It was to be a simple trip. My daughter Bailey and I would be attending her cousin’s wedding in Bishop, California. After a late flight into Las Vegas and a night on the infamous Strip, we picked up our Pontiac G6 that next morning at the car rental agency. From there it was a four hour drive across the desert to our destination in the mountains of California. Except for a modification to my brother’s speed in the lead car, he thought the speed limit was 95 when in fact that was the interstate’s numeric designation, the trip was uneventful. We stopped for lunch in Beatty, Nevada half way across the desert and arrived in Bishop by mid afternoon.
The next two days passed quickly and on Sunday, after the wedding festivities had wound down, Bailey and I left for Las Vegas. A few facts pertinent to the story. It was late Sunday afternoon, I had not driven the rental since we had arrived on Friday and we no longer had the accompaniment of my brother as he was staying a few days longer. These facts will play heavily in the events that were to follow.
Bailey and I are known to have a habit of visiting sites that are near our route when traveling. This Sunday afternoon would afford us an opportunity to pass near “The Ancient Bristle Cone Pine Groove”. Some of these trees were over 3000 years old.
We had crested the first of our three mountain passes when we came upon the road to the grove. Not being able to resist, we took the turn off and headed toward the site. Poor planning step one, the road into the grove was over 10 miles one way. We arrived at what we thought was the grove only to realize it was a vista just below and the actual grove was still another mile or so up the grade. As we started our climb, I noticed, somehow for the first time, the fuel gauge on our G6. The gauge was already nearing the “E”. Poor planning step two, not having driven the vehicle all weekend, we had not considered our fuel supply. We were now faced with a critical decision. Drive back to Bishop, some 50 miles behind us or count on a gas station somewhere ahead. At the time the decision seemed obvious and, poor planning step three, we chose to drive on. Had we been paying attention on the drive out from Vegas, we would have been painfully aware that the only gas station had been in Beatty complete with a sign that said, next gas at least 200 miles. This was the same Beatty that was still some 100 miles ahead. Did I tell you the gauge was nearly on “E”? By the time we reached the highway we had left to drive into the grove, the low fuel light was now on and the gauge was glaring back at us on “E”.
Time to update you on our conditions, beside the fact that we were counting on something that didn’t exist, we still had two more mountain passes to clear. Add to that, mountains don’t tend to offer great cell service and mountain passes even less. Needless to say, we had no cell service, a car reading empty, and 100 miles to go.
At this point, the science of physics becomes important. Cars run on fuel, altitude climbs are hard on mileage efficiency and wind resistance only makes matters worse. Here, in no particular order, were our scientific conclusions, coasting was better than driving, braking causes resistance, using the AC reduces mileage and rolled up windows create less wind resistance. Did I remind you the temperature was in the upper 80’s. The last two decisions, no AC and rolled up windows, were tough ones, but we were determined to make it to Beatty even as the vehicle was warning us otherwise. As to the coasting and no braking conclusions, you would be shocked by the speed a 3000 lb vehicle can reach coasting down a winding mountain pass. You would be further amazed at how long we could let this go each time before lightly using the brakes to bleed off some of our speed. One of our conditions was now working in our favor for the moment. It was late Sunday afternoon and we had the road to ourselves. But this also meant that when the car would be finally completely empty, WE WERE ALONE.
We somehow made it up the last pass and were now coasting down the last grade where we could see Interstate 95 off in the distance.
This highway would lead us into Beatty or at least put us in proximity of fellow travelers. But what seemed to be in reach was just another mirage. Distances in the mountains and now down on the desert floor can be deceptive. What seemed to be right there was actually close to 20 miles ahead. Down on the desert floor, no more coasting available and more heat than we could take, we were willing the car to reach for the interstate. If we could get there, then maybe we could at least be saved. As we neared the entrance to the interstate, the road took a jog back to the north before winding onto the interstate. Off to our right was a long abandoned bordello and a parking area that ran along the edge of the interstate. The needle on the fuel gauge had long ago passed “E” and the decision became easy. We left the road, shot through the abandoned parking lot and up the side of Interstate 95, easily cutting off another half mile. Desperation was now becoming our co-pilot.
We were now on the interstate and had at least the occasional car or two to give us comfort. We also had picked up cell service again and the first call went out to Triple A. A pleasant voice took our call but informed us that if we were still running there really wasn’t anything they could do. We would need to call back when we are actually out of gas and stranded. My daughter asked where the agent was located and when she replied New Jersey, Bailey told her that we weren’t. Once she explained where we actually were and that we had just passed a sign that told us Beatty was another 60 miles ahead, she responded with a phrase closely resembling the phrase Steve Martin gets from Bunny at the rental desk in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And so we motor on. We are now down to considering drafting the next semi we can find.
About this time my wife calls from our safe and cozy home back in Wisconsin. She is checking in on how we are doing. Being the considerate and wise daughter I raised her to be, Bailey tells her we are just great and that we will be in Beatty soon, under her breath, “one way or the other.” Any whiff of what was really going on and we would have been subject to an embarrassing lecture and then an Air Force rescue in the Nevada desert. And so we motor on.
The Pontiac G6 has decided it too refuses to give up or the fuel gauge has been set extremely conservative to thwart the effort of optimistic drivers like us, pushing the limits. Either way, the road mileage markers become more and more promising and then suddenly, from a slight crest in the highway, we view Beatty up ahead. Still five or six miles distant we begin to believe we will make it. Fear has now been replaced with determination to complete this epic record. At about a half mile out we spy the gas station up ahead on the right. We can take the jog to the left, turn at the light and head back down to the gas station. Or, we can cut through the motel parking lot, across an alley, through the grocery store parking lot and roll up to the pumps. Of course, we chose the later. As we pulled alongside the pumps, and as God is my witness, the car stuttered once and shut down. Bailey and I jump from the car and with fists held high, yelling at the top of our lungs, did our gas dance around the now quiet vehicle. One gentleman looked at us and said “that drive across the desert can be a killer.” We just replied “Oh Yeah! Don’t we know it!”
It was a year latter, and we were on a family vacation in Hawaii. The car rental agent said we would be getting a Pontiac G6, but he wanted to upgrade us at no cost to a little larger car. Bailey and I looked at him and in unison said “we’ll take the Pontiac.”
Was it automotive ingenuity or just dumb luck? Or maybe, was it a car with a soul that said no one gets stranded in the desert on my watch. Either way, an epic story and a happy ending.