On a lonely stretch of highway somewhere in Oklahoma’s eastern Panhandle, I realize I’ve got a problem. With nary a town in sight and the gas gauge on the “E” line, there’s serious doubt as to whether I’ll be driving this little rig much longer.
Seems that even my gas-sipping Honda has its limits. And I have pushed them too far.
Running out of gas on a long solo road trip? A bad thing, right? Well, it’s all part of the fun.
That’s right. I said “fun.”
The road trip is something that is typical Americana, and even though the kitschy roadside stands of the pre-interstate days are mostly gone, let’s just be honest: It’s the bumps in the road that add the adventure.
Stressful, to be sure. But oh so cathartic.
During the work week, I drive 90 minutes, round-tip, every day. I’m used to prolonged periods of time in the car alone, with the sounds of the radio blaring, the tires humming along the pavement, and little else but my thoughts to occupy my mind as I motor along at 70 mph. But each trip is the same – to work, from work.
Road trips are different. Road trips are long. Destinations often interesting, if not just a tad exotic (at least compared to the mundane nature of our everyday surroundings). And we’re blessed to live in a country where you can jump in a car, point it a certain direction and drive. For hours. Even days.
Inside the tedium of the drive lies that blessed down time that’s somewhat similar to what you might get on a long hike in an isolated place. You get time to think. Or just shut down and give your brain relief from the stress that accompanies things like work, home life or other pressing issues.
I can remember five years ago when a small group of friends and I took off to the mountains to do some camping, hiking and fishing. All of that was accomplished, and it was all very fun. But what really stood out?
Discussing a rather deep book on spirituality. Even deeper discussions about life. And an awesomely bad experience at a Montrose, Colo., fast food joint that still brings huge laughs from our group years later. All of these experiences happened on the road, in a van, going from Point A to a distant point B.
Another trip four years ago saw the driver of the car in which I was riding abruptly pull over and stop. That driver, longtime friend and avid hunter Ben Grasser, had spotted a pheasant in a recently cut corn field and decided to give chase. On foot. Through a muddy field. He had no gun and wouldn’t have poached the poor bird, but I guess some instincts are just too strong to suppress. All of us got a got laugh out of that stunt.
The road trip takes on a whole other feel when you’re going it alone. With no one to talk to, it’s just you and your machine. The radio is there, sometimes. And even when it is, you never know what you’re going to get.
It could be Spanish radio. Country. Disco. I sang along to some pretty groovy ‘70s funk at one point between Clayton, N.M., and Guymon. And there’s a rock station out of Woodward that flat out got after it. Head-banging music will keep you awake.
Sometimes I pray when I drive. I keep my eyes open and all – I think you can talk to God without shutting your lids.
But no road trip is complete or even memorable without a challenge. On my last trip, I filled up in Castle Rock, Colo., and took off south on Interstate 25. Crossing into New Mexico, I turned east toward Clayton, then into the Oklahoma Panhandle. There will still plenty of gas left in the tank.
Driving east, I had a chance to fill up in a little town called Hardesty. With a quarter tank left, I really wanted to see if I could get to Woodward.
But not long after that, as the gas gauge slipped ever lower, I saw a sign that told me Woodward was still 73 miles away. No chance of making it there with what I had left.
What had been a trusty station in Elmwood was shuttered. I’m on the E-line.
Next I hit Slapout. There’s a station there. But it closed an hour before.
The following few minutes, a couple things are happening. I’m looking for farm houses, judging how long it will take to walk the distance from my car to the nearest homestead to beg for some gas. And I’m saying a few audible prayers, asking God that the next town would have an open gas station. My eyes bounce between farmhouses, road signs and the gas gauge.
In the distance, I see a group of trees. Out here, that means a town is close. Will the next little burg have what I need?
As I drive up to the town of May, the first service station I see has long been abandoned. I keep going, the gas needle below the E-line. And then I spot it. A gas station still open, still pumping that golden elixir of automotive life.
I am saved. Saved from the humiliating walk to a strange ranch house to beg for gas.
The experience would have been more nerve-wracking if I had passengers. But alone, it’s just part of the experience, like biting into an unexpectedly hot pepper in an otherwise bland bowl of chili.
I express my gratitude to the store clerk for being open (the place had planned to close 10 minutes after I arrived), buy a drink and head off, my tank now brimming with freshly pumped gasoline. I will make it home.
As surely as I remembered the things I did on my brief mountain getaway, I’ll remember the drive just as much.
I need road trips. The journey has a healing, settling affect on my life. Those little things – a great conversation, a crazy act of whimsy, or a close call – build on the story of life beyond the norm.
Thank God for the freedom of the road.