Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Gorda: Land of $5 gas

Posted on Fri, Mar. 14, 2008
Gorda: Land of $5 gas
Jesse McKinley

James Willman seems to be a nice enough guy: polite, good-humored and hard-working, pumping gas seven days a week at the Amerigo Gas Station in the tiny Big Sur town of Gorda, about 35 miles north of Cambria.

But at least once a day, Willman said, someone pulls in and starts cursing him.

“They say all kinds of stuff—‘You ought to be shot,’ or ‘Where’s your mask?’ ” Willman said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I just work here.’ ”

The reason for consumer hostility is that the station is serving up what might be the costliest gas in the land.

This week, as crude oil flirted with $110 a barrel and gasoline prices surged nationwide, a gallon of regular at Amerigo was going for $5.20.

Premium was fetching an eye-popping $5.40 a gallon, though Willman said that included a free copy of a local newspaper. (The newspaper was free anyway.)

“That’s the reason I walk to work,” said Willman, who lives about 50 feet up a hill from the station.

The pain, of course, was not confined to Gorda, a one-generator, one-llama town perched on scenic Highway 1.

The American Automobile Association reported Tuesday that the average price of a gallon of gas nationwide had reached $3.23. That’s hovering around record prices even when adjusted for inflation.

Both the national high and the $3.71-a-gallon AAA-calculated average for San Luis Obispo County are still far short of Gorda’s exceptionally high prices.

It’s even higher than the inflation- adjusted record for California, where gas prices have historically been higher than the national average.

California’s average price peaked at $1.90 a gallon in March 1981, according to the U. S. Department of Energy.

That would be the equivalent of $4.50 a gallon in to-day’s dollars, based on the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, the most common inflation measure.

Eye-popping prices

Many potential customers here slow down to the pump, and then keep on rolling when they see the price.

At least Don Lister, visiting from South Carolina, came in for a cup of coffee. He wanted to put in $10 worth of gas — less than two gallons — but his wife vetoed the purchase.

“Wow,” Lister said. “I’m not in South Carolina anymore.”

The station manager, Leo Flores, said the price reflected this town’s remote location as well as its reliance on a diesel generator for all of its power.

That generator uses 100 gallons a day, and the gas station helps foot the bill. Flores said a gallon of regular at his station actually topped $5 for the first time in late 2007 — “More holiday cheer,” Willman cracked — as crude prices began to surge. It has stayed put since.

“Everyone else goes up and down,” he said. “I stay the same.”

That consistency was not much comfort to Nathan Jacobsen, 27, a computer scientist from Brazil spending his honeymoon in California.

“How much?” he asked. “Do I get anything free for that price?” Willman handed him a newspaper.

Such interactions have led to a kind of gallows — or perhaps gallons — humor between Willman and the station’s two other attendants, who serve the public and deal with their displeasure.

They say that paper towels to clean windshields come at “$35 a foot,” and that they want to install slot-machine arms on the sides of the pumps. They keep copies of particularly large receipts — such as those for RVs — as mementos.

One attendant, Nick Osborn, 59, said that a customer who said he was a judge from New York threatened him recently with a class-action lawsuit.

“He took pictures and everything,” Osborn said.

The high cost of isolation

Gorda—where the population ranges from about 10 during low season for tourists to about three dozen in midsummer — is also home to a general store, a diner and a pair of pay phones. Cell phone reception is nonexistent, and radio is a crapshoot.

Locals have gotten used to paying a lot for a little, as almost everything has to be trucked in.

A 12-pack of Budweiser costs nearly $15, and a small coffee at the general store is more expensive than at your average Starbucks.

“You’re paying for the view,” said Brian Boyer, another of the town’s wisecracking gas jockeys. “And the entertainment.”

And Gorda is not alone in pricey gas along the coast.

In Cambria, regular gas at the Chevron station was $3.95 on Thursday.

In Big Sur, the tourist hideaway 40 miles north, a gallon of regular went for $4.80 at one Shell station Tuesday.

Management at the Amerigo station is not immune to the price pinch. Tuesday was trash day, and Flores had to fill up the town’s garbage truck to make the trip to the dump. The bill was $123.

Still, Willman, 47 and single, said he was holding out hope that Gorda’s notorious prices would have a silver lining.

“I keep waiting for some single, rich woman to come through and drive me away,” he said.

Tribune Assistant City Editor Antonio A. Prado contributed to this report.

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