“Dad, are we in Neutral?” Reaching the Green Mesa with Fuel to Spare.

Photo curteousy of the Science Photo Library; 2000 UK fuel shortage crisis entry.

Editor’s note: Julie at the Ranch is on vacation for the month of July.  We’ll be filling in her regular Monday morning spot with other contributors’ work.  Today, we hear a vacation tale from Jeff Bingham about running out of gas. Or not. ~ RDK

“Dad, are we in neutral?”    The voice of my teenage son emanated from the back seat of the van.”    More on that shortly.

You ever run out of gas?    Physically (in your car, or in your body), financially, emotionally, spiritually?

I have only “run out” twice in a car.   More on the others in a minute.

The first time in my car was on vacation; the kids were very young, the weather was hot, things were hectic, and it just happened.   Thankfully, a kind gentlemen, a complete stranger, was adjacent to us and quickly assessed the situation and gave me a ride to the closest station.

The second time was mechanical failure in the car; a bad gas gauge. Same story, a kind gentleman, this time a friend, was close by and accessible. Whether by distraction or otherwise, it’s never a fun place to be. Same goes for the physiological, the emotional, and the spiritual. You always want to have plenty “in your tank”.

I said I’ve only “run out” twice. If we consider “almost running out” occassions, I must admit to a close call another time or two. Ironically enough, both were on vacation trips; a time when the tank should be full and the experience rich.

The first instance was last summer, 2009, while taking the “every other year” trip to the beach. Meeting up with family required us traversing a less dense section of the Texas hill country, and as we rounded the bend out of a decent sized town, it looked like I had a few gallons left.   The map said 30 miles to the next town…and on we went.     Problem is, the next town was not much a town, and their bright yellow and red Shell franchise (the only station in town) had obviously been closed down for quite some time.  Now what? Like many of the situations, you have to just go on. And you pray. (Side note: nothing seems quite as self serving as praying for a gas station, or for your last gallon of gas to last. OK, maybe praying for one million dollars fits that bill.  Not praying for the money necessarily for me, mind you, but something much greater.  That may be a more detailed blog for later; much later, like “when I retire.”)

After sweating through the next 50 miles, we coasted into a small hamlet, engine still running. Thankfully, the gas station was right on the bleeding edge of town. According to our Honda Pilot owner’s manual, the tank holds 18 gallons. I pumped in 18.6 before the first auto click on the pump.   Yikes. Brings new meaning to “running on empty.” I squarely blame this one on that previous town not having an open station. Or was it my fault, for not being fully prepared for what might lie ahead?

Fast forward to vacation 2010: the trek West. This one has a little more defined application, I promise.

Mesa Verde ~ Photo curteousy of City Pictures.Org

One of our desired destinations was Mesa Verde National Park, and the ruins of the cliff dwelling homes of ancient native North American people from hundreds or thousands of years ago. If you’ve ever been there, you have noticed several things: 1) it is in the middle of nowhere, 2) the mesa sits quite a distance above the plain that you drive in from, and 3) there is a large sign at the park gatehouse that reads “No Fuel in the Park.”

No problem, I thought. We have 1/4 tank remaining in the minivan we’d borrowed from my parents, it seems to get pretty good mileage, we are here at our destination, and the nearest town back with a station was only about seven miles or so. As we began to drive up the mesa, a sign (this one in traditional green) read “Cliff Dwellings: 23 miles”. Huh. 46 mile round trip back, plus 7. Probably still okay.

Another sign was ahead, this one in orange. Construction: Be prepared for long delays. Ugh. After a long wait in a parked line with other cars, we began to be escorted further up the mesa in a long chain of single lane traffic. No turning back now. We are committed.

“Ding.”   The sound came from behind the dashboard.  The low fuel warning light was now on.

Sherry then asked, “what was that ding for?” And so the conversations (and the internal calculations) began.

If you have ever been to Mesa Verde, it is a steep 15 or so mile climb to the visitors center at the top of the mesa.   You then drive 8 to 10 miles down a modest decline to the cliff dwellings, all with a 25 mile per hour posted speed limit. Then it hit me. “I can coast through almost all of this sprawling national park, at least half way”. As we started down to the ruins, I quietly slipped the van into neutral and gleefully noticed the RPM gauge staying below 1,000.

“We just might make it back,” I thought.

“We likely won’t make it back,” was my fear.

For the next two to three hours, the occasional refrain came from the back seat: “Dad, are we in neutral?”

Fast forward to the end of this incident. After sweating our way back up to the top of the mesa, we coasted the final 15 miles out (a decline of about 4,000 feet), and found a small (and expensive) excuse for a single gas pump about 200 yards outside the park. I put in a couple of gallons, and drove on into town for a decent fill up. All told, my calculations show we probably exited the park with a little over a gallon to spare. Mission accomplished.

How did it happen? Several things: 1) awareness of the issue, 2) a change in approach (coasting, when appropriate), 3) a slight change in plans (we skipped a section of the park, but both a thunderstorm and the 2 to 3 hours of heat had sapped each of our physiological tanks, as well).

Now, for the attempted application. I’ve mulled over this one for a couple of weeks. Coasting is not the answer, not for your car, not for your body, nor for your financial, emotional, or spiritual life. Changing the game plan, reducing our RPM’s/consuming less, lowering our expectations, etc, are all take aways we can apply to various facets of our life here. But you can’t remain in neutral.

Just like that van coasting down the steep grades at 25 to 35 MPH with no fuel in use, the point comes that you begin to lose momentum, and eventually, that you will come to a complete stop. The point is, make sure you have enough to get where you need to go. Be prepared. Have a contingency plan. Think thru the “what if” moments in advance.

Physically: Eat well. Exercise. Get plenty of sleep.

Financially: Don’t overspend. Save. Plan for negative events and emergencies. I’m still working on this one, and may be for a while.  Change your habits when the environment around you changes (anyone ever heard of a thing called “recession”?) Give some away.

Emotionally: Learn to laugh at yourself. Enjoy laughing with (not at) others. Sacrifice. Love. Accept love in return. Learn to forgive, others and yourself. Learn to forget (some things) and move on. Give of yourself.

Spiritually: Pray. Thank God, Praise God, and ask for His guidance and help. Read your Bible. It’s interesting to see that others in history, even great folks, made some mistakes. Some even ran out of gas. Israel’s family had to go all the way to Egypt to get grain to survive. Thankfully, someone there named Joseph had planned ahead, albeit with help and insight from God.

Back to my story…Mesa Verde means “green mesa.” The big green mountaintop. Sounds lush and inviting. We had enough gas to reach the destination and back. But, lessons learned: plan ahead, but willingly and intentionally adjust as your environment changes.

Maybe “appropriately abridge your ambitions” would be a good title.   Now, if someone can only teach me how to abridge my posts….

Don’t stay in neutral too long. You would not want to miss the “Green Mesa.”