Longest Route To The Gas Station

When the pump is elusive and all options are exhausted, it's not always the end of the road | Jane Esaki photo

When the pump is elusive and all options are exhausted, it’s not always the end of the road | Jane Esaki photo

I once ran out of gas in a busy, dark, narrow, one-way underpass in the middle of a U.S. metropolis on the way to daycare and work. That was eons ago, but what still stands out is the image of the cop scratching his head and muttering as he drove my toddler son and me out of that mess: “You women think you can run on air.”

Much later in life, I find that I still think I can.

I am on a road trip crossing seven states with an acquaintance who is driving a brand-new car home to Seattle. The only downside is that we would have to do it in seven days — not much time when one of the states is big, ol’ Texas.

To save on time, I have to do my part and drive. My friend has been driving for hours through Texas and Arizona, and just before Phoenix, he asks me to take over the wheel while he tends to some urgent phone calls. Just as we are passing the city limits, he interrupts one of the calls to say that we should fill up on gas soon.

“OK,” I answer, making a mental note to look for highway signs indicating a gas station. The high-tech electronic mileage reading under the dashboard says 91 miles left in the tank. A few minutes later, a highway sign says 79 miles to the next pump. No problem then, we have about a dozen miles to spare.

So while my friend is preoccupied on his cell, I keep driving — driving into a major predicament, that is. When my friend finally gets off the phone, he looks over at the needle on the gas gauge, now hovering dangerously near the red line, and then at the electronic reading of 19 miles left. He tells me that 19 miles should get us to the next gas station if the reading was true, but it’s only an estimation based on previous driving variables.

Uh oh.

At this point, we could run out of gas whether we turn back or continue. And with at least 1,000 miles to go, he also needs to make the time. I employ every gas-saving trick we know, but with no options left, I am hopeful and optimistic.

“I think we’ll make it,” this hang-loose Kauai wahine blithely thinks aloud. He remains silently fixed on the miles and miles of cacti and snakes up ahead, and how night temperatures will reach below zero if we get stranded.

We keep our eyes focused for any glimpse of civilization. Any shiny glimmer in the distance appears like an off-ramp sign, when in fact it is like a mirage of an oasis to a thirsty traveler.

The needle on the gas gauge is now clearly on empty. It doesn’t matter what the electronic reading says anymore. Then, when we least expect it, we pass an old, beat-up off-ramp sign. But it’s indecipherable. We do a thorough scan of the area surrounding the next off-ramp and in the distance, we notice a small nondescript structure. It’s no hallucination this time — it’s probably the gas station, 79 miles later!

I get off the highway and sure enough, it is! My friend instructs me to keep the pedal steady and to swerve around the last corner before the station. I’m no Richard Petty, so I decelerate.

Thanking my lucky stars, I drive right up to the pump. The lights in the building are on, but is the station still open for business? My friend walks in and comes back out with a pack of beef jerky and water and hands them to me but doesn’t say much. After filling up, however, he is pleased to announce that the car chugged way more than its technical capacity — which means we had been running on fumes!

Sounds sort of familiar, like the sentiment of the aforementioned cop who bailed me out. Only this time, we made it — with the help of an educated guess, a few tactics, hope and optimism.

Those tricks sure could’ve come in handy before going through a busy, dark, narrow, one-way underpass.