There were five of us crammed into the 4WD rental that had taken us to Trona, Ballarat, and Surprise Canyon, and we were heading back through Trona to return to the subcompact that we'd driven up from LA.
It had been a long day, and we were all anxious to end it. Riding shotgun, I couldn't stop taking photos of an incredible lenticular cloud hanging low in the sky ahead, rendered orange by the sun as it dipped behind a mountain.
We noticed a small car pulled over to the shoulder, hazards on – which is not so unusual in the desert, but in such a remote area, somebody could really be in trouble.
We saw two people frantically waving their arms, so we slowed down to pull over and see what the trouble was. A Japanese man, out of breath, told us in broken English that they had run out of gas, and that no other cars had passed them by until us. He was understandably worried, and kept asking how far the next gas station was.
We figured it was 15-20 miles away, a 15-20 minute drive on that road, but too far to walk. Our vehicle was too full for him to jump in and ride along, so we engaged him in a line of questioning to determine how bad the situation was.
"Are you completely out of gas? Did the car stop?" I asked.
"Yes, out of gas," he said. "We pulled over."
I was skeptical. "Is the light on?"
"Yes, light is on."
"When did the light go on?"
"Light just turned on."
Suddenly his situation did not seem so dire. "OH," I said, "You're fine then. Just keep driving! You've got enough."
He didn't believe me, but the rest of my companions started chiming in, assuring him that even if he couldn't make it all the way to the gas station, at least he'd get a lot closer, making it a lot easier (and more likely) for someone to help him.
But he was panicked. He was just frozen. The desert can be so scary to people who aren't familiar with it, as soon as that light turned on, he and his lady friend must've thought, "We're going to die out here."
He kept asking us "How far?" and "How long?" and we kept telling him "You're totally OK. You can do it." And we thought we'd convinced him. We thought he believed us.
So we drove away, keeping an eye out for him in our rear view mirror, thinking we'd pull over if we saw his car putter to a stop, proving us wrong. We weren't going to let him perish out there, but we also weren't going to let him completely give up and not even try to make it all the way.
I just couldn't understand how a driver could just pull over as soon as the fuel light went on. Why wouldn't you run it until it's empty? There's usually some reserve still left in the tank when the dashboard lights up, and even when the fuel gauge needle is all the way to empty, it's still not completely empty. You've still got a little bit of that sludge that can make its way through the fuel injection to keep the car running.
And we were headed more or less downhill. He could've coasted. He could've put it in neutral. There were so many things he could've done to make it all the way, but he was paralyzed by his fear. He had accepted certain doom, and saw us as his only hope.
Sure, in a situation like this, anyone would be sweating bullets. But you have to push through the anxiety. You have to drive through the fear until something bad actually happens, if it happens at all.
We felt pretty good as we drove away. We felt like we'd really helped him.
And then, after a little while, we realized he wasn't behind us. The car we thought was his passed us, and kept going past the two gas stations in Trona, the only place to fuel up for miles.
"Oh my God," I said, "What if he took us literally and decided to just keep driving until the car stopped? Instead of stopping for gas first?"
I was half-joking, but given the language barrier, and the absurdity of his reaction to the situation, it seemed possible.
And then our hearts fell, as we realized that he probably never left that spot – that we had probably left him behind. In our best guess, he didn't have the confidence to give it a go and see how far he could get. He followed the advice they give if you're lost – to just stay where you are.
But the thing is, he wasn't lost. He knew exactly where he was, and he knew exactly where he needed to go. He just couldn't move.
We thought about turning back to retrieve him, but it was getting dark and our excursion had already run late. We figured somebody else would stop to help him, maybe give him a ride to the gas station or siphon some petrol from their own tank.
But what if no one else came? Or what if passers-by didn't stop to help those two tourists, who had no business being out there alone, so unprepared for the vast spaces between rest stops?
What if they refused any other help offered to them, crippled by fear and distrust and disbelief, blinded by worry and panic?
Anything that could happen would most certainly be worse than if they had just kept driving. But they chose to stop, before something stopped them.
Who knows how far they could've gotten? They might've made it all the way.
Running On Empty
A Last Resort
Dancing With the Fear
How Much Farther Does This Go?
Fight or Flight
I Refuse to Worry