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The first time I knew our new Nissan Leaf was a dud came when I was stranded — with a nearly drained battery — in a St. Cloud parking lot, calling in on Zoom as a panelist at a turkey convention that I couldn't reach in time.

These are the kinds of gigs you get invited to as an agriculture journalist in Minnesota — and meeting farmers face-to-face is a crucial part of my job in understanding the communities I cover. So I'd left our home in Minneapolis bright and early to reach Alexandria, where I had planned to join the panel.

Driving our electric vehicle (EV) around Minnesota as a farm reporter over the prior two months had proven, well, adventurous. Our state does not yet have widespread adoption of electric charging infrastructure — and I've got the battle stories to prove it.

America says it wants more electric vehicles. And for good reason: Gas-guzzling is an addiction that is overheating our planet. This summer, the Biden administration rankled car dealers when it called for 75% new vehicles by 2032 to not carry any internal-combustion engines.

Now, after owning an EV more than six months — and using that vehicle for work as a journalist that involves predominantly driving across rural America — my personal experience suggests we're unprepared to help consumers successfully transition.

One question that emerges: Will EV become the Ford Pinto, a once-hyped car that soon fell out of favor?

EVs are a key part of our nation's energy transition, but the wide-open spaces of rural Minnesota present huge infrastructure hurdles. The Public Utilities Commission and outstate entities, such as Otter Tail Power, have acknowledged this to be true. But the current pace of building out stations is dampening the success.

The chargers are too far apart, too few and not universally well-maintained.

ZEF Energy, which runs a number of chargers in greater Minnesota, didn't return my phone call. Neither did the mayor of Sioux Falls, who rejected federal funds that would've helped build-out the city's charging infrastructure (the city currently boasts no fast-chargers for our Leaf).

There is progress in pockets. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's Brandy Toft, the band's environmental director, says it is building out more chargers on the reservation, which already has a fast-charger available at Northern Lights casino.

"The primary focus wasn't, 'Oh come spend your money,'" Toft said. "It's because I have a girlfriend who has a Leaf. She has small children. She's a single woman. The casino is brightly lit. It always has cameras. There are people there. There's food, shelter, whatever."

Still, for a lot of swaths of our state, parents may be concerned about buying a vehicle that could leave them stranded in a blizzard, trying to get their kid home from a hockey game or envisioning a late-night call for a tow truck after running out of juice after a piano recital.

Seeking electric oasis

My close calls weren't for lack of effort. I can recite the towns with our particular breed of fast-charger: Cannon Falls, Princeton, Hudson, Wis.

I've penciled out distances. Sixty miles to the charger behind the cute coffee shop in St. Peter? Can I reach the charger at Winona State or will I need to hop the Amtrak to get back home?

And yet here I was on that day in St. Cloud, just 60 miles from home. I'd triple-checked my app before the morning's two-hour drive to Alexandria (our car's range clocks in at roughly 175 miles). But my battery's percentage had dropped faster than a curling stone into a lake.

When I reached the fast-chargers — in Monticello and St. Cloud — one was blocked by an overnight parked car and the other didn't turn on.

I was stuck.

Soon, that sweaty-palmed reality gave way to plain-old embarrassment. I'd need to let the convention's organizers know I couldn't make it.

Fortunately, the turkey association's president, Ashley Kohls, phoned me and asked if I could call in remotely. But I felt, nevertheless, like the real turkey.

And I wish I could report my story was an anomaly as our country starts the transition to clean, emissions-free technology. But, at least for a lot of rural Americans, the EV future still feels fanciful.

I remember arriving at a Land O'Lakes farm in Cannon Falls, rolling in on fumes, sucking in my gut and saying a silent prayer.

I've chatted up a Ford F-150 Lightning driver from Brainerd in the Detroit Lakes liquor store parking lot about our common enemy: range anxiety. It's that same feeling as when you're about to run out of gas, but without a red pail of fuel that can bail you out.

Real-life EV hurdles

I've also heard the counterarguments. "My son-in-law drove the Eastern Seaboard in an EV and never had to sweat it." "We went leaf-peeping on the North Shore in our Tesla, and the only stress we had was whether to get blueberry or coconut cream at Betty's Pies."

I don't doubt these tales. But what's conveniently missing from all of these highway adventures: Commutes. Deliveries. Children. Winter.

I've yet to own our car in winter, when its efficiency drops, and already my wife prudently demands we use my parents' SUV when we travel out of town with our 16-month-old baby. We asked our friends, also owners of an EV, what they do when they travel north to a cabin in Ely.

Their response: "We just rent a car."

For now, I press on in my Leaf. On a recent evening, I headed north from Minneapolis, hoping to catch a sugar beet harvest the next morning. I needed a charge in Little Falls and pulled into a small park along the Mississippi River. When I opened my door, I was greeted by the dulcet sounds of a small brass ensemble coming from the picnic shelter.

"We play here every Tuesday night," an older gentleman told me, as I sat on a bench and listened to the hum of the horns — underscored quietly, rhythmically by the buzzing of my charging electric car in the parking lot.