Thursday, September 4, 2014

Running on Empty

This Labor Day weekend, my girlfriend decided on an impromptu visit to some of her family in Nevada. Between being stuck on the islands of Guam and Hawaii for 10 years, and two 3300+ mile driving adventures to Alaska and back again, 7 hour road trips are nothing to me.

We hopped in the Explorer and headed out. I made sure I filled up the tank before we left and used a gas finder app to determine the cheapest place to get gas was Fernley, NV, a small town about halfway to our destination. I stopped and filled up on gas (and Cinnabon aroma). Based on my mileage, I figured I’d be able to get by on that tank until we returned on our way back home.

After a fun filled couple of days where I shredded my palms in an unfortunate motor bike incident (another day… another day) we headed back. We were good on gas and had plenty of Starbucks, so I whizzed by several towns. We stopped at a McDonalds in Lovelock, NV for a potty break and I contemplated getting gas. I looked at my app, and Fernley was still 10 cents cheaper, and right down the road. Well, kinda.

Back in the day, before all the on-board computers and electronic displays calculated up to the second vehicle statuses, there were analog fuel gauges. One of the things many of us discovered (either willingly, or not) exactly how far you could go when the needle was on “E”. This was more of an art than a science. With analog gauges, you couldn’t tell exactly how above or below “E” the needle actually was. Sure there was the “hey dummy, you’re almost out of gas” warning light, but even than was fairly arbitrary. When it came on, it still didn’t tell you how far you could go. The only real way to find out was to go until the car sputtered and you were walking down the highway, gas can in hand.

Cars today offer mileage estimators, and the majority of those will also tell you how many more miles you can drive before empty. This takes the guesswork (and fun, one could argue) out of how far you can go before the tank goes dry.

Now, I’ve always had a theory that automakers know that men like to drive the cars they manufacture, and men are idiots. So, the manufacturers secretly make the gas tanks a little bigger than the manual says and adjust the gauges so when it says empty, you still have about a gallon left. Keeping this in mind, let us return to the story.

We left the McDonalds, resisting the urge to grab an apple pie, and headed back on the interstate. While dreaming of all the wonderful things I planned to do with the $1.63 I saved by forgoing the gas in Lovelock, I noticed the green “miles to” sign. At the top of the list was “Fernley 57 miles”. I glanced at my display. “Miles to Empty: 58”.

Uh oh.

I told my girlfriend that it was a little further than I thought and maybe I should turn around and get a few gallons just in case. She agreed. This was the last ration thought I had for the next 57 miles.

Five miles down the road it became clear that there might not be anywhere to exit and turn around. There were a couple “Emergency Vehicles Only” gravel turnarounds, but last I checked, I wasn’t driving an ambulance. At the 45 miles to Fernley point, my car suddenly became thirstier and dropped to 40 miles to empty. Instead of a mile to spare, I now had a 5 mile deficit. About 20 miles down the road, there was an exit. Did I mention I’m male?

I ignored the exit, (ir)rationally thinking that turning around would use almost as much gas and proceeding down the road. This would not only deprive me of $1.63, it would also add 40 minutes to our journey (NOTE: Proving God has a sense of humor, traffic from Reno to Tahoe added 100 minutes to our journey). Comforted by the fact that my Explorer had closed the miles to empty gap by three, I pressed on. My Girlfriend and 20yr old daughter in the back didn’t say anything, bless them, but I could tell eyes were rolled when I wasn’t looking.

One of the reasons behind my decision to press on was believing that surely there must be a lone gas station in the middle of these two towns (NOTE: There are no lone gas stations between towns in Nevada). 20 miles out, my explorer resumed guzzling and the deficit grew to six. I dropped the speed to 65 to conserve gas. I even tried drafting behind a Semi, but they rudely insisted on going the speed limit.

10 miles out, I dropped down to 60 and cut off the A/C. If my gas gauge were a TV show, it would have been number one in ratings.

5 miles out, and my car was officially on empty. Time to put my theory to the test. We passed a sign, which cruelly mocked us. “Fernley next 3 exits”. Being very experienced in road trips, I knew when you see a sign like that, it really means “The only exit that has any stuff worth stopping for is the middle one”. After roughly 5 minutes of panic, I saw our salvation. We resisted the urge to cheer, because we weren’t quite at the gas station yet, and could stall at any time. As if someone in the universe was trying to make a point, a Semi slowly rolled to a stop ahead of us. There wasn’t a stop sign, just a yield, but the Semi stopped anyway despite there being no incoming traffic. If we ran out of gas, coasting wouldn’t be an option if the big rig didn’t move.

We coasted into the gas station and breathed a sigh of relief. It was pretty packed and I realized how fortunate we were to have an open pump. The bright side to all of this was that it was my girlfriend’s turn to pay.

I guess I should follow most my blog post’s theme and follow this with something meaningful; tying this story into a life lesson. Even though my fuel gauge read empty, my car still eeked out another 5 miles. When you feel like you’re running on empty, just remember that all is not lost. There’s a little reserve in all of us that can get us to the next gas station to refill and regroup.

Oh, and men are idiots.