers from here in this country, and they don't know where to turn to."
Now, Route 66 has three very vocal advocates in different parts of the country.
"Those of us heading up this movement, we all have something different we bring to the table," Wallis said.
Freeland, a technology whiz, spent the past couple of years in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex before returning to the Washington, D.C., area earlier this year. He became enamored with Route 66 during a road trip a few years ago and wound up contacting Wallis and asking for a meeting.
The two arranged to have breakfast at Ollie's Station Restaurant on Route 66 in Tulsa's Red Fork district. Freeland asked Wallace what he could do on behalf of the highway, and the author gave him the names of a dozen people involved with the roadway across the nation, advising him to ask them what they needed.
"He did all that and continues to impress me with his great clarity and vision we have for this organization," Wallis said. "We're all singing out of the same hymnal."
Now, Freeland said, he'll be putting his extensive experience in government affairs to work on behalf of the alliance. He plans to register as a lobbyist and seek federal grant money for projects related to the highway.
On the other side of the country lives Conkle, who makes his home in Pinon Hills, Calif., a desert community 10 miles off Route 66. He has spent many years working on behalf of the highway and oversees the Route 66 Pulse, the roadway's newspaper.
"If I could harness Jim Conkle's energy, we would have yet another source (of alternative fuel)," Wallis said. "He is just amazing, and I've known Jim for many years now. I met him out on the road. And he's been a leader in preservation, not only in California, but up and down the road. He's a spark plug, a dynamo. He'll continue in that capacity."
Yet, because of a book he wrote two decades ago, it is Wallis who remains the public face of Route 66.
"Because of all that, I will be very active as the mouthpiece for the road, the spokesperson for the association and also call in chits I have for different people in different areas -- business, industry, entertainment and media," he said.
Wallis said he began writing the book in the late 1980s, but in a way, he began work on it during his childhood.
"I was born along the road in 1945," the St. Louis native said. "All my experience and knowledge from the road went into that book.
"In the mid to late '80s, right after the road was decertified, I started to hear people talk about it in the past tense, and that's what caused me to say, 'This is my next book. I've got to write a book about Route 66 because I know it's not dead; it's alive.' "
That's a point the book's fans seem to have embraced wholeheartedly.
"It really did, I will acknowledge, spark this renaissance," he said of "Route 66: The Mother Road." "It opened this floodgate that ever since has done nothing but amaze me."
Wallis said he quickly became so strongly identified with the book and the roadway that it threatened to envelop him.
"At first, I kind of resented it because I was getting labeled as the Route 66 guy," he said.
Time and again throughout the years, Wallis said, he was approached by someone who said to him, "I just read your book, and I love it."
"Which one?" Wallis would ask.
Invariably, he said, the reply was, "Well, 'Route 66,' of course."
Wallis acknowledges that he is very proud of what he accomplished with the book. But for a writer who views each of his works essentially as children, it was difficult to see his other efforts not sharing in the spotlight.
"But then I came to realize the road has done a lot for me," he said. "I make my living with my words, whether they are articulated on paper or by my voice. And a good deal of that has come with Route 66.
"But by the same token, I've been able to contribute to the road. And I say this without any false modesty: It's really better than royalty checks to see these towns perk back to life, to resurrect, to see new businesses appear and old businesses shake themselves off and have another go at it. Now to be part of this Route 66 Alliance is the proverbial cherry on top of that mound of whipped cream."
Re-load Along the Road
Among those who have been inspired by Wallis' words throughout the years is McConville, who hopes to attract as much attention as possible with his trip over Route 66 this summer. Already, his plans have been chronicled in a story on Wired.com, and McConville and Barfield are providing constant updates on their venture through their Web site, route66goatgas.com.
"We are a couple of knuckleheads looking to have a blast and hopefully awaken true Americans to reclaim the fun that was lost through our dependence on foreign oil," they write on their home page.
Freeland is doing his part, as well, reaching out to both national and local media as the "Drive to Inspire" approaches to maximize exposure for the venture. He's even contacted the producers of The Oprah Show to gauge their interest in devoting an episode of the program to McConville and Barfield when they cross the finish line in Chicago on Independence Day.
It's an effort that's already yielding results. McConville said officials at Bridgestone tires saw the Wired.com article and offered to outfit his GTO with their new green-friendly Ecopia EP100 tires. They also offered him the use of their retail facilities in cites along Route 66.
But McConville and Barfield still need more help. A map on their Web site outlines the places where CNG fueling stations already exist, but there are some gaps in that map -- particularly in the Texas panhandle and across Arizona, though McConville said he's been in touch with a CNG dealer from St. George, Utah, who has offered to meet him with a tanker in Flagstaff or Kingman.
Freeland said recently the alliance helped arrange for a CNG tanker to meet McConville and Barfield halfway across the Mohave Desert for a fill-up.
"For the most part, we've got about five more months to really nail it down," McConville said in a phone interview. "The GTO only gets about 10 miles a gallon. It's not the most fuel efficient car to do this in, but we couldn't have done it in a Honda Civic. It wouldn't be the same."
The GTO features two cylinders that hold 14 gallons of CNG. According to the Web site, the vehicle has a range of only about 150 miles before it needs to be refilled. McConville said he and Barfield probably will carry a backup tank filled with CNG just to be safe.
"But I hope we never have to touch that tank," he said.
One thing they won't do is rely on regular gasoline. The GTO is a CNG-dedicated vehicle, with no gasoline backup system in place.
"If we run out of gas, we run out of gas," McConville said.
More than six months before his adventure was scheduled to begin, McConville was already itching to get on the road. Yet he also was giving some thought to the aftermath of the trip.
"Come July 4, 2010, at the end of the day, my partner Keith will go back to being an accountant, and I'll go back to being a shuttle driver," he said. "But hopefully, we'll have persuaded people to take another look (at alternative energy). That's the bottom line for us ... When I close my eyes and dream a little bit, I can see a lot of people getting behind this."
Wallis has been doing some dreaming of his own. He hopes McConville's trip captures the public's imagination, but he wants there to be a practical effect that lingers.
"I see Route 66 as a metaphor, as a symbol not only of lost highways and forgotten places, but a good part of this nation that we've lost track of," he said. "While we continue, as we should, to make progress in so many fields -- medicine and the arts and government and business and commerce -- we need to remember that we've lost some things, and it's probably not a bad idea for us to try to get back to them.
"That's what Route 66 really represents for me. I just want to be able to leave this long stretch of pavement across two-thirds of the continent for future generations to see, so they can have a taste, a feel, a smell of the past in all of its forms -- the good, the bad and the ugly."
Wallis said he was resisting the urge to romanticize McConville's trip.
"I like to look at the road warts and all," he said. "And I like to look at the road as something very real that serves really as a mirror for the nation and reflects what's going on in the nation, sort of a barometer. And what's going on in the nation right now is a struggle with everything from the economy to the environment. I think Route 66 can play a big part in the solution."
As ambitious as their plans are, the alliance's founders aren't envisioning a future in which Route 66 again becomes one of the nation's busiest highways.
"We don't want Route 66 to be recommissioned," Conkle said. "We don't want it to be the traffic road it once was. It couldn't take it."
Their vision focuses on establishing a market of travelers looking for something other than the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B. The intent of the green highway movement will be to encourage motorists to slow down and enjoy the road while helping to secure the nation's energy future.
And while that initiative is not yet a reality, members of the alliance are pinning some big hopes to it.
"In the future, this will be the salvation of Route 66," Conkle said.
Wallis practically gushes at what the future might bring for the roadway to which he has become so strongly tied.
"I see not only these practical stations along the road, but also the addition of major attractions that would complement these places," he said. "In my mind's eye, I see these great big gift boxes in satin ribbons waiting to be opened.
"I have no idea what's going to come out, but you know it's going to be good."
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