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$300 Travel: The Cheap and Wild Side of Bakersfield

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$300 Travel: The Cheap and Wild Side of Bakersfield

Economy

$300 Travel: The Cheap and Wild Side of Bakersfield

$300 Travel: The Cheap and Wild Side of Bakersfield

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Most people only know Bakersfield, California as an interstate exit. A $300 stimulus check, however, turns a pit stop into a wild time. At the fight-filled race track and junk stores, a traveler learns an important lesson.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Even if you do own a home and have a job, you may not be able to afford the vacation of your dreams this summer. That's why we're providing you with some ideas for little trips you can finance with some of your economic stimulus check. It's a series we call "300 Government Bucks." Today, contributor Jennifer Sharpe takes us to a spot just a couple of hours north of Los Angeles.

JENNIFER SHARPE: I passed Bakersfield on the way to other places, but never stopped. In the '60s the city tried to detour drivers off the highway with big signs that said, sun, fun, stay, play. But by the 90s the vandalized landmarks were gone and now when you tell people you're there for a vacation, they look at you incredulously. Even at the front desk of my motel.

Unidentified Woman: OK.

SHARPE: But I'd heard there were great junk stores in the old oil and agriculture town famous for its country music, Basque restaurants and for being where the last big gun fight of the old west was fought. Local high school teacher, John Beamer(ph), met me in the lobby, excited to show me around.

Mr. JOHN BEAMER (Teacher, Bakersfield): Right now we've got great sunshine, we've got great air. You know, in another month you don't want to be here, but right now it's primo. Yeah.

SHARPE: What happens in a month?

Mr. BEAMER: How do we describe it? Suddenly the plume hits the city and it just belts up the heat and the pollution. You're looking at death.

SHARPE: According to Beamer, the smog from San Francisco blows down the state and gets trapped over Bakersfield, which ranks among the country's top five polluted cities. But unlike my Prius driving neighborhood, Bakersfield is dominated by giant pickup trucks and car washes.

Mr. BEAMER: Car looks hot?

SHARPE: Beamer drives a '66 Mustang.

Mr. BEAMER: Well I tell you, after I cleaned it here the other day and chammied it the other day, I went my god, I'm just going to leave it in the garage and charge people to come and see it you know.

SHARPE: One car that does cost money to see is the Buckmobile, a customized convertible Pontiac, studded with silver dollars and rifles. It looms over the Crystal Palace, a museum to country music legend Buck Owens by day that turns into a steak house at night.

Ms. COLLEEN VILLASENOR (Guide, Buena Vista Natural History Museum): So every time they time they take a bite they usually loose a tooth or two.

SHARPE: Colleen Villasenor is talking about the prehistoric sharks that once ruled over Bakersfield when it was under water. Their fossilized teeth are at the Buena Vista Natural History Museum. It's part of a historic downtown lined with art deco movie theatres and roadside architecture. Like the giant shoe building, and the string of 24-hour businesses I could see from my cozy motel room.

Mr. BEAMER: What you notice about bail bond places, too, is that they all start with the letter A because whoever's looking in the phone book, first one they see.

SHARPE: My guide, John Beamer and I were taking a walk down Chester Avenue, before heading to the Speedway, where it was mini-dwarf night.

(Soundbite of race track)

Unidentified Man: Car number seven has won. Marissa Dodson(ph) six years old, you're driving fast tonight man.

Ms. MARISSA DODSON (Race Car Driver): Thank you, that's my second time. I loved it.

SHARPE: Race car driver Scott Gatson(ph) has been visiting the track since he was 10 years old.

Mr. SCOTT GATSON (Race Car Driver): The Speedway is a whole different atmosphere. You come here and there's going to be fights in the stands and there's going to be people drinking. And you know what? It's what you do on Saturday night.

SHARPE: The next morning I hit the junk stores.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

SHARPE: Bought a pair of old cowboy boots. And eat what I could of a three course Basque meal. I spent my final moments in Bakersfield at the gas station, where a man on a bike asked if I could spare some change for his dinner. Since I still had money left over, I gave him 10 dollars.

Mr. GREG (Biker): You look like a cowgirl, you know. My name is Greg(ph).

SHARPE: You're the first person that made me feel like I fit in here.

Mr. GREG: No, I meant...

SHARPE: But moments later Greg noticed that a car had begun circling us at the pump. We were standing in one of Bakersfield sketchiest intersections. Remembering the old phrase, when in Rome do as the Romans do, I recognized my cue. It was time for me to get into the car and step on the gas. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Sharpe.

COHEN: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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