It was a dark and stormy night… well, not really. I think it was actually a sunny clear afternoon the day we crossed from British Columbia, Canada into a National Forest in Washington state. We were heading to visit friends we hadn’t seen since college. At this point in time, we’d been on the road with our RV for only 8 months, but that was long enough to discover that US gas prices were better than Canadian gas prices (and they still are).
We only had a quarter tank of gas left as we crossed the border into Washington which was on purpose because we’d decided we wanted to fill up with less expensive gas once we got into the US. The cost per gallon for gas in Canada was much higher than in the US. At a quarter tank, we had almost 50 miles left before empty, according to the gas gauge on the dash of our Ford Expedition. And even though towing mileage was a bit less than non-towing mileage, we knew we still had at least 30 miles before we HAD to find gas, and probably 40 until empty.
As full-time RVers, one of our most significant costs each month is gasoline, so every opportunity we have to save a few pennies eventually adds up to lots of money saved over time. Crossing from Canada to the US was one of the most obvious money-saving opportunities.
We drove right past the last available gas station in British Columbia. We could see the US border crossing from that intersection a quarter of a mile up, and we figured there would be a gas station within a short drive of that border crossing.
Usually, this is a pretty safe bet. We’d crossed regularly in Detroit and Buffalo where the first thing you find across the border is a gas station. Unfortunately, in this case, we’d found a very small border crossing with only a single border guard, which led us directly into a National Forest.
I distinctly remember asking the guard how far the closest gas station was. He said, “It’s about 10 miles ahead, or so.” Unfortunately, the “or so” portion of his answer was more accurate than the “10 miles ahead” portion.
I remember thinking that would be perfect. The gas gauge was showing almost 50 miles on the tank, so even if the border guard was wrong and the gas station was twice as far as he said it was, I would still be fine.
As we crossed into Washington state, what I realized is that I hadn’t taken into consideration the fact that I was about to spend the next 10 miles towing our trailer uphill in this National Forest, and if you’re not yet putting all of the pieces together, towing uphill uses much more gas than driving on level ground.
As we started to climb this mountain in the National Forest, my gas gauge dropped down to 20 miles until empty. I looked over to Celine and asked her to check her phone to find the closest gas station. She tried, but couldn’t. We had no cell signal. I’m not sure how it works exactly, but if you have a cell signal when you set the GPS on your phone, it will continue to follow you if you drive into an area with no signal. We had directions we could follow on my phone to get to our friend’s house, but no way of figuring out how far down the road this next gas station actually was.
Zooming out on my phone’s map app, Celine could tell that, on the other side of the mountain, we were going to reach an intersection with a highway and a stop sign. We were sure if we were able to make it that far, there was either going to be a gas station at that major highway or a sign pointing us towards one.
As we were climbing up this mountain (and I do mean mountain), I was watching our gas gauge showing the “miles to empty” number sinking faster than the Titanic. For every quarter mile we drove uphill, we lost about 1.5 miles on the display.
My heart was racing – no cell signal, almost out of gas, and the top of the mountain was nowhere in sight. In what seemed like forever, but in reality, was probably only a few minutes, we reached the top of the mountain with 7 miles to empty left on the display. Then I had an idea. I took my foot off of the accelerator as we started to coast down the hill.
Now the relief set in. We were going a mile at a time without the display even changing. My confidence was building, hoping that we were going to make it to this highway intersection. That’s when Celine started to tense up. I realized that while I was capitalizing on my new best friend called ‘gravity’, she was getting nervous with the tight twists and turns downhill.
“Don’t you think we should slow down a little?” she asked with more suggestion than question in her voice.
“We need the downhill momentum to get us to that highway before we run out of gas!” I replied as we tackled tight turns on the edge of this mountain road towing our 30-foot travel trailer.
We’d now gone 4 miles and only lost 2 more on the dash display. I was conquering this obstacle! Nothing could rattle me enough to even tap my brakes! No turn too tight, no pothole too large, no scream from the passenger seat!
Now we were only half a mile to the highway according to my GPS and 4 miles to empty on the dash.
As we rounded the corner to the stop sign, I realized that while the GPS had called this a “highway”, this was nothing more than an intersection from one 2-lane road to another. No signage. No gas station. No more confidence. My heart sank.
Once we reached the stop sign, my GPS told us to turn right. Then I hesitated. Maybe there was a gas station around the bend to the left. Now that we’d come to a complete stop at the stop sign, and I hadn’t crashed our vehicle while careening downhill, Celine was able to bring her heart rate under control and check her phone. Still no signal and no gas station in sight.
Right seemed just as good as left, and since we had to turn right anyway, we decided to continue to follow the GPS and turned right with 3 miles until empty left on our dash display and no other cars in sight.
It’s really amazing how long 3 miles can feel. I drove slowly to keep my fuel efficiency high. As the tank counted down from 3 miles to 2 miles to 1 mile to 0 miles, I realized I should pull over at an available turn-off in the road, which veered off as a dirt road. We think that it was actually someone’s private driveway, but it was a safe and convenient spot for us to park off the main road. I remembered a story from a friend who drove his vehicle down to empty until it sputtered to the side of the road, and it ended up causing damage to his engine. So before our’s reached that point, I pulled over, turned off the engine, and realized I was about to go for a hike to find either a gas station or cell signal to call AAA.
The ride had been pretty quiet the last few miles. I didn’t have anything to say to Celine once I stopped the engine except that I was sorry I let this happen. She smiled at me and said, “I’ll get in the trailer and make lunch for the boys. We’re ready for snack anyway. And I can keep the boys busy with crafts and puzzles while we wait. Have fun figuring this out.”
This put gas in my tank. Celine was optimistic and was making the most of a less-than-perfect situation which encouraged me to do the same.
I started walking. I walked up on a ditch to try to get any cell signal. Then, I walked up to the bend in the road where I could see the road wrapping around a lake, curving back behind the side of the mountain, and disappearing.
After a prolonged internal conversation about whether I should climb the mountain or walk the road, I decided walking the road would eventually get me somewhere, even though I didn’t know where, or how far, and had no way to contact Celine in the meantime since she’s in a no-signal area.
I was halfway around the curve in the road near the lake, ready to find out what was on the other side of the mountain, when I spotted a car coming up the road. I was greeted by an older couple who pulled up in a red station wagon beside me.
“Is that your trailer back there?”
Thoughts started racing in my head. I was nervously thinking that maybe I’d blocked their driveway. Or maybe they were going to tell me to get off their private property.
“Yes”, I answered back, “We ran out of gas. Do you know where the nearest gas station is?”
“Hop in! We’ll give you a ride”, they replied. I threw all caution to the wind and hopped in the backseat of their car. They seemed like nice people after all, and definitely not grumpy property owners I was hoping not to meet. I probably would have classified anyone who offered me a ride as a “nice person” at that moment. I was pretty desperate.
In hindsight, they didn’t even tell me how far the gas station was or how far they were going to drive me, and I honestly didn’t care at that moment.
It turns out that “just around that mountain” was the gas station – finally, a gas station. I was in the back seat of this red station wagon for maybe 2 minutes as they pulled up to the pump. I realized that I probably could have made it there with my vehicle, even with our gas gauge showing 0 miles to empty, but we had no way of knowing that for sure.
The gas station took pity on me and loaned me a jerry can. This allowed me to take a couple of gallons of gas back to our car. After the nice strangers offered to drive me back to my car, trailer, and family.
I didn’t have any way of letting Celine know that I was heading back, so she was pretty surprised when I showed up with gas, in a car with people she didn’t recognize, less than 10 minutes after walking away. She didn’t even have time to finish making snacks, and our youngest had just gotten all of his crafting supplies out.
Celine came outside of the trailer to thank the friendly couple for helping us, and we offered them a quick tour of our trailer. The boys finished up their snack while I emptied the jerry can into our tank, then started our Expedition to make sure it was going to run. The helpful couple wished us the best and went on their way.
Within less than an hour from the time I pulled off the road with an empty tank, we’d successfully gotten back on the road and to the gas station around the bend to return the jerry can and fill up our gas tank.
After having been on the road for 8 months, we realized that it was pretty impressive that this was the first time we’d run out of gas, but it was not an experience we were hoping to relive.
An important note to make is that we chose not to let each other’s personal tank run out of gas. I was ready to take the hike for whatever distance was necessary. Celine was ready to make the most of an unplanned stop and hop in the trailer to make snacks and entertain the boys.
A situation that would have had us frazzled before we started RVing was now considered “just another day in the traveling life.” We still choose to not let our personal tank get empty (even if our car gas tank might again someday). We think back to this day of unplanned events and discuss how our choice to save money on gas could have been handled differently.
Before crossing the border, we could have planned ahead, checked a map, and decided where the best place to get gas would be. We will happily “overpay” for a quarter tank of gas next time so we can safely arrive at a less expensive gas station to fill up at, and will always find ways to put fuel in each other’s tank.