My parting glance through the rental car window confirmed what I already knew: On my road trip to West Virginia, I wasn’t going to miss Shell or its $4.04-per-gallon gas. In a moment of weakness, I might lean on the station for a cold beverage or a restroom, but not for fuel.
Till we meet again, I whispered to Shell, and may it be none too soon.
With the average price of gas hovering at $3.83 nationally, travelers are recoiling from the pump as if it were a venomous snake. (Washington’s bite is especially sharp at $4.10.)
Since a Dec. 21 low of $3.21, our wallets have sorely needed a hug — or a reprieve. If only we could outsmart OPEC.
My bright idea: I’ll take a driving vacation on one tank of gas. No en-route refueling, and no cheating with top-offs. I was going to see how far I could escape on a solo serving of gas.
The simplest plan was to hop into my own coach and zoom off. But ease also equaled expense — $200 for gas plus wear and tear, based on the government’s reimbursement rate of 55 cents a mile. I next eyed Hertz on Demand, the company’s car-sharing arm, whose daily rate includes all the gas the car can quaff. The catch: You’re limited to 180 miles per day; for every mile over, you have to throw 45 cents into the kitty. Hmm. Using a handy online mapping tool, I drew a circle with a 180-mile radius around Washington. It encompassed all of Maryland and Delaware, a chunk of Pennsylvania, the Virginia coastline, a pie corner of southern Jersey and a forest-green swath of West Virginia. I stuck a pin in the Mountain State, stabbing Blackwater Falls State Park.
Unfortunately, the Hertz on Demand idea crumbled under the weight of unusually hefty numbers. The company was charging $182.60 for a two-day rental. I moved on to traditional rental car companies, landing on a deal of $57 for 48 hours in a midsize . . . SUV. Hey, it wasn’t like I was going to drive an RV trailing a Humvee dragging a Prius.
I was ready to roll, almost. At the Avis counter in Reagan National Airport, the agent floated some new ideas by me. She suggested a hybrid, which would cost $240 for two days and boasted 52 miles per gallon. I put the recommendation in my pocket and forgot about it. She then offered me the EZFuel option: Pay $13.99 and drive less than 75 miles and Avis will cover the fill-up. My destination was more than twice as far. Pass. Finally, she tossed out the prepay feature. For $4.19 a gallon, I could return the tank empty and the company would refuel the car for me. However, in my fantasy trip, I imagined sliding into the closest gas station to the airport with a puddle of gas sloshing in the tank. I declined and signed.
Blackwater Falls State Park, a pipsqueak (2,456-acre) recreational space within the mammoth 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, is about 170 miles from Washington. During our getting-to-know-you moment, my rental, a Mazda CX-7, informed me that I had a gas range of 382 miles. The puddle of remaining gas expanded into a small duck pond.
Bobbing west along Interstate 66, I took advantage of the quiet time to fashion some gas-saving strategies. I decided, for example, to stop only at restaurants and mini-marts directly along the road. No off-highway exiting. My tricks paid off: I coasted into the Blackwater Lodge parking lot with the needle a fat whisker above the halfway mark. I patted myself on the back, then gave the car a well-earned tap.
The park’s signature attraction is, well, Blackwater Falls, a 62-foot cascade that drops into Blackwater Gorge. After checking in, I asked the front desk clerk for directions to the falls, setting one rule: no driving, hike-in only.
She directed me to the one-mile Yellow Birch Trail, which merged with Gentle Trail, a 1 / 4-mile walk to a viewing deck of the falls. The trailhead was only a few yards from the property. With dusk falling, I stopped a park employee to ask whether it was safe to hike at that hour. My main worry was losing sight of the lemon-colored marker in the dark.
“Do you have bear repellent?” he asked, raising a new concern. The black bears, he said, were now out and about and as hungry as, well, one of those furry fellas. He’d spotted a 200-pounder the week before, over by the cabins.
“Well, if you see cubs, walk away,” he advised. “And make noise.”
I entered the darkening woods, pictured the headlines in the park newsletter and spun back toward the road. I changed course, opting instead for the wide-open (as in, “I can see you, bears”), grassy Water Tank Trail. I pulled out my bear repellent, which is shaped like a cellphone, and talked loudly into it.
I took the risk, but not without first calculating the costs.
Little Miss Mazda said that I had enough gas left for more than 200 miles, a reassuring figure. Hellbender Burritos was about three miles away in the walk-in-closet-size town of Davis. The car and I agreed: We needed a burrito.
I waited for my takeout at the bar, within sight of a taxidermied bear clutching a skateboard. Standing next to two locals, I struck up a conversation about cars — specifically, how far could they go on a tank of gas.
Brian Sarfino, originally from Bethesda, said he owns a gas-gulping pickup that can’t make the round trip to his parent’s house without a refill. His pal Jason Cyr, though, might as well be driving a unicorn. He can do two full loops to the Pentagon in his VW diesel. His Toyota pickup is no less magical. In it, he said, “I can go there and back and have about a gallon” remaining.
I left Hellbender’s with a log-size burrito, a side of ramps and enough confidence to return to the lodge without even glancing at the gas gauge.
From the lodge, I could pick up any number of loose threads that led to an intricate web of trails. I hiked over to the 11 / 4-mile Red Spruce Riding Trail, which connects to the Cherry Lane Trail.
For my return, I switched it up, trekking Balanced Rock Trail and Elakala Trail, which surprised me with a splashy waterfall and a wooden bridge.
Pretty as they are, Elakala Falls don’t have a park named after them. I needed to see Blackwater Falls.
For the most intimate peek at those, you can descend 214 wooden steps. But I was intimidated — not by the climb down, but by the drive to the opposite side of the park. Fortunately, I could see the falls on my way out as I headed home. I barely used a thimbleful of gas to turn off into the parking area for Gentle Trail. I stood on a patio and watched bug-size figures move up and down the stairs as the water roared beside them.
I set off for home in really strong shape. I had half a tank and a new trick gleaned from a patron at Hellbender. On long descents, of which there were many, I would sail down in neutral.
When I spotted the first sign for Washington — 85 miles away — I had 135 miles’ worth of gas remaining. But the lead was mine to lose — and I lost it. I took a wrong turn on I-81, boomeranging back to West Virginia and losing about two dozen miles.
As I finally neared Washington, the pressure increased. I was now the dark horse with the lame leg, limping to the finish line. I saw a sign for Arlington, 41 miles away, four miles more than my gas capacity. The orange empty light flashed on just beyond Manassas.
I surrendered to Shell in Fairfax, pumping $60.39 worth of gas into the car. But I paid only $4.01 per gallon, less than Avis’s quote.
With the black line securely above the “F,” I chugged on. To be honest, with the airport still 20 miles away, I silently questioned the wisdom of some of my decisions, one in particular.
At the rental return area, I hopped out as an Avis employee checked the mileage and the gas. I looked around nervously, but he signed off on the paperwork and wished me well.
I walked toward the Metro station victorious. But before fully gloating over my success, I apologized to my burrito for ever having doubted it.