Dec. 4, Sierra Blanca, Texas – My mouth is still a little dry as we drive away from the Sierra Blanca Chevron. It has been dry for hours.
An hour ago I was running along the freeway like a fugitive from justice, when all I was and remain is a fugitive from good sense.
Under the big, wide-open sky of west Texas, I alternately walked and ran, a madman wielding a plastic gas can. My shadow raced ahead of me. Its presence made me jumpy.
A 200-million-year-old limestone wall loomed over my shoulder. Beyond that lay the West Texas Detention Facility. Beyond that, somewhere out in the unfathomable darkness, was Mexico.
Slowly I moved east as 18-wheelers thundered past on their way to Van Horn, Fort Stockton and beyond.
Yeah, we ran out of gas again. Unbelievable, you say? Well, believe it.
This time it wasn’t 100 percent my fault. Not 100 percent. Not that I want to throw Becky under the behemoth. I accept my fair share of the blame.
While still in New Mexico, I Google-mapped directions to the Phillips 66 with the cheapest gas in all of El Paso, $2.99 for 86 octane. Pretty sweet, eh?
So we got off I-10 and followed the Patriot Freeway toward Alamogordo.We took Exit 26 to Dyer Street/Hercules Avenue. We merged onto Gateway Boulevard North.
Like clockwork, it was going.
And there it was, the Phillips 66. We pulled in and gazed about. All pumps but one had notes hanging off indicating “Cash Only.” So Becky neatly wheeled the behemoth through an obstacle course of parked cars and sidled up alongside the pump without the “Cash Only” note. I got out to pump.
“Out of service,” the digital screen said.
Well, darn. She was annoyed. She was ready to move on.
I didn’t expend any rhetorical energy on changing her mind. It would’ve been a pain in the ass to maneuver the monster into position next to a pump that worked. We had cash, but lacked patience.
The perimeter of the place was ringed with parked cars, as if the owner ran a pay-for-parking business on the side.
So we left. We continued Gateway Boulevard North until we could make a U-turn. As far as I can figure, we went a good 10 miles out of our way to not get that gas.
Those 10 miles would prove critical.
We went to Costco, surfed samples and got mocha/latte freezes. As we pulled out, we looked straight at a gas station across the street. But it was all the way across Geronimo Avenue, a busy thoroughfare. Crossing four lanes would’ve been difficult. Really.
So we said screw it and returned to I-10.
I read to Becky for a half hour or so. She finally stopped me.
The panic had hit. She noticed, with alarm, the gas gauge tilting toward E. The retail sprawl of El Paso was long gone. We had reached the middle of nowhere.
The sky already was full of stars. It was shaping up to be a beautiful night.
Around McNary, 60 miles east of El Paso, we broke out in a collective sweat. There were no signs for gas anywhere. We kept going. We saw a sign for Sierra Blanca, 27 miles away.
Could we make it? Our recent debacle on the Tacoma Narrows bridge made me skeptical.
The fear deepened.
The good news? Becky had never run out of gas. She was at the wheel with an 18-year streak of perfection hanging in the balance. Surely she’ll pull this one out.
The bad news? The primary reason for her unblemished record was based on a lie. Her father told her you could cause irreparable engine damage by letting the gas gauge slip below a quarter tank. She bought it. She now knew it wasn’t true. She also knows about Santa Claus.
Besides, the law of averages was riding against her.
The next couple exits were for obscure highways with numbers attached but no services. They were off-ramps to the incomprehensible darkness of west Texas.
Then came Esperanza. That had to be significant. Even I know esperanza is Spanish for hope.
We had found Hope. At last.
Our hearts filled with joy. Becky pulled off. Even if we didn’t find a gas station, something good was bound to happen. Maybe some Good Samaritan would give us gas. It was going to be great.
We left the freeway ramp and turned right, following a sign to Esperanza. We found ourselves on an unpaved roadway. An unpaved roadway into the yawning maw of night. Somewhere out in the darkness was Esperanza, the Rio Grande and then Mexico.
We aborted the mission, pulled onto the east-bound I-10 ramp and turned off the behemoth to think think sinister thoughts and offer each other empty platitudes. It looked to be about 14 miles yet to Sierra Blanca, maybe more. We had just wasted precious gas on our abandoned mission of Hope.
I checked the Internet on our phone to see if I could find any hope for gas near Esperanza.
Nothing. There was no hope.
We could call AAA now. But that would be weird. We still had gas in the tank. How much was anyone’s guess. But who calls the American Automobile Club to say, “We’re running low on gas?“
We decided to go for it. It was our only choice. I leaned forward the whole way. The knot in my stomach expanded by the mile. Saliva vanished from my mouth.
We made it another 10 miles or so, then hit a work zone. The right lane closed. We began to climb a steep incline. On our right was a concrete barrier. On our left was a ditch. This would be an ideal place to run out of gas.
We made it to the crest of the hill and coasted down. Still no sign for Sierra Blanca.
Then came a sign for a border checkpoint. I prayed we would run out of gas right there, right next to the drug-sniffing German Shepherd. The federales would have to help us then.
I almost wished we had illegal drugs, like Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Fiona Apple, who are among the mind-boggling list of celebrities arrested for possession at this little outpost.
We didn’t run out of gas, and we weren’t holding. Becky asked the nice border patrol agent how far till we found gas.
“Five miles,” he said, “You’re in luck.”
What he didn’t know: we only had gas for four.
Finally, the sign for Sierra Blanca. Yay!
Before we reached White Mountain, another sign to contemplate: Prison area. Don’t pick up hitchhikers. OK, got it.
We passed the first exit, business 10. No signs for fuel. We weren’t far beyond it when the behemoth gave up the ghost. We pulled off into the grassy area between the highway and the access road.
It could have been worse. And this time we had a gas can.
I made the delicate decision to make a run for it.
I tortured myself the whole way. I thought about the horrible things that could befall Becky and Max while I was running on the interstate shoulder like an escapee from a lunatic asylum.
I imagined coming back to an accident scene. Or a crime scene. A plastic can full of gas and nothing left in my life.
I imagined making it to the Chevron only to find myself enmeshed in a Twilight Zone plot. Someone would offer to give me a ride back to the camper. As soon as I got in his truck, he would tell me about a horrible accident that just occurred a mile up the road.
A dark legion of escaped convicts and drug smugglers haunted my mind. Maybe they have spotters along the freeway. Maybe they had noted our plight and alerted their foot soldiers. My mind was aflame with the most treacherous crimes Michelle Malkin could conjure in her demented brain.
I made it to the Chevron in Sierra Blanca. I filled the red container with 2.04 gallons for $7.76. I only spilled a little. I was halfway home.
I ran the race of idiocy again, this time in reverse. I wondered about the figure I cut along the I-10 shoulder. I wonder what the truckers thought. I’m glad I couldn’t know.
I kept seeing imaginary overpasses. They kept moving westward, just ahead of me.
I made it back, of course, and found Max and Becky unharmed.
We all rejoiced. Happiness was here again.
I asked Becky for her reaction to seeing her 18-year run snapped.
“First of all, I was feeling ashamed,” she said.
And that’s all she said.
What more is there to say, really?
I already said my mouth was dry.
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