When Lewis and Clark pushed their way west from St. Louis and into the vast, unexplored northwest back in 1804, they did so with a few horses and canoes and a lot of help from Indians who didn't know what they were letting themselves in for. These are the golden rules of adventuring: You supply the transportation and con the locals into providing just about everything else.
That, essentially, was the MO of six intrepid souls who set off from the West Coast last month in the Plymouth Pride in America Road Rally. Provided only with a car and one tank of gas, the three competing couples had to make their way to New York in 21 days, putting at least 3,000 miles on their respective odometers. They could cadge money, food, gas and lodging any way they cared to, as long as it was legal. But they had to leave all checks and credit cards at home and could not contact friends, relatives or business associates along the way.
The rally was organized by Judi Shils, a West Coast television producer, who was inspired by her friend Bruce Jenner. Recalling the good times he'd had bumming around as a college student, the former Olympic decathlon champ told her one evening that he'd always wanted to see if he could drive across the country with no money, relying on native wit and the kindness of strangers. Now too famous to make the trip incognito, Jenner was enthusiastic when Shils suggested they find someone else to do it, with an eye to developing a movie.
In less than a month, Jenner and Shils, along with producer Wendy Roth, had roughed out a set of rules for the rally and put together three two-person teams. One would take a southern route, one a northern route and the third would strike out across the middle of the country. The three organizers had also devised an elaborate scoring scheme, with bonus points for special achievements such as eating in a four-star restaurant, making the local paper (for anything other than committing a crime) and suiting up with a legitimate sports team. Sponsors would provide the cameras and video equipment for each team to document their adventures.
The southern team, setting out from Los Angeles, consisted of fashion photographer Carolyn Jones, 29, and writer Richard Rubin, 36. Both single, they met for the first time at an organizational meeting for the rally, where they agreed to team up. The northern team, starting from Seattle, was made up of Craig Allen, 29, of Hollywood, who rents, sells and repairs film-editing machines, and Carisa Bianchi, 28, an advertising account executive in L.A. Allen and Bianchi had lived together since December. The middle team, which left from San Francisco, was composed of Shils, 28, who couldn't resist being part of her own project, and Gina Minervini, 26, an aspiring actress who lives in Santa Monica. Like Jones and Rubin, they were strangers before the rally.
Though the contestants were advised to "act as if you're in a TV movie," the natives they descended upon knew nothing of what their impecunious visitors were up to. Yet all across the country, people opened their homes and offered meals and jobs. Herewith, some of the highlights.
Los Angeles. Jones and Rubin leave Aug. 18, a day ahead of everyone else, because the southern route is 600 miles longer. In Las Vegas, they tell gas attendant Steve Brown that they are broke. He takes them home to his wife, Joanna, a waitress. She's nine months pregnant, but cheerfully puts them up for the night. (150 points for sleeping in a private home.)
Seattle. Before they've even hit the highway, Allen and Bianchi have persuaded a local call-in deejay team to let Craig do his "nerd laugh" on the air. (Bonus points for getting on a radio show.) They agree on a strategy of contacting chambers of commerce along the way to meet people, and they work out an all-purpose cover story: They are crossing the country without money to learn about American families.
But the northern team almost immediately has a crisis of conscience. The first night out of Seattle, two retired women buy them drinks and dinner at a neighborhood tavern (25 points). The food is awful—turkey in gravy that tastes like "lukewarm Woolite," according to Bianchi—but the gesture is lavish, given the women's modest means. "We make about $70,000 a year," says Allen. "It made us feel guilty."
San Francisco. Shils and Minervini spend their first day working on the docks. Minervini moves heavy containers of cod and sole, while Shils makes her $5 an hour dockside, without any heavy lifting. Between them they earn $65. They go out to dinner with two men they met on the docks (30 points for dating), then spend the night on a fishing boat. (Possible bonus points for inventive overnight berth.)
Page, Ariz. Jones and Rubin, who spent two days in Las Vegas washing cars and stacking tires, have also hit on a cover story: They will tell innkeepers they are researching a book called Special Places to Stay in America. It worked like a charm last night at the Seven Wives Inn in St. George, Utah (75 points for scoring free mid-range accommodations), but now the southern team is hurting—coasting down hills in neutral to save gas, subsisting on coffee and sunflower seeds.
Lake Tahoe. Shils and Minervini, meanwhile, are on a roll. Having landed a free room the night before at the Monterey Hyatt (150 points for staying in a four-star hotel) in return for selling comedy show tickets in the lobby, they've stumbled now on an even better job: setting out beach chairs at the Lake Tahoe Hyatt in return for a free condo and tips.
Easton, Wash. Bianchi's diary entry reads: "I looked over at Craig and I thought to myself how cute he looked and I was terribly grateful that he had come into my life and that we were sharing this adventure together." They pick pears at Dick and Helen Laws's farm in Mead, where they'd been invited to spend the night. But the ethical queasiness persists, and the northern team briefly considers dropping out of the rally. Instead, they decide to tone down the obvious misstatements in their cover story and vow to call people after the trip and explain themselves.
Tucson, Ariz. By the time they get to Flagstaff, Jones and Rubin have been reduced to panhandling. (No points.) But their luck turns in Tucson, where the manager of the Hacienda del Sol provides a free room and fancy food. (190 points for first-class digs and a gourmet meal.) Rubin replenishes the kitty by washing cars.
Sheridan, Wyo. Allen and Bianchi waltz into city hall and meet Mayor Max DeBolt, who puts them up for the night (bonus points for staying with a public official). But the pair is tired and hungry the next evening when they pull into Rapid City, S.Dak., so they go to a church. "Three ministers turned us away," says Allen. They sleep in the car. (No points.)
Ruidoso, N.Mex. Jones and Rubin have been sleeping in the car a lot, and Jones is tired of what Rubin calls "my Rudy Vallee snore." Complains Rubin: "She wakes me up three times a night." When they fail to find work at the local racetrack, the owner of the Circle J BBQ restaurant lets the pair fill up on free rolls and 5-cent cups of coffee.
Minneapolis. Allen and Bianchi arrive in Minneapolis with 56 cents and an eighth of a tank of gas. He gets a job, at $40 an hour, working for a company that uses film-editing machines. But, says Bianchi, "Our love life is pathetic, totally interrupted."
Topeka, Kans. Shils and Minervini meet Sheriff Ed Ritchie and his wife, Nogie, who take them to dinner in a private dining club. (40 points for the private club.) Nogie shows them a stray puppy she found.
Chicago. Bianchi drives around the block downtown while Allen tries to see a representative for radio station WLUP. But the rap that has wowed them in small towns cuts no ice here; he doesn't even make it past the receptionist. The northern team heads back into the heartland and decides to splurge on a $32 motel room. They make love (no points) and talk about getting married.
Santa Fe, N.Mex. The southern team has its first big fight after missing the turnoff to Santa Fe for the third time. Rubin has lost 12 pounds, and they're getting metaphysical. "I make believe this is real," says Jones. "This is what it's like to have no money." "Not me," says Rubin. "I tell myself I can stop this any time."
En route to Kansas City. Shils and Minervini decide they can't live without the puppy and turn back to the Ritchies'. The dog, which they name Topeka, Kansas and call "TeeKay" will come in handy three days later in Galesburg, Ill., where Gina is clocked doing 79 in a 65 mph zone. Shils tells the state trooper the pup is sick and they are taking him to a vet. He doesn't buy it, but lets them off anyway.
Richmond, Va. Jones and Rubin failed to find work in New Orleans, Mobile or Birmingham. But Rubin loaded hay for a day near Nashville, and now the pair has landed a job at the House of Beef. Jones is about ready to call the whole thing off. Changing clothes in the bathroom of a doughnut shop, she jokes, "Isn't it enough we got the jobs? Can't we stick the rest on a credit card and go home?" Instead, they serve 300 dinners and make $56. "Groups of 14 stiffed us," says Jones.
Ripley, N.Y. In Ripley, believe it or not, Allen and Bianchi find a helpful pastor, the Rev. Don Eggleston. He pays Allen to help install a window in the church and invites them both home for the night. Three days later they will pull into New York with $190 and a stronger relationship, but no marriage—yet.
Columbus, Ohio. By now Shils and Minervini are adept at charming their way onto local radio shows so they can make a pitch for work. In Indianapolis, the radio ploy got them a choice of 50 jobs, including modeling Halloween costumes for a card store. Now, in Columbus, they get paid for a day's work showing off zoo animals on TV. When the pair reaches New York three days later, they have just $97 in cash but a carload of points. Shils is thinking, "It's been too easy from day one."
Washington, D.C. Jones and Rubin might disagree. By the time they hit Washington they've had it with menial labor and content themselves with taking in tourist attractions. When they pull into New York with $28, they are visibly shaken—and barely speaking to one another. "We're great friends," says Jones, but they tend to gravitate to opposite sides of a room.
New York. Each team sorts through its snapshots, video interviews, souvenirs and receipts and presents them to a panel of six judges. A special award of 3,000 bonus points to Allen and Bianchi—because "they threw themselves into the arms of America"—puts the northern team over the top. Like Jones and Rubin on the southern route, though, they had decided early on to donate any prizes to charity. America's generosity, it seems, is contagious.
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