I’ve been trying to live a bit louder lately. I have been experimenting with some new things in an effort to outgrow my personal borders. Mostly I’m concerned with being a person who doesn’t always say, “I won’t,” in favor of being someone who can say, “I have.” Even if they become my lasts, I am determined to set some firsts.
So running out of gas on the highway fit nicely into my new paradigm.
No car I have ever driven has run out of gas before. I have run out of windshield wiper fluid. I’ve run out of good CDs. I’ve even run out of gas money, but that was easily enough worked around by actually getting a summer job instead of just talking about getting one. To run out of gas while driving was a totally new experience, and one I had wondered about for much of my behind-the-wheel life.
I have a storied reputation of awaiting the illuminated gas tank symbol before bothering to fill the tank. Even when its glow attracts my eye, my tendency is to believe that I still have a few hundred miles before I need to pull into the station. When the needle droops glumly to the Empty line, I raise my eyebrow at it and think, “You were made by an American car manufacturer who surely accounted for my preference to remain seated and my life outlook that gas is an inalienable right,” before returning my gaze to the road ahead while trying to remember to hold my speed at the rumored optimal gas-metabolizing rate of somewhere between 20 mph and 70 mph. I can never remember exactly.
I recall very nearly running out of gas while riding with my father once. We were traveling the lonely expanse of highway that connects Phoenix to its desert cousin, Tucson. We had made the trip to see Eric Clapton perform, one last homage to father-daughter activities before I would leave the state for college. My dad, of the same gas tank-challenging ilk as I, was confident his old Land Cruiser would reach home on the well of petrol we had. His bravado began to erode as our exit loomed an uncomfortable distance ahead. Like an airplane pilot preparing for a hairy landing, he began to systematically switch off all the dials, stripping our road-bound fuselage down to the essentials. The radio was grimly silenced. The air conditioning was ominously gagged. I clutched the undersides of my seat for fear that I might be shed as unnecessary cargo especially given the extra pounds I’d picked up in the lethargy of senior year.
As we barreled toward our off-ramp, the neon beacon of an Exxon station lying just beyond, the lights on the dashboard began to flicker. At least I remember it happening that way. My thoughts ranged into the morbid, and I began to hope we would run out of gas, if for no other reason than I would finally see what happens when you do. Surely a villainous cackle rings out through the car before a hazy demon billows out of the steering wheel to damn our souls. Maybe the gas tank explodes in a fiery display of orange and Michael-Bay-film-slow-motion? Or perhaps an automated voice informs us that the car will begin drawing fuel from an emergency reserve that only the dimwitted drivers of the world ever get to learn exists. I imagined that the instant the car swallows that last droplet of gas, the glove compartment automatically fills with hydrofluoric acid, burning your proof of insurance and car title and stripping you of all the medals and privileges of driving. At the very least, Keanu Reeves would come into play.
I didn’t find out that night since we made it to the pump before any of those outcomes came to pass. It took 15 more years of pondering, of challenging the convention that cars even need gas at all, to learn what really happens when the gas runs dry. Are you ready to hear what happens?
Nothing happens. There are no violent shudders, no wizards, no explosions, no confetti. When the gas tank empties while you are driving, nothing happens to your car other than it begins to decelerate. You press your foot upon the gas pedal but instead of speeding up, your car is slowing down. The forward inertia that you are losing is so gradual, in fact, that no one else in your car is even alerted to it. The cars behind you won’t even notice because — much to my surprise — no banner announcing This Idiot Just Ran Out Of Gas unfurls across your back windshield. In fact, the whole event is so peaceful that even you, as the driver, scratch your head and wonder what is going on. Then that banner that doesn’t appear in your window suddenly unrolls in your head when you glimpse the level of the orange and disappointed-in-you needle.
Once your car slows to its unavoidable resting place, all you can do is wait. You make a few phone calls to see if a friend or a mechanic can rush to your aid with a portable container of gas. That’s all you can do, really. Because if you are the sort of person who fails to drive to the gas station in the first place, you’re sure as hell not going to walk to it.
Erin Donovan moved with her family to the midcoast where she constantly is told she says the word “scallops” incorrectly. She performs live and produces Web sketches derived from her popular humor blog I’m Gonna Kill Him. Follow her misadventures on http://imgonnakillhim.bangordailynews.com and on Twitter @gonnakillhim.