Mission: Possible
Dennis Weaver wants to save the planet. Hydrogen, he believes, just might do the trick. On a road trip down Route 66, Weaver spreads the word

By Todd Runestad
Photos by Ted Wood

Dennis Weaver has seen the future. In it, the world is at peace, the nation prosperous, the people secure, the environment pristine. Today the two of us are driving toward his vision, east out of Las Vegas into the desert morning. We're going at a mile-a-minute clip in a car that once was the stuff of science fiction. The road ahead of us is a 1,300-mile "Drive for Life," its mission literally to change the nature of how we travel.

It's as easy as creating energy from water. It's also as hard.

Weaver made a name for himself first in the TV series Gunsmoke, then in McCloud as the unconventional detective from Taos who was transplanted to New York City to save its citizens, one life at a time. Today, Weaver is working to save the planet, one car at a time. As the founder of the Institute of Ecolonomics—the moniker a melding of ecology and economics—he is dedicated to creating a sustainable culture that is hydrogen-based. On this sun-spangled day, tooling down historic Route 66, the original commerce link between Chicago and L.A., Weaver is spreading the gospel from behind the wheel of a new breed of automobile, a hydrogen-powered SUV.

Now 77, Weaver is a genuine, soft-spoken, tall drink of water. In Hollywood as well as on this weeklong odyssey, he comes across as sincere and distinctively powerful. You do not simply believe a Dennis Weaver performance. You trust it.

So when he says we must change from an oil-based lifestyle to one that's hydrogen-based, I believe him. And when he says the reasons are as much economic as environmental, I nod approvingly. And when he tells me why, I listen.

"Practically every environmental problem we have is because of the kinds of energy we are now using to support our economy." "I've been walking around on this planet for quite a few years, and I've seen some very troublesome changes," he says. The sun rising ahead of us colors the eastern horizon a magnificent magenta. I don't yet consider that the richness of hue is at least partially due to prodigious automobile emissions from Las Vegas, the fastest-growing city in the United States. "When I was a kid we never heard of the word smog, we never heard the words acid rain or global warming or ozone depletion. Practically every environmental problem we have is because of the kinds of energy we are now using to support our economy. We have the ability to move away from our addiction to fossil fuels. We need to make the kind of choices that will take us there."

Weaver is not alone in his thinking, and that's good news. Over the weekend we spent in Vegas, beyond the neon glow of the Strip and the human tides of winners and losers, every automobile manufacturer in the world was testing and showcasing their latest technological advances toward the day when cars will run on clean, efficient fuels.

More than 60 models were there, mostly prototypes powered by natural gas, electricity and solar energy, plus a handful of hybrids already on the market, such as the dual-fuel Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, which seamlessly switch from gas to electric for maximum mileage and next-to-no emissions. A few notables run on hydrogen—Weaver's answer to true energy independence.

Fueling The Dream
To say the hydrogen molecule is in abundant supply is an understatement: It makes up 90 percent of the universe. Since the 1960s, NASA has been using hydrogen to power rocket ships. Hydrogen fuel cells chemically combine with other hydrogen and oxygen gases to form electricity. The exhaust is water—two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen—water so pure it is circulated from the exhaust to holding tanks to serve as drinking water for the astronauts.

The bad news is, it's not quite as easy as taking the hydrogen from water. That, I'm told, is akin to developing a perpetual motion machine, which sounds possible in theory, but remains lodged in the realm of science fiction.

Down on Earth, all the experts and engineers tell me that hydrogen fuel cells will one day power cars, planes, buildings and homes. "That's the way you're going to solve all your various national security and environmental problems, by using hydrogen in a fuel-cell vehicle," says Sandy Thomas, president of H2Gen Innovations Inc., a fuel-cell manufacturer in Alexandria, Va. "Fuel cells are the ideal environmental energy source. By the end of the decade we'll have decent commercialization of fuel cells."

More than a modern-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Weaver finds enthusiasts like Thomas at every stop of his drive. In Kingman, Ariz., a crowd of retirees who remember Weaver as Chester from Gunsmoke take a look under the hood and at the "reformer," a transitional piece of technology the size of a suitcase that separates the 55 percent hydrogen from unleaded gasoline. In Flagstaff, Ariz., where one in five students at Northern Arizona University graduates with an environmental-related degree, Weaver is bestowed with the key to the city. At the Clean Air Festival in Denver, the eastern terminus of the road trip, Weaver receives a hero's welcome. The festival is swarming with hundreds of people and dozens of booths sponsored by the alternative-fuel community.

"Everybody emphasizes the environment when they think of me. But believe me, I'm equally concerned about the economy, because both of them are essential if we are to create a sustainable future," Weaver says. "We're not inventors, we're not businesspeople. We connect inventors and scientists with people who have the ability to get 'ecolonomic' products to consumers. That's what this drive across the country is all about."

The Role Of A Lifetime
That Weaver wants to improve the planet, and maybe help us evolve a half-step as a species along the way, is not as important as why. He talks about how the environment has deteriorated in front of his eyes over the decades, how a 1992 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists spoke of "irreparable harm" to the planet unless we change our ways. "You can fix and fix and fix that which is outside of us—our environment, our industry, whatever—but if you don't fix what's inside, that which is outside will just get broken again. But for someone to transcend checkbook environmentalism and start an institute designed to build bridges to the business community; for someone to construct and live off the electricity grid in an adobe-style Earthship made from tin cans and car tires in southwest Colorado; for someone to sit in the driver's seat at the head of a parade of alternative-fuel cars cruising across the country to promote the cause indicates a deeply felt understanding of every person's interdependence with the rest of the world. Weaver and his wife of 56 years, Gerry, are living sustainable lives, in a sustainable house, pushing a sustainable economy for a sustainable cause.

"To me it all boils down to consciousness," he says. "There needs to be a tremendous shift in the collective consciousness of the whole world, away from hate and greed and fear and toward peace. We need to shift toward an awareness of our connectedness. You can fix and fix and fix that which is outside of us—our environment, our industry, whatever—but if you don't fix what's inside, that which is outside will just get broken again. I think spirituality is the true answer to all our problems, for us to grow in a spiritual way and realize we share each others' pain and joy and we're all connected, we're all together, we're all one big family."

Strong stuff. And simple, too. Like hydrogen itself. Weaver speaks of acting as a link between inventors and enablers, and he may be a bit of both himself. For now, life is as simple as driving a small fleet of 21st century cars in search of a better tomorrow.

As for the future? Dennis Weaver, genial and optimistic, opens the passenger door of a hydrogen-powered car on a high school campus in Gallup, N.M. "Hop on in," he says, his voice soft, his eyes fixed into the middle distance, sparkling. "There's plenty of room."

And away we go.

Todd Runestad lives in Boulder, Colo., where he puts more miles on his bicycle than on his car.