Book Review: Greasy Rider by Greg Melville

The full title of this little gem is Greasy Rider: Two dudes, one fry-oil-powered car, and a cross-country search for a greener future.

Greg drives a 1985 Mercedes 300TD wagon with many of the same problems as my Günther: spastic blinker syndrome (sometimes the blinker blinks fine, sometimes it comes on as a steady stream of light which Greg and his copilot dealt with by “blinkerbating”, or manually flipping the switch to make the blinker blink), faulty suspension (mine has a “broken leg” as the previous owner put it (a broken strut in the back right and springs that would better serve a semi up front), Greg’s has a “complicated hydraulic self-leveling system”), and water in the footwells (someone parked Günther in the snow with his windows rolled down all winter, Greg’s benzo’s engine compartment’s drain holes were plugged with pine needles).

Greg and friend Iggy set out to drive from Greg’s Vermont home to the BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley, California, in essentially a reverse-direction redo of the first transcontinental automobile trip made by H. Nelson Jackson in 1903 (when paved roads and filling stations were a rarity). 190 gallons of veggie oil and less than 4 gallons of petrodiesel later, they succeeded. Greg’s and Iggy’s adventures (an overloaded hydraulic system, the frustrating search for the Great White Grease Bin, clothes stained by grease and dog pee, an old college buddy out of the closet, Greg’s wife Anne Marie’s disdain for their trips to Wal-Mart, a unique bible thumper, beautiful and not-so-beautiful scenery, Midwesterners who suspect our heroes are terrorists, and one instance of forgetting to “binge and purge” the fuel system) are interspersed with Greg’s “errands”, which are performed after the trip proper. Somewhere in Indiana, Iggy comes up with the idea of the errands. “He would think of a new errand relating to sustainability each day, and I would have one year to complete them all”. The errands include “The Ultimate Green Home” where Greg is disappointed to discover that Al Gore’s home (at least at the time of his writing) is almost 180° from the shade of green you’d expect “ but he also discovers that the true green home, while smaller than the one he fantasizes about, is both possible and comfortable. On another errand, “Ethanol”, Greg goes to Dartmouth College to meet Lee Lynd, an engineering professor working to create “a microorganism that would break down a plant’s cellulose to sugar, then ferment it and convert it directly into ethyl alcohol without any added enzymes” so that sustainable, renewable ethanol could be made from cover crops and food crop wastes (husks, stalks, etc.) without competing with food crops – a purpose and passion quite the opposite of the other person Greg goes to visit at the American Coalition for Ethanol, who is pushing ethanol solely because it could benefit farmers, profit-wise. In the errand “Heat”, Greg visits Fort Knox (not the vault – the army base) which converted to geothermal heating and cooling and saved not only an astounding amount of taxpayer money, but also a hell of a lot of decibels.

All in all, this book was very readable. It was educational not only about grease cars, but also ethanol, wind power, geothermal power, Wal-Mart, Google, and even Easter Island. Just watch out for the part about the NREL guy (National Renewable Energy Laboratory), whose skewed perspective on his own subject matter will have anyone who knows jack crap about biofuels sputtering with rage.

— Amanda


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