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.
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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.