Running on Empty: We Broke Down and My AAA Finally Came in Handy

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After our initial four days in South Dakota, during which the rain did not abate, we got tired of waiting. It had started to dry up in Montana and I-90 westbound had reopened—the only heavy spot on the radar was, no surprise, right where we were located—so we packed up the trailer in Rapid City and got back on the road.

We wound up staying over in Spearfish for a night at one of the loveliest spots we’ve camped at thus far; I got my one run in for the trip (the only day the weather has cooperated), and SVV, motorcycle enthusiast, got to visit Sturgis.

The white fluffy puppy looks like more of a bad ass than the biker does.

Initially, our next stop was Theodore Roosevelt National Park just outside of Medora, North Dakota, but in keeping with the theme of this whole journey, it too was closed for flooding.

We decided Medora wasn’t worth a special trip if we weren’t going to get to the national park, so we drove through North Dakota anyway looking for a campground around Marmarth. We arrived to one eerie ghost town and quickly realized there was no campground to be found here.

My granddad has told me “Go West, young (wo)man” since I was old enough to remember. So (further) westward we drove.

One of the most valuable tips I’ve learned from our month of road tripping around is that gas stations in many Western states are few and far between. Never let your gas drop below a fourth of a tank for your own safety. (You can see where this is leading.) Early on in the trip, there was a point where we went nearly 70 miles on a major Interstate quickly approaching empty before we finally found a station where we could stop. This problem is further accentuated by us driving a truck towing a trailer, as we only get between eight miles per gallon (in the mountains) to 14 (on a really, really good day).

That day between North Dakota and Montana was not a really, really good day. It wasn’t even a regular ol’ good day either.

As we crossed the border and left Baker, Montana, there was no sign letting us know the next town wouldn’t be for 80 miles. No flashing warning that there would also be no gas station for 80 miles. We were above a quarter of a tank when leaving Baker, and not knowing the area—and being on a semi-major highway—we only assumed we’d be able to get gas further down the line.

We were mistaken.

Nearing Miles City, the road got steeper. And steeper. I watched in fear as the gas gauge crept methodically toward E. SVV, on the other hand, remained calm, cool and collected—never show fear, I’m pretty sure is his inner mantra—as I, being the opposite, started to freak out internally.

Then The Hill of Doom lay before us. Simultaneously, we finally saw a sign saying we were just 15 miles outside of Miles City.

“All I have to do is make it up this hill, and then we can coast the rest of the way!” SVV exclaimed, the glass half full.

My empty half told me this was never going to happen. Sometimes I really hate being right. (Rarely…but sometimes.)

Halfway up the hill, we started puttering. Then our up-until-this-point-sturdy engine let out a chug, one last attempt, before we rolled to the stop. SVV managed to get us over into the grass, which was a good thing, as the highway was just a two-lane road with no shoulder. Now would be a good time to mention that, for those 80 miles, we had no cell phone reception. Neither of us: not on my Droid, not on his dinosaur flip phone. We also had seen very few cars on the route, and the nearest house was a half a mile up in the grassy hills. I was not looking forward to hiking through those fields of bugs (and who knows what other kind of critters), praying someone would be home and begging for mercy.

As the truck let out that one final putter, we lurched forward before coming to a halt. At that very second—I kid you not—one hopeful little bar of service popped up onto my Droid. I grabbed the phone and punched in the AAA emergency line, which for some reason directed me to Florida. Once everything was sorted out and I was connected to Montana AAA, the friendly woman on the other line said, “It could be anywhere up to an hour, though I estimate he’ll be quicker.” An hour was much better than we hoped for, all the way out in the boondocks. “But I can call the police, too, and see if anyone is in the area who can bring you gas sooner!”

“YES, PLEASE.”

Five minutes later, the AAA dispatcher called me back: “No police needed. A man from a local towing service will be there in five to 10 minutes.” In reality, it took him 20, but that was still so much faster than we expected. In total, we were stranded for 30 minutes, not a second more. Pretty remarkable when you think about it. Our savior, the man from the towing company, brought us enough gas to get us into town—we just had to pay for the gas; that’s the beauty of AAA, no additional costs—and followed us to the closest gas station, where we filled up to full.

It was inevitable really. Driving as far as we are over the course of this trip—which is looking to be 5,000 miles in six weeks—did we actually think we’d return to California without a hitch? No, no, we did not. Not as long as I’m riding shotgun, at least. I’ve run out of gas exactly twice in my life: once in my hometown of Tullahoma, where you’re never farther than walking distance from a gas station, and the other time in Knoxville, where I happened to be on the bustling Strip when I came to a standstill. Secretly, I’ve always wanted to have an excuse to use my AAA roadside assistance; after all, I’ve paid $118 a month for four years for a reason. (To clarify, as some people are confused: Yes, the roadside assistance fee is just $60 a year. I pay $118 a month for my full insurance plan. My point is that I’ve never ever ever required anything from AAA in the four years I’ve had a policy with them, not for a ding, not for a flat tire, not for a fender-bender. *knock on wood*)

Once in Miles City, we found a lovely campground to stay in for the night, did our laundry, then packed up and headed onward for Billings the next day. But not before exploring “downtown Miles City”—if by exploring you mean hitting up the two famous attractions: the Main Street Grind and the Miles City Saddlery.

One of my absolute favorite fellow travel writers, Matt, serves as the Outdoors Expert for Discover America and, thus, he has been fielding request after request from me about my trip through the West. (Poor guy.) So when he emailed and said, “by the way, are you going to Miles City, Montana?” I figured if I wasn’t already, I’d better plan a stop there. I asked him what was so special about the place. He responded, “two words: saddle shop.” Confused as to why I would want to go to a saddle shop, I did as the man said anyway. And I got what he meant the second I walked into the Saddlery.

What lay before us were walls and walls and even more walls of old saddles, some dating back from before 1909, when the business was opened. The whole place smelled of worn-in leather. I’m pretty sure Dolly Parton had shopped at the Saddlery during her heyday. If not, they most likely invaded her closet to stock the racks of clothing.

We spent close to an hour there perusing Western wear and, yes, even Ariat boots (hurry to enter to win your own pair!), of which there were many options, and while I wanted to outfit myself in a full-on cowgirl get-up, I thought it more appropriate for my niece, who is turning three this weekend and who, like it or not, will be clad in pink cowgirl attire for the occasion.

All in all, our time in Miles City wasn’t a bust, thanks to Matt and thanks to the Saddlery and, most of all, thanks to AAA.

Humor me here: Have you ever broken down been stupid enough to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere? If so, did AAA also bail you out?

COMMENTS
  • June 15, 2011
    Meghan

    Did you mean $118/year for AAA? I paid about that much my first year, and then got off my family membership and had my own with a little less coverage (around $56/year). $118 a month is very steep if that is indeed what you are paying!

    (Just checking.)

    • June 15, 2011
      Kristin

      Nope, I pay $118 a month! And I have no points on my licenses/wrecks/tickets or anything. It’s probably because I have full coverage, a new car and live in California. I think Scott pays like $80 a month.

      • June 15, 2011
        Kristin

        To clarify, that’s my monthly insurance rate with AAA, not the annual fee for the roadside assistance.

        • June 16, 2011
          Meghan

          Oh, that makes so much more sense — I was thinking, “California roadside assistance is way too expensive!” But if it is monthly insurance, that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification! 🙂

    • June 15, 2011
      Wendy

      I thought the same thing too, but I guess Kristin clarified it below!

  • June 15, 2011

    I use Good Sam Roadside Service, and yes I’ve run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. But thank goodness I wasn’t towing at the time. I’ve also held my breath several times until finding a gas station. So you got lucky.

    • June 15, 2011
      Kristin

      You know, I’d never ever heard of Good Sam until we starting staying at RV parks—it seems more of them offer a discount for Good Sam customers than they do AAA~

  • June 15, 2011
    Krista

    I’m probably going to jinx myself by saying this….but I let my AAA membership lapse about a year ago and haven’t had any mishaps since then. Although when I DID have it, I actually used it quite frequently. I’ve probably had more flat tires on my car than anyone I know, and AAA has always been very helpful when it happened. Since then I’ve been instructed numerous times on how to change a tire….so fingers crossed, I can do it myself next time!! Also….I think I was paying around $60 a year or so….

    • June 15, 2011
      Kristin

      That’s one thing I’ve never run into with my own car (KNOCK ON WOOD): a flat tire. And while I’ve been taught how to do it numerous times, the reality of that happening if I were in a pickle is slim to none. Let’s just hope Scott’s with me if ever my tire blows….

  • June 15, 2011

    AAA is so worth it! When I traveled the country I got the premium plan which is like $90 a year but gives you free towing up to 100 miles instead of the usual plan, which gives you like 4 miles. Plus, AAA gives you discounts on Amtrak and hotels.

    Also, I took a photograph of myself at that very North Dakota welcome sign. It was the last of the lower 48 states I visited, so it was a monumental moment and that sign holds a special place in my heart 🙂

    • June 15, 2011
      Kristin

      I think I’ll probably have to do that at the Iowa border later this summer–my 50th state! So far I’ve gotten pictures of all the state signs except Colorado (there wasn’t one!). But most of them come up way too quickly to do much else than fish my camera out of the bag and snap a drive-by shot!

      • June 15, 2011

        All 50, that’s awesome! I had also intended to take pics of all the welcome signs and license plates from each state, but somewhere along the way (probably after I got a few poor drive-by shots) I lost the motivation.

  • June 15, 2011

    I haven’t ever run out of gas, however, I have called AAA two or three times before for other minor car mishaps. (Things like the thing that attaches to the battery came off, starter issues, etc.) They haven’t always been as quick as your hero was, but everyone’s always been very nice and helpful. Even though we don’t travel as much as you gypsies do, we keep ours up because of our 40 minute commute to work.

    • June 16, 2011
      Kristin

      I’ve never thought of myself as a gypsy, but I’m kinda digging that description.

  • June 15, 2011

    $118 a month is for AAA insurance which includes roadside assistance, right? Because my AAA membership (no insurance, just the roadside assistance and other benefits) is only $56 a year. So if you’re paying $118 a month for that . . . ouch!

    Glad you guys were able to get help so quickly!

    • June 15, 2011
      Kristin

      No, that’s my full insurance plan monthly–and that’s with no tickets, no points, nothing. I think it’s a) because I have a new car (or rather, it was brand new when I started my plan at the beginning of 2008) and b) because I live in California! I’m canceling my insurance, though, while we sail around the world….

  • June 15, 2011
    Ris

    I don’t even have a car and I still won’t let my AAA membership lapse. It has saved me SO MANY TIMES. I was, ahem, pretty bad about running out of gas in high school (before I had a credit card). Several times I’ve had battery-related issues and they’ll bring you a new battery and install it right there for no additional charge. The membership also gets you a discount on train tickets, which I’ve used several times on my jaunts around the Midwest.

    • June 15, 2011
      Kristin

      And on RV parks, too! So far, only two of them where we’ve stayed, but still… Also, hotel rooms. Long live AAA!

  • June 15, 2011

    I’ve never run out of gas, but I’ve had to be rescued off the side of the road by AAA more times than I care to admit for other car problems. I have pretty bad luck with cars, so an AAA membership is a must for me. Glad everything worked out for you!

    • June 15, 2011
      Kristin

      At least in the South, there are these novelties called GAS STATIONS that are pretty much at every Interstate and highway exit!

  • June 15, 2011
    SVV

    A few things:

    -The sasquatch is a member of the Hells Angels.

    -I love how every state sign has tons of bullet holes in it. This one looks like a yokel’s target for his shotgun.

    -AAA, when I was in my teens, booted me from their roadside assistance plan because I got towed too many times. I kept blowing transmissions on my hotrod so they sent me a letter that was delicately worded to say, “Take better care of your car!”

  • June 15, 2011

    Haha, I guess it never occurred to me that persons from more populated places aren’t used to the “fill up at all gas stations no matter what!” mantra. (Tip: if you ever happen to drive from Alaska down to the lower 48, you absolutely stop at every. single. gas station, because sometimes they are hours and hours apart. This PSA has been brought to you by native Alaskan friends, Diet Dr. Pepper, and the letter T.)

    I love that pic of all the cowboy boots!

    xox

    • June 16, 2011
      Kristin

      Yes, Heidi, where was that warning when we saw you??? HA. The drive from Moab to Grand Junction was drastically devoid of gas stations =)

  • June 15, 2011
    Lindsey

    I’m pretty sure I’ll take the cake on this one: I’ve run out THREE times. First – in my pajamas and leopard slippers 15 feet from a gas station. Mom bailed me on that one…and was about to kill me based on my “lookin’ like a floozy”. Ten years later and still haven’t lived that one down. Second – in College Station in a parking lot after a football game. Third, in rush hour traffic in Dallas in the left hand lane. I heard a rumor once that you can go 45 miles past empty until you’re truly empty. I’m my own personal myth buster.

    Love your travel tales!!

    • June 16, 2011
      Kristin

      A floozy! My kindred spirit! As I’ve been walking around our RV campgrounds in moose pajamas and Target slippers, I think you and I would make quite the pair =)

      I, too, tempted that 45-miles myth and found out (the hard way) that–at least with my car–it was actually only 20.

  • June 15, 2011

    Oh man, I wish you had stopped in Medora – I’ve traveled a lot and it’s one of my favorite cities in the US! It has an awesome musical about Teddy Roosevelt and a BBQ dinner that is great. Next time!!!

    • June 16, 2011
      Kristin

      Julia, it looked adorable but it was so far out of the way to go for yet another town that was flooded and currently pounded with rain. Next time I’m in the Dakotas….

  • June 15, 2011

    They’ve definitely come in handy over the years during some embarrassing situations! Glad they helped you 3 out!!!

  • June 16, 2011
    k

    When I drove cross country with my dad a couple years ago, the rule was if you were the one driving you had to be on top of the gas situation. We were crossing the Idaho/WA border and pretty far past Spokane when I looked at the tank (my dad was driving) and noticed that it was pretty much empty. I was concerned, but my dad was all like – what, we are in Washington now… Never being to eastern Washington before, he didn’t understand that it was a lot like Nebraska, a lot of flat nothing. We had to turn around and just about rolled into the gas station.

    Stinky that you didn’t get to explore Teddy Roosevelt NP. I loved it there. I have a picture by the Welcome to North Dakota sign too. I thought it was awesome that I could just stop on the highway to take a time picture there because there wasn’t another car there for miles around!

    Have you been through Butte, MT? I just applied for a job there but I am curious to what it is like. My friend from Bozeman told me it was the butt of Montana, but I am looking for second opinions 🙂

    • June 16, 2011
      Kristin

      Yeah, I’d been pretty on top of the gas situation thanks to the Gas Buddy app, but it stopped working in Colorado and hasn’t been reliable ever since! The problem was that it was so windy in those states, we were just guzzling gas, so while we maybe get 300 miles per tank regularly, we were getting half of that in Nebraska and the Dakotas! Scott was the same, “oh don’t worry, we’ll be fine!” Heh. Lesson learned.

      Regarding Butte…I didn’t know it was referred to as “the butt of Montana,” but that’s totally what I called it as we drove through there! We were only there for lunch, but it did not look like a very nice place to live. The whole downtown area was under construction, and the main roads were detoured onto DIRT roads! It was bizarre. Also, we hardly saw any people while we were milling about–seemed a bit of a ghost town. I wish I had nicer things to say, but it was probably my least favorite stop in 11 states…then again, we only really drove through it, as we couldn’t find anything open–on a weekend! I think you should stay in Seattle, or move to Missoula if you want to be in Montana =) Now there’s a fun, adorable town!

  • June 16, 2011
    Kate

    With AAA, I also found out a great little perk…you get a nice discount (15% I believe) at NY & Company. I shop there for a lot of my business-y type clothes, and that discount comes in handy! 🙂

    • June 18, 2011
      Kristin

      Why have I never known this??? Granted, there’s no NY & Company near me in San Francisco and, thus, I haven’t shopped there since I left New York when there was one two blocks from my apartment, but maybe I would have sought one out if I’d been privy to that information! (I do love me some NY & Company apparel.)

  • June 16, 2011

    I also love AAA because of the discounts, and the help. There are some outlets in MA where you can get some great deals with you’ve got a card.

    • June 18, 2011
      Kristin

      This is all news to me! You might just have helped my shopping addiction, Susan (helped me save money, that is!) 😉

      • June 23, 2011

        They do discounts on hotels, car rentals, and possibly campgrounds? as well. We use the hotel and car rental discount every time.

        • June 23, 2011
          Kristin

          I knew the hotels and car rentals–and we’ve gotten 10% off at a lot of the campgrounds we’ve traveled through this trip–but I had no idea I could also use it for my biggest expense: SHOPPING! 😉

  • June 17, 2011

    We don’t have AAA, but we do have comprehensive Geico coverage, and that seems to be about the same. We never ran out of gas in Mayhem, but we did need to get the RV battery jumped twice and the Jeep battery jumped FIVE times! I think Geico got really tired of hearing from us by the end of it all. 😛

    Glad it all worked out for you!

    • June 18, 2011
      Kristin

      I didn’t even know Geico had roadside assistance! I’m learning so much from you two (and your mishaps, heh).

  • June 18, 2011

    I almost got into an accident in South Dakota because it’s such a boring state to drive through, i almost dozed off!

    and lordy, seeing your travel schedule for the rest of the year is jealousy inspiring.

    • June 18, 2011
      Kristin

      Sadly, we have far too little time in most countries (three to six days), but Semester at Sea didn’t ask my input on that! =/

  • June 23, 2011

    AAA has rescued us so many times – not for gas, but for mechanical problems, towing problems, and locked in keys. So glad to have them! Which reminds me… I probably need to renew my membership.

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