Running on Empty

Running on Empty

Date sent: Mon, 06 May 96
From: Gary Kline (
I was in the USAF, stationed at Travis AFB in Northern California, with a new assignment to Germany (spring of '86). Rather than having my car shipped from the West coast (which would've taken an extra two weeks), I decided it would be fun to make a cross country trip by car. It just so happened that an acquaintance of mine, Ed Bagley, had to go TDY (temporary duty) to Illinois at the same time, so we drove together in my '79 Honda Prelude. Our plan would be for one to drive while the other one slept, and vice versa, making excellent time doing non-stop driving.

There are two major routes to take across the USA, namely I-80 or I-70. To me, I-70 seemed like a more interesting and easy going route. The first leg of it required being on Route 50, that goes through Nevada, to later link up with the main thruway.

By the time we reached the border of California and Nevada, it was nightfall. The car had a little less than 3/4 of a tank of gas, I had been driving most of the way so far, and it was Ed's turn to drive. I slept as best I could in those cramped little seats of my Prelude, as Ed sipped from a cup of coffee to keep awake.

About three hours later, I woke up. We were in the desert, by the strongest sense of the word. It was pitch dark, with nothing to see but the headlight-illuminated bleak stretch of roadway in front of us and the brilliance of stars gleaming on the horizon. Oh yes, and the speedometer cluster was glowing too, a weird red color that conflicted with the green lights from the side dashboard switches (I had replaced the green instrument lens with red because I thought it would look more like a BMW dash). On it, I noticed the gas gauge was pointing about a millimeter above the "E" line, and asked Ed if he'd seen a gas station anywhere. "Gas station? There's nothing out here, Gary. Absolutely nothing. I haven't seen anything for the past two hours, other than the ocassional porch light of a lone shack on the side of the road!"

I checked the map against Ed's last recollection of a town line sign post, and it looked like we were midway through Nevada. Oh man! My worst fears of being trapped in the desert were about to come true. I had no idea that route 50 would be such a lone highway for so long. We pulled over, and I took the wheel (I don't know why, I just felt like if I had control of the wheel we'd somehow get out of this mess). The gauge was resting dutifully on "E", and a soft yellow glow began to emanate from the "low gas" indicator. At that point, I estimated that we had about 50 miles at best before we were out of fuel.

After 25 miles at 50mph (to conserve fuel) and still nothing in sight, I pulled over and emptied a bottle of dry gas into the tank to help out our plight, delaying the inevitable. We got back on the road, continuing the subtle cruise just below the speed limit. A set of headlights appeared in the distance behind, which eventually caught up and passed us. It was an old "Woodie" like van with gas cans strapped along the sides and back of it. And here we were in my little Japanese rice burner sipping at the bottom of a tiny 13 gallon tank. Oh, we're screwed for sure, I thought.

45 miles into the reserve fuel, the needle barely below "E" and the low gas indicator burning bright with urgency, we spotted a small mining town of some sort in the distance. I slowed down, passing several small buildings looking for a ray of hope, when a dark gas station showed up on the left. It was a "Power Test", but was obviously closed. A patron of a local bar (the only lighted building in town) was pulling out of a parking lot across the street to the right, and I waved for him to stop. He obliged, and I asked him if he knew of ANY place where we could get gas. "Well, Charlie runs that gas station over there. If you ring the bell, he might be able to help." I thanked the guy and he drove off.

It was your typical out-of-the-way small town gas station, with aging pumps and old style markings. A little note taped behind the glass door entrance read "Gas available. Ring bell and I'll come down. $15 minimum." So, I rang the bell. The station was attached to a two story house, with no lights on whatsoever. After a few moments, I rang the bell again. A voice called out "Take it easy, I'm comin'!" A light came on in the second floor shaded window, and a shadow moved around behind it. Two minutes later, a guy appeared at the side window next to the station door and startled me (he didn't turn on any lights there). "What kind of gas?" he asked. "Super Unleaded would be fine." "Don't have it. You'll have to settle for Unleaded Plus." I almost burst out laughing, considering our despirate situation, "OK, no problem." "$15 minimum purchase, no matter how much gas you take," he reminded me. I had absolutely NO problem with that.

Ed leaned up against the car, smiling, as I fueled up my Prelude, the gas tank eagerly taking on the new load. The trigger clicked at $13.76, and I force fed the tank until it swallowed to the $14 mark. Putting the nozzle back in it's holster, I made my way back to the window where the gas station owner waited patiently. "That'll be $15, sir." I insisted that he take $17 for his trouble, after all it was almost midnight and we woke the poor guy up. "No, $15 is all I'll take" and he shoved the other two dollars back through the slot to me. "But..." "Thanks and have a safe trip" was the last thing he said as he disappeared into the dark, returning to his dwelling for the night.

Ed and I were absolutely stoked. We had enough fuel to get us through Utah! If it hadn't been for that gas station owner offering his services like he did, we would've had to sleep in the car until the station opened in the morning, losing precious time. I couldn't help but smile at how fate, God, or whatever gave us such fortunate circumstances. And I learned my lesson about "planning things through" for the next time I traveled.

About a day and half later, we were in Illinois, where I dropped Ed off and slept in the base billeting from 9am to 5pm. I got back on the road after eating dinner at around 8pm, and made my way on towards NY through the night. By 3pm in the afternoon the next day, I was home. I couldn't believe the whole trip only took 3.5 days! I ate a hearty dinner that night, raised a glass in thanks for a safe trip and an obliging ol' gas station owner who unknowingly rescued me out of a tight spot, and slept long and hard into the next day. The next time I travel cross country, IF I ever do it again, I'm definitely going to take my time and stick to the major routes!

Gary Kline

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