I just returned from a two-week trip to the States, visiting my sisters and my son. I wish I had had time to visit sooo many others I love and miss terribly.
However, three significant events happened during the trip.
I made three small choices, without even realizing, that could have had some very unpleasant consequences …
The first happened when we went geocaching with my sisters and nieces and nephews.
We were many miles from town, up in the mountains on a gravel logging road, when my car beeped to tell me I was out of gas.
The thing is … for years, I’ve refueled at half a tank. For years.
In 1992 or 1993, there was a nasty windstorm in Thurston County, Washington, and the entire county lost power for several days. My car was out of gas, or nearly so. I was planning to gas up that afternoon when I picked up my son at the babysitter’s.
Except the school where I taught closed at 9:30 in the morning when the power went out. I tried to gas up — but gas pumps don’t work without power. And I didn’t have enough gas to get to the county line.
I could have spent the unexpectedly long weekend relaxing comfortably at my sister’s house an hour south, where they had plenty of power, but instead my son and I huddled in our cold duplex, eating whatever we could warm up a little in a chafing dish.
Just for the record? Smoked provolone doesn’t make a lovely gooey dip when you melt it. It turns to something more like plastic, and the more you chew it, the bigger it grows in your mouth.
I learned my lesson from that experience, and for the two decades since, I’ve always gassed up when I got down to half a tank. Just in case.
But there I was. In the middle of nowhere with a van full of my young nieces and nephews — who think I’m wonderful — and I was out of gas.
Or nearly so. I think the warning sounds when you’re down to the last gallon or two.
I switched the display to the mode that shows “miles to empty” (MTE), and turned around.
It was going to be close — very close — so I rode my brakes down the hill in neutral to save gas. By the time we got off the mountain, my brakes stank of burning rubber and were a little squishy.
But I knew what I was doing, and it wasn’t dangerous.
Does anybody else in my family hear Dad’s echo in that statement? He always ”knew what he was doing.” That’s why, one day when I was home from college and peeked out the patio door to see that the tarp over his head was on fire, I said, very calmly, “Dad? Is that supposed to be on fire?” Instead of screaming, “OMG! FIRE!!” He always knew what he was doing.
I had to spend $4.99 a gallon to gas up at an RV campground, but at least my stupid mistake didn’t cost us our fun. We went out and found four or five geocaches that day, including a “Jewelry Exchange” cache I’ve been wanting to find for years.
I was surprised at myself — honestly, I always fill up at half a tank — but I brushed it off as a good reminder.
Then it happened again, the following week.
We were driving from Forks to Port Angeles for crab when I glanced at my gas gauge and saw it was nearly empty.
We were only about ten miles from Forks, but the “miles to empty” display said I had something like forty-five miles left, so I didn’t turn around. That was Mistake #2.
I punched a few buttons on the GPS and saw there was a Shell station ten miles down the road, so I kept going, without mentioning my dilemma to my sisters in the other car.
But the Shell station wasn’t there. It was … sorry! … just a shell of its former self, an empty cave of a concrete building.
No problem though! Another twelve miles or so, I’d run into a Texaco station. I kept going. Mistake #3.
The road from Forks to Port Angeles is gorgeous, but treacherous. It’s a two-lane curvy road with no shoulders, squeezed in between the steep mountainside and the shores of Lake Crescent. And it’s very heavily traveled in the summer: by oversized RVs and four-wheel-drive pickups going way too fast.
It is not a safe place to run out of gas and sit by the side of the road waiting for AAA.
I drove on, watching the “miles to empty” count down, but the GPS was showing an encouraging corresponding decrease in the number of miles to the next gas station. I drove on.
The Texaco station was two pumps thrusting up like rocky outcrops in the ocean with a hand-lettered sign that said, “Open 24 hours.” It wasn’t even a station, per se. Just two pumps. No sign of that reassuring Texaco star.
I was never going to make it to Port Angeles, but my GPS said there was another station not too far ahead. I drove on. Mistake #4.
I was about fifteen miles from the station — and twenty miles to empty — when I noticed in the rearview mirror an oversized pickup looming over my sister’s tailgate. Clearly he didn’t like going the speed limit (sound familiar, Albertans?). If she didn’t get out of his way, he was going to push her out, by gum! I watched him as we swooped around the curves, wondering if I should pull over and let him pass.
I have, maybe twice in six years, run the gas down to five “miles to empty,” and …
Ok, Ok! Fine, I admit it. I don’t always always fill up at half a tank. Just almost always always.
… Anyway, I knew I could trust the “MTE” display. At least within five miles. I pulled over. My sister pulled in behind me, and the pickup driver roared past.
But then I couldn’t get back in.
Remember how well traveled I said this road was? The gaps between the cars just weren’t very big. I needed a space large enough for both vehicles, but every time I thought I had it, a car appeared around the curve right before I pulled out.
Finally, there was a long space without cars. I pulled back onto the road, and my sister pulled out behind me.
But the lapse was costly. I had lost my precious five-mile cushion. According to the Garmin, I was still twelve miles from the nearest station — and according to the MTE, I had exactly twelve-point-four miles before my car would give one last gasp and stall.
I began to sweat a little. And pray. A lot!
I always feel a little guilty (and a little foolish) praying a variation of, “Please save me from the consequence of my own stupid choice. Please don’t let happen what should.”
Didn’t stop me though. Like any other fool in a foxhole (or driving a windy, mountain road), I prayed furiously.
Eleven miles to go. Eleven MTE.
Ten miles to go. Ten MTE.
Then something horrible happened. The “miles to empty” display suddenly flicked from ten to eight.
I drove with sweaty palms and palpating heart, my eyes flicking from MTE to the Garmin. Blessedly, the MTE stuck, and the Garmin kept faithfully clicking away.
The Garmin said eight, then seven-point-eight, then seven-point-six. I watched, but the MTE stayed solidly at eight.
I prayed harder, shocked to find my prayers effective. Oh, me of little faith.
When the Garmin hit 6.0, the MTE display flicked down too: 6.0.
OK, I told myself. I don’t have any extra fuel, but I might have enough.
The Garmin counted down the miles to salvation. The MTE display remained stuck at 6.0. I began to breathe again.
Then the Garmin rolled from 4.0 to 3.9, and in one fatal moment, the MTE switched from six to zero.
I had no gas left. None. And six miles to go.
There was nowhere to pull over. No turnouts. No wide spots. Nothing to do but grip the steering wheel and drive. And pray.
I watched that zero for six excruciating miles.
It’s just the slope, I told myself. As soon as the road levels off, it’ll go back to six.
Or five. Or four. At that point, anything other than zero would have been comforting.
But it remained, stubbornly, painfully, stuck at zero.
I drove with one eye on the side of the road at all times, weighing the non-existentent shoulder. Would it support my van? I watched for the quasi-wide spots, where I could move over a few feet anyway, though half my vehicle would still jut into the narrow lane. I drove prepared to drive my car off the road into whatever ditch or sandy spot I could find.
The short version — and I’ve already spoiled the story — is that we made it.
I didn’t brake to make the left turn into the gas station, figuring I’d be coasting to the pumps, but we made it.
I pumped seventeen-point-six gallons of gas into a tank I thought held sixteen gallons, but we made it.
While I was pumping gas, everyone went inside to use the restroom, and my sister discovered a delightful little gift shop and an olive tray shaped like pieces of an American flag … yadda, yadda …
The moment passed, and I ended up not even telling them about the nightmare I’d just driven through.
I did say there were three events, right? I wasn’t even aware of the third until it was over.
We pulled into our hotel parking lot in Abbortsford, BC, about 2:30 in the morning. It was crammed full, but the security guard in the parking lot helped me squeeze up against the barricade, creating a spot where none existed.
It hardly even registered that the hotel — a relatively small Super 8 – paid a man to spend the night in the parking lot.
I was so tired.
I made the kids carry in their computers and iPads, and I carried in one small overnight bag. I left everything else — the Garmin, an iPod, three suitcases, three sleeping bags, two guitars, eighteen cases of Splenda Coke (duh!), and eight tubs of my sister’s incomparable, invaluable chèvre — and went inside to sleep.
The next morning, when I went out to get dog food, I saw the sliding door on the passenger side — the side facing away from the hotel — was ajar.
The power door has been acting up, and the local dealer has ordered the part to repair it. But in the meantime, we’ve been closing it by hand. Very faithfully.
Except that somehow, I had locked up the van and walked away without checking it.
And it was open.
When I was young, whenever someone was traveling, my mother would pray for “traveling mercies.”
I used to think it meant praying that nothing bad would happen. In fact, I thought that’s what it meant until yesterday morning.
But having nothing bad happen isn’t mercy. At least, not usually.
If one is good, and good things come of it, it isn’t mercy. It’s justice, because the one who received the good things deserved them.
If one is bad, and bad things come of it, one doesn’t expect mercy. One expects justice because the one who received the bad things brought them on herself.
When a traveller makes a stupid choice — like not filling the gas tank or not closing the door — she expects the bad consequence.
When it doesn’t come? When the traveler wakes to find that she’s left my car door open (not just unlocked, but open!) all night long — and absolutely nothing is missing in the morning?
Ah! That truly is traveling mercy.
These stupid actions — they aren’t like me. I’m normally a very responsible, level-headed person.
As a Highly Sensitive Person … I had a pyschic tell me once that I am an Empath, that I have a psychic ability to understand what other people are feeling … I am pre-programmed to foresee doom approaching.
I can’t help myself. My brain is always tracing the What If…? path. It’s a source of power in my fiction, but it’s a curse in real life.
I always know all the bad things that can happen. I work very hard to keep them at bay, even though I know ninety percent of the time, they wouldn’t happen anyway.
It is not like me to leave the door open in an area clearly accustomed to petty crime, or to allow the gas tank to run dry in a remote, rural area.
And yet, I did that.
I am not myself right now. I have taken too many blows in the past three or four years, faced too much disappointment and grief. I’ve lost hope in the future. I’ve lost faith in myself.
My reserves are depleted. My resilience is gone.
I know this about myself, and yet, I could never forgive myself if my children or my nieces and nephews were hurt because I made a poor choice.
I am sooo immensely grateful for traveling mercies.
However, this is also a wakeup call.
I have pushed myself too far, for too long. I have expected too much strength of myself, even long after whatever moral and emotional muscle I had built up was torn and tattered.
I am beaten, at least temporarily.
One of the things I’m battling is agoraphobia. I struggled with this … oh, I dunno, twenty or thirty years ago.
It really hasn’t been much of an issue in my life since, but it is now. I’m finding it very difficult to go out in public, or answer the phone, or even hang around Facebook. I’m finding it difficult to be with people, even people I love dearly and respect.
And after these three events — events that could have put people I love more than myself in danger — I think I need to step back.
I need some time and space. To heal. To find myself. To figure out what really matters to me.
I cannot be a public person right now.
I’m in the process of revamping my website — and oh!! It’s so gorgeous! You’re gonna love it!
But I can’t do it right now. I need to tuck my little hermit crab claws into my borrowed shell, and just hide for a bit.
I’ll be back. I’ve finished East of Jesus, and while my initial submission attempt hasn’t resulted in a lucrative contract, I’m not giving up that story.
And I’ve signed up for a week-long writers retreat in Nova Scotia in August, and I know myself well enough to know I’ll probably come home from that swinging and in full energy.
But that’s a month and a half away. For now, I’m tucking in. You probably won’t see me.
When I find myself again — when I recover that strong, vibrant woman I know I used to be — I’ll be back.
Hopefully then, I won’t have to rely on traveling mercies.
Tags: unpleasant consequences