The day before yesterday I filled Malvina Forester’s tank for less than $40. If you live off-island but somewhere in the continental U.S., this will not seem worth a mention, never mind a blog post, but bear with me. In recent years my fill-her-up receipts have usually been in the 50s or very high 40s.
Where I live, the per-gallon price for regular usually has a 4 to the left of the decimal point. On Wednesday it had a 2. True, the numbers to the right of the decimal point were all 9s, but still . . .
Malvina’s tank holds 15.9 gallons. My fill-up was 12.922. On the three remaining gallons, I could have driven from Vineyard Haven to Aquinnah, and then returned to Aquinnah. There’s no gas station in Aquinnah, and no grocery store either. The view from the cliffs is stunning, but Aquinnah is a lousy place to run out of gas.
The price of gas has to be one of the most bitched-about topics on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s right up there with ferry fares. The per-gallon price of gas on Martha’s Vineyard is generally 70–75 cents more than the price across the water in Falmouth. To get to the cheap(er) gas in Falmouth, you have to take your vehicle across on one of the Steamship Authority (SSA) ferries. Even with the Islander Preferred discount, this is not cheap: $61 round-trip when the car, the dog, and I went off last October.
Taking the car off-island is not something you do on the spur of the moment or whenever you need gas. But when Vineyarders know we’re going off-island, we let the gas tank get as low as we dare and then gas up on the other side. On a 13-gallon fill I save less than 10 bucks, but I always feel as though I’m putting one over on The System. My frugal New England ancestors would be proud.
The flip side of high gas prices is that we live on an island. A fairly large island as islands go — about a hundred square miles, many of which have no roads on them — but an island nonetheless. Drive more than 20 miles in any direction and you will end up in the water. Some people drive a lot more than others, often as part of their jobs, but no one commutes 50 miles to work and 50 miles back. (People who work off-island or travel frequently often have a car on “the other side.”)
I don’t commute at all. As a freelance editor, I work from home. I can walk to the post office and the nearest grocery store in less than 20 minutes. I do this two or three times a week. My regular grocery store, Reliable, is about 10 miles away. I go there every week or two, and I usually combine my grocery-shopping trips with other down-island errands. This saves time as well as gas money.
In the almost five years I’ve had Malvina, my 2008 Subaru Forester, I’ve driven an average of less than 5,500 miles a year. That boils down to roughly a tank and a half of gas each month. Gas is expensive on Martha’s Vineyard, but I don’t need all that much of it.
This has as much to do with the nature of the Vineyard as with my frugality, homebody habits, and modest income. The Vineyard was settled by humans long before gas prices were an issue — long before the internal-combustion engine. People traveled mostly on foot or on horseback, by horse- or ox-drawn conveyance or by boat. Whatever necessities they couldn’t make or grow at home could generally be found in the nearest town, which unless you were in Aquinnah or the nether reaches of Chilmark was not too far away, even if you were on foot.
Well into the twentieth century, I’m told, Gay Headers often did their shopping in New Bedford. It was easier to get to New Bedford by boat than to Vineyard Haven or Edgartown by car, the roads were that bad.
In my city days, many neighborhoods worked the same way. You could walk to a grocery store and a laundromat and whatever else you needed on a regular basis. If you needed to go farther, you could walk to a bus or subway stop. I got my driver’s license as soon as I was old enough — what suburban kid didn’t? — but when I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, at age 34, I’d never owned a motor vehicle.
Cheap gas changed everything. The U.S. interstate highway system is predicated on cheap gas. So is the country’s decades-long inattention to public transportation. Cities sprawled into suburbs and exurbs where you needed to get in the car to buy a gallon of milk. Suburbs and exurbs spawned shopping malls, where people swarmed in great numbers but no trace of community could be found. Jobs left the city for malls and industrial parks on the outskirts, leaving city folk without cars stranded.
Then it turned out that gas wasn’t so cheap after all. Millions upon millions of motorists driving here, there, and everywhere snarled the roads and polluted the air. The supply of fossil fuels has turned out — surprise, surprise — to be finite. And the nation’s passion for and dependence on cheap oil led it into a series of Faustian bargains that have been coming due for some time now.
So though I bitch about the high price of gas along with everyone else, I’m also glad to live in a place where I don’t have to travel far to get what I need, and where I’ll run into people I know when I get there. The Vineyard’s literal insularity has protected it from some of the short-sighted foolishness of the cheap-gas era. What we have to offer the world as a result may be more important than pretty beaches.