It was chaos that first day of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware hack. The official position was that supply might be interrupted for a couple days, so if everyone just acted normal, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. So what did we do? We started filling our cars, and trucks, and tractors, and garbage bags with as much gas as we could get—because even if the supply didn’t run out, word on the street was that the price might go up 30 cents later in the week.

This is the kind of behavior that will run the pumps dry under the best of circumstances, because—contrary to popular myth—gas stations are not directly connected to vast underground lakes of fuel. Where I live, in central North Carolina, the pumps went down fast. Cops had to direct traffic into a station that still had fuel. It’s easy to understand why. The next day, in the waiting room at a tire store, I heard a guy brag to a woman, “I have five cars. So I filled them all up, and if one runs out, I’ll just drive the next one.” Believe it or not, she didn’t seem to think this was super cool of him.

police directing traffic

Police directing traffic outside a station that still had fuel on May 11.

Car and Driver

In the midst of all this, I got my hands on a 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1, a 480-hp V-8 beast. I told the fleet company about the fuel situation and said to drop it off with whatever it had, and I’d wait a couple days to fill it up. So I got it with a half tank, and stayed local for a while, enjoying the active-exhaust thunder and the Coyote 5.0’s affinity for big revs. But then those initial couple days passed, then a few more, and then a couple more after that, and most of my local pumps still wore yellow plastic bags on the handles. The few that didn’t had handwritten notes on the 89 and 93 octane: OUT. Nine days after I saw the cops directing traffic, you still couldn’t get premium fuel. The Mustang was down under a quarter tank, low-fuel warning aglow. This was becoming a problem. Every time I pushed the start button and the quad pipes barked out their signature bellow, I thought about how much precious fuel those eight cylinders were drinking. The Mustang’s extravagant power became a source of anxiety rather than fun.

gas pump with no 89 or 93 octane

The situation on May 20, 2021.

Car and Driver

Meanwhile, my wife and her sister were blithely driving to work every day in their Pacifica Hybrids and loving the fact that they didn’t have to stalk GasBuddy (which wasn’t accurate, anyway) or worry about how far their fuel needles dropped. It’s a cruel turn when the Pacifica Hybrid is a hotter commodity than a Mach 1, but that’s where we were. Our ridiculously fragile fuel infrastructure was brought low not by any physical constraint or lack of supply, but by hacking, which I aways imagine as depicted by John Salley in Bad Boys. And don’t get me wrong, the grid is fragile, too. But you can get solar panels and charge up an EV. You’re probably less likely to build a petroleum refinery in your back yard. All the people with Zombie Response Squad decals on their overland 4x4s are pretending that, amidst the apocalypse, the pumps will still work fine down at the local Shell.

filling up a mustang at a gas station

Finally: May 21. Premium is back.

Car and Driver

On day 10, I ventured out again, the Mustang’s range readout down to 42 miles. I felt like I was living our Last Gallon story, having one last fling with the final dregs of 93 octane. But then I saw that the pump handles at the local station were once again unadorned by plastic bags or sticky notes. I pulled up and filled the tank. And soon, I’ll probably forget this little inconvenience, write it off as an aberration. But the truth is that frictionless access to gasoline and diesel, everywhere, whenever you want, is the aberration. A lot of things have to go right for oil to get from the ground to your gas tank. But to kick off the real zombie apocalypse, only one thing has to go wrong.

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