I’ve owned a variety of cars over the past 36 years, from a 1967 Mustang to a 2014 Honda Civic. Most have been beaters, some have been more functional, a few have been good-looking or at least good-looking enough. What has been the same, no matter what kind of vehicle I’m behind the wheel of, is my recurring forgetfulness that internal combustion engines don’t, in fact, run on magic, but require a steady infusion of gasoline.
This truth manifested yet again during a late May drive from Ukiah to Point Arena. This is a 50-mile drive that takes about 90 minutes to complete, which should give you an idea of the kind of roads connecting the two places: the kind with plenty of hairpin turns and few straightaways, the kind a driver never shifts above third gear on, the kind with curves that lead up one side of a hill and down another, the kind without much in the way of roadside amenities, especially once Boonville is in the rearview, which is about when the gas light popped on. I’d spaced getting gas in Ukiah and now my car was warning me that I only had enough fuel to last another 17 miles even as Google Maps announced we had 25 miles to go.
I knew I could keep going even when the range hit 0, at least for a while – although how true that would be through all the constant shifting and braking and turning and accelerating remained to be seen. Sure enough, the number of miles left before running out of gas ticked down more quickly than the number of miles left to drive, falling from 17 to 12 to 7 to 3 to fumes as I steered through the Coast Range mountains, Point Arena still 20 minutes away.
Sure that I was going to run out, I began to plan for the possibilities. Would I be driving uphill as my car began to splutter? Or gently accelerating out of a sharp turn when the tell-tale skipping would happen? What would I do if the road lacked a safe shoulder? (The road lacked a safe shoulder.) Without cell service, which way should I walk to find help or at least a signal so I could call Geico’s roadside assistance? Would I be able to make this story funny at all when relaying it to my husband? (No.) I heard myself whispering, “Please, please, please,” every time another turn in the road led upward. When would these interminable hills give way to the coast?
I did not deserve to make it all the way to my destination, but fate let me slide that day and I found myself exhaling, making the right turn onto the city’s sloping downhill Main Street at 5:42 p.m. I could see the Wildflower Boutique Motel a few blocks away and, there, just before it, the gas station. Even if I ran out of gas right this second, I could coast to the pumps. But my luck held and I pulled in without problem.
Except, the gas station was closed. The Point Arena Garage had been built in 1935 and didn’t appear to have been updated much since then. The pay-at-the-pump feature popularized in the 1980s apparently never made it this far. Charming in a way, but my car doesn’t run on charm alone – I’ve tried.
I rolled out of the gas station and around into the motel parking lot, pulled into a space and winced as I turned the car off. Would it start up again? Would it start and then die? Would it run out of gas as I pulled out of the lot and tried to turn back up the road? At least the gas station was next door, I reasoned. I could get a gas can if necessary.
The front desk clerk told me the gas station would open at 8 a.m. the next day. So much for dawn patrolling. Nor would I pop out to the beach for the sunset. Instead I would spend the evening working on my presentation for the next day – the reason I’d come to Point Arena – strolling up and down Main Street, and dreading what would happen when I started my car the next morning.
The next morning, at 7:59 a.m., I turned the key in the ignition, pushed in the clutch. The car started. I backed up, turned left. All good. I made another left into the gas station and pulled up to the pump. The attendant on duty asked how much and I said, “Fill’er up.” I wasn’t taking any chances – and gas likely wouldn’t be much cheaper for a while. She twisted the gas cap off, slid the nozzle in, waited while it poured its magical (planet-killing) liquid into the tank, then tucked the hose back into the pump. I handed her my credit card. She ran it, I signed and said thank you. A perfectly normal exchange as if a complete miracle had not just occurred.