Summer 2021 road trip

Having spent a year or so, including the entirety of our youngest child’s life, in COVID-related lockdown, my wife Christine and I wanted to get out of town for a bit while we exhausted the remainder of our parental leave. Read on to discover how this simple objective morphed into a 7700 mile coast to coast (to coast to coast) road trip towing a classic 1960s travel trailer behind a modified Tesla Model 3 family sedan.

Complete public photo album.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

Christine’s grandmother was having a 95th birthday celebration in Ohio, and we wanted to introduce her to her ~40th great grand child. We weren’t keen on flying or using hotels, and the mere idea of driving cross country in something other than a Tesla with autopilot was too horrifying to consider.

A neighbor kindly rented their 2015 re-issue of the classic 1961 Shasta Airflyte to us for the summer, and then all we had to figure out was how to make this happen.

First challenge: The Tesla Model 3 does not come with towing features. Of course, people have towed things with it, including an enormous airstream twice the weight of ours. Still, effort is required.

There is an aftermarket hitch kit available that’s rated up to 3500 lbs. While it was mechanically perfect, the instructions left a lot to be desired. If you decide to use it, you will need to both ensure a basic familiarity with electronics and to cut the rear fascia diffuser hole about 1″ wider (i.e. towards the front of the vehicle) than the given template. You’ll thank me later when it comes time to get the safety chains on and off.

The car goes together like LEGO. Still, not what one expects or hopes to see.

The Model 3 is very nicely designed and 98% of the time, assembly and disassembly was very straight forward, even for me working alone in the middle of the night while all my tiny assistants were safely asleep. The only major wrinkle was that the bolts that hold the rear crash rail in place were over-torqued in the factory and I broke my ratchet trying to take them off. I was able to remove the entire assembly via another set of bolts but angle grinding the frozen bolt heads had to wait until daylight hours, lest the tiny assistants be summoned.

As another bonus, when I reassembled the car I was able to put the rear fascia back on with better alignment than stock from the factory. Ours is an early model (VIN ~12000) and it has a few quirks.

On the first attempt I got stuck with frozen bolts so I decided to finish the electrics. There’s less room behind the rear wheel well in premium models because of speakers, but I was able to mostly avoid the (incredibly sticky and messy) rubber lip seal adhesive and get the wires in place. The indicator wires used on the car are too narrow for the kit-supplied splices so I had to get creative. Fortunately I have a decent stock of crimps, heat shrink, and electrical tape. It would be really neat if the kit came with a compatible connector so that splicing wasn’t needed – just piggy-backing the existing connector. Alas…

The given trailer light controller (4 pin) is powered with a 14 awg (20 A fuse) cable that is run from the battery down through the narrow tunnel between the battery and the underbody trim, then up over the rear wheel well. If you’re towing a real trailer, you will need a 30 A fuse 10 awg cable to power the 7 pin trailer brake controller and trailer systems (such as a fridge), so just put a 10 awg cable (you’ll need 20′, believe it or not) in the first time and avoid having to take the car apart twice.

Cut this hole a bit wider and you’ll have plenty of room for safety chains, brake controllers, etc. I attached magnets to the piece I cut off that holds it over the hole when not in use.

We used a Curt Echo trailer brake controller. There are other options that can work with a Tesla, but this one met our needs and didn’t require me to disassemble the instrument panel. The Echo is a nifty piece of kit I was able to secure to the fascia adjacent to the access hole so that when the hitch was disconnected, it was completely invisible. Hardware wise, it didn’t break. It has a 3-axis accelerometer so can activate brakes based on forces or brake lights. It’s controlled via a bluetooth app that we kept on the charge pad in the cabin.

Unfortunately, the app (both Android and iPhone) is pretty terrible. Specifically, its parameters were non-intuitive so it was hard to get it working properly. It also had a tendency to activate for no reason, and would not deactivate without simultaneous pressing of the brake and accelerator pedal for a few seconds, or sometimes restarting the app. The app also disconnected frequently (particularly iPhone) and occasionally crashed silently, continuing to display its current state while not showing what was actually happening. I know there are limitations to what can be done with a phone app but really, this app did not meet my expectations.

The Tesla has oodles of braking capacity and, importantly, regenerative braking so we did not really want the trailer brakes to activate ever, unless it was an emergency stop or, perhaps, some kind of instability while going down hill. Incidentally, on the handful of occasions where we did need to stop in a hurry, the trailer brakes often did not activate anyway, not that it made much difference. Like I said, the trailer brake controller controller app was an enduring source of frustration. What I wanted was the ability to manually set an acceleration activation threshold and a gradient, so that it wouldn’t automatically trigger any time we crossed train tracks or hit a pothole. It should also have a manual deactivation override with a single press, so I don’t have to futz around with a badly designed app to fix an erroneous activation, instead of watching the road.

Lots of people asked us and were surprised to learn that the Tesla towed really well. The trailer was always stable and with 267 horsepower and 460ish torques, the only car that could cut us off was another Tesla, without a trailer. We did steep grades in wet weather and never had a problem with traction.

While we’re getting into details, our Tesla is a LR RWD version, one of the slowest ever made, but with a range of 312 miles when we bought it. At the start of the trip we had about 30000 miles on it and had hardly used it the preceding year. We’d also just bought new tires to ensure good traction. Before the trip we had about 500 miles of towing experience, mostly from a trip I took driving a truck/trailer to Burning Man back in 2015. In other words I knew how to back up a trailer, but from the car it wasn’t always easy to see obstructions, particularly on our narrow driveway the first time I ever drove the thing. But we got there in the end, helped by a backup camera that I installed.

The other technical challenge was range. We have two physics PhDs between us but even so I was pretty sure that towing would drop our range from about 300 miles at 70 mph to about 130 miles at 55 mph. The Airflyte has shiny wings but it is not aerodynamic. At all. Not even a little bit.

Road distances between pairs of Tesla Superchargers.

So I did what had to be done. I downloaded a map of all Tesla Supercharger locations in North America, then used a Mathematica API to calculate road distances between every adjacent pair, then plotted the results on a map with color coding indicating critical range. This does not account for headwinds, mountains, or temperature, but it’s a lot better than nothing.

To my surprise and increasing horror, nearly the whole country has pairs of superchargers separated by less than 100 miles. Could it be that our project’s weak link was not tow hitches or range, but the driver?

Indeed, the worst place in the country for supercharger links is the southwest, our home. Los Angeles is surrounded by deserts and all of them have at least one leg that is at least 160 miles, almost as though someone wanted us to stay…

In the end, these legs had to be broken in half with an overnight stay at an RV park with 50 A hook ups. There are several apps that enable filtered searches, and on the whole trip we had three such “obligate” stops, all of which were well positioned with respect to our daily averages.

We generally aimed for 3-4 supercharges per day, with an all time high of 6. At each we would attempt to find a position such that we didn’t have to unhook the trailer, feed/water/diaper the kids, fill out the log, get some wriggles out, and then get back on the road. We didn’t break any speed records but we made good time and saw a lot of the country side at a sensible pace.

I performed one shakedown test drive before we loaded the camper and departed. I figured the worst that could happen was that we’d have a critical failure somewhere, leave the camper by the side of the road, and drive on, or back, without it. In fact, by the end of the trip I’d almost given up hope and looked increasingly wistfully at boat ramps where people routinely backed trailers into the water…

On July 13, we locked up our house, turned off the gas main, and hit the road. Almost immediately we started to get double takes, which did not stop for the rest of the trip. Our first night destination was Banning KOA, an RV park situated in the pass that separates the LA basin from Palm Springs, sandwiched between Mt San Gorgonio to the north and Mt San Jacinto to the south. Also in this pass is a nice little airport, strong winds, factory outlets, wind turbines, the San Andreas fault, and the Colorado River Aqueduct. Like most RV parks it was a mixture of transient and more settled occupants, the grounds basic but clean, and the roads almost ideal for unicycling. On the way in we stopped at the Redlands Lincoln Memorial as part of our mid-leg toilet break for the recently toilet-trained toddler. These proved to be unnecessary and were swiftly dropped. Throughout the trip the toddler managed zero (0) accidents while in the car, a record I came damn close to beating.

The following day our destination was Sedona, Arizona, a very long drive away but importantly also at altitude and much less hot than, say, Needles in the middle of July. The kids were champions, the car was quietly powerful, and the camper still hadn’t suffered any critical failures. On the second leg we gained greater familiarity with the Tesla’s onboard range monitoring tools, including an energy graph of limited utility and a trip average consumption of exceptional utility. Indeed, rolling into Wickenberg Supercharger with just 14 miles of range (closer to 6 with the trailer attached) we decided that of the 73.5 kWh in the battery the day we drove it off the lot, we were going to avoid using more than 63 kWh and would prefer to aim for a 5% margin on top of this. In practice, consuming that 5% margin would save us perhaps 5 minutes of driving time which didn’t seem worth it. The primary contingency for running low would be to unhitch somewhere, drive to the charger, charge, return, rehitch, and continue on. Fortunately, we never had to do this!

At the start of each leg we divided 63 (or whatever we estimated the battery capacity to be, if not fully charged) by the distance to deliver a “glide slope”. That number, typically between about 450 and 850 Wh/mi, was the average to shoot for to ensure safe arrival. Roughly it corresponded to the airspeed multiplied by ten, so a 100 mile leg would permit a glide slope of 630 Wh/mi and a driving speed of 60 mph. While we sometimes cruised as fast as 65 mph, we were concerned about stability and structural integrity at higher speeds. For legs shorter than 80 miles there was rarely a concern about range, while legs of up to 120 miles were reasonably straight forward provided we didn’t have strong headwinds. Unfortunately, for large parts of the trip, we had strong headwinds! I got pretty sick of looking at the backs of windmills. We kept a log of every leg, so you can check our calculations.

We were surprised how many RV parks we saw on the road from Quartzite to Wickenberg – an otherwise extremely lonely stretch of desert. Economic exploitation of people living in RV parks is an old story, but perhaps what we were seeing here was the next tier of this scam – hopeful RV park scammees getting scammed into taking loans to build large and relatively cheap RV parks in the middle of nowhere. Some of them were surprisingly full but most were pretty quiet.

Sedona has lots of nice rocks.

We arrived in Sedona just before sunset amidst a brief rain shower and I began the journey of becoming overly familiar with the trailer’s hook up procedures. It was always a game of Tetris to position the trailer such that all the pipes, including the car charger, could fit. The park admins were always amused that our tiny 16′ trailer needed a 50 A hook up, which of course we used to charge the car. Only one RV park asked us to chip in for the charging electricity, which I rounded up to $10 extra for about 50 kWh. Not worth it to destroy goodwill as an (extremely unofficial) brand ambassador for $3.47. In principle, we could power the trailer from an inverter in the car, or charge the car via the trailer’s 110 V supply. In practice we only tried the latter once and it didn’t go well, as the trailer’s electrics were the very opposite of robust and well designed. In contrast, the car performed flawlessly, as its electrical system is both robust and alien-technology-level well designed.

By the end of the trip I had grown to hate the camper RV park hook ups, which consisted of power (occasionally badly earthed enough to feel it), fresh water (invariably at some absurd pressure), and sewer (just the worst). I have changed thousands of diapers, unclogged sewers, and toilet trained a toddler and all of that was less gross than dealing with a trailer sewer connection when the sewer tank knife valve didn’t seat properly, and the various tanks don’t drain completely at any given angle. What’s worse, as someone with a modicum of mechanical design knowledge I knew it wouldn’t be that hard to design a system that was far more robust and easy to use AND cheaper to build but no, standard RV systems by sadists like Valterra are just the worst consumer crap I’ve ever dealt with.

For example, the electrical shore power hook up has a screw fitting that doesn’t thread properly, the cover doesn’t fit properly and falls down, and the cover hinge is sharp so when you are tightening the flange it just flays skin off your hand. Incredibly, the water hook up screw was the same, except it was lefty tighty righty loosey and the fitting was smooth enough to be completely frictionless when your hands were wet, as they might be when dealing with a fresh water hose. The other end of the hose was righty tighty but its friction was provided by injection overmolded plastic that was sharp enough to draw blood. Doing this process twice a day meant I had a bunch of open wounds on my hands, perfectly positioned to absorb whatever came flying out of the sewer drain. The sewer drain has a common orifice with the gray water tank but the position of the tanks and the commode (on the far side of the camper) mean that the gray water doesn’t flush the pipe properly, it just backs it up. Also the gray water knife valve can unseat during transit and allow back flow, causing putrid odors to emerge from the sink while, say, trying to get a glass of water.

Here’s my free suggestion for how these systems should be designed.

First, sell campers on something other than ludicrously inflated feature lists. It’s a 16′ foot trailer, it shouldn’t have all the same features as a 50′ fifth wheel. Yes, it has a three way fridge, a toilet, a shower, a convertible bed, an AC, a heater, a microwave, a sink, a 3 burner stove, and a range hood. It would be amazing if half of those appliances actually functioned properly, and even more amazing if half of them were just deleted outright.

Second, if the designers insist on installing a high capacity 3 way Dometic fridge, that’s great, but install it so it actually works. On DC power, ours simply drained the battery and heated the cabin and food, because the fridge’s requirements for ventilation were ignored, and the DC wiring harness did loopdeloops for no reason while being made from 16 awg wire, leading to huge voltage drops across a space I could span with my arms.

Third, provide a manual with an as-built system diagram for electric and plumbing. The 2015 Shasta re-issue was built by Forest River, and they have a “one size fits all” manual for ALL their trailers, RVs, and fifth wheels. So when the DC power system stopped working I had to pull the camper apart, multimeter in hand, looking for an undocumented auto-reset fuse that had failed to reset. The reason it blew was that the converter is in a cabinet with a sealed door, so that the ventilation fan simply draws from a flat piece of wood. The cabinet is built in such a way that if you crack it open to keep the electrics cool, it catches your foot as your walk by and removes a nice little furrow of skin.

Fourth, there’s no reason why the sewer flex hose should have to be removed during normal usage. If the external access bay was made 2″ lower the flex hose could be lifted and docked to a passive flange so that the sewer system would remain sealed and leak proof, even if the knife valves failed for no reason, as they did most days. Similarly, the electric and water connections could use quick releases and be on spools so that connecting was a 10 second activity, not a 20 minute exercise in advanced masochism.

I could go on, and maybe someday I shall. I began to have incredibly vivid fantasies of an off grid, off road van conversion built on a Ford or Ram chassis with no internal plumbing or wiring of any kind. Just a 5 gallon water container with a built in tap that could be filled at the faucet once a day like a normal person. Or a Coleman stove that folded away and could work on a tilted surface and had pot holders that weren’t made of Teflon and didn’t burn the hair off your arms. Fortunately, my Ego was able to override my Id and insist that I focus my daydreams on living in a house like a normal person. Imagine being able to lie down AND stand up without hitting your head on anything. Luxury!

The reality is that campers are built to a price and every expense is spared. Perhaps this partly explains the #vanlyfe movement, where enthusiasts with no skills and no money can credibly build a better mobile home with scrap from a Home Depot dumpster than the RV manufacturers with their factories, quality control, and lines of credit.

Back to the trip. For now.

The next day we had only to drive from Sedona to the Grand Canyon via the Flagstaff Supercharger. Sadly this charger was one of the few in a parking lot so narrow we had to unhook to reach it. Even sadder, we had to use it twice, as we left the Grand Canyon via the same route. The scenic route between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon took us through scenic volcanic mountains and intermittent rain showers.

At the last moment we had been able to secure an RV park space at the Grand Canyon, a large park with very few trees and a long way from any amenities but otherwise fine. We took the kids down to the rim but the younger one fell asleep on the way and the older one (nearly 3) just stared into the distance for a while then asked to go back to a pile of gravel he had seen so he could climb on it. At this age they get software updates every couple of weeks and I think (based partly on my own memories of being that age) that depth perception at a distance just didn’t quite compute yet.

During the afternoon nap window I took the unicycle for a ride along the rim trail and remembered my previous trips to this amazing place. On January 2 2015, my friend Ed and I snuck out before dawn and, amidst the previous day’s snowfall walked down the Bright Angel Trail to the river and back, emerging just in time for lunch. Like towing a camper with a Tesla, the author recommends that readers do not try this at home! And in 2011 I went on a geology field trip to the north rim at Torroweap Overlook, which I’ve wanted to go back to ever since.

The Grand Canyon “at dawn” or “at dusk” is actually mostly in shadow. It’s pretty rad during the middle of the day. At one point a tiny squirrel bit my toenail, giving me some insight into how I react when startled.

Christine and I had agreed that the Grand Canyon would be our go/hold point for the rest of the trip. We could turn around and be home in a few days having done an already rather absurd road trip. But the kids had been fine and the tow hitch was still attached so we proceeded instead further into the mysterious and distant east of this rather large country.

July 17 we had an obligate stop at Grants KOA in New Mexico, taking in Meteor Crater and Petrified Forest on the way – neither made much of an impression on the kids but at Meteor Crater we saw another classic Shasta trailer, a lovingly restored original 1962 in the same color!

Sadly we didn’t get a photo of them both together, though we saw them one more time on the trip.

July 18 we stayed in Santa Fe, where the RV park was full of ultra luxury RVs. On July 19 we stayed near Amarillo, the second of several RV parks that were upwind from the local cattle feedlot in the evening, but downwind in the morning.

Stay tuned for next century’s Tesla Ranch.

We continued east across Texas (headwinds) then turned north in Oklahoma, finding a lovely and mostly empty state park campground at Perry Lake. Unlike many RV parks, this one was mostly grass and the kids could run infinitely far in any direction without us worrying about stray dogs and trucks with zero visibility. Speaking of which, the recent trends in truck design are probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. I have friends who drive trucks built in the 1990s with identical feature sets, power, tray sizes, etc, that are half the size and can see the road in front of them. One really has to wonder what the buyers of these monsters are trying to prove. Are they all hat, no cowboy?

Perry Lake RV park was a definite highlight.

We continued our journey north to Kansas City, where we caught up with some family friends from the Caltech Alpine Club, and stayed in the world’s most compact RV park. The slideouts were intermeshed.

Next day one of our longest legs was unexpectedly shortened by the timely opening of a new Supercharger. Most convenient! Also, a poorly signposted detour and nearby road closure directed the entire highway’s worth of traffic into a tiny 2 lane dead end agricultural road. Fortunately we realized before we got stuck in the pile up and found a safe place to turn around. On the way back out we passed a few semis, so it was an epic snarl. We stayed on surface streets for the rest of the leg, taking us through a whole bunch of really small towns in Indiana. It’s pretty unusual to find walkable towns in the US but some of these really were. We even drove by the otherwise unremarkable birthplace of Oliver Hazard Perry Throck Morton, a key ally of Lincoln in the civil war and very highly ranked in the cool name hall of fame.

We pulled into the family gathering on schedule, even staying nearby the night before. Grandma-in-law’s 20ish children+spouses, 30-something grandchildren, and 40-something great grandchildren were mostly there. The event was held in the backyard and a big open barn so was relatively COVID safe. After the bounce houses were taken down and the guests went home we jumped in the brand new barn shower, my first with more than crouching room in more than a week. Luxury!

Ohio is most of the way to the East Coast so we continued on to my cousin’s new place on a lake in southern New Jersey. On the way we managed to coordinate with a few local friends to meet with us at Superchargers for quick snack and catch up.

The lake house was desperately pleasant. We towed the camper to the back yard by the lake. Me and the toddler moved into a guest room for more space. We mercilessly exploited laundry facilities, head room, hot water pressure, and a kitchen. I had a backlog of tedious rambling to dispatch so my cousin Jay and I spent a few pleasant hours fighting our way through the thicketed forest nearby. We also took a swim in, and a paddle around, the lake. For the most part it’s only a few feet deep, which scuttled our plans to build a submarine.

We took a side trip to Atlantic City where we ate Cuban food on the beach. I reminisced about my trip there 10 years before. Hard to believe how time has flown by! I rode the unicycle around on the beach too. I thought of the history of Atlantic crossings from Vikings to Zeppelins and beyond. Sadly on this trip there was no time to take a good look at the Atlantic City Convention Hall pipe organ, which is pretty incredible.

Unicycling by the other ocean.

All too soon (two days, three nights) it was time to turn around and head back the way we had come. The route from Frenchtown to Allentown was particularly scenic, punctuated by a tornado warning as we charged at the Allentown Supercharger! We drove across the mall to a cinema and stood in the portico while the rain thundered down. Quite an experience for the children, who haven’t seen many thunderstorms.

On final approach to the Shartlesville RV park our trusty Tesla/Google navigation (which averaged about one major error every 400 miles) directed us down the wrong road, leading us into a quiet Appalachian track with no apparent way to turn around. Our predicament was complicated by the sudden and unscheduled appearance of an incandescently angry man who gave the toddler a crash course in creative swearing. We improvised a turning circle on someone else’s driveway and beat a hasty retreat, but later that day I mailed him a couple of high visibility “no entrance no turnaround go back” signs. We saw thousands of people on our trip and while many thought our insistence on wearing masks and avoiding buildings was quaint, everyone else was at least polite to our faces! We got “coal rolled” a few times but fortunately the car’s advanced air filtration saved our kids from the carcinogenic crap that large-hatted truck owners mistake for free expression.

We continued on, stopping for brunch with the family in Columbus, then turned north west towards the lakes. Here we began to pick up the trail of motorcyclists descending on Sturgis for the rally the following week. Like last year, about 600,000 people participated in the rally and, like last year, South Dakota COVID cases increased five-fold over this one week. Fortunately we were upwind of this slow-moving tragedy.

Our path between Superchargers took us, as usual, on strange and unusual roads between rustic barns and endless fields of corn and soy dotted with wind turbines, delightfully dilapidated barns, grain bins, and the occasional crop duster. As we were passing through we stopped at the beach at the southern-most point of Lake Michigan, marking the third coast of our voyage. It counts because Lake Michigan is bigger than some seas and has container ships on it.

Lake Michigan.

Our passage out skirted the southern end of Chicago, taking us through the former steel boom town of Gary, now mostly abandoned, then into the Illinois hinterland. Unfortunately a couple of friends in the Chicago area were not available so we traveled further west, visiting a pen friend Alan and his wife for a quick lunch on the way through Du Kalb.

Later that day we passed through Rochester, so I checked the address on my grandmother’s correspondence and found the nondescript apartment she and my mother, uncle, and grandfather had lived in during his surgical training in 1964. They’re all still very much alive but combined with their letters home (phone calls were impossibly expensive for them) it provided an interesting opportunity to reflect on our respective families’ journeys between Australia and the US. Is there any way my grandparents could have guessed as they clambered aboard the 707 to San Francisco via Honolulu in 1963 that nearly 60 years later, their grandson and his American family would retrace part of their journey and stand outside their former residence? My father also spent part of his childhood in Washington DC as his parents had also managed to escape a life of largely landless farm labor to work internationally, but we didn’t visit DC on this trip. We largely managed to avoid cities entirely, which made a nice change from the usual travel modality of hopping from airport to airport and staying in identical hotel franchises no matter where you are!

Our next destination was Rapid City, South Dakota so we continued west. On the leg from Murdo to Wall we got smacked by 15-20 mph headwinds so took the usual approach and slowed down to ensure we’d have enough range. This worked fine until the highway reduced to one lane due to roadwork, at which point I felt pretty self conscious poking along at 45 mph. Fortunately we found an older road parallel to the highway and drove along it for an hour until our average consumption stabilized. As an added bonus, this road took us right by the edge of the badlands and also by a bunch of nuclear missile silos.

Arriving in Rapid City we got camp set up and then jumped back in the unhitched car (enthusiastically sporty when unencumbered) to visit Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument. Like the Grand Canyon, both were somewhat over the heads of our young children but I’m glad we nailed these ultimate road trip destinations. It was also good to get my feet on the ground and learn a bit more about the politically contentious context of these monuments and the Black Hills in general.

We continued west to our second obligate overnight stay in the town of Hardin, Montana. Around dusk we were surprised to see a city truck spraying insecticide driving around the RV park, but later learned it was to combat West Nile virus. I’ll take the insecticide, thanks! It was at this park that I crystallized my desire to have a 30 A connector for charging the car, just in case we got stuck at an RV park that didn’t have any available 50 A hook ups. Unfortunately none of the 10 different adapters in the Tesla plug superpack were the right sort, but I had a multimeter, crimps, wirecutters, and practically infinite time provided I was happy to work on my lap in a moving car. I hacked together the attachment and was pleasantly surprised to learn how many ancillary wires the Tesla connector has, in addition to active, neutral, and ground. A real connector is commercially available, but Prime doesn’t yet ship to moving cars.

About this time I remembered that Mr Nickell, a great teacher and mentor to me in 9th grade in Australia, was from Montana. I emailed him and he confirmed he was from the small town of Reed Point, right by the highway, and most of his family still lived in the area, and wanted to say hi! So we caught up for lunch in an area that looked a lot like the place in Australia where Mr Nickell had settled. I also spent my early childhood in what was then a pretty remote, small town in Australia, so it was interesting to think about what moves us around the world. Other than expedience, of course. Maybe some day an archaeologist will put my tooth into a synchrotron and work it all out.

The rhythm of waking, unhooking everything, eating, caring for kids, driving, charging, caring, driving, etc continued at a steady pace and at length we arrived in Townsend Montana, a cute town by a lake near the headwaters of the mighty Missouri river where Matt, an old friend of Christine’s from Antarctica and long time space nerd, had retired. We had dinner and breakfast together, then began the journey south.

We avoided absurd traffic around Yellowstone National Park and stayed at Henrys Lake, named after an early explorer whose party partly starved there. The kids had a great time splashing around in the lake despite the unusual presence of leeches, and we were hailed by another traveling family in the RV park who also wore masks everywhere.

Continuing south we stayed near Salt Lake City, then near Battle Mountain Nevada, then Lake Tahoe. The Supercharger in Reno was a bit fraught as 4 of the 6 stalls were broken. By this point I was pretty good at backing the trailer and so we managed to escape the narrow parking lane outside a casino.

Surprisingly, the drive from Reno to Tahoe didn’t stress the battery at all with uphills, at least compared to our sketchy legs across Arizona at the beginning of the trip. It was cooler and slower, but still, we had head winds. For a change!

We had dinner at the beach at Tahoe. I don’t think this counts as a coast in the same way as Lake Michigan, maybe because it’s easy to see the other side of the lake. We were pleasantly surprised to find that that section of Tahoe’s beach was very shallow so the kids could splash around without worrying about losing their footing.

On the home stretch now! We had one more technical leg between Topaz Lake and Mammoth Supercharger, but found time to visit the Bridgeport Travertine Springs, which are pretty amazing. At Mammoth we took the gondola to the top of the mountain, which the toddler greatly enjoyed. Then, at Crowley Lake Fish Camp we got a brief rain shower and a pleasant evening skimming rocks on the lake as a brave fellow sailed a foiling board back and forth.

This entire valley is a not-so-old volcanic caldera.

It was all downhill from there. It is my considered opinion that the 395 from Carson City to Mojave is the finest drive in North America. We arrived in Bishop with a full battery thanks to the steep descent, continued on to Lone Pine where Christine visited her favorite local coffee shop. Inyokern Supercharger was inexplicably closed so we continued on to Mojave, which was awkwardly full and the Superchargers awkwardly slow. 50 kW! What are we, peasants? We had enough juice to get to Palmdale so we did, filling up just as enough cars came in that we felt awkward about double parking. Actually, on the whole trip the most anyone waited for us to get out of the way was about 2 minutes, and that only happened twice. In both cases the waiting drivers were particularly courteous, especially after we appeared festooned with tiny children and dirty diapers as part of the loading process. We were pretty lucky with availability and parking creativity.

From Palmdale we continued into the big bad LA basin, then overshot west to Malibu, where we stayed for a night. We enjoyed watching dolphins swim by but by this point on the trip I was ready to keel over. The following morning we waited until morning traffic had died down then drove the last leg back to our home in Sierra Madre. I managed to back the trailer down the drive without hitting anything, not even a tiny bit. The task’s difficulty was compounded by the car automatically activating the parking brake as soon as I started to roll backwards. But the exercise was never going to be quick, easy, or low stress!

Once arrived I disconnected the tow hitch and hid it in the garage somewhere. I did not, as previously fantasized, cut it apart with the angle grinder and mount it above the fireplace. But it would be an understatement to say that, at this point, I think I’m done with spending a month visiting superchargers and RV parks. It was still a good trip, though, and its anti-city, anti-airport nature meant that we saw a lot of people and places that would have otherwise been impossibly tough to organize, even on dedicated, single objective trips. Have you ever carried two babies and two car seats through an American Airlines terminal? It’s almost enough to make me reach for the tow hitch again… NO! Bad Casey!

I think it’s good practice to occasionally push the boundaries of what is possible, or even sensible. The Supercharger network is a technological marvel and works brilliantly for driving cars anywhere across a continent. As of 2021, it’s almost mature enough for Tesla drivers to tow woefully inappropriate trailers across the country with scarcely a second thought. Two years ago, it would have been impossible. Two years from now, it will be trivial. It’s good to be on the frontier. It’s also a nice way to showcase the capabilities of Tesla’s cars via “honest signaling”. It’s better than 0-60 numbers or fancy PR – it’s a real world demonstration that can’t be faked. Christine and I towed a classic camper 7700 miles in 165 hours. It wasn’t always easy, but that’s not the point.

13 thoughts on “Summer 2021 road trip

  1. Looking at your graph it looks like you ended up with about 250 miles range – rather than your 130 miles estimate

    Here (NZ) with a trailer the speed limit is 56 mph (90 kph)

    That’s good! –

    I intend to buy a Tesla when my Subaru croaks and I have been assuming that towing my “device” on its trailer would halve the range


      1. OK – the “total range consumed” graph confused the hell out of me

        Going back to the miles and the power consumed I get 1.73 miles per kWh
        Or 109 miles for your 63 kWh “available”

        Or “Consumption/range consumed” – about 22%
        So you were eating about four times as much juice as you would have without the trailer

        Damn – that is worse than I was expecting


  2. Just stumbling over this post. I’ve really wondered whether it was possible to make a trip like this in an electric car. I have an early i3 and wouldn’t attempt it, but 300 miles is a lot different than 80!
    One question: What do you think long-term about the supercharger network, given your experience? My concern is that, as Teslas become more popular, it will become impossible to actually charge your car in any reasonable time, becuase you will be waiting for others to finish their supercharging.
    That was my experience with the i3: initially, there was an open charger and open ev-only parking everywhere. And then slowly, as more-and-more people got an ev, it became less and less of an advantage.


  3. Fantastic. Stretching the limits enable one to see farther and remember better. When I was five, my parents took me on a similar, but fossil fuel powered journey. At 75, the memories remain. Hopefully they will for your kids, too.

    I continue to drive an 18 year old Sprinter on similar journeys, because Road trips are the stuff of life.

    Agreed, RV manufacturers should hang their collective heads in shame.


  4. An interesting /fun read – great that you have the mechanical/ electrical skills not to be faded by compatibility glitches galore!

    I used to live near the Bucks County PA area – Frenchtown and the other places along the river are the most interesting of all NY NJ PA I have come across, as they have both history and traditions, good taste and not enough flat spots for 4 lane highways and ugly shopping malls .. Happy to see you were able to enjoy some of its fine areas.

    Contemplating the M3 and camper together, I can’t stop daydreaming how to make a simple /rough aerodynamic tarp that would extend from the car to the front of the camper – eliminating much of the turbulence between the two which must be the source of 90% of the drag.

    You can’t see much behind the car anyway, so it’s not like it would reduce visibility. Attaching the tarp at the car end could be done using the read doors .. and preventing too much flapping around at speed that’s another open design challenge.

    Then again, in a couple years the Cybertruck and its towable camper will have it all solved neatly.

    Congrats on your pioneering journey!

    If you’re ever back in the Tri State area would love to treat you for lunch or something.


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