Originally published in vMeme21, January 2009
Millie ran out of gas just before sunset. It was a relief, actually. She’d felt exposed driving her SUV on the empty roads. That was strange in itself—to see no moving cars, only the abandoned hulks lining each side of the road, some shinier, some dustier, depending on their length of stay. She wondered how many of them would ever move again.
Amid this vast graveyard, Millie’s working vehicle stood out like a target. With no other drivers to consider, she navigated down the center strip of the two-lane interstate that over the months had become a parking lot. Whenever she saw the occasional group of walkers, she sped up to thirty-five, hoping that was fast enough to keep them from intercepting her car, but not fast enough to waste her precious remnants of gasoline.
The precaution worked. People looked at her curiously, or angrily—but no one tried to stop her. It seemed that people as well as cars had run out of energy.
By keeping her speed down and coasting whenever possible, Millie almost made it to Cheyenne. Ten miles north of the city, the engine sputtered and quit. She let the car roll along the shoulder as far as she could, braking just before she rear-ended a looming Ford Explorer.
She set the hand brake and sighed. She patted the dash and, with a pang, opened her driver’s door for the last time. She lifted out the hiking pack and sleeping roll that she had prepared for just this circumstance.
Unlike most of her neighbors, Millie had anticipated the oil shortage. In the privacy of her Casper home, she had stockpiled gasoline and nonperishable goods. She therefore wasn’t as dependent upon the whims of the local service station for her mobility, a limitation that had prompted her neighbors literally to head for the hills. From behind her drapes she had watched the impromptu convoy pile kids, dogs, and food into their 4x4s, the whole block looking as if they were going camping. Perhaps that’s what they thought they were doing—getting out of suburbia until the crisis was over and power returned to their refrigerators and television sets.
But cars were the breaking point. Without them, food and other necessities were suddenly out of range, miles down the artfully curved and landscaped roads—reminders of a more affluent age. Even in town, stores remained largely unstocked due to the fuel shortage. So when Casper ran dry, it only made sense to pack up and get out until the emergency had passed.
Millie didn’t believe the camping idea would work. Half the city would be huddled around the reservoir. Park facilities would be overwhelmed. Sanitation would be impossible to maintain, and those boxes of groceries wouldn’t last long. The last thing Millie wanted was to be caught in some vast crowd in the middle of nowhere when the situation turned ugly.
So she had stayed. Millie played her battery-powered radio several minutes a day. The news only got worse. China’s entry into the oil war had interrupted supplies indefinitely. No fleet of trucks would replenish Casper’s empty fuel tanks in the foreseeable future. No paternal government would get the natural gas flowing again to this part of the country. With the United States busy fighting the Middle East for its very survival, who could spare a thought for the people stranded out in the Great Plains? But with winter coming on, Millie knew she had to get out.
Before leaving home for what was likely the last time, she had stocked her car with a supply of food and a few personal items—in case she did find refuge in Cheyenne. When her engine died short of her goal, she was back to Plan B. Millie was fifty-two, and no longer certain how much weight she could carry for any distance on her back. She had filled her hiking pack as wisely as possible: light on gear, heavy on food, with two water bottles and a filter. She could possibly survive with that, if no one stole it from her.
Beside the lifeless road, she settled the pack onto her shoulders, cinching the hip belt snugly. She was already dressed in her hiking clothes and boots—in case she had to make a quick exit from the car—so there was nothing more to do. The precious mementos of her life—photographs, letters, gifts—would remain with the car. With forlorn finality, Millie slammed the doors and locked them. She began trudging south, the sun blazing molten behind the stark outlines of the mountains.
Keenly aware that she was a single woman walking alone, Millie almost didn’t stop at the campfire. But the temperature had plummeted with the sinking of the sun, and her bedroll was thin. Millie peered at the flames, flickering orange a little distance from the highway. In the dimming light, she saw several people sitting around it—men and women. It was the presence of women that made up her mind. Millie turned west, and approached them.
The group consisted of what looked like an extended Hispanic family, four adults with half a dozen kids, a well-dressed urban couple, and a couple of men in their forties with far bigger packs than Millie’s, looking comfortable in their dusty jeans.
One of the latter was busy feeding the fire. He dipped his head as Millie approached. “Ma’am.” The Hispanic family ignored her, while the couple looked her over with minimal curiosity.
Their disinterest further set Millie at ease. She released the clip for her hip belt and lowered her pack, her shoulders stiff from the unaccustomed weight. “Do you have water?”
The man building the fire didn’t look up. “Not to spare, if that’s what you’re asking.” She noticed what he was using for fuel: a billboard. A woman with a bright smile who was delighted to be smoking this brand of cigarette was now going up in flames. Millie found the image strangely appropriate.
Unzipping her pack, Millie removed two freeze-dried packets of chili. “Do you have enough to heat this up?”
The man raised his eyebrows in surprise, then nodded. His companion produced an aluminum pot and flask of water. The Hispanic family took an interest in the proceedings for the first time. Millie nodded to include them in the bounty. Quietly the parents set about ordering the children.
The second man set the pot of water on the campfire to heat. “If you’re heading south, I have to warn you, Cheyenne’s closed.”
Millie’s heart sank. It was no more than she’d expected, but the news was still disheartening.
“They’re turning away anyone who doesn’t already live there. Same old story: not enough to go around.”
Millie tore open the foil sacks. “Casper didn’t have enough even for the people who lived there.”
“Size doesn’t help.” The man nodded at the family. “These folks are from Denver.”
“Really!” She looked at the children, the youngest no older than three. “Did you walk?”
“Bus.” A young father settled a squirmy six-year-old on his lap. “It took us to Fort Collins.”
“The city authorities were trying to disperse the population,” said the second man, “but the last thing Ft. Collins wanted was refugees from Denver.”
“Their reservoir is guarded—same as everywhere else.” The father straightened out the child’s legs. She sat quietly, thumb in her mouth. “Now I don’t know where we’re going to go.”
Millie looked at the well-dressed woman. “Are you from Denver also?”
“Boulder.” The younger woman smiled sardonically. “You think we’d be more civilized there. Tight community, social conscience. But it turns out you had to live in town to be considered eligible for their precious resources.” She met the eyes of the man beside her, who wistfully squeezed her hand.
“I’m for Canada,” the first man announced, taking another scrap of billboard from his buddy. This one showed a gleaming sports car, an object that now seemed ludicrously anachronistic. The image went into the fire in chunks.
The water was beginning to steam. Millie asked, “Will the Canadians take you?”
“It’s better than staying here. They’ll have water in Canada. Global warming means more water vapor, which translates into more snow.”
“These plains will revert to desert,” said his buddy, “as folks are beginning to notice.”
Millie carefully lifted the hot pot off the fire. As she stirred in her two bags of chili, she tried to imagine what the Canadian border must look like. It was probably a bigger refugee camp than Denver. What would the Canadians want with millions of immigrants whose chief skills consisted of watching videos and promoting consumer goods?
They shared out the dinner equally. It was meager portions, but Millie supposed they’d all get used to that. At the end of the meal, she asked, “So, you’re going north?”
The first man shrugged. “There’s no point in going south.”
Millie tossed her car keys to him. Surprised, he caught them out of reflex. “Three miles up the road you’ll find a blue Chevy SUV. There’s lots of food in the back—cans, mostly. It was too heavy for me to carry, but you’re welcome to as much of it is you can use.”
The group around the fire exchanged troubled glances. The Boulder woman asked, “What about you?”
Millie looked into the dark. “I’m going east.”
The young father shook his head. “Out there’s a wasteland.”
“I know. But my sister lives near Cedar Rapids. It’s relatively isolated, on a river. They might have extra stores.”
Everyone stared. The Boulder man said, “That’s almost eight hundred miles.”
Millie smiled. “I know. I used to drive it in a day.”
Silence fell over the group. At length the first man said, “They won’t have hydroelectric, not in that part of country.”
“Perhaps not. But they might let me stay through the winter. That gives me a better chance than staying here.”
No one had much to say to this, either. Finally the Boulder man said, “Good luck.”
In the morning the two men and the Hispanic family continued north. The Boulder couple, after conferring in soft voices, set out west. Millie shouldered her pack that would become far too light before long. She turned southeast. In a mile or two, she should strike Lodgepole Creek. It would be dry this time of year, but she might be able to find pockets of water along the way. She could follow the streambed down to the North Platte, and on east.
Millie set off into the sunrise, walking.