Harris Ranch lassos a new breed -- Tesla owner -- with charging station

Harris Ranch draws a herd of Tesla owners with a perfectly placed battery-charging station

Along this stretch of Interstate 5, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, pickup trucks outnumber cars, radios usually pick up only Spanish-language and country music stations, and the state's largest beef-cattle feed lot is within sniffing distance.

Then there are the Teslas. Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant, a landmark at this Central Valley crossroads, is drawing the pricey electric cars like cows to a salt lick.

About half of all Teslas — and 40% of all plug-in cars — are registered in California. So far, that amounts to only 100,000 cars out of 13.2 million. If California is to succeed in its effort to help solve the climate change crisis by edging the nation off fossil fuels, it's going to need to get more Volts, Leafs, Smart cars, BMWi3s and Teslas on the highway fast, many advocates argue.

A well-placed charging station is essential to this effort, even as electric cars evolve beyond 200-mile ranges. So far the state has about 6,300 charging stations. The goal is to have at least 100,000 to support 1.5 million zero- and near-zero-emission vehicles by 2025. The unlikely scene unfolding in the heart of California oil country may be cause for electric car boosters to feel optimistic.

On a recent Harris Ranch stop, Arthur Mrozowski paused on his way out of the restaurant to snap a photo of four Teslas sitting in a row.

"It's a change to see that many in one place," said Mrozowski, managing partner of Silicon Hill Ventures in Los Gatos. "But it makes sense. It's a natural stopping place. When I'm coming from the Bay Area meeting film producers from L.A., it's two hours for both of us."

Mrozowski said Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told him Tesla was also building a fast battery-swap station at Harris Ranch.

It was already there, occupying an old carwash, partly hidden by a bustling Shell gas station across from the charging station. Tesla said the goal of the pilot battery-swap program is to get drivers back on the road in less than three minutes for about the price of a tank of gasoline.

Tesla fans have been posting photos of the station since January, but it's not yet open to the public, and so far no customers have actually experienced the service.

For now it's the "Supercharger" station that has road-tripping Teslas crisscrossing in this parking lot. A charge takes about half an hour.

Harris Ranch waitress Erika Cabrera said she can often spot the Tesla owners because they put their cellphones displaying the charging app right at the edge of the table.

"It's like they want you to say 'wow' and ask a lot of questions," Cabrera said.

She said she'd be more curious, but her brother Ernie, who works as a dispatcher for the California Highway Patrol, drives a Tesla.

A few months back, the charging station at Harris Ranch was down for two days.

"Tesla paid a tow truck driver $30 an hour to sit here and drink buckets of iced tea," said bartender Michael Escola. "They knew that people depend on charging here."

When this stretch of the interstate opened in 1972, it was a lonely route that bypassed Central Valley towns. It was drivers who ran out of gas who needed a tow truck driver.

John and Janice Dubiel were charging up as they ordered soup. It was part of their weekly commute between a Corcoran prison where John works as a dentist and their home in a Southern California beach town. They said it was safest not to be more specific. Sometimes prisoners get angry with their dentist, he said.

John claimed to have never before cared about a car "other than it got from point A to point B." He said they bought the electric car out of practicality.

"We were spending $1,000 a month in gas. And we have these innovative friends who are ahead of their time: They have a solar house and raise chickens and own a Tesla. They gave us the idea," he said.

The rest of his comments did not center on practicality. "Accelerates like a bat out of hell," he pointed out.

"Please do not mention the color of our Tesla," Janice said. "They're going to be looking to give us a ticket."

Larry Kaplan, a retired aerospace engineer, and his wife, Marie, a master gardener and rose expert, were settled in a booth in front of two Harris Ranch steaks. They were on their way to a funeral and had carefully plotted their charging points before leaving their solar-powered home in Henderson, Nev.

They cited concern for the environment and U.S. foreign-policy decisions based on foreign-oil dependence as reasons for driving a Tesla. But Marie also praised the "frunk."

"All that space in front where there would usually be an engine," she explained.

Larry said it was impossible to stop in the Central Valley — with some of the worst air pollution in the country — without thinking about the need for a cleaner form of transportation than gas and diesel engines.

But for Tesla to make a real difference, he said, the price — as high as $104,000 — would have to drop, as the company has promised.

"I didn't wait, because I'm 75, I had some stock that did well, and I wanted one," he said. "But Tesla automobiles don't use any gasoline or oil, and they need to become affordable because in numbers they would make a difference. Especially to somewhere like the Central Valley."

John Harris, owner of Harris Farms, said he hadn't really heard of Tesla when the company asked about leasing land for charging stations some eight years ago.

"I'm a climate-change denier, so an electric car wasn't high on my list," said Harris, whose interests lean more toward fast horses than cars. (Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome was born on the ranch.)

Now Tesla owners are regulars, and Harris said he likes it.

"We've got a little bit of everything," he said. "It adds to the cachet of the place."

At the bar, construction manager Butch Dickson ordered an extra cheese roll with his creamy pasta, then brownies and ice cream. Oil field manager Brian Lovelace bought a friend a beer. The bartender told a story about country singer Eric Church autographing one of his black alligator cowboy boots.

Outside, the Central Valley's infamous tule fog rose from fields and pistachio groves. Cattle-hauling trailers and big rigs rumbled off a highway entrance.

In the parking lot, three more Teslas were hitched to the charging station, their owners inside, somewhere in the mix.

Times staff writer Charles Fleming in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

diana.marcum@latimes.com

Twitter: @DianaMarcum

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