Would you like to drive your RV from Alaska to Chile? How about doing it in a 1996 truck camper running on used vegetable oil? Does that sound like a grand adventure or asking for trouble?
It strikes me as both, but I have to admire a couple from Chile who are on this bold journey, taking in all the sights of the Americas when they’re not scouring restaurants for free fuel.
Carola Teixido, 33, and Victor Millan, 36, are graphic artists from Santiago who came to Canada to work for a year and then decided to take the long way home. They budgeted $30,000 for a trip that they thought might take a year.
When I caught up with Carola by phone in Fort Bragg, California, they had been on the road for four months, and already it had become clear that adjustments in their plans would be necessary. They were spending more than they had expected and it looked like the trip might stretch to a year and a half. In addition, they were discovering that it wasn’t easy to collect used cooking oil for their truck.
They had the misfortune to encounter mechanical trouble in remote Whitehorse, Canada. Carola said a truck part that would have cost $60 dollars in Vancouver, was $200 in Whitehorse. This kind of unexpected expense can wreck a budget.
But, Carola said, the upside of the trip is the wondrous sights they have seen, such as the Northern Lights, the Olympic rainforest, the Columbia River gorge and the giant redwoods, and all the friendly, helpful people they have met along the way.
North to Denali
They started their trip in July in Pemberton, a village north of Whistler in British Columbia, and drove up through the Yukon and into Alaska as far north as Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Then, they came back through Seattle, Portland and the Oregon and California coast with plans to go to Las Vegas, a couple of Utah national parks, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona before crossing the border into Mexico.
Their ambition is to do most of the trip on free fuel in the form of used vegetable oil collected from restaurants. They converted their truck to run much of the time on cooking oil, which they filter to make it suitable for their truck’s diesel engine. The only difference from burning regular diesel fuel, Carola said, is that “it smells like French fries. I get hungry.”
They are using their trip to demonstrate that recycling cooking oil for fuel is good for the environment (reducing carbon dioxide emissions).
When they started out, the plan worked well. In their first 6,000 miles of travel, they recycled about 400 gallons of used cooking oil. They got cooking oil for free in Canada because restaurants there pay to have it hauled away.
But the situation in the U.S. is different because the government offers incentives to companies to process cooking oil into biofuel. Restaurants that were once glad to dispose of grease by giving it away are now selling it to processing companies and grease collectors.
Carola and Victor brought enough fuel from Canada to drive through Washington State but when they got to Oregon and California they found that most restaurants have contracts to sell their grease. A grease contractor told them that grease is so valuable that thieves are stealing it.
Their experience echoes a recent story in The New Yorker, entitled, “Hot Grease,” that describes how Dar Pro, a grease processing company valued at $2 billion, is trying to persuade authorities to recognize that grease is precious and that stealing it is a crime. They want authorities to jail and prosecute anyone who takes grease from a Dar Pro collection bin at a restaurant.
Randall Stuewe, Dar Pro’s CEO, told the magazine that a thief driving down a strip-mall alleyway could collect $4,000 worth of used cooking oil in half an hour. “It’s right up there next to Rolexes,” he said.
Because so many restaurants have grease contracts, Carola hesitates to recommend driving on cooking oil in the U.S.
“If there is a restaurant that you frequently go to and they could save the cooking oil for you, then you can do it,” she said. “Otherwise it could be a nightmare to find your fuel.”
Nevertheless through persistence, Carola and Victor have found enough cooking oil to keep them going. They picked up some in Oregon by posting an appeal on Craigslist. They got 50 gallons from a Mexican restaurant in Fort Bragg, 30 gallons in San Francisco, 15 gallons at a little town near Death Valley, and finally a jackpot of 60 gallons from a place at the entrance to Death Valley.
Besides relying on free fuel, Carola and Victor have kept down expenses by using couchsurfing.org to find places to park their truck camper overnight at no cost and also meet interesting people.
A couple of sponsors have also helped. The Adventure Group Whistler paid for a solar panel system and battery. Torklift International donated the camper’s tiedowns and turnbuckle system.
To help pay their way, they are doing graphic design work, and hope to acquire both additional graphic design clients and trip sponsors. They are documenting their trip online in both Spanish and English at upachalupa.org. They chose that website address because “chalupa” is a Chilean colloquialism that is used when someone proposes something and the other person goes along without thinking twice.
As Carola and Victor explain on their website, “It’s a phrase that identifies 100 percent our way of life and our relationship, because since we met, we have taken many important decisions and the answer has always been ‘Chalupa,’ I mean, ‘Sure let’s do it.’”
You can follow their adventure on Facebook at facebook.com/UpaChalupaTravelBlog and on Twitter @UpaChalupaBlog.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.