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WILTON - Trips to the gas station are a painfully frequent part of 19-year-old Mike Stammen's far-flung life.

Stammen, who lives in Stanley but works full-time in the oil fields of eastern Montana, estimates he drives more than 400 miles a week in his Ford F-250 pickup. The cost to top off his truck's gas tank: about $125.

As a rural driver, Stammen is part of the demographic that has felt the biggest financial squeeze from rising gas prices.

A study released earlier this month by the Consumer Federation of America shows that rural households drive 15 percent more miles and spend 20 percent more on gas than their counterparts in metropolitan areas.

Because they own more pickups and other large vehicles, rural households also average 6 percent fewer miles per gallon than their counterparts in metropolitan areas, the study found.

The impact to rural drivers' pocketbooks is happening from coast to coast. But its biggest cumulative effect is felt in places like North Dakota, where a majority of the population lives in rural areas.

"Everywhere we have to go, we have to drive," Stammen said as he filled up his pickup last week at a Cenex station here. "We can't take a bus or a taxi or anything like that."

Inside the store, clerks like JoAnn Otto are on the front lines of frustration over rising fuel prices.

"People complain a lot," Otto said. "They complain a lot that they can't do much of anything else because the gas prices are so high."

She remembers one customer who blamed her personally for the price increase and threatened to call her manager.

According to the survey, they have reason to complain. Rural drivers are spending an average of 5.4 percent of their incomes on gasoline, compared to 3.5 percent for their metropolitan counterparts. This difference is due to both the higher cost of rural driving and lower average incomes among this demographic.

Although gas prices have been falling for four weeks now, the overall upward trend shows little signs of abating. Nationwide, last week's average gas price of $3 per gallon was 13.8 percent higher than prices at the same time in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Prices are even higher in the Bismarck area, averaging $3.03 per gallon, according to the latest American Automobile Association survey.

North Dakotans are handling the price crunch in different ways.

Kevin Kirkey, a Bismarck resident who works as interpretative coordinator at Fort Mandan in Washburn, began carpooling with a co-worker last fall. Kirkey said he never considered this option until gas prices approached $3 per gallon last fall and started to eat into his budget.

"You have to work and you have to get to work," Kirkey said. "You cut what you can. Necessities are necessities."

He said he isn't sure whether he'd continue the carpooling if gas prices came down.

Washburn resident Martha Tweeten, 85, takes the opposite approach. Tweeten said she enjoys her weekly shopping and entertainment trips to Bismarck too much to consider giving them up.

"I'm not going to quit driving," Tweeten said. "I'm just going to enjoy it, and that's it. I'm not going to let this get me all upset."

Nobody knows where prices are headed, but a Wednesday report from the Energy Department offers hope for a bit of relief. Last week, inventories of crude oil rose by 6.9 million barrels and supplies of refined gasoline rose by 1.8 million barrels, the report said.

(Reach reporter Jonathan Rivoli at 223-8482 or jonathan.rivoli@;