The hook is the truck: a 1970 Chevy pickup painted with fire colors -- red, orange and yellow -- and a Rube Goldberg-like contraption directly behind the cab.
The truck -- powered by scrap wood -- "is a wonderful foot in the door," says driver and energy evangelist of sorts John Vogel.
"Any time you set yourself up like this -- the colors alone -- and then smear "POWERED BY FIREWOOD" across the sides, plus the fact you get the barbecue smell . . . the whole combination generally will bend people's minds around to where they rubber-neck.
"I'm thankful I haven't caused any accidents. People literally cruise right up to you and drive around you on the interstates sometimes, practically wanting to jump into the truck with you."
Vogel, 34, is a researcher and spokesman for The Mother Earth News magazine. For the past several months he's been driving the wood-powered truck around the country, talking to people about how they can become more self-reliant through such things as alternative energy sources for heat and power, high-yield gardening and low-cost home-building.
"Our major message," he says, "is that you can be as self-sufficient as you want in this society today. Whether it's food, clothing, shelter, medicine . . . there are a whole lot of options that aren't really talked about all that much."
The truck, which has reached speeds over 90 miles an hour, is powered by a process called wood gasification, similar to that employed by the Swedish during World War II. Although the Mother Earth truck engine is 454 cubic inches, any engine over 300 cubic inches, says Vogel, would be suitable "even in the mountains."
The truck can be run on gasoline, wood-gasification or a combination of the two. Its two basic components -- made of salvaged hot-water heaters, cast-iron frying pans and other such items -- are: the larger tank used to burn the wood and the smaller one to filter and cool the gases.
"The fire," says Vogel, "is around 2,000 degrees at the base. We're literally cooking the gases -- the natural gases -- right out of the wood. Those gases then go into a series of water-bath tanks [nothing more than hot-water heater tanks placed inside one another]. What we're left with after this water bath is essentially cooled, cleaned smoke."
The temperature is about 110 degrees, he says, going into the engine's carburetor.
"We're taking a stock four-barrel carburetor and we're using the front two barrels for gasoline, and the back two barrels we disconnect from the throttle and we run those with a little motorcycle twist grip" to control throttle plates that let the smoke into the engine.
"It's all off the engine vacuum," Vogel says. "As such, the engine governs everything. The engine is our chimney here."
Gasoline is used for starting up, for idling and for in-town, stop-and-go driving. On highway driving, Vogel says he runs 90 percent on smoke, 10 percent on gasoline. "And for extra power I've always got the extra option to use gas . . . just in case I run out of wood I don't want to be stuck sitting there enviously eyeing somebody's fence posts."
The barbecue smell?
"If you stop immediately after a hard run, or lift the throttle abruptly, a small amount of smoke will be passed out the exhaust. There may not be any visible, noticeable thing, but there is an olfactory indication that there is a barbecue in the neighborhood."
Vogel says he hasn't "paid a dime for any of the wood that we've used yet. The stuff I like is about 6 inches by 2 by 4, or even smaller . . . even just the chips.
"If we were paying $75 a cord for wood, we figured we would probably run somewhere between 2 1/2 to 3 cents a mile on our wood costs for this vehicle. The gasoline engine on that type of vehicle consumes at least a dime a mile for fuel."
The proving test for the gasifier design came, Vogel says, during the California-New York Future Fuels Rally last October. (A Mother Earth truck made the 3,500-mile trip in six days on thirty-five 55-gallon barrels of wood.)
"One person in particular, B.V. Alvarez, an ex-NASCAR builder, got these vehicles to go on smoke," Vogel says. Over the course of a year or so, Alvarez modified a design submitted by a Mother Earth News reader. He made design changes to the point that people were coming from all over the world "to see what we were doing on smoke."
Vogel, who studied biochemistry at the University of Missouri and at Brown University, worked as an actor and dancer for five years before beginning his present career three years ago.
Since mid-March, Vogel has taken his truck and self-reliance message to Florida, through Alabama and Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, through New York . . . "It's been roughly 18 states in six months. I've been home in North Carolina about four days since I left.
"I think it's time to have some positive voices," Vogel says. "We have a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Everybody is saying 'I've lost my job,' 'The government is cutting our budget.' I don't see any reason for everybody to just throw up their hands and say we're going down the tubes. It's not a time for that. It's just a time to get resourceful.
"There are so many things you can do yourself, if you want to. And you can get everybody involved. You get the old folks, the kids," says Vogel, warming to his topic with an enthusiasm that is infectious.
"One of the greatest unused labor resources in the country is the kids that get stuck in front of the electronic baby-sitter on Saturday mornings. We really kind of feel it's about time that families started working together."
Beyond the family, says Vogel, it's possible to do even more. "In a given neighborhood you're going to have numerous resources. For example you might have a plumber, an electrician, an automobile mechanic, and this gets into the whole idea of barter. You barter your skills and services for the types of things you need rather than having to have that cash flow. A lot of people just don't have any money right now."
One joint project Vogel discusses is low-cost solar power. "Solar has been given a poor go because most people who have gotten in the business of making solar collectors have made them extremely expensive, to the point where now they are looked upon as the toys of the idle rich. The average cost of solar hot water now is above $3,000."
On the positive side, Vogel points to a couple of do-it-yourself solar heating systems that can be built for around $300. "They're things that can be put together like a snap, on a Saturday morning or two . . . Your 8-year-old can help you, so it gets the kids involved, too."
What about building your own gasification system to power a vehicle, or a stationary unit to provide heat or electricity? "This smoke unit is available to anyone who wants to build their own now," says Vogel. "Or you can wait until next year when the manufacturers are going to come out with gasifiers. We're also working on other things, aspects of down-sizing this whole thing, to be able to use in conjunction with wood stoves."
Vogel says current gasification developments are "really going to heavily impact the whole idea of using catalysts, clean-burning stoves, airtight stoves, all that. It's just going to be a major change in the way we're burning. Not only for wood but for coal.
"I feel that we're on a new dawn of clean-burning, renewable fuels, and that's what keeps me going and talking about this."
And finally, heading for his truck: "I had a childhood fantasy of traveling around the country and planting trees, like Johnny Appleseed. I'm not planting trees anymore, but I'm planting seeds of ideas in people's minds and maybe they'll sprout."
For free reprints on gasification, solar-power units or self-reliance projects, send a postcard with your name and address to: Smoke, or Solar, or Local Self-Reliance, Box 70, Hendersonville, N.C. 28791.