When I left Mitchell after a medical appointment the other day, I thought for a moment that the gas shortage from the East Coast had reached South Dakota.
I had planned to fuel up at a station convenient to my route to the interstate. Every pump at the station I favored was being used and a couple of vehicles seemed to be waiting their turns. It looked like television images from the East Coast, those images with motorists bumper to bumper in six or seven lines that stretch for blocks.
I didn’t feel like waiting. I checked my “distance to empty’’ gauge. It showed 85 miles, enough to get to Chamberlain with most of a gallon to spare. I don’t trust gauges to the exact mile. I figured I’d keep an eye on it and find fuel at one of the towns along the way if necessary.
Towns between Mitchell and Chamberlain are old friends, after all. They’re a ways off the interstate now, but when I grew up, Highway 16 wound its way through each of them – Mount Vernon, Plankinton, White Lake, Kimball and Pukwana. My dad knew the service stations, roadside restaurants and downtown cafes in each community. Like the old highway itself, those towns and the businesses that kept them alive are more than places on a map. They’re pieces of a childhood in the middle of South Dakota. And they were around long before anyone began to report on gas shortages.
As it turned out, the station I passed in Mitchell was just having a busy streak. I saw a couple of other places – not as convenient for my route but not far from the road – where pumps were available. I hadn’t really believed the East Coast shortage was in my home state, but it was temporarily unsettling to see vehicles at all of the pumps at that one station, and to see it live instead of on TV.
As I understand it, some electronic system in a major eastern fuel pipeline got hacked recently. The line, which supplies much of the East Coast, had to shut down for a few days. Panic set in, as it will these days, and people rushed to the nearest station with as many gas cans as they could round up, intending to fill their vehicles and their cans in preparation for the apocalypse. I half expected to see piles of toilet paper in the back seats and pickup boxes of the vehicles at the pumps.
With so many people demanding fuel simultaneously, stations ran low on supplies, naturally. Station owners slipped bags over the nozzles of their gas pumps. That, of course, created more panic and more people crowded in, trying to buy a temporarily short supply of fuel.
It reminded me of the oil embargo of 1973. During a war with Israel, oil-producing nations in the Middle East slapped an embargo on oil shipments to the United States. This country was supplying Israel with material, I believe. Lines developed at stations, pumps ran dry, prices soared and people panicked. Fewer people had two and three vehicles in those days, so maybe the run on fuel stations was less intense than now. I don’t know. I know the embargo caused the price of the fuel I used to heat my drafty old house to climb dramatically.
We were living through our first full heating season in the big house. The rising cost of heating fuel prompted us to replace outside windows and to insulate exterior walls. The company cut round holes in the siding to blow in the insulation. The next summer we had to paint to cover the damage. The whole project worked out well for us in the long run, and the embargo eventually ended.
I was remembering that as I neared Kimball and noticed the gauge gave me only 25 miles to empty. I’m a positive thinker but not a complete fool. I pulled off and filled up. About half the pumps were being used. No panic around here.
There was some regret, though. As I pulled back onto the highway, I found myself wishing I’d picked up a burger for the road.