Have you ever realized the gas gauge is hovering on empty… and find yourself wishing your tank was half-full because there is no gas station in sight? Yeah. Me either.
Actually, there was this one time…
I’d been driving across the country for a while now. So I’d had lots of time to build up habits. Like searching for the next gas station when my tank is half-full.
But, the Canadian prairies are EMPTY.
Nothing but rows and rows of corn to lull you to sleep at the wheel.
My habit felt less like a safety rope and more like a chain.
Don’t get me wrong! On the scale of “I know my car” (gauge is on empty) and “better fill up now!” (tank is half full) I usually fill up at the halfway point. So my habit really meant that I’d start looking for the next station when my gauge reached halfway… and, stop at the cheapest one before a quarter of a tank.
But, the drive felt like an endless monotony…. I WANTED to be done. The simplest solution seemed to be: stretch the gas tank. After all, fewer stops meant I’d get to more ‘interesting’ territory sooner.
My first stop: a desolate gas station. Similar to this one… minus (of course!) the cactus and the windmill.
The gravel crunched under my car as I pulled off at an ancient gas station. Half a tank.
I wanted to drive on. I wanted to get somewhere more interesting. So I picked up my navigator and scrolled along the map. Several miles down the road there was another gas station. I’d be stretching my tank pretty far… but, the gas was MUCH cheaper.
Have I mentioned now thrifty I am? Well, you should know. I’m thrifty. VERY thrifty!
With a shrug, I pulled back onto the highway (all two lanes of it) and set the cruise again.
The prairies turned to… well, more prairies and the sun began to fade. I tapped the steering wheel and scanned the horizon. My turn was coming up; but, there was no town in sight. My brow knit together.
Then, there it was! A dirt road headed into the fields. My navigator commanded that I turn left.
It seemed sketchy…Sure! But, my navigator has always gotten me there. We’ve been through so much together. Surely my best bud wouldn’t lead me astray!
Hardy-har-har…. It’s just an algorithm. Not a bud. I countered.
All the more reason it should be correct. Maybe there is something over that little hill… thing… bump? It’s hard to argue with myself. I get easily distracted. But, sometimes I win.
Five minutes down the road my gas gauge hovered on empty and my navigator proudly proclaimed that I’d arrived.
The prairie continued to stretch around me. Endlessly. No neon signs. No tanks. Nothing.
I inhaled. Slowly I exhaled. Then, I picked up my phone. The next nearest station (along my route) was at least 30 miles away.
My fingers drummed a beat against the steering wheel. It’s too far to risk…
The sun sunk lower. Bloody streaks of dying light spilled across the fields in its wake.
There was only one real choice. Go back. I’d just have to hope I could make it to the station I’d passed 20 minutes ago.
The dirt crunched under my car as I made a careful 5 point turn to get back to the highway.
“You’re doing everything you can.” I reminded myself out loud as my fingers clenched the steering wheel. “Just breathe.” I unclenched my grip and dropped my shoulders.
A minute later my knuckles had turned white. I drummed my fingers against the top of the steering wheel to relax my grip. “You’re doing everything you can…. Just breathe.”
A minute later. “Relax.”
And, another minute later, again! There was no way you’ll get to the gas station any faster by hunching over the steering wheel.
I commanded my shoulders to press back against my seat. Breathe!
Finally, the turn arrived. Three massive gas tanks rose like dark monoliths from the flat prairie onto the fading light. I exhaled as I pulled up to the first pump.
I flexed my fingers then popped out of the car. The chilly night air was heavy with that rich, earthy smell of the nearby fields.
The gas station was like nothing I’ve ever seen. There was no building (or attendant) in sight. A few ATM type machines sat between the pumps, their neon light spilling across the gravel.
I shoved my hands into my pockets, eyed the machines, and then pulled out my credit card. With a click, I slid it into the ‘ATM’ machine slot.
“Invalid.” Puzzled I pulled my card out, wiped it off (just in case!), and then ran it again.
“Invalid.” I chewed on my lip. This can’t be happening…
My second credit card slid it into the slot. “Invalid.” I wiped it.
“Invalid.” My blood ran cold.
My debit card: “Invalid!”
I shot a panicked glance around the desolate gas station. Beyond that, I could see all two lanes of the highway. Empty.
My heart dropped out of my chest. I turned to look at my car.
My reflection stared back at me from the car window. There were no easy answers in that empty gaze.
As I climbed back into the warmth of my car I heard a rumble. Against all odds, a steel grey truck crested the small hill and turned into the gas station. It parked just beyond the pumps and shut off its engine with a clank.
I paused. Why…? Who does that?
An ax murderer. Probably. My mind, which had been so excited minutes ago, was happy to supply a catastrophic reason.
The wind whipped around my car for a moment.
Really? Why would he have an ax? There are no trees here. Get it together! Ask for help.
I paused. Then I tried real reason: There is no way you can make it to that town you passed further back. If he can pump here, you can give him cash for the gas. Besides, odds are it’s a local farmer.
Before I could find more reasons an ax murderer would wait for their prey, at a gas station, in the middle of no-where, I flung my car door open and strode across the gravel.
As I raised my fingers to tap against the window I breathed a sigh of relief. Inside the truck, a dark-haired girl of 4 held a tablet in her cubby, cupid hands. She giggled at the cartoons dancing across the screen.
Her father jumped at my tap. His face tightened as he cracked the window to talk to me.
Do I look like an ax murderer?
I smiled in what was hopefully a comforting, non-ax-wielding way, and asked if he could help me with the gas.
It took a minute to understand what he was trying to tell me… but, then I got it. I couldn’t use these pumps because it was some sort of co-op for members only. To make matters worse, he couldn’t use them either. My heart sunk again.
He quickly added some good news. Just over 2 miles (about 4km) back the road he’d come from there was another station in a small town. “It is good. I know. I use it.” He supplied as he relaxed.
I repeated his directions back to him once, then again, and a third time. I (understandably) didn’t trust my navigator any more. Plus, I wasn’t sure I had enough gas for another attempt after this one…There was no room for error.
With a “Thank you so much!” I left him and his daughter to wait for his wife.
The sun was nearly gone from the horizon. A blistering red light gripped the last of the golden orb in a strangle-hold. Behind that, an icy blackness smothered the sky. I feathered the gas to pull out the dirt road he’d come down.
4 kilometers. It will be on the left.
3 kilometers. After the warehouse.
2 kilometers. Look for the tank.
It took an eternity.
Then, just as the sun succumbed to the red of night, I saw it! A small collection of buildings right where they were supposed to be.
The gas station: a single tank. The pumps: older than me. And the ATM machine looked unnervingly like the co-op’s.
There was no attendant in sight.
I gritted my teeth and attempted my card: “Invalid.” A thousand options spun through my mind like a firestorm.
Attempt to find another gas station. Rejected.
Walk back to the highway and flag down a trucker. The gloom gathered around me. A long shot.
Knock on one of these doors. I looked at the mobile homes around me. Risky? Yes. Best plan? Probably. Text family as backup. The cautious side of me warned.
I pushed my card into the slot: “Processing!”
Relief flooded through me in a rush of warmth as “Approved” lit up the screen.
While the gas pumped into my tank I leaned back against the car. The last of the warm, red sunset faded into the soft orange, pink, and happy blue of dusk.
As I climbed into my car, that same steel truck turned the corner. It slowed and I waved to the family. The father waved back before continuing on his way.
Once I got back on the highway I vowed to never again wait so long to fill up when driving across the Canadian prairies.
Here’s a picture from the exact moment I leaned back to take in the last of the sunset.
I found out later that the gas stations along Highway 7 often close early. Sometimes before 8 PM! Plus, since most of the pumps need an attendant, they usually shut down whenever the owner decides to get lunch that day.
Without a doubt, I was incredibly lucky to find a pump that didn’t need an attendant.
If you’re ever out that way… Remember: Always keep your tank at least half-full!