New Jersey gas isn’t as cheap as it used to be, but I still plan trips around buying it there whenever possible. That’s how I found myself in the middle of New Jersey on Father’s Day night looking for gas. And also caffeine. I wasn’t on the turnpike with its oh-so-convenient rest stops, so I was relying on the blue GAS and FOOD signs that show up before each exit. I don’t like those signs, because I’m always convinced I’m going to get lost before I find the gas (or food). Not that that’s ever happened. Usually the gas station is within sight of the exit, and things proceed swimmingly.
The First Trial
The first sign I saw indicated that both Exxon and Shell were available at the next exit. A short time later, a second sign indicated four different restaurants. I didn’t recognize three of them, but the fourth was McDonald’s. A drive-thru would be optimal, and I just wanted a Coke, so I made the decision to take this exit. The exit ramp indicated McDonald’s was 3.0 miles to the right. Exxon was 0.1 miles to the left, while Shell was 2.7 miles to the right. With vague thoughts of using my Stop & Shop discount and under the assumption that the two were likely near one another, I went right. I saw the Exxon station’s lights to the left as I made the turn. Even considering what I’d discover about Exxon shortly, I wish I had just gone left right there.
That’s not what I did, though. Instead, I noted my current mileage, added 2.7 to it, and determined when I should be in the correct vicinity. I was surprised to find that the road I was on ended abruptly in a T-intersection with a major road before I saw either Shell or McDonald’s. I had gone less than a mile. No signs indicated which way to go, so I figured I’d double down and go right again. My GPS did not agree, desperately begging me to make a U-turn (or what passes for a U-turn in New Jersey) and go the other way. I refused.
Two miles of sparse buildings and no gas later, I capitulated to my GPS. It indicated a jug handle unlike any I’d seen before. I’ve driven through New Jersey enough to have strong opinions on the liberties their civil engineers take, and I’ve seen and even used a jug handle or two in my day. But this time, the right was after the intersection I was trying to make a U-turn at, with a circular ramp like the inside of a cloverleaf. It seemed like a reasonable enough idea conceptually, though driving past the left I could have easily made in most other states before turning right to come back to it was strange, even by New Jersey standards.
I assumed that I’d pass the point where I’d decided to turn right, go another few miles, and find that Shell station. Instead, I found myself back on the Interstate I had started on almost immediately. I had failed to get gas (or caffeine), but I still had 90+ miles of range left. I did want to get home sooner than later, but all I had to lose was time. So I tried again.
The Second Trial
The blue signs were so similar to those I had seen during my first attempt that I checked the remaining time on my GPS to confirm I hadn’t gone in a big loop. It was 10 minutes shorter than before, so I took that to mean this wasn’t the same exit. I almost wish it had been. This time, the exit ramp indicated that Exxon was in 1.7 miles, while Shell was further on at 2.4 miles, both in the same direction (once again to the right). McDonald’s was listed at 2.7 miles, also to the right. I expected to be diverted to yet another road long before I saw any of that, but this time things went smoothly and I saw the Exxon station come into view right on schedule.
Relieved that gas was in my future, I looked ahead and realized things were more complicated than I thought. The Exxon station was on my left, but there was no entrance from the road I was currently driving on. Just ahead, it did split into a four-lane highway, complete with concrete median divider. From what I could see, I had to be heading the opposite way to enter the Exxon station. Still, signs indicated that McDonald’s was to the left, and my GPS was telling me to go left and make a U-turn on this road to continue on my trip. I figured I’d go left, head to McDonald’s, then come back this way and hit up the Exxon before getting back on the Interstate. It was the perfect plan. It was, unfortunately, not what I actually did.
I found the McDonald’s at the end of a strip mall. I had only seen two previous strip mall McDonald’s before, and they always seemed a bit odd. As I pulled into the parking lot, I thought I recognized this particular McDonald’s. Perhaps this design was common in New Jersey, but I’m fairly sure I had stopped at this very McDonald’s a year earlier, learning how to use my phone as a hotspot to deal with some work issue or another. In any case, they had Coke, which was what was important. They didn’t have a drive-thru, but even at this point I was happy to take what I could get.
Aside from some disbelieving comments from the employees that people were still coming in at this hour, my order was filled without incident. I got back to my car and realized this was going to be more complicated than I had thought. The only exit to the strip mall took me on the same road I arrived at, going the same direction. With the median still in place, I was going to have to make a U-turn. Well, no biggie, I thought.
I proceeded up the road to a pleasant surprise: I was actually able to make a normal U-turn here, no crazy New Jersey traffic patterns needed! Things were looking up. I hadn’t seen the Shell station on the way, but the Exxon was still waiting for me. My GPS, however, was telling me to turn right off of this road almost immediately. I considered ignoring it to ensure I ended up at the one gas station I had actually seen so far, but the prices at that Exxon were 30 cents higher than anywhere else I’d seen in days (what happened to you, New Jersey gas prices?) and I still had plenty of range, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to listen.
The GPS told me to turn right almost immediately, but I was confused because to my right was some sort of non-freeway rest area. It looked like a park, not a driving route that would go anywhere. After missing that turn, it re-routed and told me to turn right up ahead. I ended up in a residential area, which would have been alarming, except I knew Google did that sort of thing sometimes. It usually worked out well. I’m struggling to make out the correct turn up ahead, and I see an SUV making it, so I assume I’m in good company. I turn left, and find myself on a surprisingly narrow road. It had no lines and seemed like it could barely fit two cars, which I quickly confirmed by having to nearly pull over to allow traffic to pass me in the other direction. I took a look at the GPS. I was supposed to turn in 1.9 miles and not before. This was going to be interesting.
Fortunately, I saw very few cars aside from the SUV I was following. I did see some deer, though, and proceeded to keep my speed to a bare minimum. I wondered whether my car’s obstacle detection would detect and brake for a deer in the road. I wondered what would happen if anyone was coming when we crossed the one-lane bridge. And I wondered where the side of the road was when I was trying to let the Jeep with the blinding lights pass me on a particularly narrow stretch.
Somehow I survived, and the tiny rural road spit me out right near the Interstate. That explained why Google thought it was a good idea to take me on this route, and I assume the same was true for the driver of the SUV I had followed for the full length. I had my caffeine, but I still needed gas.
The Third Trial
The next exit had no blue GAS sign that I saw, but the one after that did. Like the others before, it listed Exxon and Shell. This time, one had an A above it and the other a B, which I thought odd but didn’t think to keep in mind. It turned out that there were two different exits, A and B. I couldn’t remember which one was which, but I thought B was Shell, and after seeing Exxon’s prices I wanted to roll the dice on them.
For once, my guess turned out to be correct. A sign indicated that I should once again go right to reach my destination. And for the third time, I ended up at an intersection with an unexpectedly large road. Fortunately this time I caught the sign that told me Shell was to the left. The road was kind enough to give me another indication of the remaining distance to Shell, just over a mile, shortly before splitting with no indication of which way I should actually go. It seemed like the road itself was bearing left, so I did the same, my second consecutive correct guess. Not long after, I saw the Shell station. It was on the left side of the road, but I couldn’t tell if the cross street before it had an entrance to the station. The station itself was open to the road going to the other way, so I figured I’d just turn left into it.
That’s when I saw the police patrol car sitting in the parking lot, ready to head out onto the road. I was about to make a left right next to him, not only over an unbroken double yellow line, but one of those diagonal line-filled median areas. Was that illegal? It seemed like it might be, even thought it made no sense for it to be here. And that cop was right there, presumably waiting for some idiot to do exactly what I wanted to do. So I drove on.
I had slowed down to make the turn before aborting, and now the SUV behind me was right on top of me. His lights were blinding, and I was on a windy road with a lot of driveways and very few lights. It was hard to tell what was going on. I knew that I could turn on any side street and make the U-turn I needed, but I kept passing by them before I saw them. I checked my GPS, and the first “street” it indicated turned out to be a driveway. I was nervous with those SUV lights in my eyes, so I kept hoping, to no avail, for a traffic light. Even a second lane would have been a godsend, but it was not to be.
I proceeded for nearly two miles, frustration at the tailgater building, before my GPS told me to turn left up ahead. It looked like it wanted me to make a U-turn on that road, but something was odd. Very rarely has Google Maps told me to make a straight U-turn on a road without a median, and only when I was already on that road. It looked like that’s what it wanted, though. And mercifully, the intersection had a traffic light. Relieved that my gasoline odyssey was almost over, I got in the left turn lane to wait for a green.
The road I ended up on was another windy road through residential areas, though less trafficked than the one I had been on. It had a double yellow line, though, so I knew I couldn’t just make a three-point turn, even if Google seemed to want me to. The road was not wide enough for a U-turn, either. The GPS indicated I should U-turn at an intersection ahead, so I figured I’d turn onto that street, make a three-point turn there, then retrace my steps. So instead of a U-turn, I turned right. I was very surprised to see the “Private Drive” line in my lights as I did so.
Rather than a wide residential street, I was on a small dirt path barely wider than my car. I could either proceed into private property, or blindly back out onto the road. I weighed this decision for a few seconds, then made a little prayer that my backup camera cross-traffic detection was up to snuff and put it in reverse. As you may have guessed by the fact that I am writing this, I did not in fact end up killed right then and there. Instead I managed to retrace my steps and find that Shell station with upwards of 70 miles of range left to go.
I was so relieved I didn’t even look at the price. And no one asked for my Stop & Shop card, so I got no discount. As an aside, I did pass a few gas stations that were closed during the night, which gave me a new reason to resent New Jersey’s stance against self-service gas stations. I guess only the big ones were willing to pay people to man the pumps all night. I was fortunate and ran into no significant traffic for the rest of the night, but I did degrade New Jersey from the top spot in my Where To Get Gas rankings. And I got a dumb story out of it, so there’s that.