Dust Bowl Adventure, Part 3 (Geo-Oddities Overflowing)

I completed an epic day of geo-oddity exploration earlier this week during the Dust Bowl trip.

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The first cluster existed near Black Mesa at the far northwestern corner of the Oklahoma panhandle. This small area may be unique in the state from a geographical perspective, with genuine mesas replacing more typical flat or rolling grasslands. One drives along ramrod-straight roads all day until the terrain changes completely without warning. It’s that stark.

There were three notable geo-oddities that I visited near Black Mesa. Thay are labeled on the embedded map as (A) the Colorado-New Mexico-Oklahoma tripoint; (B) the 37° north/103° south latitude-longitude confluence; and (C) the Oklahoma Highpoint trailhead.

I’ve driven a lot of dirt and gravel roads on this trip, gaining a new appreciation for the "dust" of the infamous Dust Bowl. It’s a very fine consistency reminiscent of powdered sugar, and it coats an automobile in light-brown grime on the back roads. Just about every road that wasn’t designated a primary route lacked pavement.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the road up to Black Masa was paved asphalt. Only the final mile-or-so turned to gravel at a point where one turned west towards the CONMOK tripoint. There it switched from an Oklahoma road to a Colorado road. I suppose that accounted for the difference.

CONMOK was an easy capture and extremely obvious, complete with a convenient turnaround adjacent to the roadside. The lat/long confluence was only slightly more difficult. Starting from the tripoint, I followed the GPS back another quarter mile until it implied that I was perpendicular to the confluence. I got out of the car and walked maybe twenty paces north into the surrounding scrubland. There I found a small pile of rocks decorated with a few doodads and coins left by previous geo-geeks with the same strange fascination. That marked the confluence. The whole ordeal took all of about thirty seconds.

Oklahoma Highpoint Trail

Backtracking further we reached the Black Mesa trailhead. I would have encountered the Oklahoma highpoint had I wished to hike four miles onto the mesa and return. My passenger had already completed four half-marathons in four days as part of the Dust Bowl series and was in no mood to add another eight miles to the total. We called it a day and decided that maybe we’d try this some other time assuming we’re ever in the area again.

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We drove down from Black Mesa to find the next tripoint on our journey at the southwestern corner of Cimarron Co., OK, where New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas form the NMOKTX tripoint (Label A on the map).

New Mexico Oklahoma Texas Tripoint

This marker was the least remarkable of all the tripoints we visited during the trip. It was downright underwhelming. Nonetheless it signified a tripoint so it counted just as much as the others. I also promised that this would be the last dirt road we would have to travel during our journey.

Thelma and Louise Passed Through

We continued west another couple of miles to rejoin Route 54 on our way to our ultimate destination for the day at Clayton, NM. I had a final geo-oddity to capture, a landmark more obscure than all of the others combined because it’s fictional and I made it up. I called it the Thelma and Louise spot. I developed a Thelma and Louise Route Map about eighteen months ago. It’s been a very popular page, receiving several new visitors consistently every day since its publication.

Anyway the big finale of the Thelma and Louise movie depends upon a specific plot twist. Louise cannot enter Texas. I remarked on the geographical implications of that point in the previous article:

The shooting script includes a reference to Boise City, OK that did not appear in the movie. This makes sense as it’s the logical path between Oklahoma and their next destination, New Mexico. It also brings them within mere feet of Texas without crossing the border so Louise remains safe in that respect.

The photograph marks the spot where Louise comes within mere feet of Texas (map). The movie simply cannot work from a logical perspective without the characters passing down the paved road directly ahead. The paved road would be safe territory. The dirt road in the foreground would be unsafe. The movie wouldn’t work if the road had been constructed a few feet farther east.

The Dust Bowl Adventure articles:

Thelma and Louise Route Map

What would possibly possess the Twelve Mile Circle to examine a 20-year-old chick flick practically frame-by-frame for most of a weekend? Blame it on a skewed sense of curiosity fanned by random search engine queries I’d observed in my web logs. I’d mentioned the movie Thelma and Louise only once on 12MC, and only as an aside in a single post. I’d simply noted that some of the scenes were filmed in Colorado’s Paradox Valley.

I’ve received a small but steady string of visitors to that page ever since, all seemingly devotees of Thelma and Louise looking to replicate the route vicariously. The world must be seriously lacking in specific information if the search engines keep sending people to my page so obviously mismatched with their intent. I’m compelled to create a map to fill this momentous gap in human knowledge. I scrounged through my wife’s collection of cheezy films from the 1990’s but failed to find a copy. Fortunately, she agreed to visit our local public library and check one out on my behalf, satisfying my map-making compulsion while saving me from the humiliation of being seen in public with a copy.

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Let’s set expectations. Repeat after me: this is a movie. Generally speaking, Thelma and Louise does a much better job of aligning itself to actual, genuine physical geography than the average Hollywood production. It still harbors a few inconsistencies. There are time shifts. There are mountains in places that don’t have mountains. There are roads and settlements that do not correlate with to the real-world. Filming locations included suburban Los Angeles, California’s Central Valley, southeastern Utah, and to a lesser degree, Colorado including the Paradox Valley. None of these sites corresponds to a story location. You’ll do much better if you accept that, take a deep breath and go with the flow.

It is impossible to determine an exact route followed by Thelma and Louise as they ran from the law. I made some educated guesses that I will explain, however other theories and possibilities could work equally well. This cannot be solved definitively unless Callie Khouri — the screenwriter who won an Oscar for this movie — offers an opinion. I’m presenting my effort as "good enough" and not as a definitive source. Feel free to debate finer points amongst yourselves and in the comments.

Geography is my primary focus and I won’t have room to discuss parts of the movie that don’t identify places or create momentum towards new locations, including an entire plot line involving the police investigation. I’ll do my best to provide context but you should go to the Internet Movie Database if you want a plot summary. I’ll also assume that nobody minds if I spoil the ending, correct? I figure I’m pretty safe with a movie that hasn’t seen a theater screen in two decades.

Let’s get started.

Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) and Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) plan a brief road trip together in Louise’s 1966 Thunderbird convertible. They need a little free-time away from the flawed men in their lives; Thelma’s over-controlling husband Darryl and Louise’s take-it-for-granted boyfriend Jimmy. Male characters display lots of dysfunctional behaviors in this movie. They are adulterers, misogynists, scoundrels, buffoons, self-absorbed egotists, and all-purpose jerks, with the possible exception of Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel), a detective who tries to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

Thelma and Louise live in Arkansas, probably a suburb of Little Rock. This isn’t stated explicitly in the movie but the shooting script (available from a variety of sources on the Intertubes) includes a deleted scene where Hal says, “I gotta go to Little Rock” and then he immediately appears at Thelma’s house in the next scene to interview her husband. It could be any suburb anywhere and perhaps that’s the point. The duo begin the movie as "everywoman" characters leading ordinary lives that forge an immediate connection to the viewing audience. Nonetheless, we need to start the map somewhere and I selected Little Rock.

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The duo intends to drive up to “the Mountains” (at minute 5:53 on the DVD version) with fishing gear (6:02). From Little Rock, possibilities include the Ozark Mountains to the North or the Ouachita Mountains to the West. I discounted other directions because, as you will see, the action will compel them towards Oklahoma City and these choices position them better. I went with the Ozarks because it seemed to be about the right distance based on the implied length of the initial drive and because one area "has been ranked by Field and Stream magazine as the nation’s second best fishing town."

Thelma and Louise never arrive at their intended destination. They stop at the Silver Bullet, a honkey-tonk saloon and night club (11:35), intending to stay briefly but deciding to join the boisterous crowd. The predatory, lecherous, womanizing Harlan Puckett forces himself on an intoxicated Thelma in the Silver Bullet parking lot. Louise shoots him dead (21:30).

Callie Khouri creates a plot element here that will guide the duo geographically for the remainder of their increasingly desperate adventure. Something never fully explained happened to Louise years earlier in Texas, something similar to what just happened to Thelma. It likely triggered her swift and severe reaction to Harlan, resulting in his death. It also leads Louise to believe that she must flee immediately because the legal system will fail regardless of the facts. She has to find safety in Mexico. Finally, she has an aversion to Texas and she will not cross its boundaries. Louise’s past experience defines a momentum that will propel the duo continuously westward.

Thelma and Louise drive towards Oklahoma City. As dawn emerges, they are heading down an empty 2-lane highway (28:50) but they are still in Arkansas (31:18). Louise calls boyfriend Jimmy and asks him to wire money, her life savings, to a Western Union in Oklahoma City. The women first encounter J.D. (played by Brad Pitt in one of his first major roles, who bears mentioning by name only because someone will say "you didn’t mention Brad Pitt" if I didn’t), a charming petty thief who they’ll eventually give a ride. They proceed along an Interstate Highway (34:10) which would probably be I-44 if they were heading from the Ozarks or I-40 if Ouachita, to pick up Louise’s cash in Oklahoma City.

Meanwhile the women plot their route to Mexico (43:27). They favor secondary roads over Interstates, hoping to avoid unwanted attention. Thelma suggests U.S. Route 81 (43:36) which would take them past Dallas (Ft. Worth actually) and direct them towards the border crossing in Laredo. This is the shortest route to Mexico but Louise dismisses it because she won’t enter Texas. Thelma expresses dismay: Texas sits squarely between Oklahoma and Mexico. Thus, the plot element developed earlier guarantees that the duo will continue further west even after they leave Oklahoma City in order to detour around Texas.

It doesn’t look much like a motel

Jimmy instructs them to a very specific address, the Vagabond Motel at "1921 North East 23rd" (36:42). It is interesting that Callie Khouri selected a real address when almost every other location remained vague. I’m not sure what existed at 1921 North East 23rd in Oklahoma City twenty years ago, but today it’s an AutoZone store selling automotive parts and accessories. I wonder if anyone ever goes there and says, "hey, this is the address from Thelma and Louise!" It’s ironic that such a testosterone-fueled business occupies the site.

The duo, along with J.D. arrives in Oklahoma City (51:00). A lot of plot happens here but not much geographically speaking, so just briefly, Jimmy surprises Louise by delivering several thousand dollars in person (and returns home) and J.D. ends up stealing it. These funds were supposed to help Thelma and Louise reinvent themselves in Mexico and now they have nothing. Nonetheless, the dynamics of their situation compels them onward.

Desperate, Thelma robs a convenience store (1:14:09) in rural Oklahoma (at 1:28:21 they are listed as wanted in Oklahoma for armed robbery) to keep their journey moving. Their options diminish dramatically as law enforcement authorities now transform them from persons of interest into dangerous outlaws.

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The shooting script includes a reference to Boise City, OK that did not appear in the movie. This makes sense as it’s the logical path between Oklahoma and their next destination, New Mexico. It also brings them within mere feet of Texas without crossing the border so Louise remains safe in that respect.

Louise gets a bit complacent and she’s stopped by a New Mexico state policeman after blowing through a speed trap (1:36:57). Now wanted for armed robbery and fearing arrest, the duo locks the policeman into the trunk of his squad car. They have to get out of New Mexico (1:41:54) but it’s too risky to head directly towards the Mexican border (1:51:00). They could have used the crossing south of Columbus, NM (the same one Pancho Villa used) as the quickest route while avoiding Texas, but that’s no longer feasible. They need to head in an unexpected direction to avoid a dragnet that will surely ensue once the policeman frees himself. One again, momentum pushes them further west.

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Thelma and Louise enter Arizona and are spotted by the police after the authorities trace the location of a phone call they make. One police car is specifically marked as the Navajo County Sheriff’s office (1:57:23). A deleted scene on the DVD includes a mention of them still being about 250 miles from Mexico, so the final escape plan may have been Interstate 17 to Interstate 19, to Nogales. However, waves of police vehicles and a helicopter force them into the desert where they’re cornered at the edge of the Grand Canyon (actually Dead Horse Point near Moab, Utah substituting as a stand-in).

Finally, it becomes clear. Callie Khouri has created an entire set of scenarios and twists to propel our desperadoes 1,500 miles practically due west from Little Rock, Arkansas to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The duo drives their T-Bird over the side of the cliff rather than surrender to the police, and the movie ends.

Actually, I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I’d imagined originally.


Colorado’s Paradox

It’s a paradox. How does a search engine decide that my website is a good source of information on the naming of the tiny town of Paradox, Colorado? I’d mentioned it only one time in a most innocuous way. I’d been examining a kink in the boundary between Colorado and neighboring Utah.

Back then I said that I was "… totally enjoying the thought that the anomaly occurs near a town and valley named Paradox." That’s the entirety of the reference. A search engine considered this meaningless observation as a nugget of great value. It’s not, but I can’t disappoint the masses — assuming "masses" is defined as a single individual who found my website randomly and will likely never return after viewing a page that sat in public for eighteen months.

Let’s explore this paradoxical situation in Paradox, Colorado.

Two minutes later… OK, I found out why the Twelve Mile Circle scores higher that one would expect on search engine queries. There is very little information about the town of Paradox and not much more about the remaining valley either. It’s not totally barren. I can still poke around the recesses of the Intertubes and solve the riddle.

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I’ll start with Paradox, the town. It’s on the map. Barely. Remember when we all used to get excited as Google Maps added each new nation or city to Street View? It makes one feel wistful for those long ago days of 2008. Street View has become nearly ubiquitous in North America and Western Europe to the point where it’s taken for granted. Paradox is so remote, however, that Street View hasn’t arrived there yet. It comes close but the best we can see are a few dots marking homesteads on the back edge of the distant valley floor.

Paradox is so small that even Wikipedia includes barely a mention. The best source I found was the local Paradox Valley School where only five teachers cover the full educational needs of every child, pre-school through eighth grade:

The post office is the only place with a paved parking lot in Paradox. This is also where you will find our fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. Striking red mesas form two majestic walls that run the length of the valley. Public lands and open range make up the valley floor. While to the east and the west the San Jaun and La Sal mountain ranges sit serenely in the distance as if quietly guarding the peace of this desert town. The small town of Paradox is home to about 250 people.

Oh, and let’s not forget this interesting tidbit of particularly obscure trivia:

Perhaps Paradox’s most famous big screen moments are found in the 1991 film Thelma and Louise.

I’m not sure why I found that so deliciously tantalizing but I’ll have to raid my wife’s pile of vintage early 90’s VHS cassettes and see if I can find a copy of Thelma and Louise tucked somewhere down below the clutter. I desperately want to see this Paradox in glorious video. I’m not sure we have a functioning videotape machine anymore. Such a dilemma.

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I’ve dangled this paradox in front of the loyal readership of the Twelve Mile Circle for long enough. The town of Paradox is named after the Paradox Valley. No surprise. The valley gets its name from its status as a geo-oddity. I’ve highlighted the northwestern half of the valley in terrain mode to enhance the obviousness once it’s mentioned.

One thinks of water carving valleys. That also came to the minds of Nineteenth Century explorers and geologists who first surveyed the territory here. However, they noticed a distinct lack of water running down the length of this 25-mile valley corralled by steep cliff walls. Instead, a river cuts across the valley. The Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River, seemed to defy conventional wisdom and that was the paradox.

In reality, the river came first. It carved a path through solid stone like many other rivers have done throughout the rugged southwestern United States. Later, the area of the valley sank slowly down from the heights of the surrounding plain as ancient salt deposits eroded beneath it.

Two geological events. One location. Paradox resolved.