As we wound around the curve in the dark and fog, a bright orange light came on.
The symbol of the gas tank gave me pangs of anxiety. We’d come about a third of the way up the canyon. Should we push on hoping we had enough to make it to Nederland, or turn around and head back to Boulder?
If you’re living in a suburb on the flat lands, you might think I’m crazy. If you’ve ever had your low fuel light come on, it’s probably no big deal to make it to the nearest gas station.
It’s only 15 miles from Boulder to Nederland. But it’s also 3,000 feet higher, and Nederland resides at 8,200 feet. You burn a lot more gas driving up grades of 10% or more at high altitude. Plus, we had no idea with this particular car, how much fuel we had left. Was it one gallon, maybe two?
The prudent thing to do would have been to go back to Boulder. Driving down a hill uses up a lot less gas, and after all, gas is cheaper down there. But as every mountain dweller knows, once you’ve started up the hill, you just really don’t want to go back down.
Mentally, I tell myself to go get gas when I’m at work in Boulder. Yet, it happens all the time, that once I’m done with my work day, I’m tired. All I want to do is point the car west and go home to my mountain refuge.
I’ve played this game of chicken with my gas tank many times. When I worked at Rocky Mountain National Park, I drove 45 miles each way. I can’t tell you how many times, I would find myself on the Peak to Peak highway, and see the low gas light come on.
Never once did I turn around and go back to Estes Park to fill up.
Taking the chance, whether in Boulder Canyon or on Peak to Peak Highway, is a risky venture. There is no cell service on either road. If you run out of gas, you will be relying on the mercy of a passing motorist to get you to the nearest town or a landline phone.
Making the proposition even worse, I often drove home from Rocky after late night campground programs at 10 or 11 p.m. at night. The chances of seeing a passing motorist were slim to none.
When we saw the low fuel light come on tonight in Boulder Canyon, we hatched a plan. Having taken the Nederland bus to Boulder, I’d left my Subaru at the bottom of The Summer Road. If we could get there, I could get my car and drive behind Bryon to Nederland. If he ran out of gas, we’d at least be able to take my car and get a gas can and bring it back.
Luck was with us tonight. Perhaps the fog helped us out, forcing us to drive much more slowly, using less gas. The green dinosaur sign of the Sinclair station appeared, signaling we’d been fortunate and made it.
But tonight was a lesson and a good reminder. It’s never wise to drive around the Rocky Mountains of Colorado without a full tank of gas. Particularly during snow season.
You really don’t know how long it could take you to get to the nearest town. Getting caught in a snowstorm on some lonely mountain road, you might need every bit of gas to keep you warm as you wait for help.
Fill ‘er up!