Tom Ross: Idaho still home to Stinker gas stations ...

And college kids still find way to drive cross-country for less than $400

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Even with record prices for gasoline, a couple of college kids found a way this spring to make the cross-country trek from their campus in Maine to Colorado's Front Range for less than $400. It can be done, but only if they've ingratiated themselves with enough relatives and parents of friends of friends to crash and eat for free in four different states.

My B.M.O.C. (he's not a boy any longer) and a classmate stuffed everything they could possibly fit into the back of a Subaru on Monday and lit out from Waterville, Maine, on a journey that took them to Boston, Buffalo, Joplin, Grand Island and finally Longmont.

The gear that fit through the hatchback included a road bike and kayak, a couple of duffels, at least three backpacks and a giant bag of dirty laundry. They had so much cargo they had to slide their seats forward to the point they couldn't really unbend their legs.

Why didn't they put the bike and the boat on a roof rack? That would have added considerable wind drag to their mini land yacht, increasing fuel consumption. When a couple of college kids are taking turns inserting their debit cards into gas pumps to purchase gasoline for $3.40 a gallon, every pint matters.

Gasoline for a journey of 2,249 miles doesn't add up to as much as you might think. At 26 miles a gallon, you can make that mind-numbing drive in three long days and spend between $250 and $295 on the fuel.

The key to economy is trading a little bit of fuel cost for free places to stay. That includes a side trip to Buffalo for a night with Austin's Uncle Kenny and Aunt Suzanne, where a sumptuous feast including two homemade desserts. I don't have to ask to know the college students left with a cardboard box stuffed with cake and pie.

The next day's drive took Austin and Emily deeper into southern Illinois than they really needed to travel. But a reunion with friends of her parents yielded shelter and another great dinner.

I imagined them heading for St. Louis and Kansas City to catch Interstate 70 for the straight-as-an-arrow trip across Kansas. Instead, MapQuest sent them north to Council Bluffs via Joplin, Mo., to traverse Nebraska on Interstate 80.

Learning that the 21-year-olds were relying on an Internet route finder to guide them made me reflect on how much travel by automobile has changed in the last 45 years.

Most of my childhood summer vacations were spent traveling from southern Wisconsin to see my grandparents in Oregon. We took five days to make the drive.

Instead of relying on a laptop and MapQuest to navigate for us in the early 1960s, we always visited our AAA office in advance of the trip to learn about construction projects and changes to the route across the endless Northern Plains. The AAA agent prepared a flip map called a TripTik for us and traced our route with a fat green, felt-tipped marker. The motorist club still provides TripTiks, but the younger generation naturally gravitates to the Web.

All of those decades ago, the five of us traveled in a green Ford station wagon that didn't come equipped with seatbelts. We were often fighting oncoming traffic along two-lane highways. This was long before anyone had even dreamed of car stereos and air conditioning.

We amused ourselves by counting pronghorns and attempting to collect license plates from every state in the Union.

Spotting a license plate from Hawaii while driving through Fargo, N.D., and Glendive, Mont., was always a long shot, but we kept our eyes peeled.

Today's college kids still amuse themselves with highway scavenger hunts on their way home for the summer - Austin and Emily used their cell phones to pursue a far-flung geography trivia game with classmates fanning out over North America en route to places like Greensboro, N.C., and Jackson, Wyo.

Of course, when they tire of the scavenger hunt, they could plug their iPods into the car stereo, or the passenger could put a new DVD into the laptop.

Back in the '60s, I used to get excited when my TripTik told me we were drawing close to Twin Falls, Idaho, world headquarters for Stinker gas stations.

Farris Lind, the founder of Stinker Stores, plastered highway shoulders in the Treasure State with bright red road signs topped with a cartoon skunk wearing boxing gloves. The signs always bore slogans not unlike the old Burma Shave signs, only zanier.

You never knew when you were going to round a bend in the highway while crossing an endless plain of scrub and encounter a Stinker sign that read: "Nudist area! Keep your eyes on the road!"

Stinker Stations still prosper in Idaho, but the days of 17-cent gas and zany billboards have receded in the rearview mirror.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today.

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