Running on empty

From our starting point at the Crossroads of America, my husband and I often drive to his professional meetings. It's a big country, and, compatible though we are, the hours in the car grow long.

Our conversations have sunk to comparing different kinds of beverage ice: the relative merits of crushed vs. cubes, the annoyance of an avalanche up the nose when tapping down ice to suck on, the awkward size of cylindrical ice with the hole in the middle.

So every now and then, to add a little derring-do to our travels, we let the fuel level get so low the Empty light comes on.

A new discussion topic immediately suggests itself: when to refuel. I push for sooner. He, later. My husband assures me that there are two gallons left when the light comes on, 80 miles of cruising range. Still, I get nervous.

One time we made a literary pilgrimage to DeSmet, S.D. After seeing the original Little Town on the Prairie (of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame), we took a local road west without much gas in our tank. In the July sun, South Dakota's hills were golden and undulating, but there was little sign of human life. Certainly no gas stations.

As we ascended the hills, the "E" light came on. As we descended, it blinked off. My adrenaline level did the same.

I studied the map and decided we must find gas in Fort Thompson. When we arrived, the "E" light was no longer batting its eye. It had been an accusing orange glare for 20 miles.

Fort Thompson is in the Crow Creek Indian Reservation. We didn't see a gas station as we cruised the streets, my anxious gaze clapped on the roadside, looking for a sign from above (that is, big plastic numbers on a pole.) A man at a grocery store, bless him, directed us to an unmarked building with a pump out front.

There, a young native American emerged, crossed the sun-baked yard, and filled our tank. I have thought of him every time I refuel ever since.

After he unscrewed the gas cap, he slid it into a holder inside the little fuel-access door. I'd been in the habit of setting the cap on the hood, where it rolled around and sometimes tumbled off. Now as I slide the cap into its holder, I recall that man's long black hair blowing in the steady prairie breeze and how happy we were to find his gas station.

On another trip, we were driving the Interstate through Wyoming. The "E" light had again come on - need I add, while my husband was driving. He pressed on past a couple of exits I recommended, my pointing finger trailing right like one of the Supremes as we whizzed past the offramps.

Finally, he stopped at a traffic plaza. Road bleary, we extricated ourselves and went inside to attend to our own needs before the car's.

The plaza's store had more than the usual amount of wares. A fudge counter faced the entrance, and an extensive gift shop stretched off to the left. After the sensory deprivation of the Interstate, we wandered the aisles, entranced by the kitsch.

I whirled a wire rack and chose a tasteless postcard for my brother. The picture was of a matron with a beehive hairdo walking a small leashed dog in a 1950s-vintage Western campground. The caption read "Trolling for mountain lions."

I went to show my husband and found he'd discovered something we couldn't live without: a two-pack of sunglasses. One pair had dark-brown lenses, the other had yellow, which, respectively, were supposed to make the day less glaring and the nighttime brighter. "As Seen On TV" the package said, along with the endorsement of "Truck Drivers Everywhere."

"They're cheap!" he said enthusiastically.

"Uh-huh." I nodded big.

"Hey, look!" He pointed to a bin of cassette tapes. "Four for $10!"

I joined him in fumbling with the plastic cases, wincing over most of the titles. Ultimately we found four tapes to divert us on those sections of the road where the "search" function on our radio surfed endless waves of unchanneled air.

"With these glasses and these tapes, we're all set," my husband said. "Ten-four, good buddy."

"Uh-huh. Roger that."

While I made our purchase, I saw him approach the fudge counter. When we met up, he was carrying a sizable bag.

"It was 'Buy two half-pounds, get one free,'" he said. "She cut really thick slices. I think she gave us three pounds. We've got chocolate, peanut butter, and vanilla. Want some?"

I picked up the plastic knife and hewed off a piece. "Whew!" I said, swallowing. "Sweet! I guess we're 'fudgies' as well as truckers now."

We were feeling giddy as we donned our new sunglasses and climbed into the car. He slipped a cassette into the tape player as I backed out.

"These glasses are cool. Everything's yellow!" I shouted above the twangs of David Allen Coe's guitar.

"Everything's brown for me," he shouted back. "More fudge? I think this one's chocolate, but I can't tell."

"OK. A little," I said, merging onto the Interstate.

My husband had a glob of fudge poised on the knife point when I got up to speed. "Uh-oh!" he said, his voice suddenly flat. "Honey? We forgot to get gas."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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