On a sprawling horse farm southwest of Frederick, Staci Penrose plunged a metal hook into a bale of hay and yanked it off an eight-foot-high stack, letting it tumble to the floor of the riding arena.
Then she heaved the bale not onto a tractor or the bed of a pickup but into what resembles a space-age golf cart, a neighborhood electric vehicle. It hummed so quietly as she drove her load into the barn that the horses hardly turned their heads.
The little electric car, which has no internal-combustion engine, uses no gas and plugs into a standard outlet to charge its battery, has long tooled around the gated communities of Florida and Southern California and, more recently, in suburban subdivisions and retirement villages across the country.
In this area, they are making their way out to the country.
Neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs, are sold in very limited numbers here -- and sales representatives say many of them end up in rural developments or on horse farms in Maryland and Virginia. The result is a distinctly modern touch to the pastoral landscape.
Kim Stewart, who owns the farm in Jefferson where Penrose works, bought two NEVs in December and sold the gas-powered golf cart she used previously for hauling. One of the new vehicles has a flatbed and carries 500 to 600 pounds, she said, allowing the two women to crisscross 200 acres, moving hay and bedding -- and even leading horses -- between barns.
"I really just wanted to get something that was more environmentally friendly," Stewart said. "It's quiet. It doesn't make any noise, and you don't have to start and stop [the engine] all the time."
There are drawbacks, however. "Our own dog is getting fat because it's been riding a bit too much," Stewart said, as an Australian shepherd named Jace stretched out in the car.
Industry analysts have cautioned potential buyers about the limitations of electric cars. The battery charge on the model made by Global Electric Motorcars, the only remaining major U.S. manufacturer of the vehicles, lasts about eight hours or 30 miles. That is not enough to satisfy the commuting needs of many Americans in the 33 states -- among them Virginia but not Maryland or the District -- that allow them on public roads.
Then, for some, there's the sticker shock. The vehicles cost $7,000 to $14,000, depending on their features. Customers can add doors -- two or four -- as well as stereo, air-conditioning and chrome wheels, among other trimmings.
Still, some people in rural areas have found applications for NEVs.
In La Plata, Sandy Doane-Johnson sends her father, 84, across a field in the family's NEV each school day to take her 14-year-old daughter, Mandy, to the school bus stop, about a mile from their four-acre property.
"She is a beautiful teenager, and I don't want to see her standing on the side of the highway," Doane-Johnson said. She said her family chose one of the cheaper models, just the basics. But for a birthday or Christmas, Mandy might get to add doors or a heater.
Doane-Johnson sometimes takes her 80-year-old mother, who has trouble walking, around the property in the NEV to look at flower beds.
Charlie DeCriscio offers the vehicles at a dealership in Leesburg. He said he was skeptical when he was first approached about selling them. "I said, 'What in the heck are we going to do with these things? Ain't nobody going to buy them,' " he recalled. "But then everybody and their brother wants one."
The cars have been popular on horse farms largely because they're quiet and don't scare the animals the way a roaring all-terrain vehicle or tractor can, DeCriscio said. And in a barn, the vehicles don't put out fumes like a truck or golf cart. He said Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, was the first person to buy one of his NEVs for her farm in Middleburg.
DeCriscio acknowledged that the cars have been a tough sell for city folks. Despite their safety features, including seat belts and turn signals, people are reluctant to ride in them.
In this area, Virginia allows them on roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or less -- the vehicles can go only about 25 mph. Virginia had issued only about 55 clean special fuel license plates for all-electric vehicles by last year, most of them in Northern Virginia, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. A spokeswoman said some vehicle owners may not have registered for the special plates.
On a recent NEV ride through Leesburg, DeCriscio attracted his share of attention. As he passed a school bus, children pressed their faces against the windows to get a view. When he pulled into a fast-food drive-through lane, wide-eyed employees gathered to take a look. And when he reached a stop sign, a cyclist in a green pullover and helmet called out.
"Excuse me, sir. You got a license?" the cyclist asked. When DeCriscio responded in the affirmative, the cyclist inspected the car again and asked: "For this?"
"The first thing people ask is, 'Is it a golf cart?' " DeCriscio said later. "I don't know how you could correlate the two."
Back on the farm in Jefferson, Stewart and Penrose were talking about how useful the NEVs have been and how little maintenance they require. Again they emphasized how quiet the cars are.
"It doesn't bother a lot of neighbors," Penrose said.
Asked which neighbors she was referring to, she paused, then laughed a little as she looked around at a farm that stretched nearly as far as the eye could see.