Lynne Masters parked the "Lizard King" art car in front of Wal-Mart on Thursday, then walked into the store. She left me to sit in the passenger seat alone.
Except for part of the front windshield, the windows of the car are blocked by the mirrored and beaded body of Jim Morrison and a gigantic lizard.
It felt as if I was sitting inside a car that had been buried in snow. Which is why, on Thursday, I only could hear -- not see -- the crowd of people heading my way.
"What is that?!" they were saying. "Who made that?"
"It must have taken forever to glue all those things on the car."
"How much does all that stuff weigh?"
Suddenly, they were upon me -- a dozen smiling faces asking questions. Luckily, I happened to know the answers because they were the same questions crowds had asked all morning during our short tour of town.
The "Lizard King" is the creation of 19 Houston high school students. It took them three months to make it. They brought it to Steamboat during summer 2004 for the Art Car Stampede.
When they returned to Texas, the students left the car behind as a gift to the Steamboat Springs Arts Council.
Steamboat resident and Art Car Stampede organizer Lynne Masters is the official keeper of the "Lizard King," and she has the perfect personality for the job.
To drive an art car, you must be gregarious, ready to pose for photos and answer a barrage of questions everywhere you go.
Driving an art car comes with a responsibility to entertain those you pass, because art cars are as much performance art as they are a piece of sculpture.
As Masters drove down Lincoln Avenue on Thursday, people stopped their conversations to point and stare. They grabbed for their cameras. They smiled and waved.
"That's why we do this," Masters said, "for the joy it creates."
She happily pulled over to the side of the road so someone could get a good photo.
Three years ago, the 1986 Honda Civic had 125,000 miles and was nearing the end of its life as a commuter vehicle. But with 300 pounds of "art" covering its old production-line identity, the car has a new life.
The "Lizard King" will join 15 other art cars next weekend for a three-day celebration of this unique form of creativity.
The Art Car Stampede begins Thursday in the parking lot of the Depot Art Center on 13th Street. Films will be shown on the side of the building to create a kind of drive-in movie atmosphere for the art cars.
The cars will parade through town Friday and Saturday, following no particular route. All day Saturday, the cars will be on display at Torian Plum Plaza on the mountain.
The Art Car Stampede is part of the Beaux Arts Festival, organized by the Steamboat Springs Arts Council, featuring 10 days of exhibits and events from Aug. 4 to 13.
The Stampede has grown every year since its inception in 2003. The first year, only a few cars came from across Colorado. In 2004, nine cars came to town, including the "Lizard King" from Texas. This year, at least 15 cars are expected.
Masters plans for the event to grow with every year, making it a signature event for the town and having it join the circuit of major art-car events held across the country, such as the Art Car Parade in Houston, which attracted 250 cars this year, or the Burning Man art festival in the Nevada desert, which attracted 700 cars.
"Steamboat Springs is the kind of place where one person can make a difference," Masters said. "Robin Getter brought African dance. Michael Moss brought spectacle and fire. Keri Rusthoi brought opera. I'm bringing art cars."