By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; F01

I probably looked suspicious as I cased the dark, empty building on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, the day barely awake. Locating my target near the front door, I opened the trunk of my car and removed an extension cord with a gas-pump-style handle on one end and a three-pronged plug on the other. I stretched the 25-foot line from the hood to the socket I'd discovered and made the connection. A blue light on the dashboard flickered on as the power trickled into the car's veins. Meanwhile, I disappeared into the shadows until it was time. Time to move on - to the next destination, the next outlet, the next charging fix.

Road-tripping by electric car is an adventure into the unknown, calling for ingenuity, resourcefulness and pluck, the opposite of the gas-fueled car vacation, with its pumps at every exit. In my battery-powered car, I moved like a migratory animal from charging station to charging station, in constant search of sustenance.

Electric vehicles, or EVs, and the infrastructure needed to mobilize them, are still in their infancy. Baby is just learning to walk, or, in this case, drive. But I was eager to experience the emissions-free conveyance that could revolutionize the classic road adventure. So a couple of weeks ago, I settled into a Nissan Leaf (so roomy, so quiet, so smooth) and drove around Southern California - more than 420 miles in total, from Los Angeles to Laguna Beach, to Santa Monica and to Santa Barbara. I set out with two goals, both a bit dreamy: never to run out of battery life, and to bump into the Prius-driving Leonardo DiCaprio, so that I could impress him with the future.

Unlike hybrids, EVs run solely on batteries and require frequent charges - the Nissan Leaf needs one after about 100 miles. Once the battery is drained, the car is a lifeless lump of metal and good intentions.

To recharge, drivers have a choice of options, from pokey slow to pit-crew fast: Level I (120 volts, compatible with household outlets, 18 to 20 hours' charge time), Level II (240 volts, currently available at a smattering of public venues, about eight hours) and the much-anticipated DC Fast Charge (480 volts, coming soon, less than 30 minutes).

"When you start driving the car, you just start looking for a charging station," said Tim Gallagher, Nissan's West Coast communications manager. "It's like your cellphone: You just start looking around, and when you find a place, you just plug it in."

To prevent a dystopian scene of EVs abandoned in the heartbreak lanes, the Department of Energy has handed out $129 million in grants for erecting Level II and Fast Charge stations around the country. By year's end, the agency expects to have 20,000 stations in more than 20 cities, often in settings with pleasant diversions - malls, museums, grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, Cracker Barrel - to lessen the pain of waiting.

This, my neo-green friends, is the future landscape. But at present, the network of stations resembles a Lite-Brite board with a shortage of pegs.

Before setting out on my journey, I spent weeks scouring the Web for public charging stations. I found dozens in places I'd visit even without a hungry EV: Long Beach Aquarium, the Beverly Hills Hilton, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Yet I soon learned that these chargers had been built around a decade ago, for the first generation of electric cars. Trying to use them with newer models, you'd have as much luck as plugging into a doughnut hole.

I finally had a breakthrough with California-based Coulomb Technology, which built its first station two years ago in San Jose and posts a live map of its working facilities nationwide. Nissan dealerships are also outfitted with Level II stations, and in a pinch I could use a regular outlet at my hotel, ideally charging while I slept, ate breakfast, went for a long walk on the beach, read a book and counted to one million.

I was on the freeway headed south to Laguna Beach, my chariot floating on a cumulus cloud amid the dark thunder of traffic. I had just covered a sparkling section of coastline, from Manhattan Beach to Palos Verde, and was feeling languid in my sunlit sanctuary. Suddenly, I snapped to attention; I needed to make a very important call.

"Hi, Tim. My battery's low. Do you think I can make it to the charging station in Newport Beach?"

My Nissan adviser asks me a question.

"The range disappeared. It's just a flashing bar."

Another query.

"I just passed Huntington Beach."

A somewhat grave reaction.

"Oh, really? I won't make it? Get off at Bear Road. To South Coast Plaza. Charging station near Crate and Barrel. Got it. Thanks."

Oh, sugar . . . snap.

I was now seized by "range anxiety," an obsessive fear that the battery life will drain and you'll never make it home in time for "American Idol," much less bed. Trust me, it's not a hallucinatory head game.

I had, however, packed a bag of tricks gleaned from veteran EV drivers. To conserve energy, the wise ones told me, skip the air conditioning and the heat, drive on the slow side, turn off the lights and the radio (my very last resort), and don't brake on hills. By screaming down an incline, you can "hypermile," generating more energy than you're using. It's a neat trick (I recommend it on the roller-coastery Kanon Dume Road) that reminded me of biking down my parents' steep driveway with my feet high off the pedals.

Finally, embrace traffic.

"On the freeway or in traffic jams, stay four to six car lengths back and coast," advised Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug In America, an EV advocacy group. "You get amazing efficiency and can add 10, 20, 30 percent to the distance."

Despite my concerns, I made it easily to the Costa Mesa mall. I plugged the car into the Level II charger (free, though I had to call the charging company to activate the machine), then rode the escalator to the top floor. I bought an icy drink and took it outside to the open-air bridge. While my Frankenstein car volted back to life, I watched the sun draw the curtain on the day, leaving behind a swirl of cotton-candy pinks.

You know how puppies and babies bring out the best in people, transforming cold strangers into cooing Samaritans? The electric car casts that same kind of warm-hearted spell. As I drove around in my Leaf, outsiders just wanted to look at it, touch it, learn more about it and help me feed it.

Before I arrived at La Casa del Camino in Laguna Beach, a staffer named Jamie had scouted out outlets around the property: one on the side of the inn, near 30-minute street parking; another across the street in the parking lot of a large building; and a third behind the hotel, in a secluded driveway surrounded by tropical plants and staff members on a smoke break.

I chose the last spot and followed Jamie there. He helped me snake the cord under a porch banister and into a plug I would never have noticed. When I checked on the car later, someone had sweetly placed an orange cone behind it, like a piece of chocolate at evening turndown.

Free to explore Laguna Beach, I filled my hours peering into the windows of art galleries and tracking down as many of the city's 65-plus pieces of public art as I could on foot. In the morning, I settled beside the hotel fireplace and ate a bowl of oatmeal thickened with fresh mission figs and fresh strawberries. To squeeze out a few more miles, I loafed on a park bench atop a hill blanketed in flowers and overlooking the ocean.

On the drive back to Los Angeles, I made only one pit stop, on Balboa Island, a man-made island born out of a sandspit before World War I. It's so tiny, a marathoner would have to circle it more than 13 times to complete a race.

The island's bench-lined main street is a paragon of blissful denial - of calories (frozen bananas and tiramisu on a stick), of inclement weather (shops sell beachwear for Southern California's eternal summer) and of rising gas prices (many residents tool around in electric carts). My tour of town also involved hooded glances for outlets. I scoured back alleys (those carts have to charge somewhere, right?) and the fire station. I was elated to finally find the Shanghai Pine Gardens Restaurant, which deserved four stars not for its Kung Pao chicken but for the plug nestled beneath a large picture window.

On a residential street near the main drag, I told a man standing on the porch of a house seemingly decorated by whimsical elves about my quest. "I wish I hadn't just tossed the key to my aunt's house through the window," he said apologetically. "I could've let you in to use the garage."

He suggested that I wait - his Aunt Joan was getting her hair fluffed and would be back shortly. I assured him that I had enough power, but just in case, he had me jot down the name of a church thrift store with three nearby locations. The shops, he said, had outdoor outlets. And being a church, well, that was part of their mission, to help those in need.

If I had the power to canonize saints, I would bestow that title on Penny Fleming, the guest services manager of the Ramada Limited in Santa Barbara. I knew it was a chancy move to drive to this town, which has lofty green aspirations but no Level II chargers and no confirmed Level I sockets. Crossing the Pacific seemed easier than covering the nearly 100 miles back to Los Angeles.

To prepare for my evening arrival, I called the hotel from the Nissan dealership in Simi Valley to inquire about my now favorite amenity. Penny, after a bit of research, informed me of an outlet at the front of the hotel, though parking was not allowed on the facing street. I then asked her about switching my room to the ground level so that I could stretch the car's 120-volt extension cord through the patio doors and into the room. She said she would try to rearrange the room assignments. Score: Room 117 was now mine, complete with parking spot and a VIP cone.

Now came the hilarity, without the laugh track.

First, the car's cord came up a few finger-lengths shy of my room's TV outlet. Penny whipped out another extension cord, long enough to reach the far side of the room, but when we plugged it in, there was no energy surge. She disappeared, returning with another line that worked but had only two indentations; we needed three.

I was about to start looking through the Yellow Pages for a horse that could pull the car back to Los Angeles, but Penny was not giving up. She found a third cord, plugged it in and . . . the lights on the surge box started to glow. Then they went dark. She pushed the plug in harder; the lights beamed. Not fully trusting this arrangement, she switched the double extension cord to an outlet on the nightstand lamp. We closed the patio door and secured it with the chain lock, leaving a small gap for the snake. When it was lights out, the green dot of the charger stayed bright, a North Star twinkling on the Ramada's carpet.

Strangely, I started to look forward to the EV stations. Because of their unexpected locations, they led me to places I might otherwise have ignored.

Without the prospect of charging, for instance, I would have blown past Simi Valley en route to Santa Barbara. Yet I sought out the Nissan dealership there partly because of its proximity to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

On the trip back south to Los Angeles, I swung into the Oxnard dealership, where I sweet-talked myself a ride to the Channel Islands Harbor Farmers Market and picked through crates of citrus and strawberries grown a few towns over. To give myself - I mean, the car - additional time, I walked a long stretch of Mandalay Beach, climbing the lifeguard tower to watch for gray whales.

At the Santa Monica Pier, near the slow-spinning Ferris wheel, I parked in an exclusive EV spot, hooked up and walked down to the original Muscle Beach. Here, I met Paul Scott, a Santa Monica resident and a founding member of Plug In America, who'd driven in on his electric motorcycle. A rangy acrobat, he showed me how to swing like a capuchin on the traveling rings, a long row of metal hoops that require fierce upper-body strength and a faint attachment to your teeth.

In Los Angeles, the convention center, which dominates a large pie slice of downtown, is home to a designated EV area. It also adjoins the hyperactivities of the Staples Center, the Grammy Museum (a jam that you hope never ends) and the new L.A. Live, a pulsating entertainment district that can't seem to find the off switch. By the time I finally retrieved the car, the mileage range was up to 96, more than enough to make it to my next destination.

I steered the car onto Wilshire Boulevard, blending in with the evening traffic. For the entire ride, I kept my eyes on the road, not once glancing down at the battery gauge or scanning the sides of buildings.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company