Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Out of gas in Mojave desert, part 1

So it was going to be another hot, clear day and I was to drive 350 miles from Vegas to San Diego.  This was the third day of my "Deserts and Glaciers" national parks road-trip.

It was 40 degrees Celsius at 8am when I started.  The gas needle showed less than a quarter tank still remaining, and the next big stop, Kelso, in big bold letters on Google Maps, was only 80 miles away.

The white Jeep Compass was not a gas guzzler by any means, and its color reflected the scorching heat back to the Sun.  Driving in the dry desert, with cactus, bushes and little Joshua trees around, with the seemingly endless empty road up ahead and behind, was a meditation in solitude.  And in heat.

It was going to be a very hot day, and the Jeep and I were hurtling through the Mojave desert toward the big city Kelso (it's worth repeating its name in bold letters, since this is a town that will live forever in my memory), with many a gas station and their cool interiors.  Or so I sensibly assumed.

The road was, to re-use a word, deserted.  I stopped occasionally to get out into the heat, and walk on the gravel by the road, and to let the hot silence permeate me.  A police car passed me in the opposite direction.  Even though one might be in the desert, the law is never too far.  Better mind the speed!

The "low fuel" light came on, and I was still 25 miles from Kelso.  Never mind.  There was still enough to reach the town and fill up.  The needle, moving ever so gradually toward empty, wasn't a cause of anxiety. 15-20 minutes more, and all would be well.

A few miles from the town, and the gas station billboard was almost visible in the distance.  Cheers!

I decreased the speed as I entered the town.  What a quaint town.  What a quaint little town!  Historic cabins, a railroad depot, a visitor center.  The billboard was nice too.

But there was no gas station.  A shudder passed through my body as I instinctively took my foot off the gas pedal.  I looked around, and confirmed, there was no gas station.  The air conditioner was still running, so why then did I feel the beads of sweat form on my forehead?

(The big town of Kelso)

The GPS on the phone stayed alive and continued to show the map from memory even though there is no signal.  The next bold-lettered stop through the desert was 50 miles away.

I parked my car, and with an unnecessarily strong twist of my wrist turned off the ignition, not without a slight feeling of dread.  I was hesitant to even drive it around the "town" to see if maybe there was something somewhere.  Every drop of fuel was now going to be important.  This was the visitor center parking lot, and few other cars were parked.  There were a couple of gas-guzzling pick-up trucks.

Thoughts started swirling in my head.  "Surely those trucks have lots of fuel and could spare some."  "Maybe the visitor center people could help."  "I did see that cop car back there, maybe he will come back and will have some fuel for these emergency situations."  "I have no containers except my water bottle to transfer fuel from one vehicle to another."  "This is not a big deal."  "This is a problem.  No mister, this is a proper crisis."  "How could I have allowed myself to be in this situation?"  "Why did I not fill up as I was leaving Vegas?"  "I will miss meeting my nephew who is waiting for me in San Diego."

The visitor center guy was trying to be helpful, but the only help he could offer was the phone number of a tow-truck company.  He said that they would send a tow-truck with some fuel, charge a bunch of money, and take at least 2-3 hours to come.  That was the "reliable" solution, but not an acceptable one.  Not for me, not that day.  For one, it was going to be an embarrassing admission of defeat.  And more importantly, I would definitely miss the evening planned for me in San Diego.  My tongue felt quite dry now.  It must be the heat, I thought.

I asked a few truck people if they could spare some fuel, and one of them was almost amenable.  But how to transfer the fuel?  Modern car gas tanks are not easily accessed.  I borrowed a siphon pipe, made in the 70s, from the visitor center, but it was only a yard in length, and too thick to enter even my own car's gas tank.  Disheartened, I sheepishly returned the siphon pipe to the helpful old man in the center.  He remarked, "This kind of thing does happen every few months.  Last year, there were these two girls.  They had to call the tow truck."  I nodded with understanding: "I know how they would have felt."

"Oh look, the cop that had passed me on the road!" The cop came through into the visitor center.  I looked at him with eyes full of hope and despair.

He quickly understood the situation.  "I'm sorry, but we are not allowed to carry any gasoline."

Me: So what are my options?

Cop: (looking down, shaking his head) Not many...

Visitor center guy: Well, you see the row of those houses back there?  Lisa lives in the second to last one.  I know she keeps some gas at home.  Maybe you can go knock at her door?

I smiled a desperate smile.  "Thank you."  But decided not to check it out.  For one, I was loath to start my car unless it is absolutely necessary.  And two, who knew if Lisa was even home, if she even had extra gas, if she even wanted to give it to me?

Visitor center guy: So the next gas station is HERE. (pointing at the map)  What kind of car do you have?  When did the low-fuel light come on?  Hmm...  Hmm...

I was on this journey through desolation.  So I had to act in character.  I couldn't depend on being saved by modern institutions.  And I boldly and foolishly thought: I have to depend only on the desert, on the road, and on myself.  Not sure what that meant, to be truthful, but it did have a nice ring to it.  The  High Plains Drifter wouldn't have called a tow truck, so how could I?

All false options eliminated, now only the truth remained.

It was time to put truth to the test.

"If I do break down in the middle of nowhere, I'll lock my car, flag someone down, ride with him to the middle east if I have to, get gas and get going again."  There was going to be no cellphone service in the desert, but I did fill up my water bottle.  At least I won't be thirsty.  Even if my car was going to be parched dry.

And who knows, maybe the car was not engineered that well.  Maybe the needle was imprecise.  Maybe.  Hope springs eternal.  Till it doesn't.

I recalled the famous sci-fi story: The Cold Equations.  The universe is unsympathetic to human suffering.  Our wishes, fervent as they might be, don't move the stars and the sun.  If there is no gas, the car won't run on hope.

And so, with that bull-headed resolve, with the car's air-conditioner switched off ("Not one drop to be wasted."), windows open to the hot, dry, still air of the ancient Mojave desert, I pulled out of the parking lot of the Kelso railroad depot visitor center, took a left turn onto the desert highway, and sped up, slowly.  Ever so slowly.

It was fifty miles to the gas station.  A town named Amboy.  And the gas tank needle wasn't as much as moving now.

(to be continued)

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