SATURDAY IN LOS ANGELES. Location: a service station on wilshire. It's closed. Cars are parked at the gas pumps. Behind them, more cars. The line runs among the boulevard, block after block. It turns a corner and fades, more blocks away, in Southern California haze.
Time: 2:30 a.m. The drivers, hundreds of them, slump over their steering wheels, asleep. In the morning, maybe, they'll be able to buy gas for the weekeng. Those near the end of the line probably will have to look for other lines.
My job: lie low 'til Tuesday, then get out of this gas-starved town. See sights, catch fish, find native American art, spend recklessly. Pretend there's gasoline everywhere. Destination: Miami. Distance: 4,437 miles. I'm not a madman. I'm a traveler. I carry a map.
Friday in Miami, three weeks later. As Lindbergh said, "Well, I made it." Los Angeles Notwithstanding, there may be gas for travelers in the golden west this summer if my trip last month proves anything. In the rockies, the southwest and the southeast too, though you pay for it through the nozzle. As Pyrrhus said, "Another such victory and we are lost." Economically, Pyrrhus is still on the mark.
Driving a 1977 Chevrolet Caprice, laden with possessions of kinfolks moving from California to Florida, we bought 245.7 gallons of unleaded gasoline. Driving most of the time with the air conditioner turned off, we averaged 17.3 miles per gallon, paying an average price of 85.04 cents per gallon. Gas cost us $206.52, almost as much as two one-way plane tickets to Los Angeles ( $220).
Our cost per milve your own car on the job, clip this for your boss.
The good news is that there were 245.7 gallons of gas out there for us to buy. Once we left Los Angeles, in fact, the only place we saw cars lined up at gas pumps was - believe it or not - in Houston, where they make the stuff. It was late in the afternoon on Saturday, June 2, when many stations already had closed for the weekend. We didn't need gas. We'd filled up at a Gulf Station in Brookshire, 30 miles west of the city and two miles off Interstate 10. The price was 78.9 cents a gallon, in the only station we patronized that did not offer self service.
The message here is that, for the cunning traveler, this may still be a good summer for motor-touring the West, assuming the gas crunch doesn't worsen and you have money to burn in your engine. The crowds are staying in California, sleeping uncomfortably in cars on Wilshire Boulevard and hoarding what fuel they can find. The price of gas is high and going higher, but there are ways to diminish the effect - about which more will follow.
Flagstaff and Williams, Ariz., feed on Grand Canyon National Park, 60 miles north. Driving into Williams, we know right away that something uncommon is happening. No crowds. The Arizona Sun, published in Flagstaff, quotes a Chamber of Commerce man:
"The psychological gas scare resulting from the California station lineups has begun to have an effect on travel within Arizona."
They don't sell many copies of the Sun in California, whence come (after Arizona) the most visitors to Grand Canyon. Park management aide Roger Giddings, reviewing statistics three weeks later, said roughly 27,000 people showed up that weekend - a 30-per-cent decrease from last year's holiday crowd of about 38,000. For the month of May, Grand Canyon took in 224,000 visitors - 48 percent below last May's total of 432,000.
That's good swift kick in the wallet for the tourist business in northern Arizona. The road to the park was even less crowded than Main Street in Williams.
"The lodges and the campgrounds inside the park are filling up every night," said Giddings. "We generally have three to five thousand people every night here on the South Rim. We're still turning some people away, but not as many as normally. Our facilities aren't as strained as they were last year. You can get gas here; you can get camping facilities in the park or outside.
"Right now they have a $10 limit on gas purchases in the park, but that's the only place. Right outside the boundary, four miles away, you can get an unlimited supply."
The biggest parking lot on the South Rim contained cars from 31 states, including two from Florida, on May 23. Very few were from California. You could have organized a touch football game.
"A year ago you'd have had to drive around that lot two or three times to find a space," said Giddings.
Last May, he said, 157,000 cars entered the park. This May, the number was down 59 percent, to 62,000. Bus travel, however, is up 50 percent and air travel 24 percent to Grand Canyon.
Wherever we stopped, gas was a problem - mainly for those who depend upon the spending of tourists from distant places. The traffic simply wasn't there. Crossing from Texas into Louisiana, we stopped at a state tourist reception center and were asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire about our vacation preferences. Baton Rouge, the state capitol, was anxious to know the answers, said Ann Little, who gave us maps and advice.
"Business is down tremendously," she said.
Bus and air travel are two of the answers to the problem. So is train travel, becoming more popular now in California. All the same, the country is full of folks like us who prefer not having to stick to schedules made by others. We like the independence of our own cars, so what can we do about it?
First, the smart money plans a schedule and route that don't involve long stays in large cities, where competition is fierce to buy gas in a seller's market - especially on weekends. The smart money buys gas a respectable distance outside the city limits, as we did when approaching Houston. We didn't stay in the city long, either. We watched a baseball game in the Astrodome Saturday night and left Sunday morning for New Orleans.
The Baton Rouge-New Orleans urban sprawl begins at Lafayette, so we left Interstae 10 at Jennings, 40 miles before Lafayette, and ran along U.S. 90. At Crowley, 23 miles from Lafayette, we found a Billups station selling unleaded gas for 84.9 cents a gallon, three cents less than the Gulf that others were buying two miles north on the freeway.
That fillup sustained us for an evening, a morning and half an afternoon in New Orleans' French Quarter (you park and walk) and look us as far as a Premier station in Bay St. Louis, Miss, where we bought our most expensive Eastern gas at 89.9 cents a gallon.
That brings up another point about car travel, especially in the West: You can generally buy gas more cheaply just a few miles away from the Interstates. Nearly all those freeways were built along the routes of older highways that run through small towns now just two or three miles away.
Until lately, that was not our prime reason for riding secondary roads. The Interstates are fast, but dull as dishwater. You can't slow down and enjoy the sights, and when you sit down for a meal the evening steak tastes very much like the morning eggs.
If you see a deer along an interstate, chances are it's a mangled corpse. You're unlikely to get any advice on where to fish or what they're biting on. You don't get a feel for the way local people move and talk or what's on their minds, unless it's gas.
One might think the time and miles saved by not driving two miles from the interstate to a small town are more valuable. Maybe, maybe not. In the Mojave Desert in California, Shell was selling for 99.9 cents a gallon at Barstow, where I-15 meets I-40. We passed it up, going into town, where we stopped for avocado and bacon sandwiches at an acceptable-plus Chinses restaurant. We also bought 8 1/2 gallons of Texaco for 91.9 cents a gallon.
We saved 68 cents on gas, had an enjoyable lunch and read the Desert Dispatch. Good stuff in there. The local restaurants and motels (Barstow is an important way station between Los Angeles and Las Vegas) were doing about 25 percent better than they were the previous week, but still doing badly.
"Friday was a little better, but afternoon it dropped off a lot," an employe of Bun Boy was quoted as saying.The Chamber of commerce said about 19 gas stations would open the next Saturday and 11 on Sunday.
There are still more ways to absorb the high cost of gas if you're going to travel on it out West. If you're camping, camp for real. Leave that heavy, thirsty travel trailer or other so-called recreational vehicles at home and invest in the real thing: tents and sleeping bags and air mattresses don't use gas. When in the cities, try looking for parking lots instead of gas stations. You see a lot more on foot than from a car window.If you need more mobility, any bike shop can sell you a bike and a rack to fasten it to the outside of your car. Motorcycles use gas, but they only sip it.
If rugged outdoor living isn't your style, consider the less expensive motels. One worth checking is the chain called Motel 6. It's about as Spartan as you can find, sometimes shabby but usually clean and always cheap. A double is $13.95, standard nationwide. The rate has gone up on dollar in each of the last three years. A key for the locked television set costs 75 cents extra. It's black and white. They have pools - very small.
we use the AAA tour books (you have to be a member) and the Mobil Travel Guide to find the least expensive but still acceptable motels and eating places. Through those books, we found such gems as the Royal Inn at Roswell, N.M. ( $20 double), the Cliff Palace at Blanding, Utah ( $17), and the Tallahassee Motor Hotel ( $24). They led us to the Piccadilly Cafeteria (lunch average $2.50) in Lafayette, La.
No books will help you to buy the least expensive gas. The prices go up too fast for publishing schedules. If you drive wisely, however, you have a good chance of buying the cheapest gas there is, expensive though that may be. In Colorado and New Mexico, look for Malco and Horne's stations. They're part of an independent chain based in Roswell, N.M., and undersell everyone else in the territory.
Stay away from places you know are going to be mobbed. Regional newspapers and television stations generally have up-to-date reports on gas availability. Carrizozo, N.M., isn't going to be mobbed. We bought a tankful of Malco there for 79.9 cents a gallon, the first we found under 80 cents. We paid the same price in Carlsbad, N.M. You should have been there the day before: it was a penny cheaper. In Hondo, Tex., 39 miles west of downtown San Antonio (remember the Alamo?), we bought Gulf for 76.9 cents, the lowest price along the whole route.
An interesting town, Hondo. It's on U.S. 90, 21 miles from the nearest interstate. Clint Hartung, baseball trivia freaks may remember, came from there. For our purposes it is more relevant to note that Hondo has three Gulf stations. On the day we drove through, June 1, the westernmost station sold - and we bought eagerly - unleaded gas for 76.9 cents. Two blocks east, the second Gulf was selling it for 74.9, and two blocks beyond that, the third was doing business at 77.9.
We paid an average of 79.15 cents a gallon for Texas gas (four stops) and found a cross-country range that stretched from Hondo's lowest to 93.9 in Needles, Calif. The most expensive gas we didn't buy was Shell's 99.9 at Barstow, Calif.
That's how it was out in the country. During the 20-mile stretch we drove on the Florida Turnpike, we saw a sign that reminded us we were nearing home. It said the only cars that were being allowed fillups were those with less than half a tank of gas. CAPTION: Picture, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; by Tom Tracy, Black Star; Map, Los Angeles to Miami, By Richard Furno - The Washington Post