Two and a Half Weeks, Five Thousand Miles, a 23-Year-Old Female Angeleno and a 1988 Saab 900 Turbo Convertible

by Lisa Marie Kuta

Wednesday, June 17 Los Angeles, CA to Las Vegas, NV 284 miles

After an expected chaotic workday, I make it home an hour later than I had hoped. I wanted to be on the road by 5:45pm; now I have one less hour to play in Vegas or one less hour of sleep. The car is totally pre-packed, all I need to grab is my purse and bag of tapes. I note the mileage, start the car, put the top down and edge my way out into the surprisingly traffic-clear Sunset Boulevard.

The sun goes down and the dash lights, which have been dormant for two months, light up. But now I can see the temperature gauge so I can no longer be blissfully ignorant about overheating as I speed along.

A little past Baker, the pasta I consumed too hurriedly threatens to make a return visit. Besides having to be in Chicago sometime in the late afternoon on Saturday, no one expects anything of me; It takes about two and a half hours of driving to understand that I do not need to obsess about time. I put Yo La Tengo's Painful into the cassette player, set the cruise control at 80 and realize it is an amazingly clear warm desert night. I get a little too caught up in the night sky a couple times, I must remember I am driving and lives are at stake.

Overall a charmed drive: little traffic, no wind, no fog in the pass and no highway patrol.

Saab sightings outside of the LA region: 1, 1 82-86 900 in traffic on Las Vegas Blvd.

Thursday, June 18 Las Vegas, NV to Fort Morgan, CO 833 miles

While trying to find a gas station at 5:30am, I have my first of very many semi-directed deviations where I wander under the guise of finding food, gas, souvenirs or an attraction but instead end up drawing attention to myself. (The amount of attention I attract is directly related to how far east I am, therefore drawing the most in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas.) I do find a gas station, fill the tank, put the Velvet Underground in and leaving the top up, I hit the 15.

I have never been one to awe over mountains or other "scenic" vistas--maybe it is in sympathy to the retched consequences of manifest destiny. Or maybe it is the jadedness of modernity ("Ahn, I saw it in a book, on TV, etc. . .") That being said, I was truly enamored with the 15 mile or so stretch of Arizona along the 15.


Utah is starkly beautiful, but there is too much of it. I listen to the radio classifieds for awhile--the show's host Is trying to sound enthusiastic, but you know he is just trying to justify this as a "career in radio." There is not much else on, Dr. Laura and Rush. I spot the best billboard of the entire trip--a striking rattlesnake with the caption "Pornography is just as poisonous."

A few miles into Colorado, at Grand Junction I stop to get gas. What is with 85 octane gasoline? Does it have something to do with the altitude? I fill up with the highest grade (90?) and prepare to mentally or physically (just turn up the stereo) block out any engine knocking I may hear when climbing the mountain range before me.

Almost immediately there is a sudden greeness which I was totally unprepared for. I had to pull over a few times just to look at the rivers that run parallel to the 70. The top is down, the air is pleasantly cool and there is relatively little wind noise.


Having never been there before, I am eager to reach Denver. Not heading the boredom warnings of a friend who used to live in the city, I plan on hanging out and spending the night there. I pull off of the interstate, but all I come across are the much replicated bookstore/multiplex/juice place/bagel shop strip malls. I decide to go on until I am close to being out of gas--about 100 miles. I look at the map, drive around for a while then get back on the highway.

Fort Morgan, where I end up for the evening, is totally charming in that way that those from the east and west coasts call "quaint." Victorian era houses, a fifties bowling alley and a Glen Miller Day celebration that I miss by one day. I roam a bit, chatting with the Safeway clerk and get freakish stares from the woman I special order my avocado and Swiss sandwich from. My motel room's lock doesn't work and thoughts of Psycho snake around my mind, but my attention is soon diverted by the offerings of free HBO.Saab sightings: 4, all between Vail and Denver, 1 of which was an 88 900T that parked right next to me (coincidence?) at a Denver mini-mall

Friday, June 19 Fort Morgan, CO to Stuart, IA 702 miles

Nebraska has stolen my heart. Great roads, friendly visitors' centers and Nebraska Public Radio. From Sidney to Omaha, there are too many things to stop and see, and too many historical markers noting the Pony Express and Buffalo Bill.

I drive 100 miles out of my way over to Sidney to check out the Living Memorial Gardens, which are noted in the AAA book and on a few websites. Well there is nothing living about them; a tangled mass of dried roots, dead flowers and cracked plaques. A group of RVers meeting in the parking lot give me untrusting looks and ask me if I am going to be parked here long. But I am very glad I stopped, its still early and it is already 80 degrees out.

The stretch of the 80 that transverses Nebraska is perfect for setting the cruise and attempting to read the AAA guide while driving--straight, fairly flat, smooth red pavement and a 75 mph speed limit. Boating season is open and I am surrounded by full-sized trucks and SUVs towing various water crafts. Usually this would severely annoy me, but I give into the festive humidity and look for the turn off for Ogallala home of the Petrified Wood Gallery.

After stumbling upon another Pony Express era historical marker, stopping in at the visitors'' center and paying my respects at the Petrified Wood Gallery (dioramas and mosaic/paintings that can make a believer out of the most incredulous) I make my way to the Sod House in Gothenburg.

I pass so many enticing billboards for pioneer villages, historical museums and Pony Express gift emporiums, but I only stop for a Taco Bell run before Lincoln.

Lincoln: good thrift shops, semi-great collage radio, a towering capital building and the Roller Skating Museum populated by people who give me the least freak treatment so far. I want to stay longer, but it is 90 plus degrees and I want to get to Omaha (where I get pie at the 11 Worth Cafe) and maybe catch the X-Files movie.

I drive around what seem to be the worst parts of Omaha (things on fire in the middle of the streets, crazy-eyed people shouting things to me while at stoplights, bleached, malt-liquor drinking women waiting to make calls from payphones) and wander into what are probably the nice parts. Not finding the X-Files movie playing anywhere, I decide to go a little further and spend the night in Iowa.

From the interstate I spot several red barns that look like they are out of a painting bought at a weekend "Oil Painting Blowout" held at suburban hotels. I didn't think it would actually look like this, especially the neat colonial-style brick bank buildings in the towns' centers. I listen to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Tom Waits and it seems even less real.

I end up in Stewart where my Subway sandwich artist has to ask the shift manger what avocado is and the potential misfortune of the Super 8 Motel's "No Vacancy" turned into the best stay of the trip at the New Edgetowner Motel. (quiet enough for good rest, great cable and free, accessible ice.)

Saab sightings: 3, 2 in Lincoln, NE, 1 89 900T convertible in Omaha

Saturday, June 20 Stuart, IA to Chicago, IL 788 miles

It is a few days after the record floods; the fields next to the highway hold half-submerged tractors. It is hot and overcast but not raining. I get off of the 80 a few times to try to find a mail box and wind along country highways passing same-looking ranch houses with Suburbans in the driveways.

I detour to the Amana colonies. I try to mail some postcards from a gas station, but the clerk tells me they wouldn't want to be responsible for anything that might happen. Am I really that threatening or am I just being reactionary? It's a good thing because I go over to the Holiday Inn's mail drop which is conveniently next to a nifty gift shop where I pick up some postcards and am almost seduced to buying a six-pack of the locally produced beer but decide not to shell out the $6.99. (The Amana people descend from Germany, the beer should be good but I can get Anchor Steam for less than that.)

Except for getting slightly lost and having to take a side road for 70 miles, being stuck in front of an Illinois state trooper and getting stuck in massive construction-induced traffic in 95+ degree heat, the rest of the drive into Chicago offered few diversions.

Saab sightings: none until entering Chicagoland

Monday, June 29 Palatine, IL to Forest City, AR 678 miles

Another night of ferocious storms leaves an inch of water in the back of my car under the rear window. I drain it and lower the top thinking the rain has past and I am blessed by the same good no rain omens as on the trip to Chicago. Within twenty miles the warm slight pissy rain starts up again, forcing me to pull over. It continues for almost the entire state.

While driving the terrible roads of Southern Illinois into the backroads of Kentucky I have Son Volt's Trace in the cassette player. This is one of my favorite albums of the past few years but nearing Memphis I feel as though I can truly understand it. (Only two weeks on the road and listen to me. . .)

The highway seems to end it what looks to be the worst part of Memphis: warehouses, shanties and things burning in the street. I stumble upon downtown and the river front area and make huge circles. Working off of the not-so-accurate AAA guidebook map (it even says not for driving instructions on it) I finally make it to Graceland. I had hoped to hit the Lorraine Motel/Civil Rights Museum first, but I found Graceland first. The house is smaller than I thought it would be and the gift shop is quite disappointing. Too bad Lisa Marie had to go and take control of the copyrights and clean up the place. In the tradition of tourism, where the experience must be validated by photos and souvenirs, I snap a few shots and come home with a highball glass with Elvis' image in 18 karat gold on in.

At a gift shop next to Graceland I ask for directions to the Lorraine Motel, but the thirty-ish man at the counter tells me I shouldn't go there because it is in a bad neighborhood. I persist and he tells me if I really want to go there to go ask the security guard. Not finding the guard, I go back to the car and frustratedly head back towards downtown; it's six o'clock and I know the museum is closed but I almost prefer that it is. After a few miles of restless wandering I happen across the street the Lorraine is on. It is desolate except for a couple standing in front of the gates and a man sitting behind a table with a banner taped to it.

I drive down the over commercial Beale street and decide not to even get out--I can go to the 3rd street Promenade, Old Town Pasadena or City Walk--it's all the same. I want to stay in Memphis but I want to leave before it is ruined.

Arkansas welcomes me with three state police cars parked in the median of the interstate--I drop the cruise down to 65. I see a billboard for a cheap independent motel in Forrest City so I decide to stay there. A sad, but clean white place next to the train tracks. I talk with a guy from South Carolina who is heading to the Grand Canyon. I tell him to make sure he stops at the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest.

Saab sightings: none

Tuesday, June 30 Forest City, AR to Norman, OK 545 miles

Any disappointment I may have had with the state of Tennessee's souvenirs is dispelled by the purchasing opportunities available in Arkansas. I drive around Little Rock for a long time, by the Governor's mansion, the capital, the box-house neighborhoods and get out and walk around the River District and downtown. I walk into an Army surplus store and they are selling the same hat that is on my head for three dollars less than in LA.

I can see that Little Rock is desperately tasteful: the farmer's market, trendy coffee places, gold-sunglassed women in Lexi. But this seems to be in backlash to the other parts of the state I visit; one bakery in Little Rock selling pan rusticana does not cancel out the vast region that offers such gathering places as the Jerry Van Dyke theater in Benton.

I stop a lot to poke around in towns and wind down to Hot Springs National Park. Having no expectations, I am pleasantly met with by a crowded tourist trap with plenty of historical markers, exhibits and gift shops. Here I pick up a Bill Clinton collector's plate, more highball glasses and a T-shirt. After doing my part for the local economy, I decide to get back to the 40 via Scenic Highway 7 where I witness the "backwoods lifestyle" that one of my guidebooks celebrates.

After nearly masking myself carsick on 7 (even the breeze and Versus in the stereo could not keep me distracted enough not to notice the winding road), I get back to the 40. Nearing Oklahoma City, I do some more wandering in Woody Guthrie's hometown. I see a bit of downtown Oklahoma City and then head down to Norman. Norman, like Lincoln, has a great Great Plaines state college city vibe to it. Maybe because it is summer and football season is over releasing the town from the beer-stained clutches of the jocks but anyway I had a nice evening of hanging out, perusing public art and a good Denny's experience.

Saab sightings: 1 NG900 in Little Rock

Wednesday, July 1 Norman, OK to Gallup, NM 741 miles

I wake at seven and head up to Enterprise Square USA in Oklahoma City. My guide, a student at the sponsoring Christian college with a fashionable haircut, could not understand why I would be interested in seeing a museum dedicated to expounding the benefits and supremeness of capitalism. The thirty foot high bust of George Washington Carver made it worth the four dollar admission. Although I have vowed not to buy anything from the gift shop the $3 T-shirt proclaiming "Profit is not a four letter word" has to be purchased. On my way out she asks where I am from and I tell her I am on a road trip. She asks if I have gotten lonely, I answer no; if anything the trip would have been lessened if I would have had to share and compromise.

The skies are the same gray as the warm water left in the bucket after I wash my floors. I know it is going to rain but I put the top down anyway. It starts to rain when I am stopped at the dissappointingly tasteful Texas Trading Post but stops less than 10 miles later. The Texas panhandle is not as long as I remember it to be; New Mexico's ill-cared for highways come too soon. Lowering the top again, I see extreme sun ahead.

I wasn't looking far enough ahead; the skies over Albuquerque are blacker than most Los Angeles nights. Lightning flashes and I try to convince myself that it might just be an electrical storm. It is still 100 degrees and sunny when I pull off at a Stucky's for the three pecan rolls for a dollar. Back on the road, the temperature drops about thirty degrees in ten miles as I enter the fringe of the blackness. Grudgingly I pull over and put the top up and debate staying at the next stop until the storm passes. Feeling charmed, I decide to drive through the storm; I am soon skidding out in zero visibility in a no shoulder area while being passed by semis going over eighty. I came close but did not panic as I had while in the passenger seat during a New Mexican storm three years ago (I sat repeating I don't want to die in a Honda CRX. . .) After about 35 miles the sun was out again on the other side of Albuquerque.

I get to Gallup at sunset. I really want to try to make Winslow, Arizona and stay at the Wig Wam Motel but the heat gets the best of me. I drive 66 all though Gallup and desperately wanted to get a log cabin at the Log Cabin Motel but there is an all-too familiar gaggle of teenage boys in stereotypical gang gear hanging in front. Deciding on the Blue Spruce Motel, I check in. The clerk asks me what part of LA I live in and when I answer the Eastside, between Hollywood and Downtown, he abruptly cuts me off with, "my relatives live in Santa Monica and West LA." Even away from there I can't escape the sidists!

The room is old, forties era with a new cheap floral bedspread that is supposed to make the room look modern but instead looks ashamed of its heritage. There isn't a remote for the TV and there are train tracks right outside the window. But it is cheap, clean and I fall asleep quickly.

Saab sightings: 1 in Oklahoma City

Thursday, July 2 Gallup, NM to Los Angeles, CA 715 miles

I don't want to head home; I search the map for route-extending journeys. Even with a stop at Meteor Crater and excursions off of the interstate it is noon and I am too close to Los Angeles. Although it is over 100 degrees out, I am sweating little from the lack of humidity. Barstow seems like the most dreaded place in the region and I don't want to pass through it again so I veer off onto the 95 deciding to stop in one more national park, Joshua Tree.

On the 95, I soon figure out the speed-to-temperature ratio of my car. 90 mph is the point where the temperature gauges at that almost-overheating point.

Way too soon I am back on the grudgingly familiar 10 freeway. I take comfort in the dinosaurs and outlet mall in Cabazon. No longer able to stall, I face having to go back to life. Los Angeles welcomes me with cool eighty degree winds and light traffic even though it is rush hour before a holiday.

Saab sightings: none until San Bernadino County

Best roads: Utah, 75 mph speed limit, smooth surfaces, few other cars on the road
Best Taco Bell 7-Layer Burrito (with no sour cream): Kearney, Nebraska
Slowest Denny's I've Even Been In: Kingman, Arizona
Worst Roads: Illinois: 65 mph speed limit, many state troopers, poor surfaces, a lot of construction and general disregard for road rules among native drivers
Best Motel: New Edgetowner in Stuart Iowa. Supercool blackwatch plaid carpeting, extremely spacious room well appointed, good cable, very quiet, free ice.
Best Souvenirs: Hot Springs, AR
Most Billboards for Non-Tourist Attractions: Arkansas
Most Billboards for Tourist Attractions: Nebraska

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