Our road trip in 2004 had many memorable moments in California, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, but the one anecdote we always associate with this trip actually happened in the “drive-through” state of Wyoming, on a long stretch of a highway, deep at night.
We were eight days deep into our trip, just left Salt Lake City, and were on our way back to our ordinary lives in Chicago. As we entered Wyoming, we marveled at the sun dipping low on the horizon but were blissfully unaware of the car’s gas gauge's rapid descent toward “empty”. By the time we noticed, we were good 30 miles past the last gas station and had maybe 50 miles left in the gas tank. Having spent my entire “adult-ish” life in the Chicagoland area, this fact didn’t even give me a pause. There are gas stations everywhere! Almost at every exit! We’ll just fill up at the next station. We drove into the darkness.
Minutes went by with no road signs for the next exit. Miles rolled past our window. Then, finally, an exit! With no signs for a gas station and the exit leading into a dark field with no view of the town, we stayed on the highway.
“I think…” Victor said slowly, staring into the map, “The next exit is… in about fifty miles.”
“What? That can’t be possible? Fifty miles?” I screamed. “Are you reading the map right?”
Victor furrowed his brow. He slowly guided his finger down the map several times and looked up at me, “Just keep driving. There is no point going back. There’ll be an exit when there’ll be an exit.”
I kept driving. With no highway lights or other cars and the sky above overcast with clouds, the highway around us was pitch black, save for our headlights. The little sliver of visible tarmac spinning in front of our wheels and the sound of the wind howling outside the tightly closed windows did little to ease my anxiety. What would happen to us if we ran out of gas? What would we do? (Again, this is before smartphones made life infinitely easier away from home). I kept the gas pedal down, hoping that maintaining even speed on the highway would allow us to cruise to the nearest gas station on whatever gas fumes were left in my quickly emptying tank.
Finally, a sign from above, or actually, from the side of the highway – “Gas Station Next Exit”. I exhaled. It was just a matter of getting to the next exit. As the exit approached, I panicked again. Once again, the exit swerved into the enveloping darkness, no town in sight.
“Get out here.” said Victor, “Next exit in seventy miles.”
“Do you see a town on the map?” I asked as the gravel of the rural exit ramp crunched under my tires.
Victor stared at the map silently.
At the end of the exit ramp, a small one-lane road offered a choice – right or left, both into infinite darkness. A crooked sign “Gas Station - 15 miles” pointed to the right.
We sat silently at the end of the exit ramp. We were both thinking the same thing – fifteen miles, there is no way we are going to make it. It’s one thing to run out of gas on a highway - with occasional trucks and cars rumbling past, we would be able to flag down someone and ask for help. Running out of gas in the middle of nowhere on a rural road among fields and hills is the first scene of a horror movie.
I pressed the gas pedal and steered the car right. “What will be, will be,” I told myself as I reached to turn on the high beams. Fumbling with the controls, while trying to keep the car from bouncing too much on the potholes of the rural road, I accidentally pulled the lever and completely turned off the headlights. The darkness that followed was like nothing I have ever seen before. It was an absolute, all-encompassing, pitch-black void. The car roared forward, shaking and bouncing on the gravel, as my fingers reached for the headlight controls. It would have made sense to panic at that moment, to slam on the brakes, to freak out. It was strange that I didn’t. Those few seconds of darkness, before I turned the headlights back on, were strangely serene. I was already panicking before this, running through various scenarios in my head of every terrible thing that can happen to us in the middle of nowhere once we ran out of gas when the sudden darkness snapped me out of it. I held my breath staring out into the black abyss beyond my windshield, my head suddenly empty of thoughts and anxiety. As the headlights turned back on, I could hear Victor audibly exhale on the seat next to me.
“That was fun!” he said, “Let’s do it again!”
We drove into the night, no civilization in sight, gas gauge planted solidly at “E”, laughing our heads off. Somehow, we made it into the town. When I say town, I mean suddenly there were a few houses on the road and an intersecting street with a gas station on one corner and a bar on another. The gas station was closed. The bar was open.
Unable to admit instant defeat, we drove into the gas station, tried to use the single manual gas pump, and knocked on the dark windows hoping to rouse someone inside. It was hopeless. We were most likely stuck in this town until the morning.
“Let’s go into the bar,” said Victor. “Let’s see if anyone there can help us.”
The bar looked like every dive bar I’ve ever seen in a movie – dark wooden plank exterior with a sloped roof, neon signs advertising Bud Light and pickup trucks parked outside. Muffled sounds of country music were seeping from inside. As we headed towards it, I realized that I had never actually been inside a real dive bar and had no idea what to expect. Every movie scene filmed in this location would automatically end in a shoot-out or an outright brawl.
I pushed the swinging door and we entered a smoke-filled room, empty tables scattered across the floor, a pool table in the corner, and a few men drinking beer at the bar. Within seconds of us entering, all conversations stopped, and everyone was staring at us. I almost expected the music to come to a screeching halt and for the bartender to slowly pull out a cut-off rifle to face the uninvited intruders. Obviously, this little town bar was not used to strangers showing up in the middle of the night.
We moved towards the bar, uncomfortable under suspicious gazes from all sides. Nervously, I launched into a drawn-out explanation of our predicament, my voice getting louder and faster with every second.
“Hold on there, girl!” one of the men waved his hand down, “I can hardly understand what you are saying. Where are you all from?”
“Chicago!” I said. “We are on a road trip.”
“That ain’t Chicago accent. You sound foreign.”
I stopped to consider for a second. Hardly anyone paid attention to my accent in Chicago, but here, I was very much an outsider.
“We are originally from Russia.“ I said, giving Victor a sideways glance which meant that I was not about to launch into an explanation of what and where his home country of Belarus is while standing in a middle of a dive bar at night in rural Wyoming.
The men murmured among themselves. This was clearly exciting news.
“You are far from home.” One of them commented, taking a sip of beer.
I had no idea if he meant far from Chicago or far from Russia, so I simply nodded and asked, “Is there an open gas station nearby? We are out of gas.”
One of the men grinned as if I made a joke, while another asked the bartender for a phone. I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the music, but when he was done, he reassuringly nodded at me. Unsure of what to expect next, Victor and I awkwardly stood around, answering questions from all sides. Yes, we spoke Russian. Yes, our English is decidedly good. No, not everyone in Russia spoke English. Yes, Russia is cold. Yes, there are bears, but only in the forests.
Suddenly, the man who made a phone call earlier got up and motioned us to follow him out of the bar. A pickup truck pulled up in the parking lot and a middle-aged woman in a long flannel nightgown, still disheveled from recent sleep, pulled two gas canisters from the car. We thanked her and her husband profusely and tried to offer money, but they wouldn’t hear of it. She drove off and her husband went back to the bar, as we were filling our car with gas. Before heading to the bar to bring back the empty gas canisters, I rummaged through the trunk, looking for something to present as a thank-you. In the corner of the trunk, I found a brand-new bottle of Ukrainian Pepper Vodka, leftover from a recent friend’s birthday celebrations.
We walked back inside the bar, carrying a bottle of Pepper Vodka, everybody staring at us with as much surprise as the first time we walked in. I handed the bottle to our rescuer with a few words of thanks, as everyone including the bartender, leaned in to examine the bottle.
“Real Russian vodka!” someone called out.
“Yes…” I said, giving Victor a sideways glance, which meant that I was not about to start explaining what and where Ukraine is either.
The bottle was quickly opened, and shots poured. I glanced at the bartender, concerned that he might not approve of BYOB in his bar, but he was holding an empty shot glass, waiting for his sample. I declined the shot glass handed to me, as I was driving, but Victor took his.
“Na zdarov’e!” Victor said and everyone cheered and drank.
We left the bar after the bottle was almost empty and drove back towards the highway, in search of a motel or somewhere to spend the night.
Since 2004 we traveled the world and talked to Bishnoi villagers in rural India, Embera tribe in Panama, protesting Egyptians in the middle of Arab Spring, among dozens of other interactions. To this day, strangely enough, this one story that happened in our country with fellow Americans remains the best example of how it is possible to find kindness in the most unexpected places and overcome cultural differences. Especially when alcohol is involved.