Picture it! New Mexico, January 2013. I was driving back to Illinois from a visit with my best friend who lived in Phoenix. It was day two of the return trip and so far the entire trip had been on major interstates with truck stops every 20 miles. I had spent the night in a Days Inn in Las Vegas, New Mexico (a town I hadn’t known existed until I pulled off onto the exit ramp) and I had gotten up early to set off. I was headed to Kansas City via Dodge City and wanted to get going.
My little Hyundai Accent, affectionately named Tilda, had about a quarter tank of gas. But I wasn’t worried because I would soon come across a Love’s or a QT or some other big gas station, as I had for the 1800 miles previous. Besides, it was still early, nothing was likely to be open yet. So, I set my iPhone to shuffle, put on my sunglasses, and hit the road.
I was following the GPS on my phone, not really paying attention to the route it was taking me. It hadn’t led me astray thus far. So, when it told me to get off at Springer, New Mexico, I didn’t even question it. In Springer, there was a gas station. Though it was deserted and didn’t appear to be open just yet. I could have stuck around and waited, but I was burning daylight and ready to get somewhere.
As I left the town limits, I met with a bad sign. “Clayton 75 mi” it said. Several other towns were listed with even larger distances listed. “Surely there’s something in between here and there,” I told myself. “Clayton is just the next BIG town on this route.”
Another mile down the road came the equally worrying “Do not pick up hitchhikers. – Thank you, Springer Penitentiary”. I glanced at my gas gauge. Assuming I kept approximately the same miles per gallon I had maintained thus far, I could theoretically make it to Clayton before I ran out of gas, but I would be coasting in on fumes. Still, I thought, there has to be something in between.
It was about five minutes later that I began to worry. If you’ve never been to northeast New Mexico, it can be hard to imagine the vast emptiness. Oh, there were signs of life. Fences galore. And cows in herds. Once, I even saw a Jeep off in the distance, driving across the plain towards a herd of wayward cattle. But no houses, no stores, no signs of civilization to be seen.
After ten minutes of nothing, I was starting to panic slightly. So, I pulled my phone out of its holder and tried to pull up Google Maps. I thought if I could see where the nearest gas station was, I could calm my fears. But there was no 3G. No Internet. I took a deep breath and dialed my older brother’s cell number. It would be about 8am where he was. And he had a week old baby, so I figured he would probably be awake. He didn’t answer, but my sister in law did.
After explaining the situation, I asked if she could pull up Google Maps and let me know where the closest gas station to me was. As the page was loading, the call dropped. No cell service.
At this point, I am seriously freaking out. But I’m not as far from Springer as I was from Clayton, so there was no point in going back. Just as all hope was dying, I saw a faded, peeling billboard beside the road. “Gladstone Mercantile” it said. And gas was listed under services. Was it possible? Was my salvation at hand?
I pulled into the Gladstone Mercantile parking lot. When I say this was in the middle of nowhere, I’m not kidding. It wasn’t even at a crossroads. The gas pump had predated my birth by at least twenty years, but it appeared to be functional. I stepped inside and tried to pre-pay for the gas, but the lady behind the counter told me I could just pay when I was done.
I put twenty dollars worth into my car, paid, and I was back on my way. Just outside of Clayton, two things happened. First, I passed a sign saying “Don’t pick up hitchhikers! – Thank you, Clayton Jail”. Second, my cell service returned.
I had 15 text messages and 8 missed calls. Back in Illinois, my sister in law was freaking out. I pulled into the Sinclair gas station in Clayton and sent her a quick message saying I was fine and I had procured gas. I filled up my tank and for the rest of the trip, I never let the tank get under half full.