‘Save-your-ass gas’: inside the remote California station where fuel is $6 a gallon

The Najah’s Desert Oasis gas station appears on the horizon like a mirage, the only fuel stop in a stretch of nearly 100 miles of mountains and desert in this remote part of south-eastern California. The numbers listed on its sign can evoke a similar feeling of disbelief.

$6.39 a gallon for regular, the display read on Tuesday.

Prices at the gas station, located along historic Route 66, are among the most expensive in the United States, high even for California.

The Golden state has long had the highest gas prices in the country. This week, they hit a new record amid fuel shortages and increased demand, recording an average price per gallon of $4.68.

Prices at Najah’s Desert Oasis have always been higher than average, workers say, because getting anything delivered this far out – fuel included – is expensive. The station only recently got electricity after running on diesel generators for much of its 25 years.

“We’re not an AMPM [chain location]. Gas stations in towns have public works. We’re completely self-sufficient. We have to do everything on our own,” said Carolynn Blair, one of the few workers who lives nearby.

Najah’s Desert Oasis is more than just a fuel stop, Blair said. The station is a lifeline for travelers stranded when their vehicles break down in the harsh desert, lost hikers and those who live in this isolated region of San Bernardino county. Inside, there are tables where those passing through can get a break from the desert heat, and outside sit large fountains with koi fish.

“I call us save-your-ass gas,” said Blair, a 20-year-employee of the station. “Saving lives since 1996. I believe that, too, because I know how many people we have saved … I know how important this place is. I was a child out here before it was here and before the callboxes went in, and people died out here.”

In her time at the station, it has aided people, children included, who have hiked through the desert after fatal car accidents and once rescued a missing woman from the parking lot. It’s not your average gas station, she added while sitting at the register on a recent afternoon.

“Not at $6.39 a gallon, it’s not your average gas station,” a man yelled from a nearby table. “But it’s the only one. It’s better than nothing.”

Blair and the station manager, Teri Teixeira, laughed and breathed a sigh of relief. The station’s higher-than-average prices have been a point of contention for many customers over the years. Some, angry about the high prices, have punched and thrown things at workers.

Brandy Danzy, who was on her way home to North Carolina, wanted to wait to fill up but she was on empty and the nearest station was another 40 miles away in Needles. “I guess we’re gonna have to,” she said, eyeing the pump. “Living is a lot harder out here. It’s very expensive.

That’s the cost of doing business in the remote desert, Teixeira said. “People ask us all the time why the prices are so high,” Teixeira said. “I can go over in Arizona and buy fuel for less than what the owner buys wholesale from the distributor.”

This region of California, near the Arizona border, has long had a reputation for higher than average gas prices, with online travel groups warning tourists to get gas on the other side of the state line. Locals, too, often travel to the neighboring state to fill up their tanks.

The recent nationwide gas price hike has pushed costs even higher.

“Drivers are paying $1.50 more per gallon than a year ago,” Doug Shupe, a spokesperson for AAA, told CNN about California gas prices. “It means the person who has the typical midsize sedan with a 14-gallon-size fuel tank, they’re paying $21 more to fill up that tank today than last year.”

Stations in nearby Needles, just across the Colorado River from Arizona, also offer some of the most expensive gas in the state. Gas stations there reported that the long distance that fuel transporters travel to reach the region have always driven up prices in the region.

At the Shell in Needles, regular fuel was $5.59 a gallon on Tuesday.

“It’s a pinch point. A lot of truckers, a lot of travelers,” said Dennis Martin as he filled up his tank. “I used to work for an oil company and they laid me off because the oil and gas prices were too low. I hope they’re happy now.”

Many of the station’s customers are travelers passing through, said Jessica Caudillo, a cashier at the Shell station in Needles, and aren’t aware that cheaper fuel is just down the road.

“We’re right on the [Arizona] border,” Caudillo said. “If I just drive about 10 minutes I can pay the Arizona gas prices. That’s something a lot of these travelers don’t know.”

Tammie Gress and Lonnie Roberts, who hauled fuel in the region before he retired, stopped at the station for ice cream on Tuesday night, but didn’t fill up due to the high prices. Fuel costs in Needles were among the worst they’d seen, but while traveling over the summer they saw rising fuel costs in almost every western state.

“It’s ridiculous,” Gress said. “With the gas being so high, what do you do? Go to work and spend your check on more gas?”

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