March 26, 2008 -- Five dollars and 20 cents for a gallon of gas. The number says a lot.
Yes, it may be the most expensive gas in America. But $5.20 doesn't begin to explain essence — the rich, off-beat, some might say, eccentric, essence of Gorda, Calif.
Tucked away along the California coastline, three hours from anywhere, Gorda is the kind of town a car can speed through in mere seconds.
But for those who pull in, there is only one restaurant, one store, one incredible view, and one pricey gas station.
"I've only been here a year but this is the place I want to be and this is the place where I want to go to heaven," Gorda resident Julie Hogan said.
James Willman runs the full-service gas station with Brian Boyer and Nick Osborne, who goes by "Nick-at-Night," because he works at night.
From Gorda to 'Gouge-Ya'
They surprise an awful lot of people who drive by looking to fill up their tanks without breaking their wallets. But the gas station is the cash cow of Gorda, and some people have suggested the town's name be changed to "Gouge-ya."
But the price is just a matter of supply and demand. Since the station is in the middle of nowhere, it is awfully hard to supply. And because they are in the middle of nowhere, the demand can be big — drivers passing through won't hit another station for hours.
"You know, it's a little expensive," one passerby said. "We put $20 in and hope. Keep our fingers crossed and hope that we get to another gas station that is slightly more reasonable — maybe only $4 a gallon."
Willman and his gas station gang are among the dozen residents who all work or live in Gorda.
"It's like a home. It's like living in a giant wall-less house. That's my front yard," he said, pointing toward the Pacific Ocean. "I cook outside. I like barbecuing. It's almost like being on a pirate ship. Everybody is running around going 'argh' ... you know. We're right there on the ocean ... so, basically, it's a town of bachelors, really."
That might have been pretty smart if you knew that raising the gas price would attract so much attention.
'You Gotta Buy it Anyway, Right?'
"Yeah, I want attention, yo. Yeah it's pretty cool. I might raise it to six bucks next week if I feel like it, I dunno," he said. "You gotta buy it anyway, right?"
The town has no electricity from the outside. They run their power off a diesel generator. So, when the gas prices around the country go up, Gorda needs to hike them even higher, including the day we visited.
"We're raising the price right now," he said. "It's going to be $5.39 a gallon for regular, $5.50 for mid-grade and $5.60 for premium."
And their first customers are a mom and daughter from Idaho.
"It's official. It's $5.60 a gallon," Willman said.
"Oh God," the Idaho mother said.
"Right when we pull up," her daughter added.
Some Baffled, Others Unfazed
If Americans find the cost baffling, it's interesting to note that the station does have some customers who seem unfazed. Two customers from London note that the gas in Gorda is cheap in comparison to what it costs in England.
The gas station in Gorda locks the pumps promptly at 10 p.m., and closes for the night. How closed? The next morning, when Willman wakes up, two cars have already pulled in to the station. He refuses to open early for them.
"They're there day or night," Willman said. "We open in a hour. They gotta wait till then. Yeah, nothing to worry about. I'm just a grumpy guy."
Eventually, Willman relented.
"Been here long time?" he asked them. "I'll take care of you."
At the price he is charging, "taking care" is a relative term.
Just the beginning of another day at the country's most expensive gas station.