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Beyond the Off-Ramps: Author’s Mission of Mercy

Times Staff Writer

Like J. D. Salinger, S. L. Brooks is an author who spurns fame. She autographs her new two-volume set of books reluctantly. She resists photographs.

But Brooks knows that the time may have come when her modesty and privacy must be sacrificed for a higher good.

Her books, after all, seem likely to touch people’s lives in ways that “Catcher in the Rye” never could.

For the father with two dogs and three kids gnawing on the car upholstery, for the saleswoman who’s running on empty at rush hour, or the trucker in the throes of a Big Mac attack, Brooks’ “What’s at the Exits?” offers more than mere entertainment.

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It offers salvation.

The idea for a guide to what’s where on Southern California’s freeway system came to Brooks one afternoon while she was riding with her daughter, niece and nephew, none of whom could agree on what to eat nor had a clue as to where to find it.

Southern Californians know the situation. Suddenly everyone’s hungry, thirsty, whatever.

But the off-ramps that seem to promise a paradise of Long John Silver’s shrimp, 7-Eleven Slurpees, and delicious Dunkin Donuts turn out to be cluttered with dark industrial waste sites and no possible route back onto the freeway. Those that look least promising reveal a neon oasis of glowing golden arches, bright Taco Bells and flashing fried chicken signs--but only after you’ve passed them by.

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Meanwhile, stomachs growl and resentment builds. Back seats resound with shrieking tirades. And then you miss the interchange for which you were looking.

A Mission of Mercy

With such scenes in mind, Brooks, who makes her home in the Northern California town of Saratoga, set out on her mission of mercy.

Starting four years ago, she began a quest that would put 276,000 miles on her 1981 Buick Regal, and thousands more on the Ford Escort she now drives.

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“I’ve never had anyone tell me it was a stupid idea,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me it couldn’t be done.”

The first step was to note each and every road sign on Southern California’s freeways, exactly as it is, Brooks explained recently, as she sliced through the afternoon traffic on the Pasadena Freeway.

“Green frame sign, ‘110' space ‘110,’ below that ‘Los Angeles,’ below that three arrows . . . " she said, demonstrating the speed-talking technique she used to tape-record the signs. “Then I’d give the odometer reading.”

After recording the signs and their precise locations, she and assistants went back to check each off-ramp and on-ramp, recording such vital statistics as the types of gas available at the gas stations, the locations of hotels and motels, trash containers, laundromats, department stores and bowling alleys.

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Brooks said that while Sunset Books had an exit book out “that flopped,” hers is the only one currently available. Which was news to Sunset in Menlo Park, where a spokesperson said that while the company’s “California Freeway Exit Guide,” published in 1986, is “not a raving best seller,” it is still readily available at $9.95.

Personal Effort

The difference is in the painstaking personal effort she put into her book, claims Brooks, who gave up her part-time graduate studies at Stanford to pursue the project.

Rising at 5:30 or 6 usually, she and assistants ranged far and wide, putting in eight or 10 hours and a couple off-ramp meals a day. As the work continued on computer screens in Northern California, Brooks often hopped into the car and drove back to our Gordian knot of asphalt to check the accuracy of a sign or the position of an off-ramp, she said.

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The result is an-800 page, two-volume set, listing 44 state and interstate highways and freeways, from the point where Highway 5 departs Mexico, to Highway 101’s pass through Santa Barbara, from where I-10 crosses the Arizona state line to its end near the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s how it works: Say you’re in Ventura heading north on U.S. 101, doing 55. The Seaward Avenue exit is half a mile ahead. You’ve got 30 seconds to decide whether to stop or push on to the next off-ramp.

Hitting a Jackpot

If you’re extremely dexterous or have a good co-pilot riding shotgun, (and if you’ve already deciphered the book’s detailed picture code) you’ll know before you get there that you’ve hit a jackpot of fast-lane consumer fare.

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In proximity to that off-ramp you’ll see that there’s an El Torito, a Charley Brown’s, a 24-hour gas station with a phone and a minimarket, a Der Wienerschnitzel, a Denny’s, an Arco station, a Hungry Hunter, a Sheraton hotel, a Shell station, an Exxon station, a McDonald’s, another motel, a 76 station, a Chevron station, a Mohawk station, a Carrow’s, a Safeway and--as if that’s not enough--a beach.

In effect, you’ve found the heart of America, a hometown off-ramp away from home.

Delivering you to the cornucopia of convenience you deserve is not something Brooks takes lightly.

A Matter of Business

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While the effort began, in part, as a relaxing way to forget about a divorce, it quickly became a matter of business, said Brooks, who estimates she has sunk “multiples of hundreds of thousands of dollars” into the self-publishing venture.

Although Brooks wouldn’t estimate how many of the $20 sets she needs to sell to break even, she said that the first run of 7,000-10,000 is moving briskly at some Nordstrom department stores--the only place where they are currently available.

She thinks a whole lot more Californians than that will buy the book, though. If so, she hopes to revise the volumes every year or so, making note of every new Yum Yum doughnuts and changing Safeways to Vons. With luck, her assistants will do the driving next time, Brooks said.

And, judges for the Nobel Prize for literature take note: Among other additions to future volumes, Brooks plans to have her assistants locate and note every functional restroom within range of a freeway.

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