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Wednesday, February 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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That’s Life: Short, long journeys fuel family bonds

The ding was inconspicuous, a single soft note that barely begged for attention when it interrupted an involved conversation I was having with my 13-year-old. I might have missed it if the radio had been on, but we’d turned off the fuzz while traveling the long stretch of highway home from Seattle last weekend.

Glancing at the dash, I had to duck my head to see the light that accompanied that little ding. I needed gas.

I said something I shouldn’t and looked out the window. Where were we? I had no idea. On either side the farmland rolled like gentle waves, no trees or buildings in sight.

I’ve only heard that ding a handful of times over the decades I’ve been driving, thanks to an almost obsessive tank-filling habit when the gauge hits the one-quarter mark.

My Grandpa would be proud. “It burns the same off the top as off the bottom,” he used to say. You never worry about running out of gas if you follow his advice.

But on our way out of town the closest stations had been pricey, so I’d decided to wait to top off the tank. Then I got lost in the conversation, relishing my son’s perspective on relationships, sports, cars and plans for the future. From the silly to the serious, we covered a lot of territory while driving across the state.

I love that about car rides. It’s one of the best benefits that comes with carting kids to their various activities and appointments. Parenting experts may expound on the value of family dinners, but I’ve had more success getting a glimpse of my children’s lives and thoughts while driving in the car.

Maybe it’s the rhythm and motion. Maybe it’s because there’s less pressure when you aren’t sitting face-to-face. Maybe it’s because I’m distracted by driving so they get a better chance to carry the conversation. But in the car, they’re more likely to open up about school, activities, friends, frustrations, hopes and what they think about any given subject.

Much like campfires, car rides can foster and fuel connection. But this time, I forgot the actual fuel needed to keep us going.

“Oh no. It’s the dummy light. We’re almost out of gas,” I told Ian in the same tone I might use if a missile were about to hit our house or I discovered someone had drunk all the coffee.

Ian told me to take a breath and be calm. He explained that on the show “MythBusters,” they studied fuel efficiency and stress levels, learning that people tend to use more gas when they’re upset.

I wish my Grandpa could have met Ian. They’d have gotten along great. I reset the cruise control and leaned back, loosening my grip on the steering wheel while scanning the side of the road for a sign. A few minutes later we learned the next town, Ritzville, was 13 miles away. Would we make it?

Ian laughed. “That would be funny if you ran out of gas while pulling into the station,” he said, then assured me car designers program the low-fuel warnings with a buffer before you run dry. He knows a lot about cars, so I believed him.

Still, I didn’t want to find out the hard way exactly how many miles our car will travel after the dummy light turns on. I was relieved when we rolled into the closest station and discovered we had just over one gallon left in the tank. We could have easily made it to the next exit, where they have lower prices and better snacks.

Although I was thankful we weren’t stranded on the side of the road waiting for an expensive gallon of gas to get us going again, I also knew if that ever happened, the situation would have one small side benefit. It’d give us another thing to talk about.

Jill Barville is a longtime Spokane Valley freelance writer whose column appeared for many years in the Saturday Valley Voice. She writes in this space twice a month about families, life and everything else. She can be reached at

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