Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Running on Empty

The first time it happened, it was the result of a miscalculation. A conversion of miles to kilometres: one, on the road sign; the other, on my fuel gauge.

I'm an English major: you do the math.

Lesson learned: the next time you see a Last Fuel for the Next XX Miles sign, heed it's warning, and fuel up.

So, we were getting close to the exit for Cortland, NY, and with several miles still to go, I came to the realization that my digital fuel indicator would reach zero before we could safely reach a gas station. My passenger and I became worried, wondering how far we would have to walk after the engine went silent, the car slowed to nothing.

The indicator read 0 kms to empty, and yet, the engine continued to run. About a half-mile later, a road sign read 1 mile to the next exit. It was like being in the desert and seeing an oasis in the distance, wondering if it was real or just our imagination. Even though the sign was real, there was still no way of knowing whether we'd make it off the highway, whether we'd reach a service station. We held our breaths. I drove carefully, making sure I made no sudden acceleration, ensuring I kept the cruise control at a reasonable, fuel-saving speed.

The exit came, and as we decelerated down the exit ramp, the welcome sign of a service station lay straight ahead. The engine continued to run until we came to a rest in front of a fuel pump, and I pressed the off button.

I filled the tank. When I finished, saw how many gallons of fuel I had added to the tank, I pulled out my phone and used a conversion app to change the volume to metric.

When my friend and I had come to rest, there was less than a half-litre of fuel in the tank.

"Let's never do that again, shall we?" my friend advised.


But I did it again: twice.

Once, in town, when I knew I was close to myriad gas sources, I waited until the gauge indicated one kilometre to "empty." 

Another time, I saw that my fuel reserves were low, with only double digits between where I was and that ominous zero. I was fine, though, I told myself. I didn't have time to stop on the way to where I was going, but I had enough fuel to get to my appointment and then search for a station on my way home. I knew where a station lay within range of where I needed to be and how far I was venturing.

I would be fine.

Only, on my way home, I forgot that I was low on fuel and passed that gas station without giving it any thought. Several kilometres down the road, my eyes fell to my dashboard and saw a lone number staring back at me.

That number was two.

I thought of turning around, but there was no easy way to do so and I had to continue straight for at least another kilometre before I could make a U-turn. That meant that I would be exactly where I was at that moment when the gauge would be down to zero. And then I would have to travel four or five kilometres to get back to that station.

I thought about what lay ahead of me, and the station that was up ahead. It was at least five kilometres away, maybe six.

I feathered the gas pedal, gingerly, as I negotiated corners, as I approached red lights and then accelerated through intersections. As the gauge fell to zero, I noted the odometer reading, certain that this time, I would not reach my destination. I wanted to know, for sure, how many kilometres past the empty reading I could get from the tank.

It was almost exactly five kilometres from the zero reading until I came to a stop. But I wasn't out of fuel: I had made it to the gas station. The engine was still running, gave no indication that it was about to quit. When I filled the tank, I had replaced all but about 800 ml. I could have travelled, maybe, another 10 kilometres.

I think.

I don't know.

I'm an English major: you do the math.

No matter. I'm going to live by the advice my friend gave me in Cortland, NY: let's never do that again, shall we?

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