What You Learn from the Price of Gas

I rarely think about the price of gas, until it gets especially expensive compared to what I am accustomed to. When prices are high I tend to hear about it on the news right away because everyone else is thinking about it at the same time I am. The price of gasoline ends up being a signal for other things, like world unease due to war. It makes investors worry or relax, which impacts the stock market. It modifies our behavior, such as making a decision about a spring break road trip. I saw a TikTok of a Native man who was forced to ride his horse into town because he couldn’t afford gas. It was a joke, but people can relate to that.

I recall when I heard in April of 2020 that crude oil was trading for less than zero dollars per barrel. -$37 in fact! Just before my March road trip, President Biden announced that we would stop importing Russian oil, and (despite not needing any Russian oil because we produce our own) that same index was trading barrels of crude at $123 per barrel. I have the luxury of choosing to drive, despite the cost. One thing expensive gas can tell you is who among us is privileged. Another thing is that a change in price of $160 a barrel in only two years means our economy is not secure.

Gas prices in Oregon are high because we have some of the highest state taxes in the country. It feels more painful than it has to, because it was two dollars a gallon less just a year ago. As I passed through Idaho and Utah, prices were nearly the same. I found that in rural areas, prices steadily rose and soon were over $5.00 per gallon. If I was diligent, I could find a place here and there for less than that. Expensive gas teaches you to pay careful attention to average prices and what conditions will result in cheaper gas: a gas station that is not a name brand, paying in cash v. with a card, driving to a station 1/2 mile off the highway v. a station right next to the highway.

Totally unrelated: I do enjoy pumping my own gas. In Oregon, by law, fuel is dispensed by gas station attendants. As soon as I left the state I was allowed to do it myself.

Cheap gas in Oregon, but my tank was full, so I didn’t stop.

Some of the lowest gas prices I saw on my whole trip were on tribal land. I chose a route that sent me through multiple American Indian reservations in land belonging to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, San Juan Southern Paiute, Navajo Nation, and White Mountain Apache tribe. I wondered if gas is not taxed on reservations. However, after an hour of research, I found that the answer is not so simple. I couldn’t find information about federal tax, but one source that seemed reliable said states can’t force tribes to apply a sales tax to gasoline. However, a website for Oregon explained that tribes are prohibited from qualifying for other benefits unless they agreed to tax gasoline sales at the same rate as non-native lands. I found an example of how Washington state had changed their laws to close a loophole so that Washington tribes were obligated to pay a tax for importing fuel from Oregon. Maybe Utah and Arizona tax their tribes differently. I never did find any rules regarding federal tax.

Totally unrelated: when stopping on tribal lands, I was surprised to hear a lot of Navajo spoken. It is reassuring how established and dominant the Navajo culture is.

While in Arizona, prices were not terrible, but my Montana family was unhappy to find that it was much higher than Montana prices. Gas prices are highly dependent on the cost and the distance from the refinery that serves them. Anyone who gets their fuel from California refineries must suffer.

When I lived in California years ago, I learned that the state always has the most expensive gas in the country, due to high state tax in addition to expensive treatment the gasoline must go through to meet state laws. So I was smart and filled my tank before I crossed from Arizona into California.

I drove for two days in California, and had to fill the tank multiple times there. The most expensive gas for me was $6.59 a gallon. I was grateful at that time though, because I was running on fumes and worried that I would run out of gas on the freeway – yikes. In northern California it dropped off to $5.61 a gallon. You see the prices I’m quoting are the ones for “regular” gasoline, not premium. High gas prices often make people change the quality of the gasoline they purchase. I’m a cheapskate on gasoline, and buy the regular almost 100% of the time, even when gas prices are low. Another thing I learned was that, while Diesel fuel used to be reliably cheaper, during this trip it was reliably more expensive.

Totally related: At that TA Travel Center in the photo, I saw this sticker on my pump, after I had just used my card to purchase $82 of fuel.

Someone anti-Biden slapped up a sticker.

I laughed out loud. Every now and then, the fools display some cleverness.

22 thoughts on “What You Learn from the Price of Gas

  1. That sticker was fun!
    And I guess the comedian “Iced Tea” had a joke about getting robbed last night ! It was scary and he lost money! It was at the gas pump!!
    -/
    And when prices first started to go uo I didn’t realize it and I pulled in to fill up – but forgot the car I took (an old used one we have that I like but don’t drive often) I forgot the gas plug was in the other side and rather than turn around – I went home – just had stuff to do and still had quarter tank. What a mistake – two days later gas went up by a dollar a gallon!! That was the highest in our area – $4.57
    Anyhow / I enjoyed seeing all of the gas stations photos you shared and they have value in documenting US variables – you know Steinbeck would be proud !!

    1. Oh, that’s a funny joke! Thanks for sharing, Yvette. Thank you for making a connection to Steinbeck. That adds a little more weight to what began as a silly challenge for myself at the beginning of the trip. I expected more variation in prices, but I ended up finding prices right about the same most of the trip. Except for California, holy moly.

      1. Holy moly is right!
        And I didnt know there were other states that won’t let you pump your own gas – we knew about NJ- but it seems dated!!

  2. I am amazed by the prices and yet undeterred. I think it does speak to privilege that I can continue to make these long drives a part of my days. Is awareness enough? The sticker is irritating because Biden has little to do with it. I’ll never cease to be surprised at what people will believe though. While my adventures this week will not be as epic as yours, I will hit a few pumps as I roll along, grateful I can still make that choice.

    1. Yes, Bonnie, I am grateful too. I’ve been reading articles about people in rural areas who have completely changed their behavior due to gas prices – driving to a laundrymat they don’t like, because it’s 20 miles closer than the one they do like. People who are considering moving because their one-hour commute used to be manageable, but it isn’t anymore. A convenience store owner who is losing business in snack and drink sales, because people don’t feel it’s worth the gas to drive there for a snack, and instead of making multiple small trips to the convenience store, will make a single weekly trip a farther distance, to the grocery store. I have had none of these considerations, and I know I am lucky.

      1. I’m lucky too. I can definitely see where an extended price jump would have a really negative impact on a lot of people. I used to commute 80 miles roundtrip. That would be brutal now!

    2. I forgot to comment on your remark about how irritating the sticker is. Yes, so annoying that someone did that and that someone else is going to look at the sticker and think Biden caused high gas prices. But what’s new? People have been believing a lot of totally insane things during the past years and there is nothing us sane people can do about it but shake our heads in wonder. COVID vaccinations will magnetize you, aliens built the pyramids, Jewish space lasers caused forest fires, Sandy Hook was a government fake, and the mysterious Q can explain the pedophile ring behind Pizzagate. When you add, “Biden caused prices to spike,” it pales in comparison.

  3. What an interesting post, Crystal. Ouch, indeed for all of us. We currently pay the equivalent of roughly 7.60 USD for a gallon (once I’ve done the conversion from litres to gallons) at my local petrol station here in Portugal, which is a little bit cheaper than some others.

    1. I’m glad you found it interesting, Jolandi. I wasn’t sure if it would be to others, but I found this stuff interesting. Long ago I found out that European gasoline was always more expensive than in the US, and I learned to keep that perspective, and to be always grateful. Now it seems silly to see our President release the stockpile of US fuel because of this “emergency,” and I’m thinking in my head that our emergency is still cheaper than what you’re experiencing.

    1. You just blew my mind, Manja!! You are so right and found something even more privileged than not being trapped by gas prices, but not even needing to know what they are!! You must feel lucky indeed. 🙂 Yeah, I had one tank at $96 – yikes! But that’s in California, so luckily it only happened while I was on my trip. When I’m home it’s cheaper and I don’t drive so much. Hey! My driving will go up a little bit now because I have to drive to work two days a week. Did I tell you I’m working as a Spanish tutor at the Community College here? So funny. I can’t even speak Spanish, but my professor asked me to do it because they don’t have a Spanish tutor. I thought this would help me learn, so I agreed.

  4. I’m sort of glad my “on the road” days are over. 😉 Never liked driving much actually, now, with a bad back, I can take an hour’s drive at the most, and I’m quite happy with that.
    Are you still on the road?

    1. Brian, I’m sorry to hear your back limits the things you can do. I am lucky so far not to have back pain in the car. I get neck and shoulder pain, though, but that doesn’t kick in till a few days later. Ha! I’m home now. Was on my road trip from March 8 to March 21.

      1. Thanks Crystal. No worry. One learns to live around that. Some people are much worse. An old friend of mine has bad knees, he can’t really walk more than a 100 yards. But he found he could ride a bicycle for miles. Does all his shopping with his bike…
        Me? Car kills me but I can walk miles in a day…
        neck and shoulder pain probably just need some stretching movements. A bit of yoga maybe. Hey, you’re young. Plenty of good time ahead for you.
        Welcome back.

      2. I like how so many of my friends say, “but others have it much worse.” It takes a good person to acknowledge that. Young, ha! thank you. I’m 52 years young. I am so convinced that age is related to mindset. I mean, my body is definitely getting older, but those of us who are “younger” than our peers are the ones who are young in the mind. 😉

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