Recently, my wife, my father, and I visited my grandmother in El Paso, Texas. One day, we left Grandma behind (sorry, Grandma!) and enjoyed a road trip from El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico. If you’ve never been to Carlsbad Caverns, it’s definitely worth a trip. The huge rooms, gigantic decorations, and awesome colors are jaw-dropping.
Almost as amazing as the Caverns, though, was the drive from Grandma’s house to the Caverns. Living in South Florida, I was amazed by the wide, open spaces; the sharp, unfriendly-looking flora…and the speed limit. Seventy-five miles an hour?! Suddenly, I loved the southwest!
But while the first part of our road trip was mesmerizing, the last part of it was, well, not so great. So what went wrong?
We knew the Caverns were about 150 miles away from El Paso, so we were out the door at just past 8. We figured that’d put us in Carlsbad around 11, which would give us plenty of time to explore the caves and still make it back in time for dinner. (Although Grandma likes to eat what she calls “lupper” — a combination lunch/supper at about 3 or 4 — we knew that wasn’t going to happen. We figured we’d be home about 5 that evening.) We piled into Grandma’s Park Avenue, checked the gas tank — it was 3/4 full — and drove away.
Only a few miles outside El Paso, the terrain was flat, empty, and endless.
On either side of us was, literally, nothing. We passed a car about every 30 minutes. Finally, after about two hours, we reached Guadalupe Peak.
At 8749 feet, Guadalupe Peak is Texas’ highest point.
At the base of the Peak, there’s a small but adequate rest area…
…where we took some photos and stretched our legs.
It’s amazing here, because to the west, it’s fairly flat…
…while to the northeast, the Mountain rises up, almost out of nowhere.
After 20 minutes or so, we piled back into the car, and headed for the Caverns. We reached the place about 11:30, had a bite of lunch, and explored the Caverns for about 3 and a half hours.
Leaving the Caverns about 3:00, we figured we’d be home by 6. We tried to call Grandma to let her know, but there was no cell phone reception.
On the way out, we stopped in White City. Although the needle on the gas tank indicated we still had a fully half a tank, I thought it would be wise to fill up…just in case. I pulled up to the pump, popped the little door covering the gas tank, and grabbed the fuel nozzle. However, much to my surprise, the pump blinked “Please See Attendant.” Since the gas station was shut tight, I realized we wouldn’t be getting any fuel. Oh well…we still had half a tank. And in Grandma’s Park Avenue, that should be at least 10 gallons — plenty to get us home!
On the drive back, I was particularly impressed with the salt flats just southwest of Guadalupe Peak. The site of murder and betrayal in the mid 1860s, today the area is serene and peaceful. Yup, that’s Guadalupe Peak in the background.
My wife wanted to feel the water. She said it was warm, and the mud felt soft under her feet. I encouraged her to taste the water. She did. Was it salty? Surprisingly, no. Wasn’t this a salt flat?
We returned to the car and continued driving. The needle on the gauge read less than one-quarter.
A few minutes later, the orange “low fuel” came on. Gulp. Just a few minutes ago, the needle was hovering over the one-quarter mark. What happened? I didn’t know what to do. We had at least 60 miles to go. Should I announce the issue to the car? Surely, it’d just stress everybody out, and we were having such a nice trip! But I couldn’t just ignore it and keep driving. We rolled past an “outpost.” I wondered if it had a gas pump, but there wasn’t one.
I kept driving.
Finally, I confessed: “The low fuel light’s on.”
Nobody said anything for a while. My wife asked if I’d ever run out of gas before. “No,” I answered. “What about you?” She shook her head. I asked Dad if he’d ever run out of gas. “Once,” he said. “I was in my Dad’s car. The gas gauge was broken.”
We drove a little further. I was getting nervous. There was nothing out here. I didn’t want to get stranded.
We passed a road crew striping the highway. I rolled down my window and stupidly said, “Hey, the gas tank is on ‘E.’ Got any tips for where I could get some gas around here?” What a dumb question. We both knew I meant: “Hey, can I have some gas?”
“The nearest gas station is 16 miles west,” he answered, as he rolled up his window and drove off.
I slowed from 80 to 55, to conserve fuel. We turned off the air conditioner, because Dad said that was “good for a couple miles per gallon.” When we went downhill, I shifted into neutral, so as not to waste gas. I’m going to be honest: I was scared. I imagined us spending the night out here. That didn’t sound like fun.
Finally, we reached a Border Control post, which was odd, since we weren’t near a border. I slowed down, told the guy our problem, and asked him for some advice. I used my most pleading eyes. He smiled and said, “If you can make it to the top of this hill, you can coast to the nearest gas station.” I stepped on the gas and headed for the hill.
My hands were clammy as we ascended the slope. No one in the car spoke. You could feel each of us willing the car to make it to the top, to pass the peak, so we could get home. It was 6 right now, and we had 45 miles to go.
We crested the hill. I shifted into neutral again, and we coasted for about 10 minutes, cruising slower and slower…
…and slower. I looked at the dash. There seemed to be some extra warning lights down there. I took a deep breath and turned on my hazard lights. We were out of gas.
We kept coasting, but it was slow going. Where was this fabled gas station? That Border Control guy…I could wring his scrawny neck for getting our hopes up like that!
Finally, the car stopped. It was time to push. Just then, it started to rain. Naturally.
On the flat portion, of course, it was easy to push, but we finally came to a 1% grade, and we just couldn’t do it. We were — officially — stranded. The good news is that we were out of the mountains and into the out-outskirts of El Paso.
We tried the cell phone, and it worked! I called my insurance company. “Road and Travel Assistance,” a woman’s voice answered. “May I help you?”
“Yes,” I spit out. “I’m on the side of the road. I’ve run out of gas. And it’s starting to rain.”
While I understand that I wasn’t claiming my leg had been cut off in a horrible accident, I was hoping for some more sympathy. We discussed our location, and she arranged for a service vehicle to deliver some gas. “By the way, she said…you’ll have to pay for the gas.” Whatever, Lady — I’ll pay for whatever!
Between the pushing and the waiting, we were on the side of the road for about 45 minutes. During that time exactly 2 vehicles stopped and asked if we needed help. (Interestingly, both vehicles were driven by Hispanic couples. Coincidence?) Dad dismissed the first car by saying we were out of gas; he never thought to ask them for a lift to the gas station. The second vehicle was a truck, and they offered to take him to get fuel. Of course, it’s creepy seeing your father climb into a strange vehicle driven by people you don’t know. I wondered if this would be the last time I ever saw him.
Twenty minutes later, our saviors returned with my father. Muchas gacias, mis amigos!
Dad had purchased a one-gallon gas can (cost: $8.79) with fuel (cost: $2.89). He eagerly poured it into the car’s tank.
We loaded into the car, I turned the key, and…the engine turned over. We were ready to roll! Immediately, we called and cancelled the emergency vehicle.
When we arrived at the gas station — which was only about a mile up the road — the rain had cleared and out of the mist, not one but TWO rainbows appeared, ending at a pot of (black) gold.
It was a joyous moment. We filled the tank full and headed back to Grandma’s house. We arrived by 7:30. She had made a pot of tuna noodle casserole, and it was delicious. After a stressful afternoon, everthing turned out fine.
So what’s the moral of this story?
If you go on a road trip, make certain you fill the tank full before you leave.
Never trust a gas gauge that you aren’t familiar with. Consequently, see Rule #1.
To call White City a “City” is the joke of the century. Do not visit and expect everything to be as you imagine a City should be. Again, see Rule #1.
Have you ever gone a road trip that went awry? How did yours end?