Driving a self-converted, vegetable-oil-powered car across the country proved to have its unexpected challenges and unprecedented problems, but for Andover resident Alyssa Solomon, it was a dream come true.
Solomon, an 18-year-old Andover High School graduate and future Environmental Studies scholar at the University of Vermont, took a 1986 Mercedes-Benz 300 SDL she bought with her own life savings and converted it to run on used vegetable grease as part of a senior project. From the beginning, she longed to spend her summer in the car, taking it from coast to coast, she said.
And over the last month and a half, she did exactly that, using only three tanks of diesel fuel to do so.
Her 34-day journey took her and Andover resident Kyle Sauerbrunn from Massachusetts to California and back with summertime to spare. On their journey, they camped in more than a dozen national parks, drove over 9,000 miles on freely-available, used vegetable grease only — not any kind of gasoline — and spent, between three people in the car, under $1,000.
"We tried to take all kinds of back roads to see as much of the old country as we could, instead of the highway," Solomon said. "It was really an accomplishment that we found all that grease. It was an accomplishment that the car made it."
The trip cost around $80 per person in diesel gasoline, used when veggie grease was in short supply. By the end of it, Solomon said she likely used around 350 gallons of the thick, french fry-filled liquid.
Hardened grease was caked down the back of her car, which emitted exhaust that smelled like a fast-food restaurant everywhere they went. But by the time they returned to Massachusetts, nobody seemed to notice the smell.
"On the highway, the exhaust blows past fast enough that you don't smell it. But stopping at stop lights or stop signs, you can definitely smell it," she said. "I think we've gotten so used to it that the smell didn't bother us."
She, Sauerbrunn and a friend of Sauerbrunn's named Thomas Herrick, who met them in Tennessee and joined them on most of their journey, encountered their fair share of "characters": people of impressive, maybe terrifying in some cases, composition and manner.
But the trip almost didn't happen. The journey was almost cut short six hours after it began when Solomon and Sauerbrunn, driving through Pennsylvania, noticed coolant and vegetable oil leaking all over the trunk space of the car, where the vehicle's tanks are stored.
The two almost abandoned the trip, resolving instead to hike the Appalachian Mountains back home for the rest of the summer, until Solomon noticed a couple of loose hose clamps the next morning.
Later in Missouri, Solomon and Sauerbrunn, now joined by Herrick, were an obvious target for state police who were — this is not a joke — searching for suspects in a string of unsolved vegetable-oil thefts that had taken place throughout the state.
Solomon et al had obtained their vegetable oil legally. At every point in their journey, they stopped at restaurants and diners in search of the golden brown goo of road trip champions, and they pumped it into their own containers — "cubies" as they're called — only when they had permission.
Their efforts made them appear crazy to other vegetable oil-burning car owners they met along the way, Solomon said.
"I was telling them about the trip and they said, 'Do you have spots planned out (to stop for used oil)?'" Solomon said. "We said, 'We're just going to ask around.' They said, 'Are we crazy?'"
They did run out of oil once in Denver, Colo., where they spent 13 hours searching for usable vegetable oil. Later, they became separated from their vehicle while hiking in the desert, and it took two hours of searching to find their way back to the veggie car.
Having a car that smelled like chicken fingers posed a threat at Yellowstone National Park with bear families roving through the area, but the three travelers — and their car — emerged unscathed.
But for its problems, the trip had its amazing moments — specifically out on the West Coast. Here, they met a guy in California that Solomon said was named Trent; and Michael Parziale, owner of Greasebus, a transportation service relying on buses that use only vegetable oil. Parziale is the person who drove Solomon to create her own veggie car.
Solomon first met Parziale when she was in the eighth grade and he, an Andover native and a graduate from Andover High School, gave a presentation at her middle school about his own recently-converted vegetable oil car.
"He lived in Andover his whole life, moved out to Oregon years ago and started this company," Solomon said. "I told him I did presentations for 300 kids before I left, and I was thinking that it would be cool if a kid came to me in five years and did this.
"I think it was very cool for him," she said.
Now that she is home, Solomon is preparing to leave for college. She wants to sell the care to someone who "will love it."
"I'm probably going to cry when I sell it. I'm sure I will," she said. "But it makes sense to sell it. Putting a vegetable car on the road is like taking a car off the road. So in that regard, I feel it is another way to help the environment, because this car should be used instead of sitting in a driveway or garage for a year."
But she will convert again, she said.
Sauerbrunn said he definitely wants to make a similar crosscountry trip.
"That's what made it an adventure, not being able to go to a gas station. To go out to restaurants, and talking to people, made it an adventure," Sauerbrunn said. "You didn't know what is going to happen, so it is a surprise how the day is going to end.
"As soon as I can build my own vegetable car, with Alyssa's help, I'll definitely want to go back out there. It's the way to travel," he said.
Other people should definitely do it as well, Solomon said.
"Given that we were able to get grease in any part of the country, I feel that wherever you are, there is a possibility to run on vegetable oil," Solomon said. "It was a relatively cheap trip, and for all that we saw, so worth it."