Announced by the sharp crack of a backfiring engine, the caravan of old Pontiacs and Fords wended their way off the highway and into the gas station-restaurant, arriving, it seemed, from another time.
On a blustery May day, Carl and Frances Barrier’s 8-cylinder Pontiac Deluxe, vintage 1940, needed this stop in the Kansas plains to fill up on 87-octane, $2.75 a gallon, on its way to an antique car museum in Minden, Neb. In its prime, their Pontiac traveled 15 miles on a gallon of gas, but now manages only 10.
“We don’t even think about it,” said Carl, 72, a retired manager with Raytheon aircraft, as he finished his $50 fill-up. “You talk about the $3 gas. But I went to work for a service station in 1946. Gas was 20 cents a gallon. I made $2 a day... When I retired I made over $200 a day.” Taking that long view, he said, gas is still affordable.
And that kind of relatively unfazed attitude was not unusual among drivers encountered by an Associated Press writer on a drive along interstates and backroads from Detroit to Los Angeles.
Along the journey, regular gasoline ranged from $2.60 to $3.49, with one station, a remote Mojave Desert outpost, charging $4.29 a gallon.
The cost was high enough for most to take notice and for some to make adjustments — such as trucker Kris Jacobs fuel surcharge for hauling cheese from Wisconsin to New York City. But gas costs are not high enough — yet — to deeply change habits and plans.
After the initial shock and anger passes, it seems, we adjust to the new price. We grumble, we give lip service to alternative fuels, we think about hybrid vehicles.
Then on we drive.
A trip across America suggests the spike in gas prices caused a psychological tremor. Most of those interviewed doubted gas will ever go below $2 a gallon again. And if it went up another dollar or more...?
“Four dollars would represent a psychological panic attack,” said Lisa Lanyon, 40, a college instructor, as she paid about $30 to fill up her 1995 Chevy Cavalier in Denver.
Ordinary folks on a budget adjust in many small ways. Las Vegas casino employee Andrea Johnson consolidates errands, walks when she can, and shops around for the cheapest gas in town. (Costco, for her.)
Polls have found drivers are more conscious of their gas consumption, that they are suspicious of the oil companies, that they hold President Bush responsible for the run-up. Members of Congress proposed giving taxpayers a $100 gas rebate. Hotels and resorts are offering guests gas vouchers.
But for the most part, as the summer driving season commences, Americans appear to be keeping to their plans, commuting alone many miles to work, trekking the country in motor homes, all in the face of rising gas prices.
The heart of America, it seems, still resides on four wheels on an open road.
The trip started in Detroit, where gas could easily be had for $2.75 a gallon.
At Murray’s Discount Auto Store in Hamtramck, long home to auto plants, sales manager Jerry Fleer feels “kind of stuck” with his 1991 Oldsmobile Bravada SUV because he can’t afford to trade right now. Murray’s carries a novel alternative to a high-cost cars: electric-powered scooters. And yet, regardless of higher gas prices, the store has not sold one since Christmas.
In the farming country of Crawfordsville, Iowa, three partners are capitalizing on the call for fuel alternatives.
Their biodiesel plant is rising on the site of a former farm. Corn and soybeans are Iowa’s two biggest crops. Both can also be turned into fuel — corn into ethanol, soybeans into biodiesel. Biodiesel consumption has increased from 2 million gallons in 2000 to 75 million in 2005. Use of both promises to rise. High oil prices present an opportunity for farmers.
The company was started by Donald Miksch and brothers Neil and Darin Rich (the company name, Riksch Biofuels, combines their surnames). The plant, to be completed in July at a cost of $8 million, will produce 10 million gallons of soy-based diesel fuel per year.
The plant will also provide a new revenue stream for farmers, creating more businesses in town and giving locals a reason to stay.
“This is the only way to build our town back,” said Miksch, who is 27 and married. “I was one of those kids who left. I chose to come back here. I want to raise my kids here.”
From the farms of the Midwest, where fuel can be about the bottom line, drive into the West, where vast spaces beckon, and where fuel is associated with the freedom to explore.
Consider the Ligtermoets, who had always planned to spend their retirement traveling across the country in a mobile home. By the time they sold their house in San Diego and bought their 35-foot fifth-wheel trailer, the price of gas breached $3 per gallon.
“You can’t be happy about it,” said Marinus Ligtermoet, 60, sitting in the 90-degree shade of a tree in the Zions Gate RV Resort near Utah’s Zion National Park. “But you figure, hey, it’s home.”
He and his wife, Ans, left San Diego in early May. The next six months look like this: Utah; Boise, Idaho; Bend, Ore.; then to Spokane, Wash., for three weeks where they will watch the World Cup. Then up to British Columbia. They will drive up the Alaska Highway, then south to Seattle. Later they’ll meander down the Pacific coast, due back in San Diego to spend the holidays with their grandkids.
The trailer has satellite television, an Internet connection, a washing machine and dryer, king-size, pillow-top bed, all pulled by a 2004, Ford F-350, one-ton, diesel pickup. Supported by Marinus’ Navy pension, life on the road is still cheaper than the alternative: $1,500 a month, give or take.
“Let’s put it this way, I don’t lose any sleep over it,” he said.
Life in Sin City
Farther west lies the delirious accident of speculative money, imported water, and unfettered indulgence called Las Vegas.
Making the fantasy happen here are people like Ana Flores, one of nearly 10,000 employees of the MGM Grand hotel and casino.
Flores, 22, has plans — and she carefully figures gas prices into them.
She’s a nursing student and works in a casino gift shop. She earns about $10 an hour and spends about $20 every week on gas (around $3.15 a gallon) for her 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer. Every dollar matters in her budget.
She’s hoping to save enough within the year to buy a one-bedroom condominium. Billboards everywhere advertise low down payments and mortgages for as little as $800 a month. Flores is hoping $3,000 and her good credit will be enough to get her started in home ownership.
“Gas Food 24.”
This is one of those few places on the road where the price of gas has little meaning.
In the middle of the Mojave Desert, if you lacked the foresight to fill up in Las Vegas to the east or Barstow, Calif., to the west, you’ll pay what’s asked at the white, peaked roof building off Interstate 15 — on a recent stop, $4.29 a gallon for regular.
Allen Young, 47, has run the service station for more than 20 years and says his price reflects supply and demand in the desert and the additional overhead involved with operating such an isolated business. He and his employees live in six adjoining mobile homes.
Most customers pay the markup agreeably, buying just enough to get to the next stop. Without cash, some have been desperate enough to trade Rolex watches and Gibson guitars for gas. Occasionally a customer accuses Young of highway robbery.
The station sells about 30,000 gallons a month, as much as a busy station closer to civilization can sell on one weekend day. But their profit margin might be 25 cents a gallon, while Young makes about 40 cents.
“I don’t pull any punches about it,” he said.
In few places does the car occupy the position it does at the end of the journey, in Los Angeles.
Absolute necessity. Ultimate expression of identity — and vanity.
As much as anywhere in America, you are what you drive here.
Slideshow: Celebrity rides To become the boss, you drive what the boss drives. Better to have a lousy apartment and a cool car than the other way around. Even if you have an old car, you spend the money on “dubs,” local slang for fancy wheels.
Few carpool, and the L.A. subway has an unspectacular, if steady, ridership.
Yes, polls have shown that interest in buying smaller cars has risen with gas prices, but sales of certain lines of SUVs — Hummers, Lexus, and Land Rovers — are as strong as ever.
At a Land Rover dealership in Beverly Hills, saleswoman Dawn Marone said vehicular snobbery explained why there are so few minivan “mom-mobiles” at a local park.
“Everyone’s in an SUV. And it’s, ‘Whose SUV is better than the other SUV?’ Everybody’s got to have the best one they can afford regardless of gas,” said Marone, herself a mom and SUV driver.
“Gas prices are totally hurting me,” she added. “But I will never not have (an SUV).”
Back up the road in Kansas, talk of gas prices led Frances Barrier to question the material excess most of us take for granted. To complain about the price of gas, in her estimation, seems trivial.
Besides the two antique cars that she and her husband drive, they own a pickup and other vehicles.
“My dad had one,” she said.
Indeed, she added, back in the 1930s, when her large family either raised or grew all their food, the death of the old family truck prompted her father to separate the cab from the bed and make a wagon — pulled by horses.
No worries about gas prices then.
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