MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Logan Duran’s trip home to Illinois after spring semester finals could be a bumpy ride that smells a lot like french fries.

But there won’t be any squabbles about chipping in for gas money among his friends – the group plans to fuel the converted school bus they’re driving cross-country with used vegetable oil from cafeterias and fast food restaurants.

Duran and about a dozen of his Middlebury College classmates want to make an environmental statement while having some fun as they head off for summer.

“There are creative solutions to environmental problems,” said Duran, 20, of Winnetka, Ill. “Though they may take a little work, ultimately they’ll benefit people in the end. Just because it’s different or it’s an unusual solution doesn’t mean it’s any more difficult.”

The group plans to leave Vermont Tuesday, aiming to arrive in Conway, Wash., by June 11 – with plenty of stops in between to drop off classmates and do some rock climbing.

Along the way, they’ll be keeping an eye out for restaurants – not gas stations – to get them there. Based on a few trial runs in Vermont before their departure, the students are optimistic about their prospects, said Thomas Hand, 19, of Dorset, who first came up with the idea to fuel their road trip with vegetable oil instead of gas.

“We stopped at a McDonald’s and they came up and said, ‘What can we get for you?’ and we said, ‘Actually we were wondering if we could get all your vegetable oil.’ And they said, ‘What do you want it for?”‘ Hand recalled. “And then we pointed and said, ‘We’re running that bus there on vegetable oil.’ And he said, ‘You can’t be serious.”‘

They are. The students say they want to combine their post-finals road trip – a college rite of passage – with an educational message. Emissions from burning vegetable oil are not nearly as polluting as those from burning diesel fuel, Hand said.

“It’s an energy source that comes from the United States; it’s being self-sufficient,” he said. “Also, it’s free. It’s using some resource that was going to be thrown away.”

They shouldn’t have much trouble drawing attention to themselves on the highway, cruising no faster than 55 mph in their colorful vehicle with “Powered by Veggie Oil” painted on the back.

“You could say it’s a hippie bus; we get some interesting looks and when people see it’s running on vegetable oil, you get a lot of honks,” he said.

“Anytime we stop, people come up and say, ‘Is it really running on vegetable oil? How does that work?”‘

The Middlebury students are not the first to fuel their wheels with vegetable oil. Activist Joshua Tickell drove some 25,000 miles in a recreation vehicle on his “Veggie Van USA” tours in the late 1990s.

The students, several of whom are environmental studies majors, say they’ve read travel logs from Tickell’s journeys to help them prepare. But they add that their adventure – in a vehicle chosen because it was the biggest thing they could find and drive – will be unique.

“None of them have been this many people,” said Julia Proctor, 19, a theater major from Rangeley, Maine sporting a “Veggies Give Us Gas” T-shirt.

And their objective goes beyond education too – they’ll attend a high school graduation, visit some popular climbing spots and relax with friends. They just might want to keep those bus windows down though, and not only because there’s no air conditioning.

“It smells a little bit like whatever it was used to fry – sometimes you get onion rings, french fries, chicken patties,” Hand said.

On Monday, the students transferred gallons of vegetable oil they’d received from a Middlebury dining hall into a vat stored on board the bus. It was just another detail in their trip preparations, along with coordinating a final departure time.

Still, the trek could be a chancy one – the converted school bus they found for only $1,500 will have nearly 200,000 miles on it before it even leaves Vermont.

“There’s serious potential that the bus will break down, but that’s part of the whole adventure,” Duran said. “I don’t think it’s going to break down because of the vegetable oil issues; it would break down because it’s an old bus.”

Whatever happens, people will be able to read about it on the Internet. The students plan to keep people posted on their adventures through journal entries and photographs, so friends and others can follow their travels and learn more about alternative energy.

“It’s part of an adventure we’ll remember for the rest of our lives hopefully,” Duran said.

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