Some lessons bear dissemination, no matter the personal cost, no matter the risk of stigma. For this reason, I do not take publication of the following lightly.
It’s been almost three years now and the passage of time has chipped and chiseled away enough of the encapsulating tendrils of shame, and shone enough liberating light on the dark secret of my embarrassment, so that I may finally share with you, dear reader, what is arguably my greatest humiliation.
I share this so that others, like you, may be assuaged of similar ills, so you may live a life free from what you too have hidden and buried deep inside your being.
But a small part of me also takes this brave step, exposing my vulnerability, to cast off the shackles that have chained me in place, frozen by the events of that day.
Head North Young Man
It was a brisk day, late December 2015. Night had fallen and the car was loaded, with both fuel and my suitcase.
It was road trip time.
Roughly 400 km of travel was on the docket. Northward.
After work, I went off to pick up my travel companion. She too was heading in the direction from whence Santa was starting his journey of bolstering the retail economy.
It was our second time meeting and she didn’t know me as well as you do, dear reader. But I suppose the events of that night would soon change that.
The travels started as they typically do with two people unknown to each other, with friendly conversation and questions.
As the kilometers passed by, engrossed in delightful conversation with said travel companion, our protagonist soon realized that the needle on the powerful gas tank gauge was slowly making it’s way down all the markings.
Like everything else, it was no match for gravity either. Down, down, down.
At this point, you know the type of person you are.
Knowing the unquenchable thirst of his ride and the distance yet to cover, one insistent thought rose up.
I’ll stop at the next gas station to fill up.
And that was our hero’s plan but the universe had others.
Two gas stations along the way, closed. Lights out. Dark and cold. Abandoned to the growing night.
So we continued Northward, our pace on the bustling highway slowing to the long ago completed driver’s education instilled beacon of fuel economy: 90 km/hr.
The kilometers whizzed by and nary a gas station appeared. 10. 15. 20. More of the nothingness. A growing weariness and unease to accompany the eerie stillness that surrounded us.
What is this desolation?
The companion, a non-driver was unperturbed. From her vantage point in the passenger seat, all was as it should be. But that’s because she couldn’t see the ominous orange glow of the low fuel gauge suddenly flicker and light up the console. Like the ocean tides, it came and went with the cresting of every hill and subsequent coasting descent. Until on one pass, it stood fast. Glaring at me. Solid. Unwavering. A gauntlet I knew I couldn’t pick up.
This is when I knew we were in trouble.
Using the understanding of my car’s capabilities and the distance to our destination, I knew we were short. The numbers, they would not match. I couldn’t reconcile them. Abject failure for the son of an accountant.
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light– Hotel California, The Eagles
Within a few minutes of driving with the solid gas light on, an oasis appeared up on the right. A gas station. Salvation was ours.
I pulled in and realized the pumps were designed to be paid inside. I strode confidently to the door, smug in my sense of accomplishment, a spring in my step, my travel companion none the wiser to our previous predicament.
The locked door.
I pulled on the door handle. It didn’t budge. I pulled harder and inadvertently revisited Newton’s Third Law. It pulled back just as hard. Nothing. All those years of dead lifting and squatting and farmer’s carries. Useless. I couldn’t even open a simple door. Not just any door, but the door to salvation.
If my brute force and power wouldn’t work, I would change tactics. Brains over brawn. I knocked on the door. Repeatedly. Still no entrance was granted. I began to yell my entreaties into the cold, dark night. Until I could yell no more. My voice silenced by despair.
I stared longingly inside the brightly lit store.
And still I was to remain outside, my credit still safely tucked inside my credit card. The fuel, still safely tucked inside the buried fuel tank.
As I trudged dejectedly back to my car, I put on a bright face and told my companion:
“We’ll stop at the next one.”
So we continued North. I sat there driving with steady pace and controlled acceleration, my mind racing, doing the mental arithmetic, the seed of worst case scenario germinating deep inside my cold, calloused soul, sprouting small growing shoots of now audible despair into my conscious mind.
If we didn’t find fuel fast, we would be 20 km shy of our destination, from civilization. That type of walking would be way too catabolic for me. I had to think of the muscle.
I kept steady pressure on the accelerator, with no sudden thrusts or spurts, keeping an even steady rhythm, hoping to minimize fuel consumption. But the gauge dipped lower.
I saw the sign.
As the apprehension grew within me, I saw a sign with the name of a town I’d been to the summer before. They had a gas station there. It was 1 km away. The math worked.
I eased the car gently off the highway on to the unlit, undivided secondary Northern highway, a large weight lifted off my broad shoulders.
We drove through this narrow country highway, buttressed by barren, darkened forest on either side, my eyes glued both ahead of me and to the odometer. The meters ticked by the 100. Soon, they continued by the kilometers. The sign had been a lie.
We were nearing the end of tank, if my calculations were correct.
“So how good do you think search parties are?”
The unspoken thought went through my mind when I realized that not only would we be without fuel, but we would be without communication – there was no cell phone signal.
Surprisingly, my travel companion seemed fairly calm, being stuck in a forest with a guy she had basically just met, in the middle of nowhere, with a car quickly running out of gas, and no cell phone to call for help or tell those expecting you why you likely wouldn’t make in in time.
Maybe she felt I was well prepared, as I’d just told her about the emergency bag that I kept in the trunk. This bag has moved with me for years and contained emergency candles, heat blanket, extra clothes. We could hunker down for the night if absolutely required and survive like heroes. The snickers bars and pop tarts still in their original 2008 containers. I was just hoping I had the right one in there, and hadn’t switched it out with the one with the extra passports and cash.
A flash of light caught my eye from the depths of the forest – it was a string of Christmas lights strung across the front awning of what appeared to be a darkened trading post, which brought its soft glow to the two gas pumps that adorned the front.
Traveling at the speed that I was, in the state of utter panic that I was experiencing, the disconnect between my mind seeing the outlines of the pumps and my conscious self realizing I should stop, took a few moments. In that time, I overshot the entrance by about 120 meters.
No big deal, I’ll just U-turn. On this absolutely pitch black road. In the middle of nowhere. In the depths of a forest.
And that was the moment that I ran out of gas.
My car, and the two of us inside, perpendicular to the highway. Stalled. Done completely. Not even fumes to finish the turn.
My math had been right. Virtually to the kilometer, out of gas.
Panic levels hit epic proportions. We were on a secondary highway, perpendicular to any potential traffic, enshrouded by darkness, just on the other side of a curve. We’d be invisible to any car that would be hurtling down these roads.
You’ll have to steer.
Clarity came suddenly. Like it can only do when imminent death or grievous bodily harm is staring your down. This is what my 20+ years of physical training was all about. The hours in the gym. The repetitions. All the blood, sweat, and tears. The day had come. I would have to push the car. And fast.
Remember, my travel companion was a non-driver.
And here, in desperate times, she earned her license. She had to steer as I pushed. The roadway, however, was not a simple one, with a fairly steep drop off bordering a very narrow unpaved shoulder. Lucky, the car being fuel free, was much lighter than I expected. As we weaved the 120 meters to the entrance of the trading post, my thighs were on fire, but my heart was light.
The entrance to salvation was gravel and so the car could no longer be pushed – the coefficient of friction just not in our favour.
I walked the last 10 meters to the pump.
My heart sank. Affixed to the nearest pump was a simple piece of cardboard with a crushing message poorly scrawled in thick black sharpie:
Sorry. Out of gas.
In the distance, we saw a lantern swinging in the darkness. A man called out a greeting and stated the obvious.
“Looks like you’re out of gas! We don’t got any either!”
In the end, we realized the very happy man, with a that special lilt in his voice, had a jerrycan he kept in his shed, which he allowed me to graciously purchase from him.
We screwed on the spout top, and tilted it up towards my thirsty ride.
It was not to be. The universe toying with us again. The nozzle was too big. Size did matter. And in this case, the small opening just couldn’t accommodate the girth.
As luck would have it, he rummaged around his shed and found another spout, a smaller more compact one.
It fit the car, but was too small for the can. It would have to do. Equal amounts of fuel poured down the can and splashed my pants as did enter the car.
I didn’t care at this point. Heroes never do.
We would not have to spend the night in the forest in the car in the cold. We would not have to eat stale, 7 year old pop tarts and snickers for sustenance. And we could make our destination.
And here, almost 3 years to the day later, I traveled the same route last night. On the route, I saw all the same gas stations. I saw the same highway exit sign.
I made peace. Again. As I have for the past few years.
That is what has allowed me to share this with you today.
What allows me to discharge the burdensome shame and guilt I have carried all these years.
It’s only now that I’m able to tell you that I’m still with the same cell phone provider.
Even though they have spotty Northern Ontario coverage.