On Nevada’s Electric Highway in a Tesla, a Wild West ethos versus a techie future
By CHRIS ERSKINE | Los Angeles Times | Published: June 21, 2019
GOLDFIELD, Nev. -- We were taking a smarty-pants car through honky-tonky country -- Reno to Las Vegas. Our route: U.S. 95, Nevada’s Electric Highway, a mostly two-lane road that has been peppered with charging stations to meet the growing demand of electric vehicles, or EVs.
Although still a fraction of the market, EV sales are surging, particularly in California, where sales increased 84% in 2018. Nevada, which has seen 40% growth, embraced charging stations after determining the need for them outside urban centers.
In many respects, this is a 440-mile road trip into the future. Yet it’s also an escape into the past, through ghost towns and past ancient stores and buckaroo saloons, even crumbling bordellos.
Wyatt Earp once worked these ornery outposts, and the feisty ethos of the American West still roams the gritty lunar landscape.
It’s a case of the New West meeting the Old West along a remote route that reminds us of the travel pleasures that make us sing inside: open road, silver vistas and plenty of room to zip around that lumbering RV.
“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair. ...”
With photographer Robert Gourley riding shotgun, I was in a pearl-white Tesla Model 3, with a 325-mile range, dual motors and an autopilot feature that redefines what it means to drive -- cerebrally, physically and spiritually.
Does tech drive us? Or do “we drive tech,” as one luxe car commercial likes to brag?
We were about to find out. Buckle up and leave the driving to us -- and the cheeky automotive engineers who are messing with something sacred: the great American road trip.
Man vs. car
We picked up the new Model 3 in Reno. It’s a smaller version of the Model S you’re accustomed to seeing _ and far more affordable, starting at about $35,000 (with add-ons, our test drive priced out at $46,950).
My 3-amp brain nearly exploded as I tried to absorb all the features, including a leap-of-faith driver-assist system in which you turn over steering and lane changes to the car’s software. Technically, it’s not a self-driving car, but you can smell one from here.
Three hours later, we locked ourselves out of it.
OK, so there’s a learning curve. It’s a genius machine, no doubt, smarter than all the smart people you know mashed together.
But suddenly, I was standing next to this brilliant little buggy, locked out of it two hours (130 miles) into our trip, a pit stop we took earlier than needed to sample the charging experience.
With a Tesla Model 3, you don’t have a key; you have a phone app that controls the motors, the charging, the door locks.
And in the middle of nowhere, 10 miles from where God left his shoes, my phone was locked inside this car.
I had a fallback, the little card the car rep gave me. I dug it out and swiped. I was back inside the car, where the giant iPad-like screen said we still had 45 minutes left to charge in the town of Hawthorne, near Walker Lake.
The extended pit stop is an issue with electric vehicles. In a traditional car, you could gas up, grab a burger and be gone in 20 minutes; with the EV, a thorough recharging takes an hour or more.
That would seem a significant drawback.
In time, and 200 more miles of desert road, it would seem like something else. First impressions are usually so wrong with me.
Because, initially, I loathed this confusing little car.
The scenery, on the other hand, was pure tranquillity.
On our two-day journey, Gourley and I would pass only half a dozen towns of much texture or consequence.
Nevada has company in its quest to place and subsidize charging stations on rural routes like this. By 2020, it aims to expand the Electric Highway to the entire state, joining other states on the forefront of the EV revolution. California also aims to develop charging facilities like these to handle an estimated 1.5 million vehicles by 2025. Arizona and Nevada have joined six other states in a program called REV West, which is amplifying the region’s EV charging grid.
The route along U.S. 95 is Nevada’s overture. Overlapping that is Tesla’s proprietary system of charging stations.
The added pit stops relieve what is called “range anxiety” amid EV drivers. A welcome byproduct is how it changes the pace of the trip itself.
“It’s a return to road-tripping the way it used to be,” said David Bobzien, director of the Governor’s Office of Energy, which administers the Nevada program.
That seemed an audacious claim as this superstar sedan steered us around another bend, then braked for a slow-moving semi. No question this autopilot took some getting used to.
But Bobzien’s point was spot on: The hour charging period slows travelers enough that they can knock about roadside attractions, chat up the locals, peek into old jails and elegant courthouses.
Midway between Reno and Vegas, we came upon quirky Tonopah Station, a rambling casino-motel decorated with stuffed grizzlies and a 10-foot-tall knockoff of the “Mona Lisa” painting.
The must-see stop came 27 miles farther south: the gutty little town of Goldfield, which sports an ornate haunted hotel, a blast-from-the-past high school (also haunted) and an ancient bordello made of fieldstone and naughty lies.
Think of Goldfield as the Williamsburg of the Wild West, though hardly as curated or as closely clipped as that Virginia town.
The founders of Goldfield, a bustling gold camp and Nevada’s richest city from 1905 to 1910, built state-of-the-art public buildings, some still open for view. Visitors can also collect gems on the edge of town, then weigh them at a gift shop. (It’s the honor system.)
With reservations, you can search for ghosts in the Goldfield Hotel or the old high school, both under renovation and worthy of attention.
We toured the school, built in 1907, and marveled at its architectural touches, such as a stained-glass skylight and grand staircase.
For a couple of hours, park that horse you rode in on -- your EV, gas guzzler or mule -- and kick around this dusty place where locals are quick to point out the old bordello or explain the unusual collection of art cars, including a double-decker houseboat car, in the center of town.
If it’s quirky, it’s here in Goldfield, an immersive monument to the lost lifestyle of the West.
Joys of an EV
I have way too many passwords, most based on dead pets and failed high school relationships. My life is already overrun with charging cords and fussy little gadgets. So when it comes to driving, I just want to turn the key and go.
Yet as the miles passed, I grew to enjoy this sophisticated computer/car, which can be as high- or low-tech as the driver chooses. Tap this or wiggle that, and it becomes a conventional car. Click down twice on the right wand, and it pretty much drives itself.
I find in it a sense that the future isn’t something we jump into; we ease the wheel a little at a time -- this way, then that -- until it begins to feel comfortable.
I also found in this Wild West adventure a reminder of the joys of road trips: the feel of the wheel and the buzz you get from goosing the accelerator to slip around that weaving hay wagon.
Can the future and the past coexist this way? Or does a tech-based future seem certain to gobble up the little driving pleasures that make us sing inside?
Like this amazing car, it’s complicated.