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Does $8 a gallon for gasoline in Mono County, Death Valley, or Gorda qualify as price gouging?
Dennis Wyatt new mug
Dennis Wyatt

Almost in the middle of nowhere there is a gas station.

It has a convenience store — a converted doublewide trailer.

Next door is a fairly limited motel with rooms — by modern American standards — offer almost primitive protection from the elements.

There is also a restaurant with a bar.

It’s on the edge of Death Valley.

Its mailing address for Postal Service purposes is Darwin, an aptly name mining community dozens of miles away near the Coso mountain range west of the Argus Range.

It’s just outside the restricted area of the Navy weapons test base at China Lake near the mountain ranges where fighter pilots practice their “Top Gun” maneuvering skills flying literally hundreds of yards above the sides of mountains weaving in and out of the mouths of canyons.

The 93522 zip code that is Darwin approaches half the size of San Joaquim County but — depending upon who does the counting — has only between 36 and 90 permanent residents.

That vastness is closer to the middle of nowhere. It’s still topped by the 5,270 square miles of Death Valley that is almost as large as the area of the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. There are indeed areas in Death Valley far away from primitive roads on land mass untouched by trails and surrounded by mountains that define the middle of nowhere.

Gas at Panamint Springs is always $2 a gallon higher than the Chevron gas station 50 miles away on Highway 395 south of Olancha that’s southwest of the once vast aquatic refuge that was Owens Lake before it was reduced to a mere pond by Los Angeles’ insatiable thirst for water.

You can also expect to pay a buck more for a bottle of Gatorade at the store.

Some call this price gouging.

Far from it.

I call it a blessing.

I’ve never had to buy gas in Panamint Springs in the 33 trips I’ve taken to Death Valley over the years.

But twice after remote hikes — one to the region’s most isolated sand dunes in Death Valley National Park that are in the upper Panamint Valley and the other cross country to a remote, deep and wide canyon where a Navy jet doing “Top Gun” style training crashed years later — I’ve stopped by the store.

Even in late November after 10 hours of hiking water you carry for drinking can have the temperature of lukewarm tea.

A semi-cold bottle of Gatorade is a decadent treat.

I always top off the tank before turning on Highway 190 that takes you through Panamint Springs and into Death Valley.

And I make sure I top off the tank every other day in Stovepipe Wells where I stay.

The reason is simple. It’s cheaper than in Furnace Creek and Panamint Springs, but that’s not the most important reason.

You never want to drive much of anywhere in Death Valley without nearly a full tank of gas.

Even when there are no supply issues, there are times that the two gas stations in the national park run out.

Rest assured this not price gouging.

There simply isn’t enough business volume to come anywhere close to prices that Costco offers.

And speaking of Costco, the reason their pump prices are so low is the bulk of their profits come from annual membership fees.

Their goal is to get you to gas up and shop in their warehouse store more often as massive volume is how they pad their membership profits with razor thin margins on the goods they carry.

Rest assured if Save Mart carried less items in bigger packages, had stores you had to drive significantly longer to reach and charged you $80 a year to shop there that the supermarket chain’s prices would be lower.

This mini snapshot of economic reality is triggered by the sudden fixation to find the highest priced gas in the United States.

Naturally it can be found in California.

We have reformulated gas and cleaner burning vehicles that helps air quality. That costs money.

Always has (at least since the 1970s) and always will (assuming the greenies don’t succeed 100 percent in their green range).

But the focus is on what dolts who comment on media posting of media stories call “price gouging” or “dysfunctional California.”

This is based on stories on gas prices in Gorda — one of three “settlements” of filling stations, restaurants and motels on the proximity and rugged Big Sur coastline.

The owners of Gorda wish they could pay sky high PG&E bills.

The area that is part of PG&E territory is too remote to be reached with power lines. That means they burn through diesel to operate generators at the rate of $40 an hour to power the place.

Add to the fact the insurance carriers of the firms that deliver vehicle gas to their station have had their insurance rates jacked up due to two tanker accidents on the twisty Highway 1 and its little wonder they were charging $9.99 a gallon last week.

Yet, enraged people in hamlets like New York City who can’t walk two blocks without passing a bodega, can hop on a bus every 10 minutes, and have no idea where Gorda is at, go nuts slamming $9.99 gas as price gouging.

Clearly, it’s not.

First of all, with gas a more California normal $6.20 a gallon 45 miles away in San Luis Obispo County they can’t simply charge what they want.

They also have much higher fixed costs.

And with the notorious landslides that take out segments of Highway 1 on an annual basis for weeks or months at a time, what business they have dries up into a mere trickle.

The high-priced gas is a godsend for those who have no idea where they are driving and pass up gas stations further to the south.

It also helps a lot of people “top of their tanks” who stay in the Gorda area for a week or so that have to drive to and from trailheads of remote beach escapes.

The area that really gets slammed by the prosecutors, judge and jury on social media is northern Mono County where the “big” intersection is Highway 120 — the same that passes through Manteca — and Highway 395.

It is there in six gas stations spread out between June Lake, Lee Vining and Bridgeport that you consistently will find the highest priced gas in California on a regional basis.

The highest price for the cheapest grade was at $7.70 a gallon on Sunday.

In the area we are talking about there are perhaps 500 permanent residents in a county that has 17,000 people — the size of Ripon. And most of them are in and around Mammoth Lakes.

When snow closes Yosemite National Park for the winter, 80 percent of the business in Lee Vining and Bridgeport dries up.

Traffic on Highway 395 trickles off heading north once you reach Mammoth Lakes. As for southbound traffic, once you reach Topaz Lake heading south the traffic thins out substantially in winter.

In order for businesses to survive year-round and so they can be available when the crowds return to recreate in the late spring, summer and early fall they have to bridge the winter when their set costs don’t decrease.

The argument is that it is a tourist trap is insane.

The reality is their prices reflect the cost of doing business on the western edge of the massive Great Basin.

And that’s balanced against people being able to bring their own food when they stay in the area and top off with gas long before they reach northern Mono County.

Call it price gouging if you want, but if they sold gas for $5.69 a gallon — the lowest price it was selling for Sunday in some places in the Valley — they’d be out of business.

And the general public “playing” as well as those living and working in the area would be forced to drive 50 miles out of their way to get gas, food and other last-minute supplies.