We raced out of the building in our finest sprinting clothes—suits, ties, dress shoes.
I was with my small project team…just Marc, Eric and me. The dream team. Our client meeting had run over by almost an hour, and if we had any chance of making our flight, we’d have to push the Toyota Camry we’d rented to its limit while dodging state troopers on Route 85 as we made our way from Montgomery, Alabama to the Atlanta airport. It was a little over a two hour drive if you were to obey speed limits, plus dropping off the rental car, getting through security, and bolting through the gigantic Atlanta airport.
Could we make it? Reply hazy try again.
I entrusted Eric with the keys and hopped in the back seat. Truth be told, I just didn’t want to be the one to get the speeding ticket if we got pulled over. We tossed our bags in the back and climbed in the car. It was 90+ degrees outside, probably 110 degrees in the car, so it took about 2.5 seconds to start pouring sweat in that shirt and tie. I pulled my Clark Kent move—threw on a polo, replaced my dress shoes with flip flops and tossed the shoes, tie and dress shirt into my suitcase. Dress pants and flip flops, one of my signature looks.
We got on the road, then the highway, and Eric weaved through traffic and took us up to an average clip of 85 to 90 miles per hour as we made our way down this Alabama corridor. We were on track, so the tenor of the car switched from breath-holding to talking about how the meetings that day had gone. An hour or so of conversation in, and we’d already made up enough time that the probability of making our flight had shifted significantly: Outlook good.
As I recall, we were comparing notes about the most awkward moment of the day. I initially argued in favor of it being the moment we were asked how many other times we, the experts, had done a project like this. (Correct answer of zero was successfully evaded.) But Marc insisted it was when one of the clients offered a passionate, nearly tear-filled diatribe about how this working team couldn’t get no respect from the boss man… that they had MBAs, that they had actually left Alabama for college unlike most of the other leaders in the company, and so forth.
Tomato tomahto, awkwardness is all in the eye of the beholder.
At which point, I caught sight of a tiny yellow light just out of the corner of my eye. I leaned over and looked at the dashboard, but there was no light. I could’ve sworn there was just a light.
Me: Eric, did I just see the gas light go on?
Eric: No, we have plenty of gas.
Me: Oh, okay.
We continued our conversation. This would be the point where I might offer a little bit of hard-earned wisdom… “doveryai no proveryai.” Trust but verify. Thanks Mr. Reagan.
It wasn’t until five more minutes had passed before I saw another yellow light, and this time it was undeniable. I craned my neck around like a giraffe to find the gas gauge precariously dancing on empty. I felt our fate shift in an instant from Outlook good to Better not tell you now.
Me: We need to stop for gas.
Eric: No we don’t, we’re fine.
Me: Eric, we have at least 50 miles left before we get to the rental car place. We need to stop.
Marc: He’s right, Eric.
Now here’s the thing. Every time we’d done this trip, we specifically rented a Toyota Camry because it has a pretty good size gas tank and good enough gas mileage that it’s the one car we could make it to and from the Atlanta airport on a single tank of gas, maximizing the value of our pre-paid gas tank and minimizing overall transit time. But we had neglected to factor in the extra trips from the hotel to the client’s headquarters and back, since this was in fact the longest stay we’d ever enjoyed in Montgomery.
Regardless, I always check the gas tank. And I know the difference between “empty” and “plenty of gas.” The problem is, there aren’t that many exits on Route 85. The space between Montgomery and Atlanta isn’t exactly the world’s most heavily trafficked part of the country. Five minutes of driving later, which felt like an eternity, and there hadn’t been a single sign of a gas station.
Me: If we run out of gas out here, I’m going to kill you Eric.
I meant it. And I’m a pretty patient guy.
The gas gauge was as low as I’ve ever seen one. We began problem-solving. We were consultants, our whole job was to problem-solve. There were three of us. There was no reason we couldn’t figure this out.
Me: We need to cut the air conditioning, it burns more gas.
Marc: We need to slow down to 40 miles per hour, you burn the least amount of fuel at that speed. (I didn’t know that by the way. Marc is a treasure trove of insights.)
So there we were, three stooges, driving on an Alabama/Georgia highway at 40 mph with no AC on a 90+ degree day. And we wouldn’t roll down the windows because as Marc advised, that was aerodynamically inferior and we couldn’t afford the extra drag. We needed every gas fume molecule possible that was left in that hollow tank to do its work for us.
Another five or ten minutes passed. Fate status: Concentrate and ask again.
Up ahead, we spotted a sign for an exit. With sweat gushing out of my forehead, I let out a “Hallelujah!” (It’s moments like these that have a tendency of getting us in touch with our spiritual side.)
Except as we got closer, there were a whole bunch of orange construction thingies blocking the exit. “You’ve gotta be @%#!ing kidding me!” (It’s moments like these that have a tendency of getting us in touch with our unsavory side.)
Fate status: My sources say no.
Me: Eric, you have to go for it.
Eric: I can’t, it’s blocked!
Me: Eric, there are at least two car lengths between each of these cones. Weave through them and take that exit!!
Eric: I can’t!
Me: DO IT OR ELSE!
He took my advice. I was the senior ranking member of the team after all. We weaved through the orange thingies to the forbidden construction zone. Fate status: Outlook not so good.
So you’re saying there’s a chance…
I had always wanted to know what it felt like to cut over to the other side of the orange thingies. Of course in my mind, the fun of it was to do that while bypassing bumper-to-bumper traffic as far as the eye can see, yelling “see ya later suckers!” out the window. But there wasn’t traffic, and our windows were sealed shut, and I mean sealed shut, so I guess you could say it didn’t quite live up to my dreams.
But as we approached the exit, we discovered something. The orange thingies weren’t blocking the exit after all. They were just there to shut down the half-mile stretch of exit lane. We were now on the wrong side of the orange thingies, and the distance between the thingies was shrinking. By the time we’d made this realization, they were too tight to weave back through without executing a 15 point turn and threading that Camry perpendicularly through the eye of that god-forsaken needle.
Let me tell you something I learned that day. Few things will get your heart going like driving in reverse in a construction zone and merging from 0 mph in a Toyota Camry between orange thingies onto an Alabama/Georgia interstate in a 100+ degree car on an empty tank of gas when you’re late for a flight.
Let me tell you something else. At some point our fate shifted one last time to the coveted Yes, definitely. We made that damn flight. Not because of our crafty stoogery that may or may not have actually made a difference in getting to the gas station before the Camry engine choked down its last drop of ethanol, but because our flight ended up getting delayed.
But I learned one other thing that day, after arriving at the airport with pit stains the size of watermelons and enough cortisol in my bloodstream to take a solid six months off my life. It was a simple lesson really… but one I apparently need to learn over and over, and still over again, and then over again some more. And some more.
Sometimes it’s better to just slow down, relax and let go.