From USA To Panama In A Tesla Model S

While a factory supported Tesla crew was dashing from LA to New York two weeks ago in matching red Model S sedans, Randy Denmon and his friend Dean Lewis were in Denmon’s muddied-up white Model S half way through their epic journey from “LA” to Panama.

Tesla was attempting to publicize its newly completed Supercharger-enabled U.S. route. Denmon and Lewis were publicizing their trip on FaceBook, essentially ignored by Tesla, as they risked much to prove the Model S far from proper charging.

A few qualifiers are in order: In Denmon and Lewis’ case, “LA” was not Los Angeles, but rather Louisiana. And, they say they officially started three miles north of the Mexican border. Panama is indeed the Central American country where the Panama Canal is.

Denmon, (left) is an EV enthusiast, civil engineer, and president of a 30-employee civil engineering firm in his home state, Louisiana, and splits time between Shreveport and Monroe.

He and Lewis started January 21 from McAllen Texas, and from there crossed into Mexico and soloed for 2,846 miles past volcanoes, through jungles, until the road went no further.

As you might know, there are no Superchargers or much in the way of public electric car charging south of the border. There are however moon-cratered roads, occasionally corrupt cops and border officials, bandits, and no Tesla road service should anything have broken.

“We really didn’t have any tech support and didn’t want any because if you’re going to prove the viability of [an EV] you don’t need a van scouting the way, and a support team, and manufacturer support,” said Denmon who speaks with a Midwestern twang. “You really need to just drive it out of your driveway and take off. You know if you have enough resources you could put an EV on the moon, but that doesn’t really prove much.”

Tesla-approved adventure.

Tesla-approved adventure.

Tesla finished its 3,464.5-mile trip in 76.5 hours using Superchargers dumping current into the cars at up to 120 kilowatts. Denmon and Lewis went with 20 home-made adapter cords, and charged by plugging in wherever, including receptacles for stoves, A/C units, or by hot wiring into what electrical supply they could find.

Tesla is applying for a Guinness Book of World Records acknowledgement. Denmon, an author with a couple historical western novels to his name, hopes to write his own book about the adventure, but otherwise not even Tesla acknowledges his accomplishment.

“We don’t have a comment,” said Tesla’s Alexis Georgeson yesterday.

Is this a conservative corporate stance? Does Tesla want to distance itself from what some could call redneck lunacy? Did Tesla never get back to Denmon last year when he shared his plans because it didn’t want to approve of an escapade in which someone could have been killed? Was it worried about potential backlash if something went wrong with the car?

We don’t know, because Tesla won’t say.

Charging at the Hotel Montebello, Comitan, Mexico.

Charging from a 240-volt socket at the Hotel Montebello, Comitan, Mexico.

Denmon says he’s still a fan however; he has no hard feelings and given all the crazy people out there, he’s not sure he’d not have copped the same stand-offish attitude as Tesla, and doesn’t blame Tesla.

He says Tesla makes the only electric car that could have made it –– and he’s planning more trips, maybe to Alaska, maybe some other place just as remote and unlikely to be completed –– and with or without Tesla’s blessings.

Shakedown Run

Denmon, 47, had ordered his 85-kwh Model S late in 2012, and from the start had aspirations to do some kind of radical proof drive.

Not an experienced adventure tourer or the like, he says his only preparation had been from active duty as a U.S. Army sergeant in the Gulf War, and otherwise he’s a hiker, has a risk-taker’s spirit, and has taught himself basic electrical wiring.

McAllen_Panama

Oh also, living in Louisiana had partially prepped him for traveling into remote regions far from infrastructure. Denmon figures he may have been the first Louisianan with a Model S, and is part of an informal club of 30-40 EVers in his state. He usually charges at home due to lack of public charging, and may use an adapter to get an opportunistic charge where he can; a skill that came in handy heading to Panama.

“It’ll get there,” he says of Louisiana charging infrastructure, shrugging that off positively too.

For those who think the middle regions of America are resistant or slow to embrace EVs, this may be true in cases, but not with Denmon’s crowd.

He and Lewis, who’d been in the same fraternity at Louisiana Tech, and served together in that war over oil, chose a route not so far from Denmon’s home, and with the least likelihood of crossing over turf believed to be patrolled by drug cartels.

They used a Garmin GPS because they knew the Tesla’s 17-inch touch screen would lose connection somewhere in Mexico as they pressed into an EV no-man’s land.

They carried no weapons because “that’s the fastest way to land yourself in a Mexican jail,” said Denmon.

After only 30 minutes into Mexico, an assistant who’d helped shuttle the Model S across the border called Denmon’s cell phone after he’d been stopped by Texas police. The lawmen wondered why he’d crossed with an expensive Tesla, but came back in another vehicle.

“The Texas cops said ‘those guys won’t make it two hours before someone steals that car,’” Denmon said he was told. “I said, ‘Thanks for the words of encouragement but they have to catch us first’ and we just took off.”

A Guatemalan border guards checks out the Tesla at the Guatemala-El Salvador Border.

A Guatemalan border guards checks out the Tesla at the Guatemala-El Salvador Border.

Their trip led them ultimately through seven countries. At each border, they had to stop and register with officials, apply for a driving permit for the respective country, and have the Tesla checked out. Part of the red tape involved recording the car’s VIN number and motor (engine) number.

“Tesla doesn’t have a motor number and that kind of perplexed all them bureaucrats because they didn’t know what to fill in the blank,” Denmon said.

These stops were always major time wasters, and at least once Denmon was compelled to give bribes to get officials out of his car, and back on the road.

Central American officials issued maybe five or six stamps certifying they were OK, and if they’d been pulled over by police on the road without documents in order, they could have been arrested or who knows what.

Crossing border from Mexico to Guatemala.

Crossing border from Mexico to Guatemala.

In Honduras, he did get “fleeced” for $500 when officials said cash could get them going or they could hold them overnight, and start the conversation fresh the next day.

Really though, there were only a few incidents where cops or officials “didn’t seem to be too amused by the car,” but the “vast majority were helpful.”

Some officials or others such as hotel staff would “lighten up” and treat them very well.

One time he came out and found the Model S had been washed. Another time in Nicaragua a Managua English-language paper wrote of the traveling Americans in the electric sedan.

Most of the driving was by Denmon, because they’d save time by not registering Lewis for a driver’s permit, and didn’t want to be pulled over with Lewis at the wheel.

Lewis at the Mexico-Guatamala border.

Lewis at the Mexico-Guatamala border.

Their speed averaged around 25 mph due to too many road surfaces that would challenge a truck, and daily distance averaged 176 miles over 7-8 hours of driving in days that could last 18 hours.

Range per full charge could be as high a 290 miles, but slowing down and speeding up, and inability to lock into cruise control put a dent in what could have been more range.

Denmon figured if he’d been at a constant 30 mph, the car is good for over 400 miles, but that was never possible.

As for those pothole-filled roads, their emergency parts kit consisted of one spare tire.

The low-slung Model S struck down hundreds of times scuffing up the underside but never was the aluminum plate punctured – and no, the car never caught fire – and remarkably, nothing broke.

Tesla’s luxury car weighs 4,700 pound, and with 700 pounds of people and stuff, it was not exactly well-suited to the trip.

Really, any normal adventure seeker would have chosen a high-riding, four-wheel-drive vehicle, and this all-electric safari was about as sketchy as long solo journeys of early 20th century drivers who’d set out in primitive gas cars without certainty or support.

“The Tesla would have liked to have turned around and driven back,” said Denmon, noting that if Tesla Motors ever wants to sell into Latin America and Central America, it will need more ride height.

“Its not like you are driving a Corvette over speed bumps,” said Denmon, but despite being far from the ideal ride, the car “just took the beating and went on.”

Somewhere in Costa Rica.

Somewhere in Costa Rica.

“I was really never worried about the Tesla,” he said of the scuffing. What he did dread was if they rounded a corner and ran into a cow in the road, or “crazy drivers” who might also take them out, or something as random as a smashed windshield or mechanical failure.

Nights were usually spent in $40 hotels, but a few times they did find a western-style hotel. Everywhere they went, they had to find a place to plug in.

“Of the 18 nights we charged, I paid four or five times,” said Denmon. “Twice it was $50, extortion, but I paid. The other two or three times it was $15 to $20. Everybody else let us charge for free.”

A couple of times they were down to 30-some miles range before they found a place to pull over and charge.

“Only two days did we have 240-volt, 25-30 amp power. Most days were 240 volt, either 13 amp or 18 amp,” he said, and three times they could only find 120 volts to slowly recharge.

Back in the ‘States, Tesla makes available a high power home charging unit rated at 80 amps that might deliver 60-70-plus amps of 240-volt current. And Superchargers are even quicker.

If high amps sends electricity into the battery like a virtual fire hose, what Denmon and Lewis relied on to replenish their Model S was usually more like a garden hose, or sometimes a squirt gun.

Charging from a kitchen in Guatemala.

Charging from a kitchen in Guatemala.

“Twice, we wired directly to 240-volt power without a plug,” he said. One time a hotel electrician rigged the connection, another time Denmon did it.

Another time they found a 240-volt stove, unplugged it, and plugged in one of the adapters Denmon had made for the trip.

“That was actually probably my best charge,” he said. “I found in a kitchen they had a 30-amp GE plug, a nice American 30-amp plug.”

As you might imagine a lot of time was eaten up charging the car at low current.

Stopped by a windmill farm in Nicaragua.

Stopped by a wind turbine farm in Nicaragua.

As for food, Denmon said he wound up eating light, and did not get much meat.

“I lost 10 pounds,” he said, adding he was more concerned to avoid “Montezuma’s revenge.”

Panama

Considering Tesla has stepped back from Denmon and Lewis as though they ran off the reservation, certainly their risk tolerance is above the bull’s-eye of the California EV maker’s targeted demographic. What they did was probably an order of magnitude more risky than traipsing coast-to-coast via the Supercharger route –– or the East Coast run done last year by New York Times reporter, John Broder, which Tesla did set up, then later regretted.

Crossing into Panama.

Crossing into Panama.

“We certainly had some days where we had some doubts whether we would proceed,” recounted Denmon, “But we just kept motoring along and hopped out of the jungle in Panama which is really where the road ends. You can’t go any further than Panama. You have to ship the car around to get to South America.”

While they’d thought about the trip for months, the unsupported journey had purposely been a fly by the seat of the pants excursion.

All OK in Panama.

All OK in Panama.

“We didn’t even know we were going to make it. We just hopped across the border,” Denmon said, excusing Tesla for not offering a comment about the harrowing trip. “I look back on it and I’m kind of surprised we did make it.”

After realizing it would be too complicated to go farther than the Panama Canal, they gave the Model S to a shipper and boarded an airplane for a flight via Houston to Louisiana.

They got back last Sunday, and the Model S will be delayed by customs maybe 10-12 days, and might get back after a month.

Panama Canal

Their journey was also documented on a FaceBook page setup by Lewis.

You can check that, and look also for a book when Denmon writes it with much more detail, and assuming he has time between his next trip to where the faint of heart dare not tread, and officially not recognized by Tesla.